Language and Life
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
Humans are notoriously creative. Sometimes it seems people change things just for the sake of change. Change is constantly occurring in language. Some of these changes are responses to changes in the life of the people. Sometimes speakers may consciously change some word usage or use a word with a new meaning to reflect a concern or sensitivity in the society, and in turn this may initiate or facilitate changes in life.
Word usage is highly creative. This is why languages continue to diverge until speakers in one community can no longer understand speakers in the next most closely related community. This is one way new languages develop.
The range of meanings, uses and connotations of a word can be thought of as a word map. Some refer to this as the domain of the word.
Native speakers of each language develop an mental map of the range of use of the words in their language. This is normally subconscious, but in schools speakers are made more aware of the words they use and how they relate. Development of the mental word map begins in the earliest days of an infant’s life, as active and avid ears tune in to the universe of sound around them.
Developing the Mental Map
The neural structure of the brain automatically begins to identify or create order out of the multitude of uncoordinated sounds. Later experiences can enable us to become more consciously aware of what we already understand about our language and our own words.
We learn to creatively manipulate the vocabulary and syntax to colorful or precisely express our thoughts or intentions. American schools encourage (or at least they used to) the creative use of words in new ways and even in the invention of new words in colorful and powerful self-expression.
Each vocabulary item in any language has a certain range of uses. A word may apply perhaps to a literal physical entity or event, or is used figuratively in various ways. This range of uses and meanings make up what I am calling the word map.
Is all this theory getting a bit heavy? OK, stay with me just a little bit longer!
Words and Worldview
The word map of any language is tied to the worldview out of which that language arises. The language and the usage map of vocabulary is integrally related to the shared concepts of reality of the community who speak that language and share that common culture. There is a set of shared significant experiences behind the words used and the shared understanding of the reality they refer to. (See Worldview and Experience.)
An adult learner of a foreign language can benefit from exercises which simulate these processes of filtering and organizing in the natural process of learning a mother tongue. A learner can focus on activities of observations and listening.
Listening and analysis activities I envision here are different from those activities focused on verbal mastery, which interacts by mimicry, repetition and generation of sentences. These involve different skills, and can be worked on in different focus exercises. (See Techniques for suggestions on different aspects of language and culture learning.)
Discovering the Word Map
A learner should intend to keep notes and inductively develop a word map of the language used around them. An adult learner will have an advantage of a sort, in that you can draw upon formal as well as informal and oral sources.
You have radio, TV, newspapers, not available to the infant! You can negotiate with individuals for modeling, limiting your learning environment for better focus on particular vocabulary for certain topics or situations.
Finally, let’s get to some real-world examples!
Marking the Score
Vocabulary usage may lead to the use of the same word with different connotations.
For example: take two English words, score and mark. These are closely related and share some usages. But some extended usages of these two words diverge or have different connotations with different communities of English speakers. To some degree this is just a matter of choice and preferences in prevailing usages across a range of options.
We may use score with the following meanings: grade (points, marks), value (grade A, grade 5, points earned, or information (“What's the score?”). (And don’t forget the extended meaning, to win something: "He scored a goal," and all its creative social extensions!)
Then to complicate matters, English speakers use the term score for a mark that is scratched into a surface! “I can’t refill that laser printer cartridge, because the drum has been scored” (= has scratches in it that produce lines on the printout)!” Or similarly “The desk was badly scored” (= there is a bad scratch or long cut in the surface of the desk).
Mark overlaps some with these usages: points on a paper or exam (“good marks or good grades”), target (“You missed the mark that time”, “Who's the mark this time?”). It diverges in a different direction: guide (“on your mark”), signal (“on my mark...”).
Additionally different but somewhat related: record (I’ll mark it off” “...mark it down”). But this word has been extended in different ways: “Mark my words” (= Take note, watch for the fulfillment).
Stretching the Map
See? Didn’t I say humans are creative in their word use? Just how far can you stretch, modify and reapply the same word, with the same meaning into a new form of the old meaning until it is no longer connected? Who knows, we keep seeing it all the time!
How many new ways can you use the same words? Can’t say. Every week I see new uses of the same familiar English words! A recent count (estimate?) I read somewhere in 2006 said the English language now catalogues about 900,000 words. Well, you ask, “don’t we have enough words by now?”
Ah, but that is the wrong question! That is what we are talking about. It is not about how many words you have but about how you can creatively express yourself! For humans in their language use, it is not about having SOME word for what you want to say.
