Курсовая: Semantic Change
Chapter I. Semantic changes. Types of Semantic changes.............. 4
1. Definition................... ... . ....4
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).
CHAPTER I. SEMANTIC CHANGES. TYPES OF SEMANTIC CHANGES.
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
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 fuзol '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
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,
"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
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
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.
A causal relationship is obvious in the following development: ModE fear
< ME feere < OE fær, fēr 'danger', 'unexpected
attack'. States and properties serve as names for objects and people possessing
them: youth, age, authorities, forces. The name of the action can serve
to name the result of the action: ModE kill < ME killen 'to
hit on the head', ModE stay || Germ schlagen.. Emotions may be
named by the movements that accompany them: to frown, to start.
There are also the well-known instances of symbol for thing symbolized: the
crown for 'monarchy'; the instrument for the product: 'hand
'handwriting'; receptacle for content, as in the word kettle, and some
others. Words for the material from which an article is made are often used to
denote the particular article: glass, iron, copper, nickel are well
known examples. The pars pro toto where the name of a part is applied to the
whole may be illustrated by such military terms as the royal horse for
'cavalry' and foot for 'infantry', and the expressions like / want
to have a word with you. The reverse process is observed when OE
cēol 'a ship' develops among other variants into keel 'a barge
load of coal'.
A place of its own within metonymical change is occupied by the so-called
functional change. The type has its peculiarities: in this case the shift is
between names of things substituting one another in human practice. Thus, the
early instrument for writing was a feather or more exactly a quill (OE pen,
from OFr penne, from It penna, from Lat. penna
'feather'). We write with fountain-pens that are made of different materials
and have nothing in common with feathers except the function, but the name
remains. The name rudder comes from OE roper 'oar' || Germ
Ruder 'oar'. The shift of meaning is due to the shift of function: the
steering was formerly achieved by an oar. The steersman was called pilot;
with the coming of aviation one who operates the flying controls of an aircraft
was also called pilot. For more cases of functional change see also the
semantic history of the words: filter, pocket, spoon, stamp, sail.
Common names may be derived from proper names also metonymically, as in
macadam and diesel, so named after their inventors.
Many physical and technical units are named after great scientists: volt,
ohm, ampere, watt, etc.
There are also many instances in political vocabulary when the place of some
establishment is used not only for the establishment itself or its staff but
also for its policy: the White House, the Pentagon, Wall Street, Downing
Street, Fleet Street.
Examples of geographic names turning into common nouns to name the goods
exported or originating there are exceedingly numerous, e.g.
astrakhan, bikini, boston, cardigan, china, tweed.
Garments came to be known by the names of those who brought them into fashion:
mackintosh, raglan, wellingtons.
4. Other types of semantic changes.
Following the lead of literary criticism linguists have often adopted terms of
rhetoric for other types of semantic change, besides metaphor and metonymy.
These are: hyperbole, litotes, irony, e u p h e m i s m. In all these cases the
same warning that was given in connection with metaphors and metonymy must be
kept in mind: namely, there is a difference between these terms as understood
in literary criticism and in lexicology. Hyperbole (from Gr
huperballō 'exceed') is an exaggerated statement not meant to be
understood literally but expressing an intensely emotional attitude of the
speaker to what he is speaking about. The emotional tone is due to the
illogical character in which the direct denotative and the contextual emotional
meanings are combined.
A very good example is chosen by I. R. Galperin from Byron, and one cannot
help borrowing it:
When people say "I've told you fifty times," They mean to scold and very
The reader will note that Byron's intonation is distinctly colloquial, the
poet is giving us his observations concerning colloquial expressions, So the
.hyperbole here is not poetic but linguistic.
The same may be said about expressions like: It's absolutely maddening,
You'll be the death of me, I hate troubling you, It's monstrous, It's a
nightmare, A thousand pardons, A thousand thanks, Haven't seen you for ages,
I'd give the world to, I shall be eternally grateful, I'd love to do it,
The most important difference between a poetic hyperbole and a linguistic one
lies in the fact that the former creates an image, whereas in the latter the
denotative meaning quickly fades out and the corresponding exaggerating words
serve only as general signs of emotion without specifying the emotion itself.
Some of the most frequent emphatic words are: absolutely! awfully!
terribly! lovely! magnificent! splendid! and so on.
