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 4: Neolidesm

In an earlier blog I suggested that when a word from an established language — called the donor-language — is transferred — to a host-language, e.g., from French to English, the transfer ensures that the host-language acquires a new and unique word. It may give us two or more words whose reference overlaps as illustrated by referring to a “marathon” and “a long-distance run”. The two terms overlap in meaning and occasionally can be substituted for each other. In its new location such imported words lack ambiguity, a positive and desirable attribute. Ambiguity, as the reader will know, is often seen as an enemy of effective communication.

Several methods have already been tried to reduce ambiguity in daily speech, including borrowing a particular word from another (foreign) language, the so-called donor-language. When a transfer is made from the donor to the host language the (pilfered?) word is usually assigned a restricted meaning which — in a sense — tethers it. One cannot guarantee for how long this “remedy” will work and thereby stave of problems arising from ambiguity! We should keep in mind too that many language lovers (hobbyists?) like to “extend” the meaning of words, and actively look for new uses for these. The cure for confusion described here is known to work at least for a limited time.

But it has also become quite common to adapt an existing word drawn from a home (host) language and to assign it a new meaning which may — in the minds of most users — be unrelated to its earlier meaning. An example is the common verb *hit*, as in “I was hit by a flying saucer whilst walking down Mulberry Street” compared to “Miss Mabel was a hit at the fashion-show in her new bikini swim-suit”. The use of hit here is significantly different from, for example, “Mabel was hit at the fashion show by an unruly, over-enthusiastic member of the 21st Century Prude League”!

We propose to call all newly defined words in a language as cases of *neolidesm*, a word constructed from neo (new) and idein, whose root according to the Oxford Dictionary, is the Greek ἰδέα, or ἰδεῖν or idein, translated as “to see”. The etymology of the new word is not important in itself: it could be borrowed from another language or created from bits and pieces of the home-language too. However, the new word stands in contrast to a *neologism*, a word which refers to the special case where the word’s origin is independent of its newness as an idea, but where its novelty as a word is of interest to us That is, the word is unquestionably new in the language, but not necessarily the idea to which the word is said to refer. It also could be purely manufactured as is Mary Poppin’s almost unpronounceable creation *supercalifragilisticexpialidocious*. To the best of my knowledge this word has no meaning yet! The term *Jabberwocky*, however, is another matter. We are told that it is the name of a creature which is vaguely described, but not defined by Lewis Carroll in “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There”, (1872) in the following lines:
Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
the frumious Bandersnatch!

It could be argued that without an assigned meaning and/or without a reasonably full description of the object designated by a sounded word, sounds made or uttered during a spoken language — like “ah” or “mm” — are not components of the language either. I have seen many Jabberwockies in my life, but could not describe the creature! Could you?

Reprise: new words are continously being introduced into most modern languages, but their meaning may derive from several practises, including the practise of utterning a sound and concurrently pointing to some object or to some ongoing event, like a game of football or a cow chewing its cud, which the on-line Merriman Dictionary states is “the food that an animal (such as a cow) brings back up from its stomach into its mouth to be chewed again”!

Now If the emphasis is on the meaning of a word for a group of speakers, this should be classified as a case of neolidesm whereas if the word is just new, regardless of its origin or meaning, it is a case of being a neologism. The clarification given in Wikipedia can hardly be improved:

A neologism (/niːˈɒlədʒɪzəm/; from Greek νέο- néo-, “new” and λόγος lógos, “speech, utterance”) is the name for a relatively recent or isolated term, word, or phrase that may be in the process of entering common use, but which has not yet been fully accepted into mainstream language.

So it is its relative newness that counts!

Here, however, follows the case of a new word which is not borrowed from another language but which was deliberately designed and introduced into everyday English — and probably is now also part of many other languages: pasteurized. If asked what does this word mean — no matter how pronounced in any language — the answer is simple because it is a “designer-term”, therefore akin to being “proprietary”! More recently another strategy for introducing new terms surfaced and is now increasingly used in some sciences. It too was designed to defeat ambiguity and to restrict what elsewhere I have called an “analogical spread” in the meaning of a word. The new strategy consists in adding and assigning a number to a word whose meaning is already fairly well understood, and which therefore could not develop multiple meanings. The example cited was Carbon-14. This term (word) is used in some areas of chemistry but not (yet — ever?) for naming, since in human societies naming has become a sacred act! Note, however, we also carry our social security numbers as an ID (footnote: For more on numbering as a method of identification see my earlier blog). In the nature of the case the combination of a name and a number is most unlikely to “spread” its meaning, but is more likely to be replaced (or renumbered?) should it no longer serve its earlier defined mission. This happens frequently in science.

