We study how languages vary in terms of pronunciation (phonetics), word choice (lexicon), structure (grammar) and how they use words and grammar to encode meaning (semantics). How profound are these variations in form and meaning, and how do they affect communication?

Variation and Mutual Understanding

Linguistic variation is often investigated through translation tasks, but such methods assume the meaning of words is the same across languages. Is that so? The phrase “lost in translation” springs to mind; if we translate the concept red from English into rood for Dutch, are we actually translating the full meaning as well? And what does this mean for mutual understanding? Do we see things through our own referential meaning or are we able to understand the other’s perspective too?

John Huisman‘s PhD project looks at linguistic variation in the Japanese archipelago, comparing Japanese and Ryukyuan varieties. His project looks at how different types of variation (phonetic, lexical, semantic) are related and how they influence mutual intelligibility of related languages.

Structure and Evolution of Meanings

Languages carve our experience into categories that are picked out by words. Within domains like color, words form systems of meaning (red, orange, yellow…) that vary across languages. How are these semantic systems structured, and how do they change over time? What are the cultural and environmental factors that influence language evolution and shape systems of meaning across languages?

Alex Carstensen explores these questions through the Evolution of Semantic Systems project, a research initiative of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University. This initiative assesses linguistic structure and semantic change in the domains of space, color, body parts, and artifacts in over 50 Indo-European languages from Iceland to India.


Asifa MajidJohn Huisman | Alex Carstensen