semantic derivations

29 May 2017

Is it possible to derive the meaning of a word from how it was originally used and how it developed through history?

In other words, if you examined the historical development of a root or an affix, then could you derive the current meaning of the word from its history?

There’s two problems with this proposal.

First, it would take you a very long time to follow the meaning of a single part of a word back in time. Consider that dictionaries have been around for about 4000 years (oldest surviving dictionary ~ 2300 BCE). If you included ancient logographic writing systems in your corpus, then you’d go even further back in time, and you’d be working with “big data”. You’d probably run out of time and die before you’d even derived the sense of a single word.

Second, there’s gaps in the historical record. It’s probably true that some of the essential parts of the records that you’d need to draw a convincing conclusion about the meaning of a word were destroyed a long time ago. But, there’s a chance the evidence wasn’t destroyed too, so, I suppose, you’d still have a chance.

Third, even if you did follow the history of a single word all the way back to its origin, there’d probably be a lot of people that said your explanation was bullshit. It may depend on how much convincing you need, but even if you didn’t need much convincing, you’d probably feel a sinking suspicion that they were right - your explanation was merely circumstantial.

Ok, we’ve acknowledged some obstacles to the project of deriving the sense of words from a historical record. Importantly, if time is the only issue, then there might be some words that are open to investigation, and because internet records evade temporality, it might become easier and easier for future generations to engage with the project. Although, I’d acknowledge that future generations are limited with respect to the pre-internet era just as we are.