The Mystery of Words/Part 2/Chapter 2

The Mystery of Words  (1924)  by Ralcy Husted Bell
Part II, Chapter II


Positional Relationships, etc.

One of the most obvious characteristics of language is the changing signification of words. No tongue ever has long constrained its parts to their original meanings; nor is it desirable that any speech thus should bind its words. The nature of a living language is contrary to any such fixed state.

Language, if it is to reflect the mentality of the masses using it, must be capable of accommodation, of adaptability, and of flexibility in the meanings of its parts. Take, for instance, the two classes of words called abstract and concrete. Their meanings shift from one to the other; or a word may signify at the same time both the abstract character and the material action or quality of the object for which it stands. This phenomenon is not of recent appearance. It goes far back into the history of language. All tongues, ancient and modern, abound in examples. This transformation of meaning conforms to a law of mentality working en masse. It has perplexed the etymologist perhaps more than any other specialist.

The richness of a tongue is owing largely to the facility with which words take on new meanings whilst retaining vestiges of the old. Values are multiplied whenever a word may be used in several senses on as many different occasions. One purpose makes it desirable to employ a word in its broad and general use, while it accords with another aim to restrict its meaning. Metaphorically, a word may mean one thing, and strictly, quite another. Logically, a word may be both concrete and abstract. Thus, language is enabled to meet the changing requirements of society made necessary by the diversity of intellectual pursuits.

All the institutions of society, all the fields of research, every occupation, art, and trade—every one of them contributes an element of diversity of meaning to the words at its command. Not only that, but, as we have seen, a protean spirit is manifest wherever circumstances demand change. Add to this fact that which permits the will, through the faculty of speech, to create new words in response to fresh needs, a phenomenon is met which would be hopelessly involved were it not for the laws of harmony relating the whole to its different factors. For, as meanings shift, expand, contract, and otherwise change, the very elements that produce the changes also condition our consciousness in relation to the altered significations of the words affected. If it were otherwise, there would be confusion; and the diverse elements or collateral meanings would thwart their own ends. Indeed, every change of meaning represents a separate value, and every value is equivalent to another word.

Naturally, meanings which may be modified also may be lost. We know this is the fate of multitudes of original meanings. Very often, only the collateral signification of a word persists. This is seen in all tongues. The causes of these diversions of meanings frequently are obscure and difficult to define. Sometimes they can be traced to perversions which, having broken the rules of one epoch, are accepted in another as grammatical exceptions. Usually the changes wrought in the significations of words are of slow process. They pass through intermediate stages, and they end often in direct opposites by some law of contraries.

There is a factor of division as well as of multiplication affecting word-meanings. Thus significations are reduced rather than restricted. That is to say, one part of a word is made to do the service of the whole. Or, instead of calling the factor one of division, it may be termed one of absorption. This is shown when, two words combined under one meaning, one is lost or rendered useless through the absorption of the meaning of the other. In this or similar manner, adjectives sap nouns, verbs absorb complements, and phrases are boiled down to single terms. Phrase-clipping without abridgment of meaning, is a common phenomenon of language. The method of shortening which makes a simple part serve the purpose of a prolix whole tends toward the increased power of a tongue. Certain things are assumed to be understood; the processes of expression are simplified without embarrassment to those of the understanding. Then in the course of time, as it often happens, the process of abridgment alters the entire meaning for better or worse.

It long has been noted that words intimately associated acquire a similar cast, so that one part of the group awakens virtually the same conceptual images that ordinarily respond to the group-stimulus. Also words become modified in meaning by habitual association in phrases. When they are used for a long time in a specific phrase-sense, they lose all individual meaning by taking on only the signification acquired through association of idea. In time these words, even when appearing outside their habitual places, carry the associated meaning. This is well-shown in many negative and interrogative phrases. All this is evident in the various tongues when carefully studied. The inference is that this method of association follows a psychologic law.

The same principle holds good in all compound words which, by virtue of their unity of meaning, become in function merely single signs of speech. They are so interdependent that they necessarily coalesce in meaning. This psychic rule makes for simplicity of image and clearness of presentation; if it were otherwise, there would be mental confusion instead of clarity, crowded instead of consecutive thought. Regardless of the number and complexity of factors which stimulate the mind, conception requires consecutive simplicity of idea.

Again, in amalgamated groups the parts produce no separate impression on the mind. The blend formed by association of one with another is so old that it is conceived as an amalgam. It is only when these groups are compared with similar groups of another tongue that one realizes their composite nature. Thus the amalgamated group has a solidarity of meaning; but its meaning, like that of a single word, may be modified according to the same principle that permits modification of the other.

Further, word-meanings are influenced by their positional relationships. Disregarding the loss of inflections and other grammatical shrinkages, the order of construction that fixes the positional relations of words in a sentence has, during more recent times of linguistic history, established values that can not be ignored in the study of meanings.

The science of significations enables us to retain the spiritual unity of a tongue despite the confusion wrought by phonetic and morphologic changes. Age-old traditions of language which have acquired a subconscious status are not confused with the elements of speech that grow out of conscious imitation.