Thoughts on Language Expansion

Jeff Berg’s comments on my article The Factoid: A Revised Interpretation were most helpful. It raised one issue I wish to discuss further: about what aspect of the meaning of a term borrowed from one language and introduced into another, is actually transferred. To make things easier, may I suggest that we call the language from which a word or a phrase is borrowed the DONOR-language and the language into which a word from another language is introduced the HOST-language.

Clearly whenever a language hosts or imports words and phrases, that language grows, regardless of whether its new terms are derived from a foreign language or whether these are “home made”, that is, are invented by its current speakers! Modern American English is full of such “home-grown” words and phrases. The word *rap* for example has several meanings including the act of talking or discussing, freely, openly, or volubly (as suggested in Wikipedia). It is also related to the idea of establishing rapport, that is, developing a sense of fellowship among speakers and members of a group. These group members will then determine which of several meanings also apply! It is a case where the meaning of a term will be strongly influenced by its context, not only by its dictionary definition(s). In short, the meaning of a word is usually — perhaps, most often — multi-determined. Thus, to search for a unique meaning is generally speaking, foolhardy.

Yet there are exceptions to this rule. The major exceptions relate to whenever a word has been deliberately imported from a Donor to a Host language. The import is commonly done by an individual agent — that person usually remains anonymous. The agent may believe that their home-language is currently short of a single word to express a unique and important idea, is deficient, or that his/her home-language is already so muddled that a single word given enough publicity or expression may just be enough to cure it of confusion, indeed may “cleanse” it. The importation of a word which is borrowed from elsewhere may therefore — it is thought — have a “therapeutic”, a curative effect!

Jeff’s comments also forced me to re-examine my previous position in several ways. Most importantly how new words enter an existing language. Are new terms just “inventions” — added on the spur of the moment by a rogue interloper, or do such terms enter a language in more thoughtful ways? What actually happens? To answer this question require much empirical research – and therefore lies beyond the mission of this blog. But clearly a process is involved which has been largely overlooked not only by philosophers, but also by others who profess an interested in the growth and modification of a language. Language remains, of course, our principal method for communicating with others. But it also seems that it may involves a very human disposition: a little pilfering or theft! “Seize from others what you fancy, or what you think you currently need!” Let me clarify this a little.

When we run short of words and expressions in our HOME-language we have several options open to rectify this deficiency including that we can draw from other languages for help. In short, we can make up a perceived deficiency in our own language by unashamedly borrowing from another. Our own language then acts as “host” to entries from elsewhere. What is transferred by this act are not only the sounds typical of another language (which can be fun — try Xhosa!) but a very particular meaning that the borrowed word already possesses in its original language. However the broader meaning of the borrowed term may get damaged or lost during the transfer from donor to home-language, although this need not matter too much. Who cares? Whoever has borrowed would not necessarily know about damaged done, or of the loss of meaning which resulted from the transfer from the donor-language to the host-language. Jeff, for example cites the fact that the French “ meubel”, i.e. furniture, implies mobility, whereas the opposite is true for the English term, but in Italian mobili means “furnishings” and immobili means property! — therefore non-movement!

Let me summarize the above: A borrowed word from a donor-language enters a host-language but it carries only one of its meanings. It therefore enters the host-language without any ambiguity whatsoever! Its meaning in the host-language is pristine, unambiguous. It only carries the meaning assigned to it at the time it was imported by whoever borrowed the term! The borrower called the shots but he/she cannot control the future of the imported term. It has now become public property in the host language. It may even “wander off” by itself and within a short time, acquire other meanings than assigned by the original borrower. Since words are social objects and therefore are subject to the vagaries of such objects, this is as expected! The borrower may have borrowed with very good intent, including a wish to combat existing multiple meanings in the host language, but the truth is that he/she has no further control over the situation.

Meanings wander off? Does this mean that one cannot permanently bind a meaning to a word or to an expression? If the answer is “ one can indeed do so, one can tie a word and a meaning” one would also have to state under what conditions this becomes possible. It does not appear to be a universal rule which applies to a living and therefore developing language. On the contrary, such languages appear to “grow”, a euphemism which suggests that changes will be largely unpredictable! It is a common but also troublesome phenomenon. It can however be given a distinctive name: I propose to call it an “analogical spread”.

This name given the phenomenon covers the idea that many words which are currently uniquely distinctive and therefore have currently a limited meaning will nevertheless change over time. Indeed such words often extend their original limits quite extensively. The original term then comes to encompass more and more points of reference — a process which of course also increases their ambiguity, something often dreaded by others, except by poets and politicians. The term then assumes an analogical stance: 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 has now become 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!

Although the borrower of a word from a foreign language may have only 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). These may be constructed in a variety of ways of which the most common method has been to use a person’s name as a label for a new object or product, e.g. *pasteurization*, or for an idea, e.g., *Freudian wish*.

In the second article of this series I will give a a short guide to three terms which appear critical for the analysis given so far. I shall also suggest a fourth term, which covers new ground.

Statements, Meaning, and Analogies

Statement A: The river has crested.

Statement B: The river has reached its highest point.

river-combBoth statements describe the condition of a river. The two statements appear to say the same thing, and therefore — it is claimed — have the same meaning. Even if it is not true that these are equivalent — in statement A, the river may yet run higher, contrary to what is said in statement B — it may be claimed that A is equivalent to B, and vice versa. It is a question of meaning.

In other words, it may be claimed that statements A and B refer to the same situation. As philosophers and commentators, are we required to resolve this issue,? Do we need to ask “what is the difference between reference and meaning”?

I would argue that statements A and B converge in meaning, but also emphasize that this does not make them necessarily equivalent

First, the meaning of each statement depends on the context of its use. Consequently if the context changes, so does the meaning of each statement.

Second, the two statements, when enountered in certain contexts, have a hierarchical relationship to each another. One is more abstract, inclusive, than the other: it is something which has to be evaluated.

In the second case, statement B is an empirical statement, so that the data is determined in a different sense than in statement A. Both meanings are data-determined but in different ways. Each says something different. Statement B is related to data is a more “fundamental” way than statement A, which is mostly analogical. This needs to be clarified (see below).

When I refer to data, I suggest of course that regardless of how things were described, we would most likely agree that there is a phenomenon we are all aware of which is what is being talked about, and that this phenomenon can be identified and mensurated in a manner which allows us to determine properties reflected in both A and B.

To say “the river has crested” is clearly analogical. *Crested* derives from French and refers to (among other things) the comb of a rooster. It refers to form rather than to a (linear) measure and only indirectly refers to how this can be measured. By contrast, B is a reference to some previously adopted perception of scale against which it is being compared. In this sense, statement B is more fundamental. One could also argue that statement A is more abstract than B, that to refer to the river has crested in not only analogical but also represents a more general case and also is more difficult to gainsay.

Conclusion: an analogy represents an attempt to state a current experience (event) as a case of a more general event. In this sense analogies are theoretical. Thus, to assert that A is like B — the form of an analogy — is to construct a theoretical proposition whose falsification becomes increasingly more difficult the more analogical it is.

Analogies like statement A represent our efforts to increasing the stability of our world in the face of experiential diversity and in that sense, analogies have signifiant heuristic value: they reduce variability, change, diversity. One can question the value of a particular analogy, but this in itself in not a test of an implied theory.

In retrospect, the history of human knowledge suggests that we forever seek analogies in the hope that the one chosen is more appropriate than earlier ones, and that the one chosen now will assist us better in unifying the increasing diversity of our experiences of our world.