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19 April 2008

Humpty Dumpty Semantics

Some top chat about packaging earlier today reminded me of one of my own linguistic quirks of my youth. Until only a few years ago, I was convinced that exocets were the thin, tough, slightly rigid, ribbons of plastic that are used to secure parcels (I can't even find a picture on Google because I always had a word to denote them so why bother with a paraphrase?). Obviously, my parents indulged me way too much when I was a child because it was shockingly recently that I discovered that the rest of the world thought it was slightly weird for me to shriek, "Exocets!" on spotting a parcel.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less." To some extent, we are all like Humpty, though, and not just when it comes to somehow acquiring a peculiar sense of a word (which is, after all, how semantic change happens - when Malcom Gladwell's Innovators start quirkily referring to parcel packaging stuff as Exocets, it will soon catch on). Concepts have such fuzzy boundaries and overlap so much and tend to be context-dependent even within a particular speaker's idiolect so it's almost a miracle we can communicate given how different words mean such different things to different people. I suppose we can derive some satisfaction through our own ignorance of the fact that the other people might mean something quite different when they say something than we ourselves would have meant had we uttered the same phrase.

Once you start looking at different cultures, it gets even more interesting. I always liked Berlin and Kay's study on colour terms across various languages, in which they found that although languages differ in the number of terms they have for colours (scarlet, burgundy, alizarin, magenta, crimson, etc. vs rosso "red" in Italian), people's perceptions of what the "focal" (prototypical) colour within any group tended to be the same cross-linguistically, so everyone would pick a fire engine red as the "focal" red colour, even if some languages had many other words for red, some had only one ("red") and others still didn't even have a word for the colour. This wanders off into the tricky territory of linguistic relativity, and the relationship between language and thought - whether and how the language we speak affects how we perceive the world or vice-versa. The same applies with other concepts too though - the concept itself is universal but the words used to depict it are applied in diverse ways and not just cross-linguistically but from person to person.

Colour is such a tricksy thing anyway. It frustrates me that I can wear a bracelet that I can see is yellow - it's a beautiful, bright, lemon yellow - and yet someone else will tell me that no, it couldn't be any more green. How can he even say that? It's quite clearly as yellow as can be. I find it odd that someone can perceive something as simple as the colour of a bracelet in such a different way to me. And yet, ultimately, yellow and green are both just interchangeable, fuzzy, poorly-defined colours on a colour chart; it's not as though it really matters that someone should call something "green" when everything about that green screams that it isn't green they are seeing after all but really the similar - yet distinct - yellow...

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