LINGUIST List 14.691

Tue Mar 11 2003

Disc: "Deflation" and "Inflation"

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. �sten Dahl, Disc: "Deflation" and "Inflation"

Message 1: Disc: "Deflation" and "Inflation"

Date: Mon, 10 Mar 2003 13:09:04 +0000
From: �sten Dahl <>
Subject: Disc: "Deflation" and "Inflation"

Since I was quoted in the first message in this thread as one of the
proponents of the use of the term ''inflation'' in the context of
weakening of meaning, I feel I have to make my position clear. If
linguists use ''inflation'' as a metaphor, this is really a two-step
process: the use of the word in economics is already metaphorical, and
the equivocation in the interpretation has been there from the
beginning, due to the dual perspective one can take on a change in
exchange values: when prices go up, the buying-power of money goes
down. However, the point of calling certain kinds of language change
''inflationary processes'' is that there are arguably interesting
parallels between them and the processes that we are used to calling
''inflation'' in economics. More specifically, since both the value of
a currency and the meanings of linguistic expressions are
conventional, short-time advantages may be obtained by for instance,
printing an excessive amount of banknotes or using expressions such
as intensifiers, titles, evaluative adjectives etc. more than their
meaning warrants, with the long-time effect that these items, whether
economic or linguistic, lose their value or part of it. This means
that ''inflation'' is not simply another word for ''semantic
bleaching'', it connects the process to a specific mechanism of
change. One may well imagine situations in which the meaning or value
of an expression is weakened without any inflation being
involved. Thus, the value of a title such as ''Duke'' may be weakened
if a monarch appoints an excessive number of dukes (which would be
inflation) but also if a previously non-existing rank of ''Grand
Duke'' is introduced. R�my Viredar (Linguist 14.675) objects that
one cannot compare a word to a currency since ''the currency is rather
the language itself, while a word would be an individual coin or
note.'' I do not know if he thinks of instances or rather types of
coins, but in either case the analogy is a bad one. The value of a
coin wholly depends on the value of the currency (if it does not
become a collectioner's item), but the meanings/values of expressions
in a language are basically independent of each other. When I choose
between two adjectives such as ''excellent'' and ''terrific'', it is
actually rather like choosing between euros and dollars than like
choosing between a five cent coin and a ten cent one.

- �sten Dahl 


Dahl, �sten. 2001. Inflationary effects in language and
elsewhere. Frequency and the Emergence of Linguistic Structure, ed. by
Joan Bybee and Paul J. Hopper, 471-80. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John
Benjamins. [Now viewable at
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