3

Words and meanings

Contact with other languages, as we saw in chapter one, has greatly influenced the word-stock of English. New words are more easily added to a language than grammatical forms or structures, or sounds, and so the word-stock of a language, or its lexicon, can be considered to be more open-ended than its grammar or sound-system. Social and cultural changes are accordingly clearly reflected in changes in vocabulary: and this is one aspect of the history of English about which it is possible to make some simple, clear, and fairly safe observations. We know, for instance, that the vocabulary of English has vastly increased in size during the last 1500 years, as an accompaniment to the process of functional elaboration discussed in chapter two. In the present chapter we shall examine the process of word-borrowing, and some sociolinguistic issues raised by it, such as how it might reflect social needs; and this in turn will lead us to further issues, such as the ways in which our notion of the word as an isolable unit has been shaped by literacy and the dictionary. We shall need to look at the complexity involved in the study of meaning (and again, the way in which our perceptions are influenced by the dictionary), and consider how many traditional accounts of semantic change tend to underplay the importance of different groups of users in changing meanings, or in adding new meanings to particular words. We shall try to illustrate the role of these factors by considering in detail three recent examples of semantic change. Finally, we shall explore parts of our vocabulary which can be shown to have been socially sensitive, by discussing the notion of 'keywords', the vocabulary of power and status, terms of address, and words which refer to women.

From a social point of view, more interesting than the mere addition of new words to our vocabulary is the change in the character of our word-stock, from one which can be called Germanic to one that is also partly Romance. Exposure to Latin, and its offspring French, has been

-61-

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A Social History of English
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Figures vi
  • List of Tables vii
  • Author's Preface to the First Edition viii
  • Preface to the Second Edition ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Emergence and Consolidation 5
  • 1 - Languages in Contact 7
  • 2 - Standardisation and Writing 31
  • Part II - Changing Patterns of Usage 59
  • 3 - Words and Meanings 61
  • 4 - Grammar 86
  • 5 - Pronunciation 112
  • Part III - Imposition and Spread 147
  • 6 - The Imposition of English in the British Isles 149
  • 7 - English as an International Language 180
  • Part IV - Evidence, Interpretation and Theory 215
  • 8 - A Critical Linguistic History of English Texts 217
  • Theoretical Postscript 255
  • Exercises and Topics for Further Study 266
  • Appendix: International Phonetic Alphabet Consonant Symbols 270
  • Notes and Suggested Reading 272
  • Bibliography 278
  • General Index 291
  • Index of Words and Forms 299
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