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.

Restricted Definitions

Generally speaking, we refer to definitions when we wish to assign a particular, unique meaning or interpretation to a word. However, words appear in sentences and their meaning is conveyed in three ways: (1) by the definition, as given in one of the many dictionaries available to us; definitions usually vary from dictionary to dictionary; (2) by the specified context in which the target word appears; (3) by the general context when it is used, the inarticulated situation.

The difference between (2) and (3) is straightforward: take for example the word *animal*. If one is discussing animals in a zoo — a specific context — most creatures not on display in cages or enclosures are excluded. Here the term *animal* has a restricted meaning so that insects, vermin, fish would be excluded. If one refers to snakes in an aquarium it is safe to assume — but not certain — that talk is about water-snakes. A general context (3) refers to no specific habitat but a context is assumed, so that one could be talking about land or water snakes.

This blog contrasts two kinds of definitions: those which equate a term with its definiens, and those which propose areas of use.

A definition is not a description in the normal sense, but clarifies how a word — even a stream of related words — are used in everyday contexts. However, some dictionaries will also include definitions of terms which are not the ones currently circulating but add a note that this use of the word is archaic and rarely used. In doing so, the editor(s) acknowledge that uses change over time and, furthermore, that a word’s relationship to other words and the ideas these represent changes. It appears to be a very fluid situation: I propose to refer to this fluidity as “porousness” and therefore speak about porous definitions.

In special areas of interest — like Physics — some terms originate in ordinary language (*force* or *attraction*) whereas others were created to put a name to a discovered phenomenon. Contemporary physics has many examples, like *neutrino*, which Wikipedia states is, “A neutrino, a lepton, an elementary particle with half-integer spin, that interacts via only the weak subatomic force and gravity. The mass of the neutrino is tiny compared to other subatomic particles.”

This not the usual definition found in a dictionary but represents a mixture of a definition and a clarification. It is not at all porous, but firm as steel. There is nothing comparable in our — or any other — language: indeed, the definition for “neutrino” is valid for all languages! It is the prototype of a restricted definition. I cannot imagine how a restricted definition can be used in any other but its literal sense, where the definiens exhausts the meaning of the target word. Thus a sentences which contains the phrase “neutrino-like” would be an attempt only to expand the restricted definition — to break the bond — but it is difficult to see what this would mean, what feature of a neutrino as originally defined would be extracted and assigned to a different (new) phenomenon.

It is therefore useful to distinguish between terms which can — or are — given definitions that are meant to be used in specific cases only — which are deliberatively contrived and therefore have limited applications and are restricted- and definitions which are not steadfast in meaning but are what I describe as porous. Included would be words like *bridge*, which can refer to a structure built across a chasm, but which also means to step over two issues, may refer to the structure of a nose, refers to a reconciliation between two fractious parties and also is the name of a card-game which allows a partnership between two of four players.

Restricted definitions are widely used in technical fields and by scientists when they refer to their own domain of study. These groups develop an in-house set of terms and expressions which are often incomprehensible to outsiders. This barrier to understanding is not necessarily planned. People learn early that they operate in a multifaceted society where expressions are not only descriptive of a situation but often reflect the mood of a group. If one is not a member of such a group the discussion may pass without ruffling any feathers.

Words may have colour and get chosen to bias a scene. When this occurs, *generally used* is a reference to social customs which are — by definition — constricted to a group; it therefore is a social statistic.

This could be stated in terms of what people of a particular social group usually do with words and sentences in a given, specifiable, set of circumstances. A person who addresses others by “peace be with you” does not necessarily mean what he/she says: they may, in truth, be wishing you dead! In short, words do not necessarily mean what they say.

In live situations one puts two and two together: listens to the words, identifies them, observes how these are being used in a context, and uses other clues to interpret what the speaker really meant. If the other person is “flashing their eyes” and also reaches for their pistol, one is likely to accept the greeting “peace be with you” as displaying an aggressive, hostile greeting: one takes appropriate precautions.

Definitions as listed in a dictionary therefore need to be viewed with skepticism. The listed definition is a guide, not a legislative act. It indicates the possible use of a term, perhaps even a widespread use, but not necessarily the only, exclusive one.

There are many exceptions to this rule: specifically definitions of terms used in a particular branch of science, technology or in a professional sphere, like Canon or Criminal Law, which may be intended for use in an idiosyncratic limited manner and which occur by common agreement of those using it. Inevitably this use is meant to be exclusive, singular, and therefore is often incorrectly employed by outsiders but also by insiders who should know better!

Words, and expressions are produced by men, women and children in specific circumstances, most often willfully, with intent, not haphazardly. Few people adopt the view that a word must mean what they want it to mean. They follow custom (although poets have license to break customs) and when in doubt look up the word or expression in a reputable dictionary or Thesaurus.

