Words in the dictionaries tell us more about ourselves than we are led on to believe by our minds. Why think about words we use to communicate, everyday? Because words are more than just words that are used everyday. They have a history, and the historical study of words is known as etymology. But that is not the history or study I am writing about. I am more interested in the nature of their first occurrences, first utterances, and why we as the only beings with the ability of abstract thought processes, and opposable thumbs would need words like ‘promise’, ‘trust’, ‘lie’, ‘truth’, ‘reality’ etc. Yes I am borrowing words from English dictionary here, and the question is valid for all languages, and races.
Semantic knowledge or the knowledge or understanding, and imparting meaning to words is something we gained during our evolution, as language evolved. That we have such a word as “promise” in some of the most used languages that we have formed, tells us more about ourselves than anything else. There’s a lot of research that supports these questions, and thoughts; that the way we use words tells a lot about our social status, age, sex, motives, intended audiences, and the situations we as individuals find ourselves in. Words we use are also indicators of our mental, social, and physical states.
Freud did provide us with his observations, where he discussed the prospect of slips of tongue, and other errors in speech may be indicators of fear or deeper motives. Jacques Lacan pointed out that the our unconscious asserts itself using the words that we are so used to using, and often take for granted. Other prominent philosophers, researchers, linguistic experts, and language experts have also made assumptions, carried out experiments, observed experiences, etc. on the gravity that language use exerts on our minds, and our behaviors. This is more of thought based post about words in general, and not linguistics.
I on the other hand am more interested on how we ended up with words like morality, God, etc. How did someone coined a version of the word that would later be known to us as ‘promise’? Why was there a need back when it was first uttered by someone we do not know of today? What were the reasons that required the creation or need for such a word to be presented, used, and at some point, made into common, everyday tongue?
Words like ‘promise’, can be seen as markers of our own nature; of our own devices. We do classify morality or rather the ‘wrong’ side of morality into seven distinct words, the seven sins - lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. The “right” side of morality is never so confined, and more loosely held than the “wrong” side. So really morality is gray going to black, instead of white going to black.
And if morality is gray going to black, then most words in the dictionaries that hold some emotional weight do tell us about ourselves, and which part of this gray-black gradient our actions and/or behaviors fall into. Since we started with the word ‘promise’, we’ll take that up as an example, and we’ll stick to the english dictionary, for obvious reasons.
Now, why do we think ‘promise’ (promise being the word we choose to go along with here, you are more than welcome to replace that word with any other that elicits an emotional response from you) as a word was included in the English or any other dictionary of any other language?
Keeping in mind that English is derived from Latin, and Greek in most cases, the word promise too comes from the medieval-latin word ‘prōmissa’. The word first appeared in print sometime around or between 1375-1425; this does not necessarily mean that the word originated then, it merely indicates the use of the word ‘prōmissa’ (in one form or another) in print. Let’s assume that the word came into use about 400-500 years before it appeared in print for the first time. That puts the dating back to about 875-975c. Let’s also assume that the word existed before it came to be used for the first time in verbal speech, as some other word but with the same meaning, and implications of the word ‘promise’ today.
The whole point of a word coming into existence, may be the fact that we need words to express ideas, and thoughts, and to communicate them in an explainable fashion. Also, assume that words have a deeper psychological, and behavioral affect on us, at a very granular, and sub-conscious level. Keeping that in mind, we can assume that there was a point in time, during the emergence of the word ‘promise’, in one form or another, was created to satisfy an emotional or behavioral effect or response. Then what does this tell us about our own selves, our histories, our cultures? That we evolved from virtuous, non-lying (since ‘promise’ is the word we chose here), and always-delivering-on-our-commitments beings, after we committed to deliver them ? Then suddenly, just like that, there was a time when most of us wouldn’t. Instead we would simply commit, and not deliver on those commitments; for whatever goals, reasons, etc?
Does this mean that morality underwent a gradient shift, from a gradient of white to gray, to a gradient of gray to black? Does this mean that at the time the idea of a ‘promise’ was first invoked, in whatever language, culture, and time, and in whatever form, was also the time that our virtues shifted, and our ethics changed? If so, then the words in our dictionaries can very easily be seen as markers of some sort that can trace our behavioral patterns, our morality, our virtues, our ethics, and their shifts from one side to another.