Words that change meaning because they look like other words
April 26, 2009 1:55 PM   Subscribe

Looking for linguistic theories that describe why words change in meaning, particularly because they look and/or sound like other words.

I am in the process of writing a PhD disseration proposal (in the humanities) in which words that change meaning over time play a large role. I am looking for theories from linguistics that might explain why such changes take place.

It seems that there are a lot of books out there, both technical and popular, that describe how such changes take place (giving lists of popular and fun examples, etc.) I am looking here for the "why", not the "what" or the "how".

To be more specific, I am looking into words that change meaning because they look and/or sound like other words. To give an example from Latin (the language I'm working with), the verb populare originally meant "to plunder", or "to devastate". Yet in medieval Latin charters, it quickly comes to mean "to settle" or "to populate". It's hard to say exactly why this change takes place, though the close resemblance of the word to populus, meaning "people", is quite obvious, and must have played a role.

The word(s) I'm looking into are less obvious in terms of their connection, and the conlusions I would make would be more contentious, so I'm really looking for some good solid theory to back me up, or at least make my proposal sound more technically sound.

English books would of course be the easiest to work with, but if there is some key text in French, Italian, German, or whatever, please let me know.
posted by hiteleven to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
If you've looked up technical books, you've probably already seen the chapter on analogical change in the Blackwell Handbook of Historical Linguistics, right? (I wasn't clear on whether "technical" meant "linguistics.") I recall that it was a good general overview of analogy, though I haven't read it in a while myself.
posted by sineala at 2:06 PM on April 26, 2009


If you've looked up technical books, you've probably already seen the chapter on analogical change in the Blackwell Handbook of Historical Linguistics, right? (I wasn't clear on whether "technical" meant "linguistics.") I recall that it was a good general overview of analogy, though I haven't read it in a while myself.

Yes, I did mean something from the field of "linguistics". But, no, I had not heard of Blackwell's book...I am quite a neophyte with all of this, so thanks for the suggestion!
posted by hiteleven at 2:37 PM on April 26, 2009


There are several theories of semantic change, and just googling that phrase should get you half a dozen typologies setting out classes of words and general trends. They tend to concentrate on how conceptual categories of words change, say by narrowing or widening, or even how words get placed into new categories, such as through folk-etymology, reanalysis, or 'chains' of meaning. Most undergrad linguistics books cover this, I personally liked Trask's, Historical Linguistics, but you can probably pick one at random.
posted by Sova at 2:41 PM on April 26, 2009


It looks like the type of change you're looking at is called contamination. It's usually treated pretty briefly in introductory texts, such as Trasks' book mentioned above, or Hans Henrich Hock's Principles of Historical Linguistics.

The sections on semantic change in general should also be consulted to help check alternatives to contamination (i.e, you don't just want to say "word X was affected by word Y", but also eliminate other ways word X's meaning might have changed).

You might also check out C.S. Lewis's Studies in Words, not because it talks about contamination in particular, but because it's a masterful example of tracing the changes in meaning for a set of words across time and several languages.
posted by zompist at 9:15 PM on April 26, 2009


It looks like the type of change you're looking at is called contamination.

Based on a quick glance at Hock's book (the library was closed last night, but a lot of it is up on Google Books), it looks like I might be looking at an example of perhaps both contamination and levelling. The only problem is that Hock seems to treat analogy quite apart from semantic change, but at least he covers both.

There appears to be no consensus on this issue, which is fine and expected. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions, and I would appreciate any others.
posted by hiteleven at 6:21 AM on April 27, 2009


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