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Sometimes English retains an old word and updates it meaning, like bottle which originally meant wineskin. Sometimes it creates a new word for a new innovation, like television. There appears to be a tendency in British English to retain some older words for new purposes where they have been replaced in American English with neologisms. For example torch/flashlight, chemist/pharmacist, dustbin/garbage can, fire/heater.

Is there a term that we could use to say one dialect retains more of the older words, or conversely, that one adopts more neologisms?

Examples sentences where it would be used:

British English is a ______ dialect, unlike American English. (or vice versa)

Or, British English is more ________ than American English. (or vice versa)

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  • Your title is one question; it is about old words getting new meaning. The body of your post is another; it is about renewal of the vocabulary, about creating new terms for the existing ones or retaining the traditional ones. The two questions are not too closely related. Otherwise, would I not be getting the sense of your words clearly?
    – LPH
    Commented Jul 10, 2021 at 19:37
  • I've edited the title. I didn't want it to be too long, but it comes in just under the character limit. Commented Jul 10, 2021 at 20:42
  • Not really the focus of your Q but I'm not sure about some of those examples - pharmacist dates from the middle ages, I'm not seeing how dustbin fits, fire in electric fire doesn't just mean heater (it referred to the type of heater that was supposed to look like a real fire), boiler is non-literal but how do we know it was literal in days of yore... plus water heater is used - is boiler never used in AmE? You may be right that there's a difference but I'm only seeing one clear example here.
    – rchivers
    Commented Jul 10, 2021 at 22:44
  • @rchivers: Is pharmacist really from the middle ages? It doesn't sound like it. Any reference? Commented Jul 10, 2021 at 23:36
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    @rchivers The point is that from the moment the compound has been recorded in a dictionary ("garbage can" has been recorded (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/…)) its meaning is_not_ considered as deducible from the separate meanings; in the dictionary shown "garbage can" is considered as one noun. //In terms of language, you do come up with something new in passing from "dustbin" to "garbage can"; if you change only "bin" (dustcan) (change insignificant) you still introduce a neologism (neologism: new word or expression or new meaning of a word).
    – LPH
    Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 21:31

1 Answer 1

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Linguists talk about languages and dialects which are conservative, preserving old forms from the ancestral or "parent" languages, or in contrast those which are innovative or advanced and have new forms different from the ancestral languages.

See the Wikipedia article on linguistic conservatism. There is also a related question on linguistics Stack Exchange.

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  • The question, though, is about vocabulary—the lexicon.
    – Xanne
    Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 0:30
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    @Xanne Apparently the terms are applied to lexicon as well as other elements. Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 9:35
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    Sure. Though dialects aren't really distinguished by lexical conservatism much. They tend to vary phonologically more consistently, and there it's hard to find what "conservative" might mean in terms of sound retention and modification. Lexical items are catch-as-catch-can, and every word has its own story in each dialect. Languages, on the other hand, can be very conservative phonologically, as contrast Lithuanian versus Latvian. And German has tended to go for calques like Fernsehapparat instead of borrowing television. English and Japanese, by contrast, borrow thousands of words. Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 13:38

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