In this paper I will discuss the semantic development of the suppletive pair god-leto ‘year’ in Modern Russian. I will show that their emergence in the modern language was due to stereotypical semasiological devices, which predict to a certain extent the direction of meaning change. However, just as important in the development of these words were a number of totally idiosyncratic cultural events that triggered the observed shifts in meaning.
The erratic nature of lexical semantic change has been well documented. Words seem capable of meaning just about anything, given the proper context. However, recent investigations suggest that some semantic shifts, particularly those based in metaphor, are subject to certain, as yet poorly understood constraints. These constraints center on the requirement that a newly acquired meaning of any given word must be compatible in some way to its earlier prototypical meaning. As fairly abundant written materials are available for tracking the meaning shifts in Old Russian lěto ‘year’ and Old Russian godŭ ‘appropriate time,’ the semantic development of these two words over the last thousand years provides good conditions for testing these constraints. The requirement that a conceptual compatibility exist between antecedent and target meanings suggests methods for understanding the appearance in Modern Russian of this suppletive pair. I will review a number of texts that illustrate the shift in meanings of these words and show how the developing meanings satisfy the compatibility constraints proposed for semantic shift based in metaphor. In addition, I will suggest several culturally based catalysists that may have served as triggers for the observed meaning shifts.
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