It is about self-expression, about fun, about nuance, about emotion, about social connotation, about novelty. People are jsut creative! Words are emotive tools, as well as logical tools. In fact “meanings” are more emotional and social (connotative)than logical and practical (denotative).
Ah, language! Ah, life!
Verbs are fun, and also difficult to explain, particularly to a learner. Verbs refer to activities, feelings and relationships. These are highly cultural in context and format, so the same word may carry different connotations for different speakers in the same language family. This often leads to the use of the same verb for different meanings, or different verbs for the same event. Also you may have the same word extended by logical analogy in different ways.
For instance, the verb “throw out.” You throw out the garbage (take out is more common now), and you throw out “the baby with the bath water.” But people don't throw out the water any more — it goes out down the drain. So if you have a grating you won't lose the baby! But in a discussion, you may “throw out” an idea. You are presenting it for consideration, not getting rid of it!
Look at event concepts in various languages. This is where you can really see the benefit of drawing a word map of your language or the broader stream of related languages. This is very productive in closely related langauges like in northern England and southern Scotland. Likewise for the Bantu languages of central Kenya.
Take the English word “play.” We play games and we play instruments. German, like its cousin, uses the same word for both these. Germans spiel both the piano and soccer. To the Germanic mind, these two events are conected in the same word set; they are the same type of event. They are in the same community of concepts in the Germainic word map.
The Germanic mind keeps these two events in one category.
But we find that the Romance family of languages maintains two separate categories for these two types of events, so a different verb is used for each. Spanish speakers use the verb tocar for musical instruments, but jugar for games.
This indicates that somewhere in prehistory, speakers of the early form of what is now the family of Indo-European languages diverged in their analysis of certain events, developing these two different cultural event maps, which leads to these two separate word maps.
But that is not the end of the story. What about the French? French developed from Latin like Spanish. But we find that French speakers use only one word: jouer. They jouer pianos and they jouer games. Why did they diverge from the Spanish?
From Franks to French
The Franks, the dominant ethnic people who gave their name to France and its Romance language, were not Latin in origin, but were Germanic. We know from history (I hope you learned and remember!) that the Franks gave up the germanic Frankish language, learned Latin and even came to think of themselves as the preservers and guardians of the Roman Empire's language and culture. (That is partly what the Holy Roman Empire was all about, though it later shifted to the Germanic-speaking peoels farther east.)
But they maintained many aspects of their Germanic cultural background and thought. Charlemagne, the Emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire,” was a Latin-speaking Frank. This affected the Franks' words and their usage maps.
They had many Germanic words in their verbal repertoire but came to use them differently and line them out alongside their borrowed Roman equivalents.
Play by Play
For instance, there’s playing and then there’s playing. The Germanic single concept prevailed, expressed in the word jouer. This is the same Latin word as the one Spanish uses for games only (jugar).
Spain has a strong German connection also. Spain was ruled by the Germanic Visigoths, but following the underlying Latin-Roman base of the culture, a distinction is made between the two types of events.
Playing the Game
How do others play these word games? How does an African language like Swahili map these two concepts. In Swahili the word cheza is used for games. “Games” or “sports” are michezo, the noun of the action in cheza.
So you cheza michezo, but you piga muziki (music). (They do however, say piga mpira, “kick the ball” or “play ball”) The word piga is a widely-used idiom, from the basic meaning “hit.”) It is used where we would use “do” or “make.”
Nowadays, you hear people revising the Swahili word map by using the word cheza with instruments, perhaps by analogy with the English usage. This seems to be occurring among non-native speakers of Swahili, who also speak English.
Investigate the Map
Investigate the vocabulary map, or “domain,” for nouns in your language, to learn the range of classification and sub-groupings of meanings of similar words, or word groups.
For example: shoes, sandals, boots — maybe these are all members of a category referred to by a word like footwear. Compare socks, slippers, galoshes, sock-slippers. Discover how your new host culture maps out the various concepts and words. Don't expect them to be like yours.
Keep in mind that usage and range of meaning relate to the technology of the culture, rapidity of change, visual similarity or conceptual analogy.
How Words Develop Multiple Meanings: How Word Meanings are Negotiated
How Words Grow
How Many Words?
Techniques: Using a Dictionary
Worldview and Experience.
Also view related PowerPoint Presentations:
What is Worldview
An original article on this topic was published in the “Language and Life” series in Afri-Com, a cross-cultural communication journal (Nairobi, Kenya) March 1998
This article, including content from the original, was written for Orville Jenkins Thoughts and Resources (OJTR) in 2007
Last edited 20 November 2011
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.