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THE ENGLISH VOCABULARY AS AN ADAPTIVE SYSTEM. NEOLOGISMS

To adapt means to make or undergo modifications in function and structure so as to be fit for a new use, a new environment or a new situation.1 It has been stated in 1.5 that being an adaptive system the vocabulary is constantly adjusting itself to the changing requirements and conditions of human communications and cultural and other needs. We shall now give a more detailed presentation of the subject. This process of self-regulation of the lexical system is a result of overcoming contradictions between the state of the system and the demands it has to meet. The speaker chooses from the existing stock of words such words that in his opinion can adequately express his thought and feeling. Failing to find the expression he needs, he coins a new one. It is important to stress that the development is not confined to coining new words on the existing patterns but in adapting the very structure of the system to its changing functions.

According to F. de Saussure synchronic linguistics deals with systems and diachronic linguistics with single elements, and the two methods must be kept strictly apart. A language system then should be studied as something fixed and unchanging, whereas we observe the opposite: it is constantly changed and readjusted as the need arises. The concept of adaptive systems overcomes this contradiction and permits us to study language as a constantly developing but systematic whole. The adaptive system approach gives a more adequate account of the systematic phenomena of a vocabulary by explaining more facts about the functioning of words and providing more relevant generalisations, because we can take into account the influence of extra-linguistic reality. The study of the vocabulary as an adaptive system reveals the pragmatic essence of the communication process, i.e. the way language is used to influence the addressee.

There is a considerable difference of opinion as to the type of system involved, although the majority of linguists nowadays agree that the vocabulary should be studied as a system.2 Our present state of knowledge is, however, insufficient to present the whole of the vocabulary as one articulated system, so we deal with it as if it were a set of interrelated systems.

1 The term adaptive comes from the theory of evolution. Ch. Darvin as far back as 1859 wrote about adaptation in the animal world by which a species or individual improves its conditions in relation to its environment. Note also that a relatively new science called bionics studies living systems in order to make machines behaving as efficiently as systems in nature.

2 For a detailed discussion of the statistical approach the reader should refer to the works of A.J. Shaikevitch.


For different purposes of study different types of grouping may prove effective, there is no optimum short cut equally suitable for all purposes. In the present chapter we shall work out a review of most of the types of grouping so far suggested and an estimate of their possibilities. If we succeed in establishing their interrelation, it will help us in obtaining an idea of the lexical system as a whole. We must be on our guard, however, against taking the list of possible oppositions suggested by this chapter for a classification.

We shall constantly slide the basis of our definitions from one level to another, whereas in an adequate classification the definition of various classes must be based on the same kind of criteria. That means we shall obtain data for various approaches to the system, not the system itself as yet.

The adaptive system approach to vocabulary is still in its infancy, but it is already possible to hazard an interim estimate of its significance. Language as well as other adaptive systems, better studied in other branches of science, is capable of obtaining information from the extra-linguistic world and with the help of feedback makes use of it for self-optimisation. If the variation proves useful, it remains in the vocabulary. The process may be observed by its results, that is by studying new words or neologisms. New notions constantly come into being, requiring new words to name them. Sometimes a new name is introduced for a thing or notion that continues to exist, and the older name ceases to be used. The number of words in a language is therefore not constant, the increase, as a rule, more than makes up for the leak-out.

New words and expressions or nelgisms are created for new things irrespective of their scale of importance. They may be all-important and concern some social relationships, such as a new form of state, e. g. Peoples Republic, or something threatening the very existence of humanity, like nuclear war. Or again the thing may be quite insignificant and short-lived, like fashions in dancing, clothing, hairdo or footwear (e. g. roll-neck). In every case either the old words are appropriately changed in meaning or new words are borrowed, or more often coined out of the existing language material either according to the patterns and ways already productive in the language at a given stage of its development or creating new ones.

Thus, a neologism is a newly coined word or phrase or a new meaning for an existing word, or a word borrowed from another language.

The intense development of science and industry has called forth the invention and introduction of an immense number of new words and changed the meanings of old ones, e. g. aerobic, black hole, computer, isotope, feedback, penicillin, pulsar, quasar, tape-recorder, supermarket and so on.

The laws of efficient communication demand maximum signal in minimum time. To meet these requirements the adaptive lexical system is not only adding new units but readjusts the ways and means of word-formation and the word-building means. Thus, when radio location was invented it was defined as radio detection and ranging which is long and so a


convenient abbreviation out of the first letter or letters of each word in this phrase was coined, hence radar. (See 7.3.) The process of nomination may pass several stages. In other words, a new notion is named by a terminological phrase consisting of words which in their turn are made up of morphemes. The phrase may be shortened by ellipsis or by graphical abbreviation, and this change of form is achieved without change of meaning. Acronyms are not composed of existing morphemes according to existing word-formation patterns, but on the contrary revolutionise the system by forming new words and new morphemes out of letters. The whole process of word-formation is paradoxically reversed.

The lexical system may adapt itself to new functions by combining several word-building processes. Thus fall-out the radioactive dust descending through the air after an atomic explosion is coined by composition and conversion simultaneously. Ad-lib to improvise is the result of borrowing (Lat. ad libitum), shortening, compounding and conversion. Compare also admass coined by J.B. Priestley and meaning mass advertising in its harmful effect on society.

It is also interesting to mention the new meaning of word-formation patterns in composition (see 6.9). Teach-in is a student conference or a series of seminars on some burning issue of the day, meaning some demonstration of protest. This pattern is very frequent: lie-in, sleep-in, pray-in, laugh-in, love-in, read-in, sing-in, stay-in, talk-in.

In all the above variants the semantic components protest and place are invariably present. This is a subgroup of peculiarly English and steadily developing type of nouns formed by a combined process of conversion and composition from verbs with postpositives, such as a holdup armed robbery from hold-up rob, come-back a person who returns after a long absence.

The intense development of shortening aimed at economy of time and effort but keeping the sense complete is manifest not only in acronyms and abbreviations but also in blends, e.g. bionics < bio+(electr)onics; slintnastics < slim+gymnastics (see 7.2.) and back-formation ( 7.7). The very means of word-formation change their status. This is for instance manifest in the set of combining forms. In the past these were only bound forms borrowings from Latin and Greek mostly used to form technical terms. Now some of them turn into free standing words, e. g. maxi n something very large.

Semi-affixes which used to be not numerous and might be treated as exceptions now evolve into a separate set. An interesting case is person substituting the semi-affix -man due to an extra linguistic cause a tendency to degender professional names, to avoid mentioning sex discrimination (chairperson, policeperson). A freer use of semi-affixes has been illustrated on p. 118. The set of semi-affixes is also increased due to the so-called abstracted forms, that is parts of words or phrases used in what seems the meaning they contribute to the unit. E. g. workaholic a person with a compulsive desire to work was patterned on alcoholic; footballaholic and bookaholic are selfexplanatory. Compare also: washeteria a self-service laundry.


When some word becomes a very frequent element in compounds the discrimination of compounds and derivatives, the difference between affix and semi-affix is blurred. Here are some neologisms meaning obsessed with sth and containing the elements mad and happy: power-mad, money-mad, speed-mad, movie-mad and auto-happy, trigger-happy, footlight-happy. It is not quite clear whether, in spite of their limitless productivity, we are still justified in considering them as compounds.

Our survey has touched only upon a representative series of problems connected with thefunctioning and development of the present-day English vocabulary as an adaptive system and of the tendency in coining new words. For a reliable mass of evidence on the new English vocabulary the reader is referred to lexicographic sources.

New additions to the English vocabulary are collected in addenda to explanatory dictionaries and in special dictionaries of new words. One should consult the supplementary volume of the English-Russian Dictionary ed. by I.R. Galperin, the three supplementary volumes of The Oxford English Dictionary and the dictionaries of New English which are usually referred to as Barnhart Dictionaries, because Clarence Barnhart, a distinguished American lexicographer, is the senior of the three editors. The first volume covers words and word equivalents that have come into the vocabulary of the English-speaking world during the period 1963-1972 and the second those of the 70s.

In what follows the student will find a few examples of neologisms showing the patterns according to which they are formed. Automation automatic control of production is irregularly formed from the stem automatic with the help of the very productive suffix -tion. The corresponding verb automate is a back-formation, i. e. re-equip in the most modern and automated fashion. Re- is one of the most productive prefixes, the others are anti-, de-, un-, the semi-affixes self-, super- and mini-and many more; e. g. anti-flash serving to protect the eyes, antimatter n, anti- novel n, anti-pollution, deglamorise to make less attractive, resit to take a written examination a second time, rehouse to move a family, a community, etc. to new houses. The prefix un- increases its combining power, enjoys a new wave of fashion and is now attached even to noun stems. A literary critic refers to the broken-down Entertainer (in John Osbornes play) as a contemporary un-hero, the desperately unfunny Archie Rice. Unfunny here means not amusing in spite of the desire to amuse. All the other types of word-formation described in the previous chapters are in constant use, especially conversion (orbit the moon, service a car), composition and semantic change.

Compounding by mere juxtaposition of free forms has been a frequent pattern since the Old English period and is so now, f. brains-trust a group of experts, brain drain emigration of scientists, to brain-drain, brain-drainer, quiz-master chairman in competitions designed to test the knowledge of the participants. In the neologism backroom boys men engaged in secret research the structural cohesion of the compound is enhanced by the attributive function. Cf. redbrick (universities), paperback (books), ban-the-bomb (demonstration). The change of meaning, or rather the introduction of


a new, additional meaning may be illustrated by the word net-work a number of broadcasting stations, connected for a simultaneous broadcast of the same programme. Another example is a word of American literary slang the square. This neologism is used as a derogatory epithet for a person who plays safe, who sticks to his illusions, and thinks that only his own life embodies all decent moral values.

As a general rule neologisms are at first clearly motivated. An exception is shown by those based on borrowings or learned coinages which, though motivated at an early stage, very soon begin to function as indivisible signs. A good example is the much used term cybernetics study of systems of control and communication in living beings and man-made devices coined by Norbert Wiener from the Greek word kyberne-tes steersman+suffix -ics.

There are, however, cases when etymology of comparatively new words is obscure, as in the noun boffin a scientist engaged in research work or in gimmick a tricky device an American slang word that is now often used in British English.

In the course of time the new word is accepted into the word-stock of the language and being often used ceases to be considered new, or else it may not be accepted for some reason or other and vanish from the language. The fate of neologisms is hardly predictable: some of them are short-lived, others, on the contrary, become durable as they are liked and accepted. Once accepted, they may serve as a basis for further word-formation: gimmick, gimmickry, gimmicky. Zip (an imitative word denoting a certain type of fastener) is hardly felt as new, but its derivatives the verb zip (zip from one place to another), the corresponding personal noun zipper and the adjective zippy appear to be neologisms.

When we consider the lexical system of a language as an adaptive system developing for many centuries and reflecting the changing needs of the communication process, we have to contrast the innovations with words that dropped from the language (obsolete words) or survive only in special contexts (archaisms and historisms).

Archaisms are words that were once common but are now replaced by synonyms. When these new synonymous words, whether borrowed or coined within the English language, introduce nothing conceptually new, the stylistic value of older words tends to be changed; on becoming rare they acquire a lofty poetic tinge due to their ancient flavour, and then they are associated with poetic diction.

Some examples will illustrate this statement: aught n anything whatever, betwixt prp between, billow n wave, chide v scold, damsel n a noble girl, ere prp before, even n evening, forbears n ancestors, hapless a unlucky, hark v listen, lone a lonely, morn n morning, perchance adv perhaps, save prp, cj except, woe n sorrow, etc.

When the causes of the words disappearance are extra-linguistic, e.g. when the thing named is no longer used, its name becomes an histrism. Historisms are very numerous as names for social relations, institutions and objects of material culture of the past. The names of ancient transport means, such as types of boats or types of carriages, ancient clothes, weapons, musical instruments, etc. can offer many examples.


Before the appearance of motor-cars many different types of horse-drawn carriages were in use. The names of some of them are: brougham, berlin, calash, diligence, fly, gig, hansom, landeau, phaeton, etc. It is interesting to mention specially the romantically metaphoric prairie schooner a canvas-covered wagon used by pioneers crossing the North American prairies. There are still many sailing ships in use, and schooner in the meaning of a sea-going vessel is not an historism, but a prairie schooner is. Many types of sailing craft belong to the past as caravels or galleons, so their names are historisms too.

The history of costume forms an interesting topic by itself. It is reflected in the history of corresponding terms. The corresponding glossaries may be very long. Only very few examples can be mentioned here. In W. Shakespeares plays, for instance, doublets are often mentioned. A doublet is a close-fitting jacket with or without sleeves worn by men in the 15th-17th centuries. It is interesting to note that descriptions of ancient garments given in dictionaries often include their social functions in this or that period. Thus, a tabard of the 15th century was a short surcoat open at the sides and with short sleeves, worn by a knight over his armour and emblazoned on the front, back and sides with his armorial bearings. Not all historisms refer to such distant periods. Thus, bloomers an outfit designed for women in mid-nineteenth century. It consisted of Turkish-style trousers gathered at the ankles and worn by women as a rational dress. It was introduced by Mrs Bloomer, editor and social reformer, as a contribution to woman rights movement. Somewhat later bloomers were worn by girls and women for games and cycling, but then they became shorter and reached only to the knee.

A great many historisms denoting various types of weapons occur in historical novels, e. g. a battering ram an ancient machine for breaking walls; a blunderbuss an old type of gun with a wide muzzle; breastplate a piece of metal armour worn by knights over the chest to protect it in battle; a crossbow amedieval weapon consisting of a bow fixed across a wooden stock. Many words belonging to this semantic field remain in the vocabulary in some figurative meaning, e. g. arrow, shield, sword, vizor, etc.

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