The reverse figure is called litotes (from Gr lītos 'plain',
'meagre') or understatement. It. might be defined as expressing the affirmative
by the negation of its contrary: e.g. not bad or not half bad
for 'good', not small for 'great', no coward for 'brave'. Some
understatements do not contain negations: rather decent; I could do with a
cup of tea. It is, however, doubtful whether litotes should be
considered under the heading of semantic change at all, because as a rule it
creates no permanent change in the semantic structure of the word concerned.
The purpose of understatement is not to deceive but to produce a stronger
impression on the hearer.
Also taken from rhetoric is the term irony, i.e. expression of one's meaning by
words of opposite meaning, especially a simulated adoption of the opposite
point of view for the purpose of ridicule. One of the meanings of the adjective
nice is 'bad', 'unsatisfactory'; it is marked off as ironical and
illustrated by the example: You've got us into a nice mess! The same
may be said about the adjective pretty: A pretty mess you've made of it!
Changes depending on the social attitude to the object named, connected with
social evaluation and emotional tone, are called amelioration and pejoration
of meaning. Amelioration or elevation is a semantic shift undergone by words
due to their referents coming up the social scale. For instance OE cwen
'a woman'> ModE queen, OE cniht 'a young servant' > ModE
knight. The words steward and stewardess (the passengers'
attendant on ships and airliners) have undergone a great amelioration.
Steward < OE stigweard from stigo 'a sty' and weard
'a ward', dates back from the days when the chief wealth of the Saxon landowner
was his pigs, of whom the stigweard had to take care. The meaning of
some words has been elevated through associations with aristocratic life or
town life. This is true about such adjectives as civil, chivalrous, urbane.
The reverse process is pejoration or degradation; it involves a lowering in
social scale connected with the appearance of a derogatory and scornful emotive
tone reflecting the disdain of the upper classes towards the lower ones. A
knave < OE cnafa \\ Germ Knabe meant at first 'boy', then
'servant', and finally became a term of abuse and scorn. Another example of the
same kind is blackguard. In the lord's retinue of Middle Ages served
among others the guard of iron pots and other kitchen utensils black with soot.
From the immoral features attributed to these servants by their masters comes
the present scornful ' meaning of the word blackguard. A similar
history is traced for the words boor, churl, clown, villain.
Euphemism (Gr euphemismos from eu 'well' and pheme
'speak') is the substitution of words of mild or vague connotations for
expressions rough, unpleasant or for some other reasons unmentionable.
Within the diachronic approach the phenomenon has been repeatedly classed by
many linguists as taboo. This standpoint is hardly acceptable for modern
European languages. With primitive peoples taboo is a prohibition meant as a
safeguard against supernatural forces. Names of ritual objects or animals
were taboo because the name was regarded as the equivalent of what was named.
S. Ullmann returns to the conception - of taboo several times illustrating it
with propitiatory names given in the early periods of language development to
such objects of superstitious fear as the bear (whose name originally meant
'brown') and the weasel. He treats both examples as material of comparative
semantics. The taboo influence behind the circumlocutions used to name these
animals becomes quite obvious when the same phenomenon is observed in
similar names in various other languages. There is no necessity to cite them
here as they are given in any book on general linguistics. It should be borne
in mind that taboo has historical relevance. No such opposition as that
between a direct and a propitiatory name for an animal, no matter how
dangerous, can be found in present-day English.
With peoples of developed culture, euphemism is intrinsically different, has
nothing to do with taboo and is dictated by social usage, moral tact and
etiquette. Cf. queer 'mad', deceased 'dead', perspire v
From the semantical point of view euphemism is important because meanings
with unpleasant connotations appear in words formerly neutral, as a result of
their repeated use instead of other words that are for some reason
The material of this chapter shows that semantic changes are not arbitrary. They
proceed in accordance with the logical and psychological laws of thought,
otherwise changed words would never be understood and could not serve the
purpose of communication. The various attempts at classification undertaken by
traditional linguistics, although inconsistent ( and often
subjective, are useful, since they permit the linguist to find his way about an
immense accumulation of semantic facts. However, they say nothing or almost
nothing about the causes of these changes.
CHAPTER II. CAUSES OF SEMANTIC CHANGE
In comparison with classifications of semantic change the problem of their
causes appears neglected. Opinions on this point are scattered through a
great number of linguistic works and have apparently never -been collected
into anything complete. And yet a thorough understanding of the phenomena
involved .in semantic change is impossible unless the whys and wherefores
become known. This is of primary importance as it may lead eventually to a
clearer, interpretation of language development. The vocabulary is the most
flexible part of the language and it is precisely its semantic aspect that
responds most readily to every change in the human activity in whatever
sphere it may happen to take place.
