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Associative Meaning Fields: Interlingual Gaps and Overlaps

All languages have meaning fields, which is to say that words enter into associative networks formed by connotative variants that extend basic dictionary meanings into semantic nooks and crannies that accommodate subsidiary concepts. In the European languages that share Latin and Greek etyma as historical points of departure, post-medieval and modern developments do not necessarily dovetail, producing interesting differences in semantic utilization of recognizably similar or identical roots. An interesting case in point are the Latin and Greek antecedents of two common words, grammar and letter, in English and Russian.

In English the word grammar is given the following etymology in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed., 2006):

Middle English gramere, from Old French gramaire, alteration of Latin grammatica, from Greek grammatikē, from feminine of grammatikos, of letters, from gramma, grammat-, letter

In Russian the word is grammatika (грамматика), which adheres more closely to the Greek etymon. The latter, as it is captured in the above etymology, derives from the word for ‘letter’, which shows us how rules of language structure (alias grammar) and the symbols of written language were directly associated in Greek derivational morphology.

Our English word letter, by contrast, has the following Latin etymology (also from the AHD): “Middle English, from Old French lettre, from Latin littera.” The adjective literal and the substantive literature no longer maintain the double t of the original and have departed from the Latin sense to configure the modern meanings we have today that are still rooted in the concept of being “lettered.”

In Russian, the word litera, also from the same Latin patrimony, now has only a somewhat recondite meaning, viz. ‘letter’ (archaic) and ‘type’ (the typographical entity), although the word for ‘literature’ is practically the same as in English, namely literatura. Whereas English uses literal to mean ‘adhering strictly to the letter’, by contrast Russian resorts for this meaning to the adjective bukval’nyj, derived from the word bukva ‘letter’, which is of proto-Germanic provenience (whence E book; cf. G Buch ‘book’) and shows up as a borrowing from the same source and with the same meaning in all of the Slavic languages.

Russian deviates from Germanic and Romance, however, in how it treats the word borrowed from another version of Greek gramma, namely grammata (pl.) ‘letters’. This comes into Russian as a singular noun gramota (грамота), with the primary meaning ‘letters, the alphabet’, as in (учиться грамоте) ‘learn one’s letters’, i. e., ‘learn how to read and write’, whence the adjective gramotnyj ‘literate’.

It is at this point that English and Russian part company when it comes to associative meaning fields, and just here we can discern how words determine not just thought but one’s forma mentis, depending on the semantic peculiarities of one’s native language.

Where English uses the word competent to denote either the person or the product that shows a certain level of skill or accomplishment, the older and (practically) demotic word for this concept in Russian is gramotnyj (грамотный), although kompetentnyj also exists as a newer vocabulary item. There is thus a strong association in Russian between being ‘lettered’ and being ‘competent’ that is scanted in English, despite the extended meaning of literate. This gives rise in Russian to phrases like gramotnyj kompozitor ‘competent composer’ and gramotno napisano ‘competently composed’ [of music] which define a whole conceptual field that is denied to its English counterparts.

One would be hard put to find a more perspicuous proof of pragmatism (in the Peircean sense) than this differential mapping of associative fields in the two languages.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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