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Archive for May, 2014

Ideology and Semantic Change (sex and gender)

The meanings of words are generally stable over time, but when a shift does occur it can often be attributed to a change of ideology in the culture. This is the case for the fading of the word sex as the traditional designation of the biological category and its replacement by the word gender, which was once restricted to the field of grammar.

The Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED) gives the following definition as the primary one for the word sex: “Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions; (hence) the members of these categories viewed as a group; the males or females of a particular species, esp. the human race, considered collectively.” A secondary definition reads as follows: “Quality in respect of being male or female, or an instance of this; the state or fact of belonging to a particular sex; possession or membership of a sex.” With regard to persons or animals, the entry supplies the following commentary: “Since the 1960s increasingly replaced by gender . . . when the referent is human, perhaps originally as a euphemism to distinguish this sense from . . . Physical contact between individuals involving sexual stimulation; sexual activity or behaviour, spec. sexual intercourse, copulation. to have sex (with): to engage in sexual intercourse (with). Now the most common general sense. Sometimes, when denoting sexual activity other than conventional heterosexual intercourse, preceded by modifying adjective, as gay, oral, phone sex, etc. . . . The word sex tends now to refer to biological differences, while gender often refers to cultural or social ones.”

It is both interesting and ideologically relevant to note that many foreign languages (and not just the European ones) have borrowed the English word sex in the meaning “denoting sexual activity,” e. g., Russian секс (seks) and Japanese sekusu (セクス).

With respect to the native English cultural development, there is no gainsaying that the linguistic substitution of gender for sex serves to individuate the latter word in its social sense as part of the pervasive sexualization (including that of children in the United States at least) so characteristic of modern culture all over the globe. Insofar as a devaluation of the dignity of the individual human being can be descried in this phenomenon, English as the language that first offered up its linguistic expression can only be reckoned to bear full responsibility.


Sound as an Icon of Sense (meld)

That words mean largely by convention is a well-established truism of language analysis, attenuated only by the knowledge that there are such phenomena as onomatopoeia, among a range of sound-sense symbolisms/parallelisms. A more indirect manifestation of the latter is contained in the final consonant d of the newish verb meld in the meaning ‘merge, blend; to combine or incorporate’, whose first attestation (according to various dictionaries) is dated to 1936. The original meaning was quite other, viz. ‘announce’, as in cards; also ‘make known (by speech), reveal, declare’, the etymology being Germanic (as e. g. in Old Frisian and Old English). The origin of the new verb is explained as a blend between melt and weld.

What is interesting in this process is the appearance of the sound d, evidently borrowed from weld. Why would this phonemically lax (erroneously characterized as “voiced,” which it is phonetically) stop lend itself to the new meaning of the verb, which can be generalized as ‘merging’, ‘fusing’, etc? The answer resides in the semiotic characterization of laxness in stops in languages, like English, which have distinctive protensity in their obstruent system (unlike languages like Russian, for instance, where voicing is distinctive rather than protensity). Thus d (the lax member of the opposition) is to t (the tense member) as unmarked to marked. Markedness, nota bene, is defined as the restriction of conceptual scope; hence the marked member is always relatively more restricted conceptually than its unmarked counterpart. That is exactly what we have in the new meaning of the verb meld, viz. unrestrictedness, here concretized to mean indistinctness, i. e., ‘merging’ or ‘fusing’. That is the raison d’être for the sound d in meld, of which it is the icon of the verb’s sense.


The Tyranny of Usage––Literally (Ahem!)

Speech in every language is replete with locutions that are, sensu stricto, ungrammatical or illogical but are tolerated under the colors of current usage (L usus loquendi). Into this category falls the adverb literally, used promiscuously as an emphatic in English (similarly abused by its equivalents in most other European languages). A more recent and widespread case sanctioned by usage is the emphatic absolutely.

Usage can countermand grammar to the point of becoming normative. For instance, no ordinary speaker of English would countenance “It is I” as the non-jocular answer to the question “Who is it?” Even the grammatically correct “Whom did you see?” is rarely to be heard instead of the (originally colloquial) construction “Who did you see?”

The membrane separating usage and catachresis appears to be increasingly permeable in English. All the same, certain cases can only be considered ungrammatical, no matter how common. The frequently heard construction “between you and I” (in British as well as American English) falls into this category and is to be censured accordingly.


Language as a Template for the Conceptualization of Reality

Since language is the vehicle of thought, it is reasonable to assume that language also (indirectly) influences perception and conceptualization. This assumption has been a staple of linguistics at least since the work of the pioneering linguists/anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, entered the mainstream under what came to be called “the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.” More recently, it has come under the compass of what is termed “the principle of linguistic relativity,” which holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world or otherwise influences their cognitive processes.

Those who attempt to debunk this principle misunderstand its thrust, which is provably valid and leads to irrefragable conclusions. Take the simple case of the way English and Russian speakers designate someone whose hearing is impaired. In English one calls such a person ‘hard of hearing’. In Russian the equivalent is tugoúxij (тугоухий), a compound adjective consisting of two roots––tug– ‘tight’ and ux– ‘ear’ (-o– is a connecting vowel). Leaving aside the second of the two lexical components, viz. English hearing and Russian úxo (ухо) ‘ear’, the difference between the conceptualization of a hearing-impaired person in the two languages comes down to the one between E ‘hard’ and R ‘tight’. An English speaker learns to conceive of the impairment in terms of the contrast HARD :: EASY, whereas a Russian speaker comes to regard the same condition in terms of the contrast TIGHT :: LOOSE. This subtle difference between the two languages betrays not only a different disposition of qualities but a different way of perceiving/conceiving reality. QED.


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