Migrants and the importance of semantics

As we’ve seen over the past month from the public outcry towards the BBC’s usage of the term migrant to refer to the appalling humanitarian crisis currently unfolding on Europe’s eastern borders and across the Mediterranean, in an era of mass communication and fleeting headlines, semantics still matter – if anything, with the amount of indistinguishable noise being sent our way and the bite size manner of communication, semantics has probably never mattered so much.

As linguists, semantics is a vital area of study that requires constant attention; from generation to generation and area to area the meaning of words and phrases are constantly evolving and shifting.

What was correct and polite just a few years ago can suddenly be offensive and nonsensical; the meaning of a word or phrase can take on completely different connotations from city to city.

As media outlets become ever more centralized and oligopolistic, editorial decisions on the usage of words and phrases carry with them serious implications on opinion forming and shaping.

While the choice to refer to a person as a migrant or refugee may well be one of semantics, the connotations behind each word choice carries very different sentiments and is likely to produce a different response – the implication being that migrants have a choice purely motivated by economic gain whereas refugees are displaced by atrocity or disaster.

Unfortunately, this comes at the back end of an election cycle in the UK where migration and migrants had become a highly politicized and demonized subject by many parties, resulting in a semantic shift where the term migrant has been infused with negative connotations and understandably many felt it was distasteful in this circumstance.

Of course, the BBC is not alone in stumbling in the minefield of semantics but as the public funded state broadcaster the public they serve rightly always holds them to a higher standard.

Semantic change in languages occurs for numerous reasons but broadly speaking there are four main motivators – psychological, linguistic, sociocultural and anthropological salience.

There is a very fluid relationship between these markers and some changes can take a long time to evolve while others are far more rapid and of course there are numerous degrees and types of semantic changes, from metaphors to narrowing, widening or deterioration of definition, to simple hyperbole and meiosis.

A great example of one form of semantic shift is the word awful, which was originally a shortening of full of awe but now means very bad or unpleasant.

Misnomers are also sometimes the cause of semantic changes, for instance the term quantum leap in its correct usage is an instantaneous change, regardless of size and in physics relates to the smallest possible change, however in common usage it is used to denote a huge, abrupt change.

English isn’t the only language that undergoes semantic shifts, in Spanish the word coche, for example used to mean a horse driven cart but is now used for car and in many South American dialects pluma which means feather is used for pen and plata which literally translates as silver is now used as the term for money.

The famous Estraperlo scandal in pre civil war Spain where the Straperlo Company introduced fraudulent roulette tables to the country has seen the word estraperlo come to mean any illegal or corrupt business.

Language constantly evolves at a chaotic and indiscriminate pace, it’s impossible to predict how or when a shift will begin to occur yet as linguists it is imperative that we stay ahead of the curve, ensuring we are up to speed with the zeitgeist of the language and culture we are working in to avoid offense or crossed meanings.

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