Thoughts on the Growth of Language 5: Summary of Terms

In this article I offer four formal definitions of terms which I have suggested as useful in the analysis of language.

Host-language. The language normally used by a speaker or correspondent. For example when an English speaker borrows a term from another language, English is the host-language into which any borrowed terms will be introduced. The borrower has the privilege to assigns a specific meaning to the imported word! It represents his/her unique contribution to their home lanuage! The importer assigns which of the different meanings this term already carries in its original language and which it will carry henceforth, after it has been imported into the host-language. (No use complaining after the fact!!) It is however customary that the borrowed term is assigned only one of the meanings it formerly carried in the language from which it was borrowed! To do otherwise would make little sense, and indeed would defeat the purpose of borrowing. So the rule is that a term which is borrowed and which may actually carry multiple meanings in its original language, sheds all such meanings in the new, except for one. It therefore enters the host-language as a unique item. This single meaning is retained — but perhaps only for short period before it “re-grows”!

Donor-language. This is the language from which one has drawn a term or a phrase in order to introduce it into the host-language. Since one has officially only borrowed the term the borrower is not obliged to return it or even acknowledge that it belonged elsewhere earlier! Example: nota bene usually shortened to “N.B.” and used quite regularly in English was borrowed from Latin. It instructs the reader to pay particular attention to what has been said. It is like wagging a finger as one speaks.

For nearly a hundred years German speakers raided French to express their thoughts more elegantly, in a more refined manner than to continue using what they opine were their crude peasant terms (?) of their native tongue. At least so thought their king, Frederick II, during the 18th century when he introduced and encouraged many acts of linguistic thievery. The Anglo-Saxons did likewise after they were conquered by French-speaking Normans and Vikings (c.1066 AD).

Analogical spread. This term is new. The term *spread* as here used, often also serves as a verb, and makes the compound word into a metaphor, as in “spreading jam on a bun,” or “spreading dung on a field.” *Analogical spread*, then, refers to a process which often happens relatively soon after a new term has been imported from a donor into the host-language! At first, the meaning of the borrowed term may be deliberately restricted, as usually demanded by the borrower who usually exerts their “right” to determine what the borrowed word means in the host-language. After all, they have borrowed because — in their opinion — the host-language appeared to lack a sufficiently closely defined term for which there appeared to be a need. But in time, and with increasing use, the newly imported term most likely also accrues additional meanings! When this happens — as it it will — the new term becomes increasingly ready to act in an analogical manner! It is case of “la Ronde”.

Neolidesm refers to when an existing word in the home-language is assigned a new meaning within that host-language. So it differs from an analogical spread — which was discussed earlier — in that the new meaning now assigned to an old word has nothing directly to do with the original word. To cite an earlier example: there appears to be no connection in meaning between the term “hip” — as in “he received a replacement of his left hip” and “It is now hip to be a vegetarian or even a vegan!” The concept of neolidesm was proposed and invented by Marc Hurwitz. I thank him for his poetic efforts!

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.