Semantic Changes

Semantic Changes




Chapter I. Semantic changes. Types of Semantic changes... 4

1.             Definition .4

2.            Metaphor7

3.            Metonymy...9

4.            Other types of Semantic changes.. 10

Chapter II. Causes of semantic change... 12




The meaning of a word can change in the course of time. Changes of lexical meanings can be proved by comparing contexts of different times. Transfer of the meaning is called lexico-semantic word-building. In such cases the outer aspect of a word does not change.

The causes of semantic changes can be extra-linguistic and linguistic, e.g. the change of the lexical meaning of the noun pen was due to extra-linguistic causes. Primarily pen comes back to the Latin word penna (a feather of a bird). As people wrote with goose pens the name was transferred to steel pens which were later on used for writing. Still later any instrument for writing was called a pen.

On the other hand causes can be linguistic, e.g. the conflict of synonyms when a perfect synonym of a native word is borrowed from some other language one of them may specialize in its meaning, e.g. the noun tide in Old English was polisemantic and denoted time, season, hour. When the French words time, season, hour were borrowed into English they ousted the word tide in these meanings. It was specialized and now means regular rise and fall of the sea caused by attraction of the moon. The meaning of a word can also change due to ellipsis, e.g. the word-group a train of carriages had the meaning of a row of carriages, later on of carriages was dropped and the noun train changed its meaning, it is used now in the function and with the meaning of the whole word-group.

Semantic changes have been classified by different scientists. The most complete classification was suggested by a German scientist Herman Paul in his work Prinzipien des Sprachgeschichte. It is based on the logical principle. He distiguishes two main ways where the semantic change is gradual ( specialization and generalization), two momentary conscious semantic changes (metaphor and metonymy) and also secondary ways: gradual (elevation and degradation), momentary (hyperbole and litote).



1. Definition.

The development and change of the semantic structure of a word is always a source of qualitative and quantitative development of the vocabulary.

All the types discussed depend upon some comparison between the earlier (whether extinct or still in use) and the new meaning of the given word. This comparison may be based on the difference between notions expressed or referents in the real world that are pointed out, on the type of psychological association at work, on evaluation of the latter by the speaker or, possibly, on some other feature.

The order in which various types are described will follow more or less closely the diachronic classifications of M. Breal and H. Paul. No attempt at a new classification is considered necessary. There seems to be no point in augmenting the number of unsatisfactory schemes already offered in literature. The treatment is therefore traditional.

M. Breal was probably the first to emphasize the fact that in passing from general usage into some special sphere of communication a word as a rule undergoes some sort of specialisation of its meaning. The word case, for instance, alongside its general meaning of 'circumstances in which a person or a thing is' possesses special meanings: in law ('a law suit'), in grammar (e.g. the Possessive case), in medicine ('a patient', 'an illness'). Compare the following:

One of Charles's cases had been a child ill with a form of diphtheria. (C. P. SNOW) (case = a patient).

The Solicitor whom I met at the Holfords sent me a case which any young man at my stage would have thought himself lucky to get. (Idem) (case = a question decided, in a court of law, a law suit)

The general, not specialized meaning is also very frequent in present-day English. For example: At last we tiptoed up the broad slippery staircase, and went to our rooms. But in my case not to sleep, immediately at least. (Idem) (case = circumstances in which one is)

This difference is revealed in the difference of contexts in which these words occur, in their different valency. Words connected with illnesses and medicine in the first example, and words connected with law and court procedures in the second, form the semantic paradigm of the word case.

The word play suggests different notions to a child, a playwright, a footballer, a musician or a chess-player and has in their speech different semantic paradigms. The same applies to the noun cell as used by a biologist, an electrician, a nun or a representative of the law; or the word gas as understood by a chemist, a housewife, a motorist or a miner.