So I think we have recently made several advances to our former socially driven habit of borrowing words excessively from “foreign” sources, including from (high prestige?) languages which are no longer in wide use, like Greek or Latin, but which will meet both our social and our epistemic demands for terms by which we can identify facets of our “universe”. New words are a “dime a dozen” — and seem to appear from everywhere to suit different social occasions and but also the demands of our knowledge (epistemic) needs. But what occasionally disturbed our slumber was the discovery that words may be around which can be sufficiently modified in use and meaning by relying primarily on our irrepressible propensity to distinguish matters effectively on the basis — but not only — of their contexts. It is — to give an analogy — as if humans have a refined ability to add or to subtract from a given context by selecting from it elements and thereby — inadvertently — creating singular items from something with has many meanings. It helps to enlarge the number of discriminable events that make up our world. Furthermore when we do so, we enrich our world — and then call it a form of creativity.

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.

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 2: The Process of Borrowing Words

Let us call the language from which a word or a phrase was taken and borrowed the DONOR-language — say, French — and the language into which the word from another language is introduced the HOST-language, say, English. Clearly whenever a language imports words and phrases — become a host — that language also grows, regardless of whether its new terms are derived from a foreign source or are “home constructed” and therefore were 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). The word is also articulated in the same manner as the one spelled *wrap*, which means “to bundle up”. It is also related to the idea of establishing rapport, that is, refers to 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. Conclusion: to search for a unique meaning of a word is, generally speaking, foolhardy.

But there are exceptions to this rule. The major exception relates to whenever a word has been deliberately imported from a Donor to a Host language. The import is commonly done by an individual, an anonymous agent who may believe that the home-language is currently somewhat short of a single word with which to expresses a unique and important idea. In this sense it is deficient, or his/her home-language may already be so muddled that a single, newly forged word may just 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 would require much empirical research — and therefore lies beyond the mission of this blog. A process seems involved which has been largely overlooked not only by philosophers, but also by others who are interested in the growth and modification of language, our principal — but not only — method of communicating with others. Let me clarify this a little.

When we run short of words and expressions in our HOME-language several options are open to rectify this deficiency including that we draw from the vocabulary of 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 foreign entries. What is transferred 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 in transfer from donor to home-language, although this need not matter too much. Who cares? Whoever has borrowed would not necessarily know about such damage or of the loss of meaning which resulted from the transfer from a donor to a host-language. Jeff, for example cites the fact that the French meuble (furniture) also implies mobility, whereas the opposite is true for the English term, but in Italian mobili refers to furnishings and immobili refers to real estate! — a direct reference to its non-movement!

Let me summarize: A borrowed word from a donor-language enters a host-language but it routinely carries only one of its meanings. It therefore enters the host-language without ambiguity! 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 although he/she cannot control its future uses. The word has become public property in the host-language. It may even “wander off” and acquire other additional meanings than those intended by the original borrower. Since words are social objects and therefore are subject to the vagaries of such objects, this would be expected! The borrower may have borrowed with 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. A meaning may wander off!

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 1: Meaning

An issue raised in an earlier blog (see reply to Jeff Berg) needs an additional comment, namely, what aspect of the meaning of a term which has been borrowed from a foreign language and was then introduced into a home-language, is actually transferred. The assumption is that the borrowed term has more than one meaning in the original language whereas only one of its meanings was transferred. Which of its several meanings was transferred?

The answer lies in discovering what the recipient of the message understood by the original. The recipient may have misunderstood the message, as when he interprets someone who says “o.k.” that the recipient also agreed with the message. This “o.k.” may only imply that the recipient had heard, but had not understood the message and therefore had not “correctly understood” what message. If this is so the recipient cannot “interpret” the message correctly, or he may doubt that what he (thought) he had heard is what was said. As a result the recipient may have understood the contrary of what was said!

Now the term *meaning* itself is not clear to me, that is, the term seems ambiguous, has more than one interpretation. One can interpret *meaning* as a way of speaking about the relation of the words used and what these refers, i.e. it is used referentially. But it can also be a way or a manner of speaking about intentions, that is not what the words refer to literarily but what these intend when they are uttered by a particular person. *Intention* therefore refers to what a person wishes to say, not what was said when interpreted literally, as illustrated by the reprimand, “You did not mean what you said.” It does not necessary state that what he/she referred to, is what they want to happen. There is a mismatch therefore between what was said and what someone intends to convey!

An example of the latter is when a guest spills a glass of red wine over an immaculately laid table during the speech of another, perhaps even a person he/she is already known to dislike! Psychoanalytic thinkers have made much of this and have explained such happenings, which may look perfectly innocent and accidental to the “normal” person, as an unconscious expression of hostility towards the speaker, perhaps towards the host, or to other guests attending this festive occasion! Or examine the expression, “What Joan intended to say when she remarked that Maude was suitably dressed for the occasion was that Maude was a person who was sensitive to social demands and public opinion.” Maude, in other words, is a person who knows how to fit in well, and furthermore is socially sensitive and adept. Again, the comments from Joan were intentional in nature and are not necessarily complimentary.

We are correct when we distrust that words carry only their literal meaning: few of us use words in that manner. However, we do not get reliable signals on what occasions we should distrust a speaker’s words and intentions.