Expressive words?
March 10, 2012 12:40 PM   Subscribe

Linguistic question: is there such a thing as "expressive" words?

It's best to explain this question using examples. I know two languages, english and russian. I will use two pairs of antonyms as an illustration: hungry/satiated and the russian counterparts golodniy/sitiy. The first word, 'hungry' is what I'd consider a "type A" word, for a lack of better term, it's very commonly used, unambiguous in its primary meaning and is widely used in sayings, common expressions, advertising, songs, and so on. Example: hungry like a wolf.

The second word, satiated, is a "type B" word, it's not used very often, if at all, in sayings, advertising, songs, etc.

The russian word for "hungry" is also a type A: e.g. used in a saying "the hunger is not your aunt, won't give you a bagel to eat". Unlike english, the word for 'satiated' is also a type A: "Satiated man will never understand the hungry man".

And my question is: is there are linguistic term for what I called type A/B, are there comparative studies of the languages focusing on which words are type A/B in respective language and why; what is the affect on the language and thinking; are there any websites, articles, books that discuss and develop this theme?

Thanks!
posted by rainy to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think choosing "satiated" as the antonym for "hungry" kind of sets up a false distinction.

That are lots of more common antonyms for "hungry" that are also "Type A" words as you put it. "Full" is the most obvious one I can think of.

"Full" of course, can be employed in lots of ways, and may not meet your "unambiguous" criteria. But "hungry" can also be expressive and ambiguous.

For example, I don't think Duran Duran meant that wolf was literally looking for a meal.
posted by pantarei70 at 12:51 PM on March 10, 2012


Perhaps the difference is between the simpler words of Anglo-Saxon/Old English Origin (A), and the more complex words of Latinate origin (B)?
posted by KateViolet at 12:55 PM on March 10, 2012


That's exactly my point, though: is any synonym of 'satiated' used in that sense in a song, or a common saying? If we take 'full', for instance, I don't think it would work because its main meaning is a filled container as in, 'full cup', while usage to mean 'satiated' is just one of many possible ones. As such, it can't be used in a concise way without providing context and even then it lacks the punch of what I call type A words.
posted by rainy at 1:02 PM on March 10, 2012


Kate: that's part of it although my feeling is it does not explain all of it. Even so, it just shifts the question to why certain words were kept from Old English and why others were borrowed from Latin, surely Old English had a word for 'satiated', and if so, why was it (and other type A words) were replaced by Latin type B words? And how does that affect language and cognition?
posted by rainy at 1:05 PM on March 10, 2012


It's an interesting question, but I don't think there's just one answer to this.

Word meanings are so variable across languages, regions, contexts, and times that it is hard to make a "Type A or B" distinction as cleanly across all languages as you kind of seem to be aiming for.

I'm not a linguist, but I would imagine there are studies of the expressiveness (or relatively specificity) of words in certain contexts that make the kinds of comparisons you are interested in. The use and history of words that describe bodily conditions (hungry/tired/in pain/etc.) might be a type of context to examine.
posted by pantarei70 at 1:16 PM on March 10, 2012


I think the simple words live on because they are useful, as you say, to give plain answers. The word "full" is an Old English word, and it would be the antonym of "hungry". English is an interesting language to study because it's such a mongrel - it pulls in words from all over the world, and if one word (eg satiated) has some extra meaning that plain "full" doesn't, but "full" is still useful, then both continue to be used, but in different contexts.

Old English words could be seen as conversational language- simple and straightforward. Latinate words are more literary and useful for expressing complex ideas. I think it's really interesting to consider how language shapes our thoughts- is it possible to think of things that don't exist in your mind as words, etc. Perhaps what you are looking for are books on linguistic relativity.
posted by KateViolet at 1:16 PM on March 10, 2012


Kate: that's part of it although my feeling is it does not explain all of it. Even so, it just shifts the question to why certain words were kept from Old English and why others were borrowed from Latin, surely Old English had a word for 'satiated', and if so, why was it (and other type A words) were replaced by Latin type B words? And how does that affect language and cognition?

