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Sometimes a language can have several words for the same notion.

  1. How long such a situation can last?
  2. Is it good for a language to have it?
  3. Should language bearers and linguists do something about it?

To provide a context I describe an example which inspired me to ask this question. In Ukrainian, we have two words for rose - троянда and роза. They both point to the same flower. Роза has additional meanings, but in case you want to name this flower, they are totally interchangeable, using any of them doesn't bring any additional meaning.

  • Having slightly different meanings is only one of the reasons synonyms coexist, so I don't think your edited-in example changes anything. I'd assume "троянда" either feels more "native" than "роза" (which I assume is borrowed, directly or indirectly, from Latin?), or feels more "Russian", either of which could presumably give many Ukranian speakers reason to prefer one or the other in different contexts. And certainly they sound quite different, which could at least make a difference in poetry, music, and rhetoric. – abarnert Feb 2 '19 at 5:03
  • Meanwhile, why are you asking this? Do you think Ukranian would be a better language if you eliminated one of these two words? If so, I'll bet you have a particular on you'd like to eliminate. So ask yourself why you chose that one, and that'll tell you the distinction between the two. – abarnert Feb 2 '19 at 5:05
  • @abarnert I would like to eliminate роза because it has several other meanings like compass rose. There are other too. While eliminating троянда would remove another root from the language which would make it poorer. – Yola Feb 2 '19 at 5:23
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    But "compass rose" is named that because it looks like the flower. (I mean, I don't know the etymology specifically of the Ukranian term, but it's almost certainly the same as everyone else in Europe, ultimately going back to Latin "rosa ventorum", then dropping the borrowed or calqued "ventorum"/"wind" part when navigation switched to magnetic compasses.) If you eliminated "роза" for the flower, that connection would be gone, which would probably have an impact on both the learnability of "роза" for the compass rose, and the ways you can use it poetically and artistically. – abarnert Feb 2 '19 at 5:37
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    @J-mster That's interesting. I was just guessing about the etymology. I guessed троянда would be borrowed into Common Slavic from Byzantine Greek, not borrowed into Ukranian from modern Greek—but I should know better; just because something seems more plausible at first glance doesn't mean you can assume it's true… – abarnert Feb 2 '19 at 19:48
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Every language is chock full of synonyms—hundreds or thousands of them.

Usually, those synonyms have some difference. They might:

  • … have slightly different connotations (usually "baby" includes toddlers, but "infant" doesn't),
  • … be usable in different sets of constructions (compare "eat" and "consume"—only the latter requires an object),
  • … be in different registers (compare "hello" and "hi"),
  • … differ only in euphony (one sounds better next to certain words but worse next to others),
  • … differ only when speaking across dialects (to an English speaker whose dialect has both "eggplant" and "aubergine", they're identical—but having both lets you talk to someone from Los Angeles who only knows "eggplant" and to someone from London who only knows "aubergine"),
  • … etc.

But they're still clearly "words for the same notion".

So, to answer your questions:

  1. How long such a situation can last? Well, not quite forever, because no word lasts forever with the same meaning. Eventually one of the two synonyms will probably shift in meaning until they're no longer synonyms, or die out, or the language itself might die out… but certainly for centuries.
  2. Is it good for a language to have it? Probably. Otherwise, language evolution would presumably work harder than it does to eliminate synonyms. It's possible that this is just a defect in the human "language organ", or in human society, but it doesn't seem likely. (Also, consider that having a pair of synonyms gives the language the raw material to adapt one of them in a new need arises, without losing the other one.)
  3. Should language bearers and linguists do something about it? Definitely not. It's not up to linguists to try to forcibly change languages. As for normal speakers, they can try, but (a) there's no good reason to, and (b) it almost never works.1

1. If you're wondering why I said "almost", there is at least one counter-example: Ataturk's modernization of Turkish. But there were a lot of special circumstances there, like the fact that the official language they were modernizing wasn't actually spoken by anyone but the elites.

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  • Thanks! I like your answer and upvoted it. I updated my question to address your answer, namely i would like to point out that in my situation two words for this notion are totally interchangeable. – Yola Feb 2 '19 at 4:51
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A semantic field with many synonyms is genital body parts: penis, testicle, vulva, vagina. A least several words can exist: either medical or vulgar, either adult or infantile. Think about how many words exist for "penis" in English. About your questions: Q1 How long such a situation can last? => it seems that such a situation can last very long, if not for ever. Q2. Is it good for a language to have it? => people seem happy about it. Q3. Should language bearers and linguists do something about it? => it's probably impossible to do something about it. Usage rules the real world.

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  • I think situation with penis is different from situation with rose, because people often don't want to say penis and use other words to substitute it, but this is not the case with rose. – Yola Feb 2 '19 at 9:40
  • well, is a rose not a metaphor for female genitalia ? – Arnaud Fournet Feb 2 '19 at 10:20
  • Yes, it is, but I mean flower, and you propose to consider very specific word. – Yola Feb 2 '19 at 10:34
  • @ArnaudFournet Sure, "rose" is used as a metaphor for female genitalia in a wide range of languages, but I don't think that's directly relevant here, and may be confusing the OP. The issue is that Ukranian has borrowed two different words for the flower, not that it uses two different metaphors for the genitalia. (Although you're surely right that Ukranian probably has even more synonyms for that than for "rose", and that is relevant; bringing up the fact that "роза" might be one of them is the part that could be confusing.) – abarnert Feb 2 '19 at 20:49
  • As a side note, do you think vulgar and euphemistic synonyms tend to persist even longer than synonyms in general? For example, we've had "prick" for 300+ years, "cock" for 400+ years, etc., and they show no signs of fading away even when newer words like "dick", "plonker", "willy", etc. became firmly established. And the only drift they ever seem to experience over the centuries is becoming more or less rude and/or childish; once a word means "penis" it seems to mean "penis" forever. – abarnert Feb 2 '19 at 20:57

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