There are exceptions primarily by those totally new to a language. Words, we say, have meaning. These are sounds which refer or point to events that may have nothing to do with the quality of sounds uttered. Thus words and a sentences constructed from words may be viewed as codes to inform others about states of affairs, and this may apply to the state of the individual or to impersonal, external, events.

We furthermore identify whether the information may be trivial, like “you have just stepped on a beetle,” or life-threatening like ”You have just stepped on a boa constrictor.” The expressions or sentences get part of their meaning from the circumstances under which these are uttered, although the circumstances are not part of the definition of the terms. Thus the meaning of a word depends on several circumstances so that a definition — as it appears in a reputable dictionary — should be viewed as a declaration about how the word could, or may be used; it is not prescriptive, only suggestive — and discretionary.

Finally, let me comment on the difference between (1) a restricted and porous definition and (2) the notion of a rigid designation, an idea we owe to the contemporary philosopher Saul Kripke (b. 1940) (see his Naming and Necessity, Harvard University, 1980). The idea of rigid designation has been discussed by several philosophers/logicians in discussions about “possible worlds”, not worlds as claimed to exist. The basic assumption generally made throughout history is that there is one real world and that we gain access to it by following strict procedural rules. This assumption found its most ardent expression in the work of Aristotle who argued that empirical research will reveal the “nature of things,” namely those features of something — an object or event — which were essential to it and those which are only added qualities.

So an object had two sets of features or qualities: those which were indigenous to it, its essences — which cannot be stripped from it without depriving its of its identity — and those that are ornamental,or contingent. As investigators we are therefore assigned two tasks: to identify the essence of each species of things and thereafter to classify to which broader category it belonged.

The Aristotelean approach and its method of searching for knowledge, although strongly and traditionally supported by Christian scholars, was forced into a compromise during the 16th century by technological discoveries which suggested that earlier procedures were not only capable of improving observational methods but could result in discoveries which were incompatible with the picture of the universe developed by previous generations. It could produce a “paradigm shifts” as described by T. Kuhn in the 1960s.

The most stunning example of this took place 30 years earlier with Einstein’s relativity theory, and before that when Darwin postulated that life forms on our planet had developed over several million years in an orderly manner according to some rules many of which had yet to be discovered. Structuralization was not a firm rule, as postulated by Aristotle, but was something which happened according to rules yet to be discovered, not a force acting upon nature but part of nature itself.

The end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century hammered home the idea we have to relinquish the old idea that *discovery* referred to unearthing treasures, like broken urns in the desert sand lying hidden somewhere below the surface, and to replace this with the notion that structure itself comes about, emerges and develops in a seemingly endless series, a process. And the orientation this discovery produced was the idea that there was not only one world, but that there are many, each being viewed as the best conjecture of a possible world. Thus a particular term could feature in several possible worlds, but in each case it involved a shift in its meaning.

There was, therefore, a place for rigid definitions of terms, provided these were confined to one possible world. Once defined such words could not transfer to another world without infringing its earlier rule of use.

A Clarification is Not a Definition

Some words are used interchangeably. This certainly enriches a languages by giving it alternative ways of expressing the same idea — or so it is believed! Not so. An idea, object, or event (three different non-alternative entities!) may go under different names, as when a married woman refers to herself both by her maiden and her husband’s name, or when a person is described as married or wedded, or a diamond is described as a stone or gem, or an engine-propelled boat is referred to as a steamer or liner.

shipsIn some cases the names were wrought at different times and their names reflect this. A steamer clearly is a boat whose engines are driven by a mechanism whose pistons are moved by steam which is produced by burning coal or oil, whereas a liner is a bigger boat whose propellers or pressure operated valves may be moved by turbines and which carries passengers across oceans, not on rivers and lakes.

Language can be so rich — grammar arid.

A definition is a device used rigidly or loosely, which is to it intended to “fix” a word, to assign it meaning. Rigid definitions are preferred in scientific disciplines where ambiguity is deliberately shunned. Accordingly, a word cannot (should not!) have two or more uses. Each label on the bottle must be completely unambiguous, have only one interpretation and fully describe or identify the content of the bottle. Most dictionary definitions, by contrast, are nonrigid, sometimes even fuzzy. What such definitions accomplish is to draw a circle around a claim. Inside and outside the circle are entirely and insufferably different. These demarcate — inform us — what a word means — but also what it does not mean! (Most of us live in a bi-modal world most — but not all — of the time!)

A clarification as a device tells us, in words we are expected to understand, what an unknown or ambiguous word or expression could mean and what it probably means in the context provided. A clarification may ease us into understanding a sentence in which the problematic word occurred! It does not scream at us “You used the word or expression incorrectly, falsely, heinously!” but indicates that we trespassed on an existing good usage of a word. It says: “No! it is no a liner, but a paddle steamer”. It has explained, has clarified that the word used was not the best word to use under the prevailing circumstance, and hereby opened alternative choices to us.

