Recently, Sarah Palin tweeted using the word “refudiate.” After it was noted in media outlets and on Twitter that this was not a word, she replied with a tweet stating,
“Refudiate,” “misunderestimate,” “wee-wee’d up.” English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!
Of course, this post didn’t decrease the scrutiny of her language use, but it did prompt today’s blog, on the subject of language, word creation, and meaning.
One of the characteristics of verbal communication (language) is that very few symbols (words) have an inherent connection to their referents (the object, concept, place, etc. that they refer to). There are a few word that do, but mostly those are onomatopoeia words, where the word represents a sound made (moo, meow, bark). For the most part, the connection between a word and its meaning is arbitrary and conventional. There are a few implications of this loose connection.
- A symbol has many referents. This occurs in multiple ways. A word can refer to multiples of the same object (i.e. millions of apples are referred to with the word “apple”). The same word also has different meanings for different people. As language users, we have denotative meaning for words (the culturally agreed upon official definition) and connotative meaning (meaning based on our experiences). So, while we might all agree that a snake is a legless reptile, for some of us the connotative meaning of the word snake might be AAAH! SCARY!, while for others it is Wow! Cool!.
- Many symbols can signify the same referent. There are many words that one can use, even within a particular language, to represent a single “thing.” If I want to speak of my dog, I could use the words “being,” “animal,” “canine,” “dog,” “lab mix,” and her name, “Luna” (among other terms). All of these words refer to the same dog. In the UK, a mother might put a “nappy” on a baby, while in the US we would likely use a “diaper.” Slang also comes into play here. Think about the terms that teens and young adults have used over the decades for a romantic relationship. In my grandfather’s early adulthood, they were “courting,” in my father’s youth, they were “going steady,” when I was a teenager, we were “going with” (never mind that we often were not going anywhere). Now, I hear my kids say that their peers are “dating ____” (even when they don’t actually go on dates) or I hear my students talk about “hooking up.”
- Language changes over time – but it is slow and a collective process – This is where Sarah Palin goes a little wrong in her tweet. As cultures shift and change, the connections between symbols and referents do as well. The word “gay” went from referring to a state of joy to a state of sexual orientation. We grab our “cells” before we head out of the house (25 years ago, anyone listening would have wondered how you could possibly leave your cells at home). There wasn’t any terminology to refer to what we now call “sexual harassment” in the 60s. As Palin notes, we create new words (like “tweet”) or redefine old ones all the time. But, it’s not simply the case that if one person decides that a word exists or means something then it is so. Symbols have utility because the meanings are shared. If only I understand the meanings of the sounds I make, then they are not really language, just noise. So, the fact that language does change and new words can be created does not excuse us from the responsibility to use language with care, in part because…
- Once created, language has power – Words are just collections of noises. They only mean because we say that they do. This does not, however, suggest that language isn’t powerful. Once the connections are made, language has significance and power. Words can hurt (as you well knew the first time you were called a hurtful name), or heal. Words can uplift us, or beat us down. Words can depress us or inspire us. They can move us to anger or to passion (also see post from June 21st).
So, in a sense, I agree with Sarah Palin. We should celebrate language and all that it can and does do for us. But, we have to be careful with it, because it has power. Language can be changed, but it can also be change.