Words

Semantic Change

Dr. Shukla, my historical linguistics professor at Georgetown, was one of those teachers reminiscent of Robin Williams in Dead Poet Society. While I do not deal in this subdiscipline, I could have listened to him talk all day about language change. I remember he told us: “Usually we don’t create words, we extend the meaning of the ones we have,” and then he gave several examples of metaphors:
  • “leaves” of a book
  • the “flow” of time
  • the “light” of reason
  • a “cutting” remark

These words maintain a flavor of the literal with their metaphorical meaning. So, Dr. Shukla claimed, at a deeper level, words are not tied to stable concepts so much as clusters of meaning; they are flexible, expandable.

Think of dull, shallow, deep, clear, heavy, light, etc., he says.
As most people who have devoted their entire life to the academic study of something, I am passionate about my field. And I love to think back on Dr. Shukla’s musings on the wonder of words. The flexibility of words is what makes language so beautiful and capable of expressing the great multitude of things that we feel and think as creative social beings. That words can bend and grow is what makes imagining possible.

I think this video sums it up, beautifully. (sent to me by a friend via Facebook).


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