our words make worlds

Loaded Meanings Research

Lexical meaning, reflecting speakers’ engagement with the real world in terms of both denotation and connotation, lies at the heart of ‘worldmaking’. Historical linguistics is central to our project, helping us to understand how words—through their changing association with their linguistic, social and cultural contexts—assume ‘loaded’ meanings that reflect and shape people’s attitudes and worldviews. This strand thus brings a complementary discipline to bear onto the cultural semantics and key words examined in the Travelling Concepts strand, shedding more light on the relationship between language, thought and culture. The focus here is on learned borrowings in Ibero-Romance (i.e. words borrowed directly or indirectly from Latin or Greek), many of which have percolated down into everyday usage. In the present day, language planners often turn to learned sources to avoid perceived ‘contamination’ from English (e.g. patrocinio, a sixteenth-century learned borrowing, has been adopted as an antidote to espónsoring‘sponsorship’) or ‘taboo’ concepts (e.g. invidente for ciego ‘blind’). This research considers (1) how learned borrowings become socially and linguistically embedded; (2) how words evolve according to particular linguistic, social and cultural factors; and (3) how present-day language planners exploit learned sources to create neologisms and to resurrect learned words from obsolescence.

The history of learned vocabulary represents perhaps the single most important cultural contact observable in Western European languages. However, it has been a poor relation in historical linguistics, reflecting the perception that borrowings introduced by elite cultural agents are a diversion from the language’s ‘natural’ development. A reevaluation is extremely timely. The impact of learned influence on western Romance languages has been severely underestimated (Pountain 2011). It is responsible not only for a certain convergence among them but also for some commonality of lexis between western Romance languages and those of other families, especially English. We are increasingly aware of what Kloss (1967) called the Ausbau (‘elaborated’)status of modern standardised languages. The association of learned vocabulary with different textual traditions also resonates with research currently undertaken in Germany (e.g. Kabatek 2005 and Oesterreicher 2005), which demonstrates the need for a variation-based approach to language change. In practical terms, whilst the research for this project is facilitated by new Spanish databases (CORDE, NDHE and CDE), it will in turn help redefine Modern Languages education, by providing information and resources for schools on lexical meaning and change, by encouraging critical reflection on linguistic standardization (characteristic of every language learned and taught in an academic context), and by developing such basic skills as bilingual dictionary use, which depend on appreciating contextual and connotational meaning, supplied only very partially by such dictionaries.