Cfp: Re-thinking synonymy: semantic sameness and similarity in languages and their description

"Seppo Kittilä" sepkit at UTU.FI
Tue Nov 10 06:03:47 UTC 2009

(Apologies for multiple postings)

Re-thinking synonymy: semantic sameness and similarity in languages and their description

SKY (The Linguistic Association of Finland) organizes a symposium ‘Re-thinking synonymy: semantic sameness and similarity in languages and their description’ in Helsinki, October 28-30, 2010. The official website of the symposium, with the Call for Papers and other information (to be added/updated later), is found at:

Traditionally, synonymy refers to a situation where a language has two (or more) linguistic forms for expressing one meaning. Synonymy is by no means uncommon in languages, exemplified also by the large number of synonym dictionaries and thesauri. However, it is important to note that the existence or lack of synonymy is largely a matter of definition. On one hand, if we define synonymy as (very close) semantic similarity or (essentially) identical reference, it definitely exists to some extent in all languages. On the other hand, if we confine the notion to absolute synonymy (comprising not only reference, but also, for example, stylistic and sociolinguistic factors as well as contextual preferences), it becomes less clear whether synonymy really exists.

Many theories of grammar (such as Cognitive Grammar and Construction Grammar) do not acknowledge the concept of synonymy at all. Synonymy seems to militate against the expected relation of meaning and form: a difference in form should always and necessarily correspond to a difference in meaning. However, within these theories (and within linguistics in general), a recurring topic of study is lexical, constructional, functional and formal similarity. In addition, current research seems to steer clear of synonymy (and sameness), but at the same time puts a great deal of emphasis on similarities, e.g. when and why two or more constructions with seemingly similar meanings are used as each other's alternatives. But where does the boundary lie between the two, i.e. when do we cross over from synonymy to mere similarity, or vice versa, and, moreover, how different can two constructions or expressions be and yet still be considered similar in terms of their meaning/function? Do all 
synonymous expressions share a common conceptual (abstract) schema, and are the formal differences merely ‘coincidental’? What is the relation between these schemas and lexical (i.e. ‘traditional’) synonymy?

The idea of the symposium is to challenge linguists both to re-think the synonymy and sameness of linguistic expressions and to approach the concept of synonymy from a broader perspective. What we propose is that synonymy is best seen as sameness or similarity of forms and functions – whether words, constructions or syntactic structures – not only as a notion related to lexical semantics. For example, many languages, such as Finnish and Estonian, allow the expression of location through both cases and adpositions, and many languages have both intransitive and transitive reflexive forms; these expressions may be identical in meaning in certain contexts, but upon closer examination they also display differences.

In brief: Does a difference in form always correspond to a difference in meaning/function? If so, is there any justification for the validity of the notion of synonymy in linguistic description? If synonymy really exists on some level, do we need to broaden the concept of synonymy and if so, how? What does the way that synonymy has been studied tell us about language and, perhaps as interestingly, about linguistics?

We welcome contributions dealing with synonymy from various perspectives and backgrounds (including theoretical, empirical and experimental approaches), ranging  from studies of lexical, functional and formal synonymy to studies of synonymy within and across languages. Possible topics for talks include (but are by no means not restricted to) the following:
- The role of synonymy in linguistic theory
- Corpus-based studies of (lexical/functional) synonymy
- Psycholinguistic studies of synonymy/processing of synonymy
- Seemingly synonymous/similar categories across languages (e.g. dative, reflexive, person, tense, deixis etc.), comparability of functions across languages
- The role of synonymy in lexical typology: do ‘identical’ lexemes in different languages express identical/similar meanings? 
- Translatability of lexemes
- The development of synonymy; competition of synonymous forms in grammaticalization/lexicalization
- Synonymy in different theories of grammar
- The relation between lexical (‘traditional’) synonymy and functional synonymy
- Potential differences between sameness and similarity; is the distinction meaningful or necessary?
- What does synonymy (at any level/in any form) reveal about language?
- What motivates the use of seemingly synonymous forms? Context, meaning, sociolinguistic factors, disambiguation, verbal semantics etc.
- The synonymy of syntactic structural variants (e.g. differences in comparative constructions)
- Synonymy of constructions within and across languages
- Semantic vs. pragmatic synonymy

The deadline for submission of abstracts (in English; max 500 words excluding data, tables and references) is April 16, 2010. Please submit your abstract by e-mail to the address of the organizing committee (synonymy-2010 /at/ Send your abstract as attachment to an e-mail message (in both .pdf and .doc formats). Please indicate clearly whether your abstract is intended as a poster or a section paper. The abstracts will be evaluated by the organizing committee and by the members of the scientific committee (see below). Participants will be notified about acceptance by May 15, 2010. The book of abstracts will be published on the web pages of the symposium at:

Body of the message should include the following information (preferably in this order):

Name of the participant
Title of presentation
E-mail address
Is the paper meant as a section paper or, a poster, or a workshop


Proposals for workshops should be submitted no later than March 15, 2010. Notification of acceptance will be given by April 9. These one-day workshops will run in parallel sessions with the main conference program. Alternatively, the first day of the symposium may be dedicated to workshops. The symposium organizers will provide the lecture rooms and other facilities, but the workshop organizers will be responsible for the organization of their workshops (choosing the speakers etc.).


- Presentations by invited speakers
- Presentation by other participants
- Posters
- Workshops

Confirmed invited speakers

Dirk Geeraerts (University of Leuven)
Martin Haspelmath (MPI, Leipzig)
Beth Levin (Stanford University)

Scientific committee

Antti Arppe (University of Helsinki)
Peter Austin (SOAS, London)
Denis Creissels (University of Lyon)
Dagmar Divjak (University of Sheffield)
Adele Goldberg (Princeton University)
Stefan Gries (UCSB)
Tuomas Huumo (University of Tartu)
Laura Janda (University of Tromsø)
Jarmo Jantunen (University of Oulu)
Silvia Luraghi (University of Pavia)
Sally Rice (University of Alberta)
Anna Siewierska (University of Lancaster)
Bernhard Wälchli (University of Berne)

Organizing committee

Antti Arppe (University of Helsinki)
Seppo Kittilä (University of Helsinki)
Aki Kyröläinen (University of Turku)
Maarit Niemelä (University of Oulu)
Alexandre Nikolaev (University of Joensuu)
Jouni Rostila (University of Tampere)
Turo Vartiainen (University of Helsinki)
Laura Visapää (University of Helsinki)


The registration deadline is October 1, 2010. An on-line registration form to the symposium will appear on the webpage of the symposium after the evaluation of abstracts.

Registration fees

General: 100 Euro
Members of the association: 80 Euro
Undergraduate students: 50 Euro

Finnish participants are requested to pay the registration fee to the SKY bank account when they register for the conference (bank account number 174530-71243 (Nordea)). Participants from abroad are likewise requested to pay in advance by bank transfer, if at all possible, to the SKY bank account in Finland (Bank: Nordea; IBAN: FI76 1745 3000 0712 43, BIC: NDEAFIHH). However, we may also accept payment IN CASH (only in Euros; moreover, we CANNOT accept credit cards of any sort) upon arrival in case bank transfer is not possible. If you have paid via bank transfer from abroad, we would kindly ask you to bring a COPY of the original transaction receipt with you and present it upon registration.

Conference venue

University of Helsinki


Please send all queries to synonymy-2010 /at/

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