Do symbols grow?

Are you the same person you were when you were born?

If you answer No, most people would probably take that answer as testimony that you have changed over the years. On the other hand, any specific change that you (or others) can remember was a change in you. Even if you have no “essence” or “core identity” that has remained the same through your whole life, the changes are all yours because the changes were continuous: you have lived through each one, from moment to moment, one version of you taking over from the previous, more or less gradually, without any jump-cuts in the film of your life.

Does a word have a life like that? Take the English word grow. Can we say that a thousand years ago, this word was spelled differently, pronounced differently, used differently, and meant something different? This is in fact what the Oxford English Dictionary and the Online Etymology Dictionary tell us about the verb grow. We can dig still deeper into the history of the word by tracing it through all its continuous changes of pronunciation, spelling and meaning in a whole family of languages, back to prehistoric times. (There’s a detailed explanation of this linguistic archaeology in David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.) Due to the continuity of these changes, we can say that it was the same word now appearing in English as grow that went through all these changes over thousands of years.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, it all started with the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) verb *ghre- meaning “to grow, become green.” PIE was a spoken language, never written down; the asterisk before the word means that this form of the word is not attested in ancient documents but has been reconstructed by retracing over millennia the pronunciation changes which the word has undergone in several languages descended from PIE. For awhile, that word took the forms of Proto-Germanic *gro-, source of Old Norse groa “to grow” (of vegetation), Old Frisian groia, Dutch groeien, Old High German gruoen, and Old English growan, meaning “to flourish, increase, develop, get bigger.” The OED gives an Old English example dating back to 725 C.E., when the word meant “to manifest vigorous life; to put forth foliage, flourish, be green,” referring to the life of plants. (The English words green and grass are both descended from the same PIE root; the people who spoke the language now called PIE, say 4000 years ago, probably lived on Eurasian steppes or grasslands.)

As the English language developed, the verb outgrew its specific reference to the plant world, and was applied to animals (including humans), or to parts of them such as hair. Later its application was extended to ‘immaterial things’ (OED) such as rumors, reputations, empires, and in the 20th century, economies. This is one of the ways that words grow in meaning, metaphorical uses becoming habitual over time until they seem to be “literal” meanings of words – even when it is applied to increases much less natural and organic than the growth of plants. The more widely used a symbol is, the more likely it is to develop different applications in this way.

In the 18th century we started using the verb grow in a transitive sense, as when a gardener says that she “grows tomatoes.” This verbal innovation could be a shadow of the cultural shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture, as humans took more control of the growth process by determining which plants would be allowed or encouraged to grow. The plants still grow according to their own nature and environmental conditions, but now we say that people grow them as well as harvest them. This is one way that language unconsciously reflects a human urge to control or dominate nature which became a habit for some cultures, leading to the European invasion and colonization of other continents, and eventually to the global ecological crisis of today.

The role of language in the growth of such toxic concepts is often hidden from the speakers of the language. It may seem metaphorical to say, as Peirce did, that ‘Symbols grow’ (see previous post). But we can take this “growth” literally as a natural process not subject to human control, even though symbols grow in the medium of human languages. The languages we speak are mostly natural languages, meaning that they evolve without being deliberately designed by humans. The meanings of common words are conventional only in the sense that they are shared habits; no gathering was ever convened to legislate them. A word like grow still has its roots, so to speak, in the processes of nature, as do most of our core concepts. But the more we apply the word to more abstract and artificial things such as “the economy”, especially in the noun form growth, the more we forget that growing is part of a life cycle. As symbol systems evolve, new meanings spring up, but other meanings fall away and decay.

Growth and youth are characteristic of the springtime and the early part of the life cycle, which leads to the “flourishing” of maturity. Maybe this accounts for its emotional appeal when applied to such abstractions as “economic growth.” We overlook the fact that there are natural limits to quantitative growth, just as we tend to overlook the fact that we decline and die as all complex organisms do – and that now whole species are being driven to extinction at an unprecedented rate by the exponential growth in human population and consumption.

When Peirce said that ‘Symbols grow,’ meaning that meanings change, he must have had in mind an organic kind of growth. He gave examples of words whose meanings have changed since the time of ‘our barbarous ancestors’, but didn’t say in what sense those symbols have grown. Viewing linguistic evolution from our 21st-Century vantage point, I don’t think we can say that words mean more now than they did 4,000 years ago. Growth of concepts and increases of information occur within the meaning cycle, but as new meanings for a symbol develop, old ones fall away and die, memories of them ever more deeply buried in the historical record.

Meaning is a systemic function of a language, and as language systems develop, they “prune” the connections between their conceptual “cells” just as developing brains do. The global ecosystem does the same thing as it evolves, new species branching off from their ancestors while old ones die off because they no longer “fit” into the ecosystems inhabited by the survivors. Meanings consist in habitual connections between thoughts, deeds and perceptions. What humanity needs now is to take the well-being of the whole biosphere into account as we evaluate our own habits, pruning some so that the better ones can have room to grow. As Gregory Bateson said, ‘The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself.’ Can humanity muster the self-control to participate fully in nature instead of trying to dominate it, and dominate each other?

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