Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

A recent question on EL&U about a current hip-hop expression led my research into a meme that is evolving faster than drosophila. This expression and its variants have gone viral on internet videos, and are morphing quickly. Urban Dictionary lists several dozen closely related variations. Of particular interest is how this meme is attaching itself to other "loaded" expressions to spawn combination phrases. In trying to wrap my brain around the complexity of this cultural phenomenon, I imagined trying to draw a sphere-of-influence graph of this meme. Which leads me to my question. Biology has cladistics. Does etymology have something similar? Is there a standard means of diagramming the evolution of a word or phrase, and, if so, what is it called?

share|improve this question
2  
Given the way words from wildly different origins tend to cross-pollinate gleefully and with abandon in English, it's difficult to envision how anything like cladistics would be possible. –  phenry Jun 18 at 16:50
4  
It's possible, but we're not there yet. One can study the evolution of languages, and a great deal is known about them, and they can be grouped into clades of various characteristics. The problem is that, while biological evolution (for practice, count the biological semantic metaphors in the OQ) is Mendelian, language evolution is LaMarckian, in that acquired characteristics are passed on, and gene analogs are widely shared. Language cladistics is much closer to bacterial cladistics, and that's a mess too, for the same reasons -- bacteria share genes. –  John Lawler Jun 18 at 17:17
3  
I don't think etymology does, for the reasons mentioned in both of the comments above. The closest parallel I can think of is in textual editing, which has stemmatics - the process of tracing the transmission of a text from one manuscript to another. The word "stemmatics" can only be used for manuscripts, not the words contained in them; and even this depends on what I have always thought is a false assumption that a manuscript can only descend from one ancestor (like a tree) and not multiple ancestors. –  outis nihil Jun 18 at 18:20

3 Answers 3

The evolution of words and their meanings is called semantic change and has implications in different fields of linguistics:

Semantic change: (also semantic shift, semantic progression or semantic drift) is the evolution of word usage — usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage. In diachronic (or historical) linguistics, semantic change is a change in one of the meanings of a word. Every word has a variety of senses and connotations, which can be added, removed, or altered over time, often to the extent that cognates across space and time have very different meanings.

The study of semantic change can be seen as part of etymology, onomasiology, semasiology, and semantics.

share|improve this answer
2  
very cool stuff. thank you –  steven king Jun 19 at 1:43

I'm unaware of any "standard means", but I do recall young children being taught to use "semantic mapping". I think there may be an advanced form of this in use by some etymologists.

A cursory search yielded these STEDT etymologies and a book on etymology. I quote a potentially relevant passage from the book, Lexical and Structural Etymology: Beyond Word Histories (emphasis mine):

To represent the full story of the etymology of some relative clause constructions we would need to include not only these complicating factors, but also different kinds and different strengths of links between them and their sources. For example, we may have a borrowing of a marker from one language to another, calquing without lexical borrowing, reanalysis, extension of a marker by analogy, or transfer of word order patterns.

Semantic maps and "conceptual spaces", both for individual lexemes and for constructions, allow the mapping of the terms/constructions of an individual language onto the typological diagram, showing at the same time synchronic and diachronic reality.

Perhaps this can lead you in the right direction.

share|improve this answer
1  
fascinating. Thank you for all of this. –  steven king Jun 19 at 1:42

In an unsearchable and potentially ephemeral comment to the original posting, Professor Lawler kindly presented the following answer:

It’s possible, but we’re not there yet. One can study the evolution of languages, and a great deal is known about them, and they can be grouped into clades of various characteristics.

The problem is that, while biological evolution (for practice, count the biological semantic metaphors in the OQ) is Mendelian, language evolution is LaMarckian, in that acquired characteristics are passed on, and gene analogs are widely shared.

Language cladistics is much closer to bacterial cladistics, and that’s a mess too, for the same reasons — bacteria share genes.

I’ve marked this posting Community Wiki because it is John’s answer not my own, and so I deserve no reputation from it.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.