Doublets: The chicken or the egg?

My current research and writing topic is doublets: word pairs from a single Latin root. These typically pair an older word that has been passed down orally from Vulgar Latin with a newer Latin borrowing dating from the 13th century or later. The older word shows the wear and tear of time in its form and meaning, while the newer word remains closer to the shared Latin root. Some examples are shown below.

Some Spanish doublets

Pairs like these raise an interesting chicken-or-egg question. Did the older words shift in meaning, thus creating gaps that made the new borrowings necessary, or did the pressure of the new borrowings push the older words into new semantic territory? My usual gods are silent on the subject. Ralph Penny merely notes that “the popular form [is] associated with changed meaning] (p. 40); Steven Dworkin likewise refers to “semantically differentiated sets”. There is a 1989 monograph on doublets by Belén Gutierrez that I need to track down and plow through, but I have no idea whether he addresses the chronology question.

I’d put my money on the egg — that is, the latter of the two possibilities I outlined just above. Focusing on the forma/horma example, it strikes me as unlikely that Spanish would develop a gap for a concept as basic as ‘form’. It’s more likely that forma was brought in as a cultivated word, as was common starting in the late 13th century, and that the two forms co-existed for some time, but in different registers (e.g. formal and informal speech), much as older llama ‘flame’ and newer flama still do today, until horma was pushed out into its current specialized territory.

But the only way to know is to analyze actual documentary evidence, for example from CORDE, and look for shifts in meaning over time. This would make a great dissertation if nobody has ever done it!

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