Tuesday, January 22, 2008

History and the changing meaning of words

I am starting this post with a statement that will seem self-evident. The meaning of words change with time. Now we all know this, that's why it seems self evident. However, the reality is a little different.

Each word is made up of two things.

The first is the formal meaning attached to the word. In modern times this appears in dictionaries.

The second is the emotional content attached to the word. This varies across time and space and between groups. We have to infer this from context.

A simple way of summarising this is to say that each word is a symbol to which is attached a bundle of attributes. As these attributes change, so does the meaning of the words. To pierce the veil of the past, we have to break through present symbols and associated attributes to past symbols and attributes. This can be very hard.

To illustrate this point, let me take three words - assimilation, time and distance.

Today in Australia, assimilation has taken on a very specific and negative meaning. When we apply these meanings to the use of the word in the past, we assume that those using the word actually mean the same thing that we think of we when we use the word. And that need not be true. This is in fact one element of my continuing dialogue with Neil Whitfield.

Time. We live in a time driven world marked by the clock and by agreed definitions of time. This affects our view of the world in all sorts of ways. Yet the past was very different.

Modern concepts of time depend upon agreed time structures set on a global basis. They also depend on the universal availability of clocks. In Australia of the past, there were neither agreed time structures (time varied between districts even within what we think of as common time zones), nor were their cheap and reliable time pieces. This affected every aspect of life.

Distance. The definition of a mile, for example, has been constant for some time. Yet the connotation, the emotional content, has shifted.

Consider this. Our modern view of the world has both shrunk and expanded. Shrunk, because we now move so fast from place to place, largely ignoring what lies between a and b. Expanded, because we now have seen so much more of this county as well as the broader globe.

A mile is not just a mile. It is also a distance that has to be travelled.

Too past Australians moving on foot or by horseback, the world was a vast place. To us, it is much diminished. Again, this has all sorts of effects on perception that can be unclear to us today.


I wondered if my selection of the word "assimilation" as an example might draw Neil, and it has! You will find his post here.

Neil noted that his post should not be seen as a critique of mine, and indeed it was not. We are just bouncing off each other as we so often do.

However, Neil's post does contain some interesting material that I can use to extend my point about the difficulties created by the changing meaning of words. I will have to do so tonight, because it is now the start of what will be a busy working day.

No comments: