Tracking the history of words: changing perspectives, changing research

by Philip Durkin

06 Oct 2022
Journal of the British Academy, volume 10 (2022)
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Abstract: Traditionally, most words have been seen as having simple linear histories, with the earliest known attestation regarded as the date at which a word ‘entered the language’. Changing perspectives, especially from historical sociolinguistics and from detailed research on language varieties, are bringing different questions into focus. Whose language does a particular word belong to? How is it used differently by different speakers? How has this changed over time? Additionally, renewed etymological interest in the origins of complex words has prompted questions about how frequently words show convergent lines of development, polygenesis as opposed to monogenesis. This article examines some of the challenges and opportunities presented by such issues for one of the oldest tools in historical linguistics, the historical dictionary.

Keywords: Etymology, lexicography, lexicology, lexical borrowing, loanwords, multilingualism, polysemy, polygenesis, basic vocabulary, word frequency.

Anna Morpurgo Davies Lecture, read 6 May 2022.

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