words for words and languages

Paul Hopper ph1u at ANDREW.CMU.EDU
Mon Feb 9 20:37:21 UTC 2004

Dear Colleagues,

I can't shed any light on Yury Lander's question, but it made me curious
about the idea of having a word for <a language> and for <name of a
specific language>. Under what sorts of discourse circumstances might
speakers find a need for such words? It would have to be in a bi- or
multilingual context, wouldn't it? I would suspect that some kind of
adverbial expression ("latine" rather than "Latinam" loqueri) or a verb
meaning "talk in a way characteristic of another linguistic group" (e.g.
schwaebeln "speak in Swabian dialect") would precede the concept of a
"thing" that was being "spoken", and that it would take writing and even a
grammatical tradition to enable such a way of thinking. Do nouns referring
to <name of a language> or <a language> occur in any pre-literate
societies, I wonder? A glance at C. D. Buck's "Selected Synonyms" suggests
that the correspondences of <word> and <language> in the older
Indo-European languages are not at all fixed, and even in modern languages
we have to struggle to find the word(s) corresponding to English "language"
(French langue/langage/parole) and "word" (cf the two meanings that come to
light in the German plurals Worte/Woerter). So perhaps history isn't merely
an awkward fact to be reckoned with, but an inseparable part of this


--On Monday, February 9, 2004 20:54 +0300 Yura Lander <land_yu at PISEM.NET>

> Dear colleagues,
> I am looking for any counterexamples to the following claim
> (for the sake of convenience I give two variants, but note
> that they are equal):
> 1) If a language uses the same word both for .language.
> and .word., then this language has not an obligatory
> grammatical category of number,
> 2) If a language has an obligatory grammatical category of
> number, then this language uses different words for the
> notions .language. and .word..
> The reason seems to me rather transparent and is related to
> the possibility of a kind of metonymic shift. On the other
> hand, I do admit that historical change may lead to the
> violation of (any version of) this claim. Yet I will be
> very grateful to anyone who can give me information on this
> point.
> Thanks in advance,
> Yury Lander

Paul Hopper
Paul Mellon Distinguished Professor of the Humanities
Department of English
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA
Telephone (412) 268-7174
Fax (412) 268-7989

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