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How translation can help to shine a light on the relationship between words and their meanings - Part 2

meaning of words

Scientist have discovered a universal model when dealing with the meaning of words, revealed by the way in which the sense of the word evolved.

Words and the evolution of their meanings

How does mapping translations and re-translations show how words change meanings over time? This evolution relies directly on the way that words work.

Words are concept markers,” Youn explains. “Of course, we need a word to express ourselves, to communicate with others, but what is actually communicated is the meaning.

We believe that words are static things, etched into the dictionary with a meaning, or even several, and that's it.

On the contrary, a word is always in motion, working its way to becoming something different. So, even when these researchers mapped the modern semantic network of words, they merely captured a static image of a dynamic process.

Words don’t just change their meanings randomly. It’s more a case of the implications placed on the word that will progressively change its meaning,” explains John McWhorter, linguist at Columbia University.

For example, the word “sun” implies heat. In some language, the speakers may use “sun” to mean heating. Progressively with time and almost unnoticeably, the word “sun” in that language will have no other meaning than heat.

Observing polysemous words to detect changing meanings

Dr. Bhattacharya explains, “[Over the course of this process] there is a moment where a word must have two meanings.” And this is the crux, the precise moment when a word will change, abandoning one meaning in favour of another.

For that reasons, the words of a language that have multiple distinct meanings are the most susceptible to evolving and thus to progressively change their meanings.

Here, Dr. Bhattacharya reaches the very objective of this research study. While translating to and from these various languages, the researchers provided a model to use to investigate the way that words and their meanings change over time.

What is behind the linguistic changes and models?

The researchers studied languages from across far-off regions, with different environments and cultures, believing that that would be able to identify the relationship between the experiences of the various populations and their usage of language.

They hypothesised that people who lived on coasts would link the sea with salt, while people who inhabited deserts would not make such a connection. However, they learned that that association was universal.

There is a coherent conceptual area of meaning that transcends cultural and environmental factors,” explains Youn. In other words, language isn’t so strongly tied to the environment.

In focusing initially on the evolution of words in a language, this study also showed that in every language there exist certain basic concepts despite the large disparity of the human experience. Local culture is not the only thing that determines how a language functions.