Conference: Syntax & Semantics in Dubrovnik
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
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.
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