Thoughts on the Growth of Language 3: When Meanings Wander

Meanings wander? Does this mean that one cannot permanently bind a meaning to a word or to an expression? If the answer is that meanings do indeed wander, although one would need to state under what conditions this happens. It does not appear to be a universal rule. On the contrary, languages appear to grow, a euphemism which suggests that changes in a language will be largely unpredictable! It is a most common but also troublesome phenomenon to which I have given a distinctive name: *analogical spread*.

This name covers the idea that many words which are currently uniquely distinctive and therefore necessarily have a limited meaning, will nevertheless change over time. Indeed such words often exceed their original limits extensively. The original term then comes to encompass additional points of reference — a process which also increases their ambiguity, something which is often dreaded by others, except by poets and politicians. The term then assumes an analogical flavour: it now says much more than was originally (earlier) intended. It also means that many important terms can no longer be carefully, or uniquely defined. The term now is a suitable candidate for a Thesaurus, where each meaning overtly depends on the context in which it is used. It is a case of what may be good for poetry may be bad for scientific or for hyper-accurate communication!

One historical example to show how an analogical-spread can be aborted. It is a case where the need was to terminate, or even curtail, an existing spread and to replace it with a new method of designating objects. In short, 20th century scientists discovered that they can overcome the problems of “spread” by adding numbers to existing names, as is shown in the following example:

Carbon-14, 14C, or radiocarbon, is a radioactive isotope of carbon with an atomic nucleus containing 6 protons and 8 neutrons. Its presence in organic materials is the basis of the radiocarbon dating method pioneered by Willard Libby and colleagues (1949) to date archaeological, geological and hydrogeological samples. — from Wikipedia, March 2017

Not a whiff of an analogue here!

In other cases, whenever words and phrases lose their much appreciated and treasured specificity — and before these start to meander about — we may accept this state of affairs, yet do so for only a short period before taking drastic measures to curtail such spread. We say that language grows but it grows not only by accretions but also by adding more borrowed terms, and by expanding what existing and available may refers to. Most language users learn how to deal with this and many tolerate analogical spreads. But we also teach others that this skill needs to be acquired and mastered by each of us. We already and routinely have classes in our schools at all levels on literature and poetry where some of this this is taught, but there is room for considerably more!

Although the borrower of a word from a foreign language may have had noble aims, perhaps of eliminating or reducing confusion, he/she may not succeed in cleansing an existing language of its many ambiguities. Such an act of “cleansing” can however be encouraged by inventing new words (neologisms). Such new words may be constructed in a variety of ways, the most common method being to use a person’s name as a label for a new object, product, e.g., pasteurization, or for an idea, e.g., Freudian wish.

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