The causes of semantic changes may be grouped under two main headings,
linguistic and extralinguistic ones. Of these the first group has suffered
much greater neglect in the past and it is not surprising therefore that far
less is known of it than of the second. It deals with changes due to the
constant interdependence of vocabulary units in language and speech, such as
differentiation between synonyms, changes taking place in connection with
ellipsis and with fixed contexts, changes resulting from ambiguity in certain
contexts, and some other cases.
Semantic change due to the differentiation of synonyms is a gradual change
observed in the course of language history, sometimes, but not necessarily,
involving the semantic assimilation of loan words. Consider, for example, the
words time and tide. They used to be synonyms. Then tide
took on its more limited application to the periodically shifting waters, and
time alone is used in the general sense.
Another example of semantic change involving synonymic differentiation is the
word twist. In OE it was a noun, meaning 'a rope' whereas the
verb thrawan (now throw) meant both 'hurl' and 'twist'. Since
the appearance in the Middle English of the verb twisten ('twist') the
first verb lost this meaning. But threw in its turn influenced the
development of casten (cast), a Scandinavian borrowing. Its primary
meaning 'hurl', 'throw' is now present only in some set expressions. Cast
keeps its old meaning in such phrases as cast a glance, cast lots, cast
smth. in one's teeth. Twist has very many meanings, the latest being 'to
dance the twist'
Fixed context may be regarded as another linguistic factor in semantic change.
Both factors are at work in the case of token. When brought into
competition with the loan word sign, it became restricted in use to a
number of set expressions such as love token, token of respect and so
became specialized in meaning. Fixed context has this influence not only in
phrases but in compound words as well. OE mete meant 'food', its
descendant meat refers only to flesh food except in the set expression
meat and drink and the compound sweetmeats.
No systematic treatment has so far been offered for the syntagmatic semantic
changes depending on the context. But such cases do exist showing that
investigation of the problem is important.
One of these is ellipsis. The qualifying words of a frequent phrase may be
omitted: sale comes to be used for cut-price sale, propose for to
propose marriage, to be expecting for to be expecting a baby. Or
vice versa, the kernel word of the phrase may seem redundant: minerals
for mineral waters. Due to ellipsis starve which originally
meant 'die' (cf. Germ sterben) came to substitute the whole phrase
die of hunger, and also began to mean 'suffer from lack of food' and even in
colloquial use 'to feel hungry'. Moreover as there are many words with
transitive and intransitive variants naming cause and result, starve
came to mean 'to cause to perish with hunger'.
English has a great variety of these regular coincidences of different aspects,
alongside with cause and result, we could consider the coincidence of
subjective and objective, active and passive aspects especially frequent in
adjectives. E.g. hateful means 'exciting hatred' and 'full of hatred';
curious—'strange' and 'inquisitive'; pitiful— 'exciting compassion'
and 'compassionate'. Compare the different use of the words doubtful
and healthy in the following: to be doubtful :: a doubtful
advantage, to be healthy :: a healthy climate.
The extralinguistic causes are determined by the social nature of the
language: they are observed in changes of meaning resulting from the
development of the notion expressed and the thing named and by the appearance
of new notions and things. In other words, extralinguistic causes of semantic
change are connected with the development of the human mind as it moulds
reality to conform with its needs.
Languages are powerfully affected by social, political, economic, cultural
and technical change. The influence of those factors upon linguistic
phenomena is studied by sociolinguistics. It shows that social factors can
influence even structural features of linguistic units, terms of science, for
instance, have a number of specific features as compared to words used in
other spheres of human activity.
The word being a linguistic realization of notion, it changes with the progress
of human consciousness. This process is reflected in the development of
lexical meaning. As the human mind achieves an ever more exact understanding of
the world of reality and the objective relationships that characterize it, the
notions become more and more exact reflections of real things. The history of
the social, economic and political life of people, the progress of culture and
science bring about changes in notions and things influencing the semantic
aspect of language. For instance, OE eorpe meant 'the ground under
people's feet', 'the soil' and 'the world of man' as opposed to heaven
that was supposed to be inhabited first by Gods and later on, with the spread of
Christianity, by God, his saints and the souls of the dead. With the progress
of science earth came to mean the third planet from the sun and the knowledge
of it was constantly enriched.
