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How Words Develop Multiple Meanings
How Word Meanings are Negotiated

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Could you please tell me if Koine Greek or just Greek language has a range of meanings for each words, like we have in Arabic language and Hebrew language?

Every language or form of human speech has a range of meanings and usage for its words.  Language is dynamic, and how people use the words available for the thoughts they have in mind or the events and objects they want to talk about varies with the individual and with each group or community of people.

Greek in the first century was a very dynamic medium, used across a huge geographic area, among thousands of different ethnic peoples and political divisions.  Greek thus occurred in many dynamic variations, depending on ethnic background, social level and educational level.

Word meanings arise from how the words are commonly used.  The usages are informal to a large degree, but people who communicate among themselves all the time will use words in a similar way, so there is a common community understanding of what is intended.

Meanings change when an individual or community needs to talk about something new, a new event, a new problem, an drastic change in the environment, a social upheaval, and so forth.  Or when the members of one community need to talk with members of another community.  The words at hand may be used in a new way, or a new word may be made up.

Humans are very creative, so language is always changing.  We are always using metaphors to talk about one thing or one event in terms of another, so virtually every word has more than one usage.  And because humans are always looking for better ways to talk about things, searching for ways to talk about new events or technology or social needs, words get extended to new meanings.  So the basis of meaning is current usages.

This accounts also for the variations we sometimes call dialects.  Different communities have different priorities and share different significant experiences that determine how they understand the world and life and these perspectives determine how they use language.

Thus any form of English, Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Swahili or Chinese will always have some areas of uncertainty and confusion.  Where there is uncertainty or unclarity, new usages develop to fill the gap.

New words develop in various ways.  speakers avoid or abandon certain words that have a negative connotation.  As one segment of society begins to use a word in a certain way, or that word gets associated with an undesirable event, person, trend or experience, speakers will search for a different word for what they want to convey with the feeling they want to convey.

Other words may take over, as people find suitable terms to express their ideas or emotions at that time and place.  Other changes may meet the same need in another time or place.  The more the hearer and the speaker (or reader-writer) share the same set of experiences and worldview perspectives or beliefs, the more similarly they will understand and use words.

Metaphor is the common way humans think and talk about life.  So words for one object, event or experience are used as a reference for another, or a description by analogy.  "He's a pig!" She is hot! He is so cool! See the metaphor? We talk this way all the time.

The old word is used for the new meaning.  It provides an image of what we are thinking.  It evokes an experience or feeling about the reference.  You get a new meaning for the old word.  words are commonly extended this way, multiple times.
Example:   This job sucks!
Do you know how this adjective-verb "sucks" got started?  Think about it.  Look it up!
This is really screwed up.  I got really screwed on that deal.

Emotional Meaning
All forms of human speech have various meaning for most words.  Words are tools that individuals and communities use for their communication needs.  Some words have narrow uses and may have only one "definition."

Words have emotional meaning too, or "connotation." So shading of meaning or attitude is involved, too.  New connotations can be given to a word, and speakers can prefer certain words for their connotation, causing certain words to fall out of use or preference.

Most words have two, three or more meaning.  Some have even up to 10 different meanings.  It just depends of current usage.  It depends on too many factors.  We just have to listen, read and see how language is used in each situation.

The Common Language
Just for reference, the term "koine" is just the Greek word for "common."  In language, it means the commonly used form of Greek used in the Roman Empire over a period of several centuries.  This means it was used by various peoples with different native languages to speak to each other.  Thus their usages of words would vary, depending on their home languages and cultures, and the primary set of common, shared experiences they need to talk about.

Greek was the language the Romans maintained for administration of the Empire and the education of their elite in Rome and its colonies.  (Scholars figure only about 10% of the population of the Roman Empire was literate.  Even then, the whole of society was not "literate" in the modern sense, but oral and relational in focus.)

Each of the peoples who used Greek would speak with influence from their native language, introducing other dynamics into the language.  The same thing has happened to English in the modern period of history.  Earlier the same thing happened when French was the common language for Europe.

Other Common Languages
Even earlier, Latin served the same purpose, and was spoken among peoples of Europe who spoke different native languages.  Each nation spoke the Latin more like their native language, and as the centuries passed and technologies and political situations changed, the Latin developed just like any other usage.  As Latin spoken in each region gradually changed to became French, Spanish, Catalan, Corsican and other "local forms, these peoples fell back on the older formal Latin forms to continue speaking to each other.

The Germanic peoples were unrelated to Latin, but learned the common form to talk to others.  The common Latin (Latin word “vulgar” for common, ordinary) was the basic Latin they could all use and understand among themselves across their different native tongues.

