Thursday, January 24, 2008

Word Matters: Words Matter

In my earlier blog entries, I noted the debate over whether words had meanings, or were only references to things. It was noted that while "rose" and "gulaab" work equally well for speakers of English and Urdu, "Superman" was not interchangeable with "Clark Kent". This was because Superman and Clark Kent both referenced different aspects of the same entity instead of both referencing the same entity as a whole.

However, the actual words still didn't matter in that discussion. While Clark Kent was different than Superman, the actual word "Superman" didn't could have been "Clark Kent is different than Foo" (if everyone called the man of steel "Foo" instead of Superman).

After reading Salt: A World History[1], I've decided that words DO have their own meaning because of all the connotations, and rich web of connections with history, culture, and language, that go along with each. The book is chock full of nuggets like the following (paraphrased):

The first of the Roman roads, the Via Salaria (i.e. Salt Road), was built to bring salt not only to Rome but across Italy. It was important because at times the Roman soldiers were paid in salt which was the origin of the word salary and the expression "worth his salt" and "earning his salt". The latin word for salt (sal) became the French word for pay (solde) and that was the origin of the word soldier.

The book makes it obvious that the word Salt couldn't really be much different given its linguistic lineage. Words DO matter because each has a whole slew of connections to other things, and a past history, because each is part of a naturally evolved language. Words evolve from other words; they were not picked out of the air. There is a family tree of related words just like there is a family tree of organisms with related DNA.

Knowing the rich set of interconnections of words, their origins, history, etc makes a word like Salary carry many connotations that "foo" would not. A whole semantic network of related concepts lights up in my mind with the word Salary that would not have if the word for salt was foo.

[1] Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky, 2002

[Ed. Note - 12/11/12: as per my disclaimers, once I start looking for my epiphanies on the net, I find them. E.G. in this case, see "Lecture 26: Culture, Hermeneutics, and Structuralism". Congrats Bruce, you've just discovered what Gadamer said a century ago: language itself is a historical accumulation, each term carrying its past usages which are part of its meaning.]