In all the examples considered above a word which formerly represented a notion of a broader scope has come to render a notion of a narrower scope. When the meaning is specialized, the word can name fewer objects, i.e. have fewer referents. At the same time the content of the notion is being enriched, as it includes -a greater number of relevant features by which the notion is characterized. Or as St. Ullmann puts it: "The word is now applicable to more things but tells us less about them." The reduction of scope accounts for the term "narrowing of the meaning" which is even more often used than the term "specialization". We shall avoid the term "narrowing", since it is somewhat misleading. Actually it is neither the meaning nor the notion, but the scope of the notion that .is narrowed.

There is also a third term for the same phenomenon, namely "differentiation", but it is not so widely used as the first two terms.

H. Paul, as well as many other authors, emphasizes the fact that this type of semantic change is particularly frequent in vocabulary of professional and trade groups.

H. Paul's examples are from the German language but it is very easy to find parallel cases in English. So this type of change is fairly universal and fails to disclose any specifically English properties.

The best known examples of specialization in the general language are as follows: OE dēor 'wild beast' > ModE deer 'wild rum,inant of a particular species' (the original meaning was still alive in Shakespeare's time as is proved by the following quotation: Rats and mice and such small deer); OE mete 'food' >ModE meat 'edible flesh', i.e. only a particular species of food (the earlier meaning is still noticeable in the compound sweetmeat). This last example deserves special attention because the tendency of fixed context to preserve the original meaning is very marked as is constantly proved by various examples. Other well-worn examples are: OE fuol 'bird' (cf. Germ Vogel) > ModE foal 'domestic birds'. The old, meaning is still preserved in poetic diction and in set expressions, like fowls of the air. Among its derivatives, fowler means 'a person who shoots or traps wild birds for sport or food'; the shooting or trapping itself is called fowling; a fowling piece is a gun. OE hund 'dog' (cf. . Germ Hund) >hound 'a species of hunting dog'. Many words connected with literacy also show similar changes: thus, teach<.OE tæcan 'to show', 'to teach'; write <OE wrītan 'to write', 'to scratch', 'to score' (cf. Germ reiβen)< writing in Europe had first the form of scratching on the bark of the trees. Tracing these semantic changes the scholars can, as it were, witness the development of culture.

In the above examples the new meaning superseded the earlier one. Both meanings can also coexist in the structure of a polysemantic word or be differentiated locally. The word token < OE tāce, Germ Zeichen originally had the broad meaning of 'sign'. The semantic change that occurred in it illustrates systematic interdependence within the vocabulary elements. Brought into competition with the borrowed word sign it became restricted in use to a few cases of fixed context (a love token, a token of respect, a token vote, a token payment) and consequently restricted in meaning. In present-day English token means something small, unimportant or cheap which represents something big, important or valuable. Other examples of specialization are room, which alongside the new meaning keeps the old one of 'space'; corn originally meaning 'grain', 'the seed of any cereal plant': locally the word becomes specialized and is understood to denote the leading crop of the district; hence in England corn means 'wheat', in Scotland 'oats', whereas in the USA, as an ellipsis for Indian corn, it came to mean 'maize'.

As a special group belonging to the same type one can mention the formation of proper nouns from common nouns chiefly in toponymies, i.e. place names. For instance, the City, the business part of London; the Highlands the mountainous part of Scotland; Oxford University town in England from ox+ford, i.e. a place where oxen could ford the river; the Tower (of London) originally a fortress and palace, later a state prison, now a museum.

In the above examples the change of meaning occurred without change of sound form and without any intervention of morphological processes. In many cases, however, the two processes, semantic and morphological, go hand in hand. For instance, when considering the effect of the agent suffix -ist added to the noun stem art- we might expect the whole to mean any person occupied in art, a representative of any kind of art, but usage specializes the meaning of the word artist and restricts it to a synonym of painter.

The process reverse to specialisation is termed generalisation
and widening of meaning. In that case the scope of the new
notion is wider than that of the original one (hence widening), whereas
the content of the notion is poorer. In most cases generalisation is combined with a higher order of abstraction than in the notion expressed by
the earlier meaning. The transition from a concrete meaning to an abstract one is a most frequent feature in the semantic history of words. The
change may be explained as occasioned by situations in which not all
the features of the notions rendered are of equal importance for the

Thus, ready <OE ræde (a derivative of the verb rīdan 'to ride') meant 'prepared for a ride'. Fly originally meant 'to move through the air with wings'; now it denotes any kind of movement in the air or outer space and also very quick movement in any medium.

