Conference: Syntax & Semantics in Dubrovnik

David Tuggy david_tuggy at SIL.ORG
Mon Apr 24 02:09:12 UTC 2000


     A phenomenon I find fascinating is relational predicates which do a
     diachronic flip-flop in meaning so that the subject becomes object and
     vice versa.

     Here are a few examples from English.

     (1) "In charge of" used to mean "in the charge of, under the
     responsibility of." (You find this usage in some 19th century English
     literature, like Jane Austen, anyway.) Thus children would be put in
     charge of the nanny. Now it's backwards; the nanny (or babysitter) is
     put in charge of the children.

     (2) "Comprised of/by" used to mean "included within"; the container or
     whole comprised the contents or parts. For some of us
     pedantically-minded types that still sounds right, but for the general
     populous (who mispell that word wrong too) "comprised of" is
     synonymous with "composed of", and the contents or parts comprise the
     container or the whole. (I suspect that this arose malapropistically,
     by people unfamiliar with such erudite words as "compose" and
     "comprise". But I am not sure of this.)

     (3) "Consult (with)" used to mean talk with a wiser person in order to
     receive his or her counsel. It still has that usage for many of us.
     But others seems to use it exclusively to mean "give counsel (to), act
     as consultant (for)". This seems to have arisen prototypically in
     situations of psychological counselling, but has spread far beyond
     there; generally the consultee is the one who goes to the expert for
     advice, not the one who is gone to for counsel. (Did the whole thing
     arise from giving the name "consultant" to the expert, extrapolating
     to "consultee", and then back-forming to "consult"? Was the change
     from "getting counsel" to "getting counselling" relevant?)

     My question is: How can such backwards meanings (a) arise, (b) survive
     and eventually prevail?

     Most languages make it possible to tell most of the time, in ways
     independent of wide-ranging context, who is doing what to whom, and I
     would suppose there is a strong functional pressure to do so. But
     these meaning changes seem to fly in the face of such tendencies.

     Most meaning changes "live by keeping out of each others' way", by not
     having many contexts where the old and new meanings could compete
     directly. But these pretty much in the nature of the case occur
     precisely where they can cause most confusion. #3 above in particular
     does so, in my experience. (I have gone along for multiple paragraphs
     in conversation or listening to a monologue, actively trying to
     confirm or disconfirm one or other of the meanings the speaker might
     have had in mind.)

     I'd be interested in any comments people might have on why these
     changes might happen, and how they happen. Also, good examples of
     parallel things in English (I know there are others) or other
     languages would be interesting to see. And comments on how people cope
     during the time when the old and new meanings are in competition.

     --David Tuggy

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