On Borrowing and Inventing Words

Many words in constant use are borrowed, stolen, adapted and invented. Of course, one cannot go to court to reclaim a word, unless it is proprietary (pharmaceutical companies do so at a drop of a hat). Has anyone been sued for using the phrase, “I googled the information” or “I hoovered my patio”?

Whatever its historical precedent, borrowing words and expressions from other languages than our own is certainly trendy. It is stimulated largely, but not exclusively, by intense global trade and the phenomenal rise of certain technologically-based enterprises which depend heavily on inventions and discoveries. These have a vested interest in getting their proprietary names circulated as widely as possible. Principle: what is good for consumption is good (profitable) for business.

There seems to be more than commercial advantage for the extensive proliferation of words. Here I examine only three. Each has been named to give a clue to its use: 1) Sanitary Measures; 2) Tagging the New, 3) Insider-Outsider Separations.

1) Sanitary Measures

If one wants to rid one’s home-language of ambiguities, importing words often helps. Ambiguity is viewed as a curse for which a cure is needed. Language has to be sanitized to keep it clean of confusion. It can be done by replacements from an unfamiliar donor-language. On this criterion, Zulu words may be better than imports from Spanish – especially at a time when the latter is becoming the second language in the USA. No one has followed this suggestion – but it could happen. The borrower-language gains a word which can be given a singular, unambiguous “unique” definition in English.

Note that borrowed words need definitions to accompany them on the journey and are translations: the words and expressions used in the definition must themselves be unambiguous. This is difficult to do – and sometimes fails. However, the possibility that a word taken from the donor-language may be ambiguous in its home territory is irrelevant: importing it will strip the word of home-ground ambiguity.

This desirable effect may be temporary and may erode quite quickly in a new environment. Like kids, words don’t stand still for long. The new term will be defined when first introduced, an act designed to freeze the meaning of the word, to isolate and insulate it. Like a band-aid the protection wears off with prolonged exposure. Most users have no vested interest in protecting the word’s “purity” or singularity of meaning, and will allow it to deteriorate. At some point the process of purification may restart – a new word may then be imported: the band-aid is replaced.

No one seems to mind these perturbations, except inveterate conservatives who with advancing age may resist innovations in communication with unseemly vigour. The effort to establish clarity and avoid ambiguity may therefore be quite short-lived before confusion re-asserts itself. On this analysis, language forever changes.

Would a universal language cure this, as some have suggested?

Unlikely, because the need and demand for new words to tag new phenomena will continue unabated. Our efforts to expand knowledge are not based on such noble principles as Francis Bacon (1561-1629) occasionally proclaimed in his prefaces but to an objective he recognized well: to increase the wealth of the “commonwealth” (read: nation-state) through the proper use of the new knowledge, the fruit of empirical research (based on experimental induction!). New words in an old language would surely draw attention to what is new, but it is new within the context of the old.

A whole industry has sprung recently to ride the wave of promoting “innovation” in goods and services and the terms which landmark these. From this perspective a new language would be counter-productive; it would only have temporary advantage. To call a new mouse trap by its traditional name is unlikely to enhance sales and encourage wide adoption. (Nor would its manufacturer be interested in exterminating the species either!) New mouse traps need mice in profusion, a new technical principle or architecture and a new name to ensure its commercial success.

Should one hesitate to advocate the emergence of a universal new language like a newly invented, constructed language on the model of Esperanto? Or a simplified English, as Winston Churchill had proposed to unify the post WWII world? Neither has been successful. Language is a cultural phenomenon: create a new culture – if you know how – and you will get a new language.

2) The Phenomenon of Tagging the New

One may wish to bring awareness of genuinely new experiences to others, perhaps a new style in dress (remember the miniskirt?), an unusual type of music (like rap), a recently discovered aquatic plant, or a newly-discovered insect. It may suffice to report, “I saw a new bug today, which looked a like a giant ant,” but sooner or later someone will demand a new name, a tag which will forever differentiate this new creature from all others, particularly from its close relatives!

The temporary tag may suffice momentarily: without great ceremony. *Giant ant* will be discarded. The new name may be drawn from a foreign language – probably Latin (entomology is replete with names of creatures composed from the skeleton of Latin) – and the new label will be supported by many descriptions and endless photographs and fine pencil drawings of its gross features as well as its fine structures in the fashion of Dürer. But this habit of Latinizing entomological entities may change if more and more entomologists come from China: a Mao-beetle perhaps? It is not the name that matters, but the detailed descriptions and its presumed relationship to other species.