There's really no reason behind why some words were kept from Old English and others were lost. The vocabulary we have today is an accident of social processes acting over hundreds of years. For example, an Old English word for "satiate" was "sadian" and still exists as "sate", but obviously influenced by the Latin word. The word was kept, but effectively remodelled to look a little more Latin, why was that? The history of the English language is complex, that's why.

However, I would agree that in English there is a split between the perceived "expressiveness" of words of certain origins. It's not an inherent characteristic of those words, but rather a characteristic of the speakers.
posted by Jehan at 1:22 PM on March 10, 2012


Jehan: I should clarify that I didn't mean to say there should be a clear and definitive answer, but rather, is there a set of terms that linguistics as a science developed to approach this question and find interesting patterns, or is it treated as just a part of background, random historical/language noise?
posted by rainy at 1:37 PM on March 10, 2012


I think you need to look at language acquisition and how vocabulary is learnt by infants. It may well have terminology for words which are "core" and "peripheral" to a vocabulary.
posted by Jehan at 1:44 PM on March 10, 2012


is any synonym of 'satiated' used in that sense in a song, or a common saying? If we take 'full', for instance, I don't think it would work because its main meaning is a filled container as in, 'full cup', while usage to mean 'satiated' is just one of many possible ones.

I'm not sure if this is what you're asking, but "full" is used in songs, to express having something, exactly how "hungry" is used to express wanting or lacking something. There must be a ton of songs with phrases like "full of love" or "full heart" (I had A Heart Full of Love stuck in my head reading this question.) I suspect, not from a linguistic perspective but from a writing one, "satiated" would be used exactly the same way if it was shorter/easier to rhyme.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:50 PM on March 10, 2012


surely Old English had a word for 'satiated', and if so, why was it (and other type A words) were replaced by Latin type B words?

Well, the obvious reason was a) the occupation of Britain by the Roman Empire, although this contributed few words to modern English directly, and b) the subsequence invasion of Anglo-Saxon (post-Roman) Britain by the Normans, who spoke a form of Old French influenced itself by Viking vocabulary. They supplanted the nobility and legal system, but interacted only incidentally with the population. The famous result was that the ordinary people of Britain continued to use OE words like cow, pig, and sheep, while the upper class used words for the processed meat that reflected their culture: beef, pork, and mutton. Then you had c) as ecclesiastical Latin was used to 1) supplant former Frenchified spelling and pronunciation and 2) as the burgeoning world of science coined words for its own use.

As such, a word like "satiated" with its formal and scientific connotations is part of English, but much less commonly used than "full" or, for that matter, "hungry". These are fairly well-known cultural trends that have influenced the development of English vocabulary.

Your whole "Type A/B" approach is rather like folk etymology and not something that would be seriously evaluated by linguists. The process of vocabulary change is one that is constant and connected to many different influences from technology to culture to geography, and is a fertile ground if you wish to learn more. In its own way, so is the phonetic study you allude to, where the very sound of a word is studied.

The question of vocabulary influencing thinking, of course, is a "core" question of linguistics, psychology, and the science of the mind, with no easy answers. Key, but controversial, contributions were made last century by Noam Chomsky.

The vocabulary we have today is an accident of social processes acting over hundreds of years.

It's hardly deterministic, but I wouldn't dare call it accidental.
posted by dhartung at 2:56 PM on March 10, 2012


Your type A words are "core vocabulary" or "basic vocabulary". I've seen "fringe vocabulary" used for you type B word, but I'm not sure if it's a commonly used term.

A thing to look up is lexical semantics. (The Wikipedia article is stub, but has some links to articles about it.)

Hopefully, a linguist will stop by a give you a better answer.
posted by nangar at 4:12 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


This sounds like markedness to me - the idea that words come in pairs, and that one of them is 'unmarked' i.e. the normal term, and the second is 'marked' i.e. somehow distinguished and more "special."
posted by dd42 at 5:33 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hi, I'm a linguist. I am not a semanticist, however.