Interference from the underlying German languages accounts for someof the differences between Spanish, French, Italian an dother Latin "children."  The estern version that became Romanian was considerably changed by the Slavic invasions after the general Germanic waves.

In Africa
In Eastern and Central Africa, forms of Swahili fill this same international need.  Between the hundreds, even thousands, of ethnic peoples with different languages, a form of Swahili is the common language (usually second language) for 50-60 million people in several countries of Africa.  These various dialects of Swahili are mutually intelligible to varying degrees.

In each region, the speakers of Swahili there borrow different words from the local languages or the dominant colonial language.  So the Swahili in Congo, for instance, borrows many words from French, while in Kenya the source language is commonly English.  Along the coast of both Kenya and Tanzania and in the old original Swahili dialects of the Swahili people, Arabic is the primary source for technical, cultural or religious words.

The Greek Roman Empire
The common Greek of the Roman Empire, and the eastern Roman Empire that continued in the east from Constantinople until 1453 (called the Byzantine Empire by westerners), developed on that "koine" common Greek of earlier centuries.  Koine can be considered the basis of what became Modern Greek.  Under the onslaught of invasions by Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Germans, Slavs and others, the Greek-speaking world narrowed down in geography and population during the Middle Ages.

Even so, there are still great variations in various local forms of Greek – all among native Greek peoples.  On the island nation of Cyprus, for instance, there are 5 identifiable dialects of Greek.  When I lived there for 3.5 years, I was told of rather significant variations over distances of only a few miles.  All Greek Cypriot – but 5 separate forms of Greek!

Century to century, region to region, you will find variations, sound change, differences in word usage.  These same kinds of differences are documented in all the written forms of Greek from the earliest centuries.

We don't commonly use the term "translate" in regard to speech between two individuals who speak what we consider forms of the same language.  But language is very individual and the term "translate" applies to some degree in all communication between any two individuals, communities, companies or governments.  Cultural and social values are involved in meaning and perceptions in any of our communications.

We do use the term "interpret" or "clarify" when thinking about speech between two speakers whose language is very similar.  From a linguistic point of view this refers to the same phenomenon.  Think how often we need to ask or say:
"What do you mean?"
"Why do you say that?"
"I haven't heard the word used that way."
"No, no! That is not what I meant!"
"Wait, that's not what I said!  I did not even use that word."
"Why did you say it that way?"
"What do you think he meant by that?"

Meaning Behind the Meaning
 These are all examples of interpretation, clarification.  There is always a meaning behind the meaning, you might say.  What is the thought or intention behind the words a speaker chooses? This is what I mean by translation, or interpretation.  Meaning is always negotiated.

We negotiate over meaning and usage.  It may be a conscious or unconscious process.  Words have meaning only as they are used, as they are perceived and as they convey meaning from one mind to the other.

(For fascinating insights into the conveyance of meaning from one mind to another, look into the recent science of "Memetics," dealing with the concept of "meme," or "mental idea," and how an idea, belief, perception or concept gets transferred from one individual to another, spreads through a social group or general populace and how this involves cultural change.)

Every discussion on any technical, academic or legal matter begins with definitions, in order to identify what we are actually talking about and what particular important, repeated words mean in this context, in this document, in this topic or discussion.

Meaning is always negotiated.  The more different the speech or cultural context of each individual or group, the more interpretation or translation is needed.  From two speakers of English with slightly different forms of English all the way to conversation between a speaker of English and a speaker of Inuit.  It is only a matter of degree.

Any speech during that Roman period would have all the same characteristics of any other human communication.  Creativity and variation, clarification and interpretation – these are major characteristics of human speech, wherever, whenever.

I discuss the effect of usage and meaning in the following article:
[TXT] Through Thick and Thin: The Role and the Rule of Usage
The effect of Experience and Worldview on language is discussed in the following article and others:
[TXT] Culture and Experience
See my article on Word Mapping for insights into how we mentally associate words and similar meanings into groups for color, shadings of meaning and precision in our speech:
[TXT] Word Mapping

Also related on this site
[TXT] Cyprus: Notes and Perceptions
[TXT] Culture and Experience: The Worldview Role of Shared Experiences
[TXT] Culture and Shared Experiences
[TXT] Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
[TXT] How We Map Words
[TXT] How New Words Develop
[TXT] Meaning in Language - Word, Speech and the Role of Literature
[blog] Shared Significant Experiences
[TXT] Through Thick and Thin: The Role and the Rule of Usage

Related on the Internet:
Journal of Memetics


First written in an email exchange 18 November 2011
Developed into an article 21 March 2013
Last edited 7 June 2014

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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