12 December 2007

Chaque Mot A Son Histoire

It was probably inevitable that the kid who used to read the dictionary would want to be an etymologist when she grew up. Deprived, at university, of the areas of linguistics that really interested me, I made do with semantic change - how the meaning of words changes over time. The key word there is how because no one has come up with a completely convincing explanation of why meaning changes over time (or why language changes over time), least of all why a meaning changed in a particular way within a particular speech community at a particular time.

In my second year course on the history of the French language, I remember struggling with an essay entitled something like, "There are no halfway decent theories explaining semantic change; instead, 'chaque mot a son histoire.' Discuss." My problem was that once I got started on the project of researching the history of assorted words (thanks, in part to the wonderful Trésor de la langue française), I found it hard to stop. I think this is true of people in general: tell someone all about the joys of X-bar theory and you will, most likely, be met with blank stares, whereas a neat little anecdote of a "just-so story" of etymology can be far more interesting in an ORLY kinda way. For example:

One of the biggest pains for English folks learning French or Italian is the discovery that in the Romance languages, you don't miss other people; instead, they are lacking to you. "I miss you" thus becomes tu me manques in French and mi manchi in Italian (pronounced [mee mankee] - delightful). Mancare in Italian ("to be lacking") comes from the adjective manco ("lacking"; also "left-handed") itself evolved from the Vulgar Latin mancus "maimed, infirm." Your absence maims me? Nice... Mancus itself is probably from manus, the Latin for "hand." I have a wounded hand for you?

English didn't really do much better, I suppose: "to miss" developed from the Old English missan "to fail to hit." This concrete meaning was metaphorically extended (as is common) to incorporate the abstract sense "to fail to get what one wanted" and then the abstract sense "to perceive with regret the absence or loss of (something or someone)" by the 15th century. "I missed you," of course, takes on a whole other meaning when uttered by a thwarted assassin whose gunshot went astray. A language is perfectly "happy" for a verb to connote both an abstract and a concrete meaning in tandem (polysemy is one of the mechanisms by which meaning can change) and context usually rules here.

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