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Language and Life

How Words Grow
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

English is such a hard language.  There isn't much grammar.  The sentences are a puzzle.  Everything is spoken by idiom.  It is anybody's guess which preposition-adverb goes with which verb.  Slow down, slow up.  Pull up, pull over.  Different to, different from, different than.  Woe to learners of English! English speakers in Africa should be glad they can learn regular, logical, precise African languages!

How do words grow in our languages? We get English words with different meanings that sound exactly alike.  Sometimes they are even written alike.  Then there are so many different words that seem to mean the same thing.  We learn that some of these were native Germanic words and others were borrowed.  As sound changes took place, word forms changed and different ones came to sound the same.   There are several ways that words change in languages.

Technology and Analogy
When new technology develops, old terms may be extended to the new technology.  This leads to some of the differences between British and North American English.  The same item may be referred to by different words in different countries or regions.

When cars were invented, American and British speakers used the patterns of their common language differently to speak of the new technology.  Analogies were apt but different.  Parts of the car were thought of in terms of clothing.

Hood or Bonnet.  The cover of the motor (the front) was called a hood (American) or a bonnet (British).  The section you carry your luggage in, was logically called by the Americans, the trunk, just like when you travel.  The British thought of it in terms of protective covering, and called it a boot (you know, it protects your feet, I guess).

Boots and Gaiters.  When they needed to fix a flat tire, they used another analogy.  When it "went flat" in America, they put a patch on the tube.  That makes sense.  But in Britain you "have punctures." When the tire itself (or in Britain, the tyre) is damaged, in the States you put a "boot" on it, while in the UK you put a "gaiter" on it.

Some of you oldsters or fans of gangster movies will remember that the decorative coverings of shoes were called "spats." Well, in Britain they were called gaiters.  So the Americans fix a tire with the foot covering, and the Brits fix the tire with the covering of the foot covering!

Bootstrap Technology.  Then for computing you have another kind of boot.  This is a totally American idiom:  pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, or simply booting.

When mechanical picture recording was developed, the technical word was borrowed from Greek for light-writing, or photo-graphy.  So purists argue that a "photograph" is not a "picture." But try telling that to millions of competent speakers of the language who use "picture" indiscriminately for all sorts of visual representations:  paintings, drawings, photos, etc.

Coupes.  Back to automobile technology, the style of cars were named after the carriages and buggies they replaced.  Popular styles like brougham, sedan, coupe (or the original French coupé), were all certain types of horse-drawn carriages.  Some of you will remember that nice little song by Patsy Cline, the "Little Red Coupe."

And the Beach Boys sang about the "Little Deuce Coupe." A coupe was a stylish open carriage with one seat.  It became a one-seated (or later, sloped top or two door) conveyance with a motor.  ("Coupe" is from the French word coupé for the past participle and adjective "cut.")

A sedan was a covered, enclosed chair carried on poles by four bearers.  You've seen these in movies of colonial India.

Borrowing is a major source of word growth in a language.  This may also be due to technology, or to specialization within an area of technology or academic discipline.

We are all familiar with borrowed words.  This is one thing that makes English so hard.  Forms of words vary a lot, but English speakers try to make them "sound right." So the pronunciation is adjusted until it sounds like an English word.  Thus it may not sound like it looks.

Sound change
Sound change is another source of new words.  Words naturally change as they are used over generations and centuries.  English, for instance has many forms of the many words because of borrowing from different dialects or cultures within English.  For instance, we all recognize the variant forms of these two forms of one word: creature, critter and victuals, vittles.  

The second member of these pairs are considered "non-standard" in the broader language.  But they are the only form used in some dialects.  The standard language has borrowed these dialectic forms for flavor or cultural distinction.  You find a lot of dialect in novels, which reflect the "real" language of the people, and "English as she is spoke."

Moral and political or sociological concerns can lead to change in usage.  A word may gain a certain connotation because it is overused by a certain group, or becomes associated with a certain cause.

The old Latin word for black or dark, for instance, borrowed into most of the European languages, developed a morally negative connotation when pronounced a certain way in our history.  The Latin word negro (negrus), meaning "black," is still used for skin color in Romance languages.  In America, because of certain sociological events (combined with dialectic pronunciations associated with discriminatory attitudes or worse, the word became a negative epithet in English.

Dialect Pronunciation.  Originally the pronunciation of the technical term "negro" that was common among aristocratic American Southerners would slight the last vowel.  So the word would be pronounced neegruh, or nihgruh.  This dialect pronounced the final vowels of all words this way.  But this one word was heard as representing the slavers’ attitude, and was rejected, though it was the normal way to pronounce any such word in their language.

Lower class whites, on the other hand, had the pattern of shifting an r before a final vowel into the last position, so the word came out nigger.  They pronounced every similar word in their language in this way.  Such as "figger" for figure.  This latter word is also similarly pronounced in the standard British pronunciation (but leaving out the final R:  "figgah").  But again, this form of that particular word was also rejected by speakers of other dialects, because of the derogatory moral-social association, when pronounced by lower class souther whites.

Attitudes and Accents.  Later any pronunciation of the word applied to humans was derogatory.  This gets into what is called sociolinguistics:  social attitudes attached to forms.  This is one way that words grow in a language, or group of languages, such as English.

Word Stories
The Voice of America used to have a program called "Words and their Stories." Each episode would tell how certain words or groups of words got started.  It was a history lesson, syntax lesson and sociology lesson all in one.

Words reflect culture and can be used to affect culture – even history.  Words and their stories can tell you a lot about people and their stories, nations and their stories, cultures and their stories, even religions and their stories.

Also related:
[Review] How Many Words?
[TXT] How Words Develop Multiple Meanings: How Word Meanings are Negotiated
[Review] New Words
[TXT] Techniques: Using a Dictionary
[TXT] Word Mapping
[TXT] Worldview and Experience


Originally published in the "Language and Life" series in Afri-Com, a communication journal, Nairobi, Kenya, April 1995
Current version written and posted to Thoughts and Resources 31 December 2007
Last edited 20 November 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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