I think the reason linguistics (as far as I know) doesn't have exact terms for your "class A" and "class B" words is that you are setting it up as a binary dichotomy, where it's actually a continuum.

I think what you are talking about is frequently-used versus rarer words. Some words might be rare enough that as you say they are never used in songs, adverts, etc, but what do you do then with a word that is almost in that category, but that someone once used in a song? One that got used it two songs and an advert?

Frequency is very important in many branches of linguistics: acquisition (how rare does a word or construction have to be before a child just does not acquire it?); historical linguistics (how does frequency of occurrence affect linguistic change, including but not limited to loss of a word entirely?); dialectology (some words might be frequent in one dialect and rare in another); semantics and pragmatics, obviously; and probably a bunch of other areas that aren't occurring to me.

The people in linguistics who work with frequencies most (it is totally core to what they do) is corpus linguists. And it's from doing some corpus linguistics myself that I am totally convinced that you would not be able to divide words easily into A/B as you suggest doing. Incidentally, our perceptions of how frequently words are used, and what restrictions apply to them, are often vastly different from the reality when you run a statistical analysis on a corpus.
posted by lollusc at 6:30 PM on March 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


One more thought, if you are interested in how frequency of words with the same meaning can differ from language to language and how (or if) that affects the way speakers think, the person you need to read work by is Anna Wierzbicka. She works on pretty much exactly that, and she aims to make her work accessible to the general public. Her theory (Natural Semantic Metalanguage) causes a bit of a divide in linguistics: some linguists think it's total rubbish (but I think they also tend to dismiss it without finding out what exactly it is about); and it's not extremely well known outside Australia. But putting aside the theoretical constructs she builds up (explications and semantic primes), she looks at exactly the questions you seem to be asking.

Try "Understanding Cultures Through Their Key Words" (1997) for a start. There's even a Russian translation (by Anna herself, I think.)
posted by lollusc at 6:37 PM on March 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


You can also try looking up the sociolinguistic concept of register - the idea that some words are used in formal contexts, and others in informal contexts, event though they refer the same thing. One example that Wikipedia gives is father vs. dad, where father is considered more formal. A parallel to your case might be famished vs. hungry, and satiated vs. full. Songs and sayings are much more likely to use the informal word, in order to sound like everyday speech.
posted by danceswithlight at 12:39 PM on March 11, 2012


Thanks for all the answers so far. I've thought about it a bit more and I think what I call 'type A' may be a combination of a word being easy to pronounce, having a single primary meaning, and potentially having a connection to strong emotional themes like survival, love, death, etc. I would love to find some comparative studies of different languages along this dimension, but it seems like that it'd be hard to do because the researcher would have to make judgement calls on word properties that aren't easy to quantify.
posted by rainy at 1:30 PM on March 12, 2012


(I forgot to add that I agree it's a sliding scale, I simplified it for the sake of the question, but, assuming scale of 1 to 10, my "type A" would be 9-10, "type B" would be 1-2, and other words somewhere in between.)
posted by rainy at 1:34 PM on March 12, 2012


Yeah, Wierzbicka's work will give you the comparison of strong emotional themes since that is one of her main interests. Her idea of "cultural key words" are to some extent also "easy to pronounce" words, since that usually means words that have been native to the language for a long time, and therefore have no phonemes, phonotactics, stress or syllable structure that are at all foreign or "learned". Wierzbicka is also very interested in words having a single primary meaning, especially if that translates well from language to language, since these are good candidates for her concept of "semantic primitives". Anyway, I think you'll find reading her work very interesting and relevant to your questions.
posted by lollusc at 3:16 AM on March 13, 2012


Thanks, the book you linked to is in fact much closer to what I was looking for than I thought at first.
posted by rainy at 2:48 PM on March 13, 2012


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