our words make worlds

Schools and Teachers


Teachers and learners of modern languages cannot help thinking about the structure and history of the languages with which they are concerned, because, at the very least, they notice differences from their native language which pose interestingly difficult questions. Why do some languages distinguish case or genders (or both) while others don’t? Why does Spanish have two basic words for the notion of ‘being’ (ser and estar) while English, French and many other languages appear only to have one (Eng. be, Fr. être)? Why is it often so difficult to translate from one language to another?

The Loaded Meanings strand of the Language Acts and Worldmaking project broadly concerns how, through words, speakers come to label things, actions and concepts, and addresses a very old question as to how far speakers’ views of the world are dependent on the language they speak. The relation between a word and what it signifies is rarely constant: words come and go, or their meanings extend, contract, or simply change over time. Such changes can be very fast, and can be easily observed in the present day: follow this link to see an example.

Within this very general area, we are particularly interested in the many new words which were brought into the languages of western Europe as a result of what is traditionally called ‘learnèd borrowing’. In simple terms, these words were taken from Latin (Greek as well, but the Greek words were usually borrowed into Latin first) by educated people who needed them to express the quite complex concepts they encountered as they became acquainted with classical learning and attempted to express that learning, sometimes by direct translation, into the ‘modern’ languages that were spoken around them. This cultural contact, which lasted for many centuries and is still in some respects ongoing, was of tremendous importance to the development of these ‘modern’ languages. In the case of the Romance languages (the languages whose ancestor was Latin), it meant that some words derived directly from Latin (‘popular’ words), while others were borrowed from Latin over the course of time (‘learnèd’ words).

 Why are learnèd words (we’ll call them by their Spanish name, cultismos, from now on) so fascinating?

  • First, because many of them have become very common in the speech of today. People often think that language change is the result of ‘sloppiness’ or popular usage; but cultismos begin their life used by a tiny minority of speakers for rather refined, or élitist, purposes.  How did they percolate down into ordinary usage?
  • Secondly, because they often appear to represent new concepts. If that is the case, could speakers not envisage or talk about these concepts before? Have cultismos given us a new way of looking at the world? And if they don’t represent new concepts, why were they needed?
  • Thirdly, because they have given us models for creating new words ourselves. Such words may be technical words which are needed to label genuinely new concepts, such as technological inventions; or they may sound more impressive than previously existing words.


How can you get involved in our project?

You can think about where words come from, especially words which have appeared relatively recently: follow this link to see an example.

You can notice differences in usage of the ‘same’ word in English and other languages: follow this link to see an example.

You can look out for new words and new meanings of existing words, and let us know about them, especially the words which we will report on this website.