The process went very far in the word thing with its original meanings 'cause', 'object', 'decision', 'meeting', and 'the decision of the meeting', 'that which was decided upon'. (Cf. Norwegian storting 'parliament'.) At present, as a result of this process of generalisation, the word can substitute nearly any noun, and receives an almost pronominal force. In fact all the words belonging to the group of generic terms fall into this category of generalization. By generic terms we shall mean non-specific, non-distributive terms applicable to a great number ; of individual members of a big class of words. The grammatical meaning of this class of words becomes predominant in their semantic components. Notice the very general, character of the word business in the following: "Donald hasn't a very good manner of interviews.""All this good-manner business," Clun said, "they take far too much notice of it now in my opinion" (A. WILSON) ,

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish the instances of generalization proper from generalization combined with a fa-ding of lexical meaning ousted by the grammatical or emotional meaning that take its place. These phenomena are closely connected with the peculiar characteristics of grammatical structure typical of each individual language. One observes them, for instance, studying the semantic history of the English auxiliary and semi-auxiliary verbs, especially have, do, shall, will, turn, go, and that of some English prepositions and adverbs which in the course of time have come to express grammatical relations. The weakening of lexical meaning due to the influence of emotional force is revealed in such words as awfully, terribly, terrific, smashing.





2. Metaphor.

"Specialization" and "generalization" are thus identified on the evid-' ence of comparing logical notions expressed by the meaning of words. If, on the other hand, the linguist is guided by psychological considerations and has to go by the type of association at work in the transfer of the name of one object to another and different one, he will observe that the most frequent transfers are based on associations of similarity or of contiguity. As these types of transfer are well known in rhetoric as ; figures of speech called metaphor (Gr meta 'change' and phero 'bear') and metonymy (Gr metonymia from meta and onoma 'name') and the same terms are adopted here. A metaphor is a transfer of name based on the association of similarity and thus is actually a hidden comparison. It presents a method of description which likens one thing to another by referring to it as if it were some other one. A cunning person, for instance, is referred to as a fox. A woman may be called a peach, a lemon, a cat, a goose, etc. In a metonymy, this referring to one thing as if it were some other one is based on association of contiguity. Sean O'Casey in his one-act play "The Hall of Healing" metonymically names his personages according to the things they are wearing: Red Muffler, Grey Shawl, etc. Metaphor and metonymy differ from the two first types of semantic change, i.e. generalization and specialization, inasmuch .as they do not originate as a result of gradual almost imperceptible change in many contexts, but come of a purposeful momentary transfer of a name from one object to another belonging to a different sphere of reality.

In all discussion of linguistic metaphor and metonymy it must be borne in mind that they are different from metaphor and metonymy as literary devices. When the latter are offered and accepted both the author and the reader are to a greater or lesser degree aware that this reference is figurative, that the object has another name. The relationship of the direct denotative meaning of the word and the meaning it has in the literary context in question is based on similarity of some features in the objects compared. The poetic metaphor is the fruit of the author's creative imagination, as for example when England is called by Shakespeare (in "King Richard II") this precious stone set in the silver sea, or when A. Tennyson writes: What stamps the wrinkle deeper on the brow?/ To view each loved one blotted from life's page.

In a linguistic metaphor, especially when it is dead as a result of long usage, the thing named often has no other name. In a dead metaphor the comparison is completely forgotten, as for instance in the words gather, source and shady in the following example dealing with some information: / gathered that one or two of their sources were shady, and some not so much shady as irregular in a most unexpected way. (SNOW)

The meaning of such expressions as a sun beam or a beam of light are not explained by-allusions to a tree, although the word is actually derived from OE beam 'tree' || Germ Baum, whence the meaning beam a long piece of squared timber supported at both ends' has also developed. The metaphor is dead. There are no associations with hens in the verb' brood 'to meditate' (often sullenly),'though the direct meaning is 'to sit on eggs'.