Scientific terms, furthermore, are less prone to ambiguity because the number of people using such terms is relatively small. Also there exists a culture of respect for definitions which is significantly different from what happens in everyday language, from the language of the street, of the home and the workplace.

3) The Inside-Outside Phenomenon

The third reason for importing terms from a foreign language may appear trivial, yet it is nonetheless historically important. People who share an interest in some activity (e.g., golf) or set of objects (e.g., butterflies) may consolidate and develop their own lingo which sets them off from others. They become serendipitously an insider group – and create an outsider group, those billions on the other side of their fence. No better example than the military or comparable organization, like Boy Scouts.

Furthermore, when one section of a community wants to establish a special position for itself it often does so by also – and inadvertently – developing an “insider language.” (As a former Brit I have never understood the jargon of football.) Many secret societies do so (Freemasons, for example). I find myself often using the phrase *en passant* when the English expression *in passing* would do just as well: my generation of academics were prone to this form of elitism. It was not a matter whether one “imported” words, but from whence the import came! In my case, the barriers established through parental training broke down during teen-hood and the language of the age-group overrode many social class barriers, a process which could work in both directions – and of course often did. Rule: social groups develop their own speech and jealously guard its borders.

Of these three factors reviewed the second seems to me more interesting. It suggests that terms are imported into a daily language whenever new phenomena are identified and become locally important. In my youth the car was king; today the focus is on electronic devices, including communication devices and robotics. Both have produced a glut of new words unfathomable to my European grandparents (1870-1940). Of course, new terms do not have to be borrowed or pilfered from another language, as suggested earlier, but could be wrought from different roots, from both foreign and from within the home-language, as *apps* is; even from two roots within the home-language. The term *vacuum-cleaner* illustrates this. It consists of two already familiar words which later were fused into one.

royallabor*Vacuum-cleaner*: a borderline case

One could object to my example of *vaccum-cleaner* as a combination of two collegial words and argue that it is a hybrid of a foreign and a colloquial word. The term *vacuum*, one could argue, has distinct foreign origins. It was certainly in use at the turn of the 18th century but in a very restricted way. During the mid 18th century it became more widely known amongst the “educated” males in Britain, who recognized that *vacuum* referred to space unoccupied by matter (and whose root was the Latin vacuus = empty). To understand the term *vacuum-cleaner* only required that the user realized that a vacuum creates a suction and that it is the suction induced by a motor (?) which accounts for lifting dirt from a floor! I suppose the term *suction-cleaner* would have done equally well as *vacuum-cleaner* but we cannot reverse preferences of fashion or the order in which these appeared in history! *Vacuum* was certainly more “elegant” than *suction* – and this may have played a role in the choice of words. What is of interest is that a term was selected which had minimal ambiguity and which could be given a “clear” and “clean” definition.

Aperçu: On Clarification and Definition

A definition assigns a distinct, preferably unique meaning to a word. It is a legislative act whose purpose is to limit the use of a word, to restrict its range, and to decide — once and for all — how it is to be used in all conceivable contexts. It involves taking the analogy out of language!

This brazen objective is rarely realised by the definer — and when successful, it is usually not for long because, words have a way of shedding their tethers. The best examples of this are found in advanced natural sciences, where each discovery is named, baptized. What is a hadron? It is not for eating yet, but tomorrow some enterprising entrepreneur may come up with a product, name it “hadron” and flood the marketplace with this delectable mushy chocolate-tasting, non-fattening, gluten-free imitation chewing gum!

Clarification, however, is entirely different from definition. One selects a concept and its term(s) that already exist, which may in fact be quite widely used — as hadron is in particle physics — and may have a history of use in a variety of contexts. One then shows in what manner the concept has been employed, what alternate terms are already in use for it (for it is not unique) and in what manner the term can be extended from its literal to many new figurative meanings. One also tries to point out what implication the term may have, or may have acquired over its long period of use. The term has a history — which may help contribute to its interest. Thus, in clarification one performs an analysis not a dissection of the term, and one should not be over eager to give a term which may already be rich in meaning, a singular unique meaning, except for the nonce.

It seems to me that philosophers are in the business of clarification — at least some are. Clarification may bring enlightenment, broaden the understanding of a concept whereas clarification may help to throw it into stark contrast to other ideas, to which it is related. One benefit is that it may add wisdom, a quality many of us seek but few attain. Wisdom is not discovered like a pebble on the sands, but is the outcome of an inquiring mind that seeks a better understanding of how different aspects of their experience can be interconnected to yield a special perspective on the world, a perspective which the person may then share with others.

In summary: Definitions deliberately restrict and often do so for justifiable reasons, whereas clarifications expand our horizons and promote our understanding of individual experiences and our shared world. One can do both, yet recognize that each has its separate place in the order of things.