Simplexes

Another dimension along which languages for specific purposes may vary is the number of simplex terms they use. By simplex, we mean a term which, from a synchronic point of view, will not be linked formally and semantically to another term in the language by etymologically uninformed speakers. Of course, the demarcation of simplex and complex terms is notoriously fuzzy, relatedness being a matter of degree and subject to variation among speakers. Some speakers, for example, may spontaneously associate dividend with divide, but most unsophisticated speakers, we surmise, do not.

Table 17.3: Simplex and complex nominal terms in chosen disciplines (English)

Economics

Business

Medicine

Linguistics

Chemistry

Physics

Simplex

11.7%

12.4%

6.7%

16.2%

11.9%

17.3%

Complex

87.6%

85.7%

90.6%

82.6%

87.9%

82.5%

Other

0.7%

1.8%

2.7%

1.2%

0.2%

0.2%

(The “Other” category comprises abbreviations, symbols and other oddities.)

As shown in Table 17.3, the percentage of simplex terms ranges from 6.7% in medicine to 16.2% in linguistics and 17.3% in physics, the values closest to the general language. Like that for the other natural science, chemistry, the percentages for economics and business lie roughly midway between these extremes. As remarked above, economists and management scholars deal mostly with phenomena conceptualized in the speech community before the advent of scientific analysis. Just think of nouns from the economics list such as bank, benefit, business, cash, commodity, company, cost, costumer, factory, firm, interest, job, land, loan, market, merchant, money, mortgage, price, profit, property, revenue, risk, rival, sale, service, skill, tariff, tax, trade, value, wage or work. Many verbs are equally basic; witness buy, compete, hire, lend, negotiate, rent, sell, etc. All members of the speech community have an intuitive grasp of the concepts represented by these terms, and for many educated speakers this is even true of less familiar terms such as asset, bond, brand, budget, capital, cartel, check, corporation, currency, default, dividend, economy, entrepreneur or finance.

When the phenomena denoted by nouns such as those listed above became the object of explicit analysis, experts adopted the words that were already in use for designating them in everyday practice. To the extent that professional practice and theories became more elaborate, however, some of these terms inevitably underwent semantic elaborations or adjustments in technical usage. So, for example, price is closely tied to situations of buying and selling in everyday English, but economists use it to denote a more abstract concept which includes salaries (the price of labour) or interest (the price of borrowed money). When economists talk of price in an academic setting, in their mental imagery they usually see the point of intersection of a supply curve and a demand curve. In a similar manner, for ordinary people the term money essentially refers to coins and banknotes, maybe also to “plastic money”, while for central bankers and experts in monetary theory it also comprises cheques, deposits and certain funds, classified according to the ease with which they can be converted into cash.

The technical use of price or money thus constitutes an analogical extension of the everyday meaning. Given that the original meaning and its extension are so close, it would seem misguided to speak of metaphor here. A real metaphorical leap, however, is involved in other cases, as when Theodore Schultz in the 1950s extended the use of capital to refer to the knowledge and skills of people, speaking of human capital (cf. Klamer and Leonard 1994: 32). This process of recycling everyday words for scientific use through semantic shift is called terminologization, a special case of resemanticization. Occasionally, such a semantic shift can give rise to misunderstandings between lay persons and experts. For instance, economists consider mortgage loan repayments as saving because the amount of money paid is not spent on consumption, and according to their definition saving is income not spent. But mortgage-holders are very unlikely to think of their repayments in that way since the amount of their savings is not increased (cf. Gallais-Hamonno 1982: 45-46). More importantly, semantic shifts are inevitable in the process of theory building, one of whose goals consists precisely in the explication of basic terms. And, if such changes in meaning go unnoticed or are not taken into account, the result is often misunderstandings and sterile discussions among scholars (see Moore 1906 for an early, insightful treatment of this problem, exemplified with the term competition).

Despite such complications, it seems obvious that the simplexes of economics and business, taken as they are from everyday practice, are generally easier to understand for the ordinary speaker than those of many other disciplines. Medical terminology, for example, comprises a similar range of everyday words (blister, blood, bone, brain, breast, etc.), but most of the simplexes - simplexes, that is, for the non-etymology-savvy speaker! - are technical terms not accessible to everybody, e.g., alveolus, cyst, diastole, enzyme, gene, hormone. And, although many ring familiar, the layperson’s concept is often rather vague in comparison with that of a doctor, as with acid, angina, aorta, bacterium, cancer, dementia, etc. The situation is similar in linguistics, where, apart from a few everyday words like language, dialect, speak, pronounce, stress and word, most simplexes are not learned until secondary education and may not be grasped by students in their precise meaning (e.g., adjective, adverb, clause, diphthong, tense, aspect). These concepts are, of course, much more difficult to understand than the basic concepts of economics and business, since they do not refer to entities that we encounter in our daily lives but to abstract categories created by linguistic analysis.

 
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