There may be transitory stages: a bottleneck 'any thing obstructing an even flow of work", for instance, is not a neck and does not belong to a bottle. The transfer is possibly due to the fact that there are some common features in the narrow top part of the bottle, a narrow outlet for road traffic, and obstacles interfering with the smooth working of administrative machinery.

Metaphors, H. Paul points out, may be based upon very different types of similarity, for instance, similarity of shape: head of a cabbage, the teeth of a saw. This similarity may be based on a similarity of function. The transferred meaning is easily recognized from the context: the head of the school, the key to a mystery. The similarity may be supported also by position: foot of a page, of a mountain, or behaviour and function: bookworm, wirepuller. The word whip a lash used to urge horses on' is metaphorically transferred to an official in the British Parliament appointed by a political party to see that members are present at debates, especially when a vote is taken, to check the voting and also to advise the members on the policy of the respective party, etc.

In the kg of the table the metaphor is motivated by the similarity of the lower part of the table and the human limb in position and partly jn shape and function. Anthropomorphic metaphors are among the most frequent. The way in which the words denoting parts of the body are made to express a variety of meanings may be illustrated by the following: head of an army, of a procession, of a household; arms and mouth of a' river, eye of a needle, foot of a hill, tongue of a bell and so on and so forth. The transferred meaning is easily recognized from the context: ... her feet were in low-heeled brown brogues with fringed tongues. (PLOMER>

Numerous cases of metaphoric transfer are based upon the analogy between duration of time and space, e.g. long distance:: long- speech; a short path :: a short time. The transfer of space relations upon psychological and mental notions may be exemplified by words and expressions concerned with understanding: to catch (to grasp) an idea; to take a hint; , to get the hang of; to throw light upon.

This metaphoric change from the concrete to the abstract is also represented in such simple words as score, span, thrill. Score comes from OE scoru 'twenty' from ON skor 'twenty' and also 'notch'. In OE time notches were cut on sticks to keep a reckoning. As score is cognate with shear, it is very probable that the meaning developed from the twentieth notch that was made of a larger size. From the meaning 'line' or 'notch cut or scratched down' many new meanings sprang out, such as 'number of points made by a player or a side in some games', 'running account', 'a debt', 'written or printed music', etc. Span from OE spann 'maximum distance between the tips of thumb and little finger used as a measure of length', came to mean 'full extent from end to end' (of a bridge, an arch, etc.) and 'a short distance'. Thrill from ME thriven 'to pierce' developed into the present meaning 'to penetrate with emotion'.

Another subgroup of metaphors comprises transitions of proper names into common ones: an Adonis, a Cicero, a Don Juan, etc. When a proper name like Falstaff is used referring specifically to the hero of Shakespeare's plays it has a unique reference. But when people speak of a person they know calling him Falstaff they make a proper name generic for a corpulent, jovial, irrepressibly impudent person and it no longer denotes a unique being. Cf. Don Juan as used about attractive profligates. To certain races and nationalities traditional characteristics have been attached by the popular mind with or without real justification. If a person is an out-and-out mercenary and a hypocrite into the bargain they call him a Philistine, ruthlessly destructive people are called Vandals.


If the transfer is based upon the association of contiguity it is called metonymy. It is a shift of names between things that are known to be in some way or other connected in reality. The transfer may be conditioned by spatial, temporal, causal, symbolic, instrumental, functional and other relations.

Thus, the word book is derived from the name of a tree on which inscriptions were scratched: ModE book < OE boc 'beech'. ModE win <. OE winnan 'to fight'; the word has been shifted so as to apply to the success following fighting. Cash is an adaptation of the French word caisse 'box'; from naming the container it came to mean what was contained, i.e. money; the original meaning was lost in competition with the new word safe. Spatial relations are also present when the name of the place is used for the people occupying it. The chair may mean 'the chairman', the bar 'the lawyers', the pulpit 'the priests'. The word town may denote the inhabitants of a town and the word house the members of the House of Commons or of Lords. Cello, violin, saxophone are often used to denote not the instruments but the musicians who play them.

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