Different associated meanings across different languages
July 30, 2010 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Finding the network of different associated meanings across different languages?

Dear wise crowd,

I was wondering how close association of meanings in a language can be traced. By close association, I mean words whose use bring other meanings to mind that affect how you perceive that used word.

For example, in many languages the word that means "to read" can also mean "to pray" or "to chant" in different contexts; and this relationship between "read", "chant", and "pray" tends to persist within a language family, which also tends to have interesting geographic distributions. The best source I've been able to find so far is this etymology dictionary, where on this page you'll notice in some other languages the word "to read" is related to "to count" instead.

I find these "associations" and their differences across different languages very intriguing. However, not being a linguist myself nor an immediate friend of one, I haven't been able to pin down the proper terminology. Are they "semiotically" related?

While they definitely do not fit the definitions of heteronyms, homonyms, or paronyms, I'm not sure that any of these relationships apply in the first place because the relationship here is between meanings and not between words.

Is this something identifiable? Or am I just looking at trends and incidental correlations where no objective relationship exist? Can I find more information on this somewhere?

Thanks in advance MeFi!
posted by kradeki to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Useful terms here are polysemy and semantic range.
posted by nangar at 7:58 AM on July 30, 2010

If you're interested in the relationships between meanings, how they come to be, change and develop, I'd focus on the cultural question, which is where that issue of meaning is addressed.

If you haven't read it, have a look at the old classic article "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language" by Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf writes:

"...the cue to a certain line of behavior is often given by the analogies of the linguistic formula in which the situation is spoken of, and by which to some degree it is analyzed, classified and allotted its place in that world which is 'to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.' And we always assume that the linguistic analysis made by our group reflects reality better than it does."

You may then want to look at something more recent, like Keith Basso's "Wisdom Sits in Places" in which the author addresses the relationship between language and landscape among the Western Apache. Basso writes:

"[Lakoff and Johnson] have stated that the essence of metaphor is 'understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.' Although this definition departs relatively little from the classical one given by Aristotle ('metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars'), it points to a problem in the study of language and culture that is deeply ethnographic. For where metaphor is concerned, the question always arises, On what grounds is one kind of thing understood in terms of another? In other words, what must individuals believe about themselves and their surroundings for their metaphors to 'work'?

This question focuses attention on the large body of implicit cultural assumptions that the members of any speech community rely on to interpret instances of situated discourse. Such assumptions which have been variously described as comprising a speaker's 'presuppositions,' 'background knowledge,' or 'beliefs about the world,' present difficulties for all theories of language that seek to restrict the idea of linguistic competence to a speakers tacit knowledge of grammatical rules. Metaphor threatens both the validity of this distinction and the utility of maintaining it, because the ability to interpret even the simplest forms of metaphorical speech cannot be accounted for with grammatical rules alone, presuppositions are also fundamentally involved."

posted by jardinier at 8:04 AM on July 30, 2010

A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, by Carl Buck, is very good for this sort of thing (but only, obviously, for IE languages).
posted by languagehat at 8:23 AM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are you looking for correlations (between words) across languages that are related (shared etymological roots), or correlations across languages that aren't related (conceptual universals)? I'm guessing the former, and you'd probably want to start looking into semantic fields, or semantic collocates (what words are most associated with other words, semantically). It's really hard to get into this without getting pretty deep into linguistics, but the most researched language family is going to be Indo-European, and the etymology dictionary and LH's link will be a good start.

If you want to get into the more universal relations, you'll want to look into conceptual metaphor, starting with Lakoff and Johnson (jardinier's comment above delves into this a bit).
posted by iamkimiam at 3:21 PM on July 30, 2010

« Older Help me write a script to group files in windows.   |   So gross, and yet I wish to share. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.