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Chapter Ш. Semantics and Etymology

Etymology and the motivation of words

As already noted, the etymology of words is closely bound up with their 'motivation': the question whether there is an intrinsic connection between sound and sense or whether our words are purely conventional symbols, mere 'tokens current and accepted for concepts, as moneys are for values'. The whole problem, which has exercised many philosophers, writers and linguists, has been fully re-examined during the last quarter of a century, and valuable new insights have been gained into the workings of motivation and the principles of word-structure. There are four main points in particular which have been considerably clarified by recent research:

1. We now know that the real issue is not whether words in general are conventional or motivated, opaque or transparent, since both types are present, in varying proportions, in any linguistic system. We also know that motivation itself is a highly complex phenomenon which may work in three different ways:

(a) Onomatopoeic words like crash, rumble, swish, whizz, zoom are phonetically motivated: there is direct correspondence between the sounds and the sense. The uses of this principle in poetry are innumerable, nor are they by any means confined to the imitation of noises. Sounds may also evoke light and colour, as well as states of mind and moral qualities.

(b)A great many words are motivated by their morphological structure. A compound like ash-tray or motorway, a derivativelike intake or fellowship, will be readily intelligible to all who know their components. Even such unorthodox formations as beautility, automation or meritocracy were perfectly comprehensible when we met them for the first time, though some others, such as beatnik or brinkmanship, whilst transparent in themselves (beatnik is obviously based on sputnik, brinkmanship on showmanship, penmanship, etc.), can be fully understood only in the light of the special circumstances which called them into existence.

(c) There is also a third type of motivation. If we use a word in a transferred meaning, metaphorical or otherwise, the result will be semantically motivated: it will be transparent thanks to the connection between the two senses. Thus, when we speak of the root of an evil, the branches of a science, an offensive nipped in the bud, the flower of a country's manhood, the fruits of peace, or a family-tree, the use of these botanical terms is not arbitrary, but motivated by some kind of similarity or analogy between their concrete meanings and the abstract phenomena to which they are applied.

Processes (b) and (c),morphological and semantic motivation, could be bracketed under the more general heading of 'etymological motivation' since they concern words derived from existing elements whereas phonetic motivation involves the creation of completely new forms. This also means that etymological motivation is always 'relative': the result is transparent but the elements themselves are opaque unless they happen to be phonetically motivated. To look again at some of the examples just cited, ash-tray is analyzable but ash and tray are not; fellowship is motivated but fellow and the suffix -ship are conventional; 'the root of an evil' is a self-explanatory metaphor whereas root in the literal sense is opaque. Onomatopoeia alone can provide ultimate motivation in language.

A second principle elaborated by semantics is that of the variability of motivation. The proportion of transparent and opaque terms in a given language, and the relative frequency of the various types of motivation, depends on a multiplicity of factors; it varies characteristically from one idiom to another and may even differ between successive periods of the same language. [...]

Another important principle is that of the mutability of motivation. A word which was once motivated may seem conventional today; conversely, a term which was originally opaque, or had lost its transparency, may become motivated, or remotivated, at a later stage. Nothing could be less expressive than English touch or French toucher; yet they go back to Vulgar Latin toccare, from the onomatopoeic toe 'knock, tap'. The morphological structure of a word may become similarly obscured. In English maintain and French maintenir, the meaning of the two Latin components, manus 'hand' and tenere 'to hold', has become totally eclipsed... [...]

Yet another fundamental principle is that of the subjectivity of these processes. For a creative writer interested in word-origins and sensitive to linguistic nuances, a term may retain its pristine transparency, or may even acquire unsuspected powers of evocation and suggestion, where the ordinary reader perceives no trace of motivation. It is in the field of onomatopoeia in particular that writers give free rein to their imagination. [...]

Proper names are particularly apt to be caught up in such sound and sense associations. Some of these may have a private background, as in the case of the German poet Morgenstern who once declared that all sea-gulls look as if their name was Emma. [...]

3. From the list of adjectives presented below provide adjectives of Latin origin to the following nouns (consult supplementary material):
















What is the difference between the words in the following pairs? Analyze the examples and prove that etymological and stylistic characteristics of words are closely interrelated.

Motherly — maternal

fatherly — paternal

childish — infantile

daughterly — filial

womanly — feminine

brotherly — fraternal

to begin — to commence

to wish — to desire

to love — to adore

to build — to construct,

to go on — to proceed

to take part — to participate

5. Study the map of Great Britain and write out the names of the cities and towns ending in:

a) caster (chester) < Lat. 'military camp';

b) wick, thorpe < Sc. 'place'.

6. Describe the etymology of the following words. Comment upon their stylistic characteristics.

To rise — to amount — to ascend;

to ask — to question — to interrogate;

fire — flame — conflagration;

fear — terror, trepidation;

holy — sacred — consecrated;

time — age — era;

goodness — virtue — probity.

Think of 10-15 examples of Russian borrowings in English and English borrowings in Russian.

State the origin of the following etymological doublets. Compare their meanings and explain why they are called etymological doublets.

1. captain — chieftain

canal — channel

cart — chart

2. shirt — skirt

shriek — screech

shrew — screw

3. gaol — jail

corpse — corps

travel — travail

4. shadow — shade

off — of

dike — ditch

9.State the origin of the following translation-loans. Give your examples.

Five-year plan;

wonder child;


first dancer;

collective farm;


10. Classify the following international words according to the sphere of human activity they represent. What is the source of borrowing?




















Topics for discussion:

The morpheme as the smallest meaningful language unit. Classifications of morphemes.

1. Антрушина, Г.Б. Лексикология английского языка: учебник для студ. пед. ин-тов по спец. № 2103 "Иностр. яз." / Г.Б. Антрушина, О.В. Афанасьева, Н.Н. Морозова; под ред. Г.Б. Антрушиной. — М.: Высш. школа, 1985. — С. 5—8.

2. Воробей, А.Н. Глоссарий лингвистических терминов / А.Н. Воробей, Е.Г. Карапетова. — Барановичи: УО "БарГУ", 2004. — 108 с.

3. Дубенец, Э.М. Современный английский язык. Лексикология: пособие для студ. гуманит. вузов / Э.М. Дубенец. — М. / СПб.: ГЛОССА / КАРО, 2004. — С. 5, 19.

4. Лексикология английского языка: учебник для ин-тов и фак-тов иностр. яз. / Р.З. Гинзбург [и др.]; под общ. ред. Р.З. Гинзбург. — 2-е изд., испр. и доп. — М.: Высш. школа, 1979. — С. 9—10.

5. Лещева, Л.М. Слова в английском языке. Курс лексикологии современного английского языка: учебник для студ. фак-в и отдел. английского языка (на англ. яз.) / Л.М. Лещева. — Минск: Академия управления при Президенте Республики Беларусь, 2001. — С. 9—10, 14—25.

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