The word space from the meanings of 'extension' or 'intervening
distance' came to mean 'the limitless expanse in which everything exists' and
more recently came to be used especially in the meaning of 'outer space'.
Atoms (Gr. atomos 'indivisible' from a 'not' and tomos
'cut') were formerly thought to be indivisible smallest particles of matter and
were usually associated in layman's speech with smallness. The word could be
metaphorically used in the meaning of 'a tiny creature'. When atoms were found
to be made up of a positively charged nucleus round which negatively charged
electrons revolve, the notion of an atom brought about connotations of discrete
(discontinuous) character of matter. With the advances made since science has
found ways of releasing the energy hidden in the splitting of the atomic
nucleus, the notion is accompanied with the idea of immense potentialities
present, as, for instance, in the phrase Atoms for peace. Since the
advent of the atomic bomb the adjective atomic distinctly connotes in
the English language with the threat of a most destructive warfare (atomic
bomb, atomic warfare).
The tendency to use technical imagery is increasing in every language, thus the
expression to spark off in chain reaction is almost international. Some
expressions tend to become somewhat obsolete: the English used to talk of
people being galvanized into activity, or going full steam ahead
but the phrases sound out dated now.
The changes of notions and things named go hand in hand. As they are
conditioned by changes in the economic, social, political and cultural
history of the people, the extralinguistic causes of semantic change might be
conveniently subdivided in accordance with these. Social relationships are
at work in the cases of elevation and pejoration of meaning discussed in the
previous section where the attitude of the upper classes to their social
inferiors determined the strengthening of emotional tone among the semantic
components of the word.
Euphemisms may be dictated by publicity needs—hence ready-tailored and
ready-to-wear clothes instead of ready-made. The influence of
mass-advertising on language is growing; it is felt in every level of the
language. Innovations possible in advertising are of many different types. A
kind of orange juice, for instance, is called Tango. The justification
of the name is given in the advertising text as follows: Get this
different tasting Sparkling Tango. Tell you why: made from whole oranges.
Taste those oranges. Taste the tang in Tango. Tingling tang, bubbles—
sparks. You drink it straight. Goes down great. Taste the tang in Tango. New
Sparkling Tango. The reader will see for himself how many expressive
connotations are introduced by the salesman in this commercial name in an
effort to attract the buyer's attention.
Economic causes are obviously at work in the semantic development o! the word
wealth. It first meant 'well-being', 'happiness' from weal from OE
wela whence well. This original meaning is preserved in the
compounds commonwealth and commonweal. The present meaning
became possible due to the role played by money both in feudal and bourgeois
society. The chief wealth of the early inhabitants of Europe being the cattle,
OE feoh means both 'cattle' and 'money', likewise Goth faihu;
Lat. pecu meant 'cattle' and pecunia meant 'money'. ME
fee-house is both a cattle-shed and a treasury. The present-day English
fee most frequently means the price paid for services to a lawyer or a
physician. It appears to develop jointly from the above mentioned OE feoh
and the Anglo-French fe, fie, fief, probably of the same origin, meaning
'a recompense' and 'a feudal tenure'. This modern meaning is obvious in the
following example: Physicians of the utmost Fame/Were called at once; but
when they came/ They answered as they took their fees,/ "There is no cure for
this disease." (BELLOC)
We have dialled in detail with various types of semantic change. This is
necessary not only because of the interest the various cases present in
themselves but also because a thorough knowledge of these possibilities helps
one to understand the semantic structure of English words at the present
stage of their development. The development and change of the semantic
structure of a word is always a source of qualitative and quantitative
development of the vocabulary.
The constant development of industry, agriculture, trade and transport bring
into being new objects and new notions. Words to name them are either
borrowed or created from material already existing in the language and it
often happens that new meanings are thus acquired by old words.
1. Rinaburg R. “A course in Modern English”. Moscow 1976.
2. Griberg S. I. “Exercises in Modern English”. Moscow 1980.
3. Antrushina. “English Lexicology”. 1985.
4. Kunin A. “English Lexicology” Moscow 1972.
5. Mednikova E. M. “Seminars in English Lexicology” Moscow “Vyshaja
6. Cruise. “Lexical semantic” Cambridge University press 1995.
7. “English Word Formation” Cambridge University press 1996.