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THE PROBLEM OF MEANING ACROSS THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN SPANISH AND ENGLISH: AN EXPANDING ROLE FOR THE BILINGUAL DICTIONARY R. J. Nelson In the report of the conference on lexicography held at Indiana University 11-12 November, 1960, Yakov Malkiel made a statement useful to the purposes of this paper: In the existing historical dictionaries, all too frequently the meaning listed first is not the oldest on record, nor indeed the oldest by the standards of reconstruction, but the one most familiar to moderns or held 'fittest' to have acted as a semantic fountain-head.' In another context this same Romance philologist makes the very necessary distinction between the historical and the etymological dictionary, the latter genre catering to the prehistory of words and the former to their use in documented texts, a dichotomy that helps uncover many gaps in individual word biographies unnoticed by those etymologists uninterested in the lengthy and helpful trajectories exhibited by the historical dictionaries themselves. Indeed, this line of demarcation makes a sharp focus on loan-words, otherwise mere guess work, possible; for it is the historical dictionary, not the etymological one, that provides the adjunct to literary, social, and commercial documentation so sorely needed by the investigator who undertakes their detection. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary was often excoriated in the suddenly wise and pedantic nineteenth century, when answers to centuries-old questions seemed suddenly to fall like apples from trees. One critic chided him not too gently for failing to realize that words have an original meaning, from which all others must have derived,3 the semantic fountainhead that Professor Malkiel adduces above. But the pundit failed to see clearly the distinction between sorts of dictionaries : Dr. Johnson was after neither a historical or an etymological one, but rather a dictionary of usage, where men and women of letters played their part. But where bilingual dictionaries are concerned, the listing of the oldest meaning on record first, so rightfully the prerogative of the historical dictionary , is an enormous gaffe. For the oldest meaning on record often transcends the boundaries of both languages under the lexicographer's microscope, antedating both of these and firmly lodged as the etymon of both morphologies in a third language, whence they both derived. Spanish and English are good examples of this phenomenon, since they both trace a generous share of their vocabulary to Latin. But the dictionary compiler quickly observes that this fact is much more often a curse than a blessing, for the cognates have gone their separate ways and their meanings have changed, often drastically, while their morphologies have retained their original identity. Hence Spanish vulgar gives English 'ordinary' and English vulgar Spanish 'grosero,' with Spanish vulgar English 'vulgar' an equivalence that only an exhaustive bilingual dictionary will enter and far along in the sequence of senses of the headword to be translated. An example like the foregoing is obvious, but there are other cases where etymologizing across language boundaries has created lemmata of a highly 52 R. J. Nelson53 deceptive kind. Often it is not because the original meaning of the lexeme in the parent (or source) language, in this instance Latin vulgus, has been lost in the siblings, here Spanish and English. It is merely that this sense has been pushed far into the background by subsequent development of the semantic content of each language. Indeed, where the original meaning of the Latin word has been lost altogether in one of the languages displayed in the bilingual dictionary, the margin for error is reduced.4 Despite this fact, however, such glaring inadequacies as the following can easily be found: superposición f superposition for superposición f 1 placing above 2 the act of superimposing 3 [Brit] superposition5 and imposition ? imposición for imposition ? 1 abuso (de la cordialidad de uno) 2 imposición Extended meanings almost never develop in the same way in languages dependent on Latin for vocabulary; frágil adj1 fragile [object] 2 frail [person] fragilidad f 1 fragility [object] 2 frailty [person] One might also observe that in the case above the English doublets occur because of the introduction into English of the French resolution of the Latin etymon. Occasionally the English...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 52-56
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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