Using distributional semantics to study syntactic productivity in diachrony: A case study

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This paper investigates syntactic productivity in diachrony with a data-driven
approach. Previous research indicates that syntactic productivity (the property of grammatical constructions to attract new lexical fillers) is largely driven by semantics, which calls for an operationalization of lexical meaning in the context of empirical studies. It is suggested that distributional semantics can fulfill this role by providing a measure of semantic similarity between words that is derived from lexical co-occurrences in large text corpora. On the basis of a case study of the construction “V the hell out of NP”, e.g., You scared the hell out of me, it is shown that distributional semantics not only appropriately captures how the verbs in the distribution of the construction are related, but also enables the use of visualization techniques and statistical modeling to analyze the semantic development of a construction over time and identify the determinants of syntactic productivity in naturally occurring data.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149-188
Number of pages40
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jan 2016


  • syntactic productivity
  • constructions
  • distributional semantics
  • vector-space model
  • diachrony
  • language change
  • usage-based


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