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Semantic Changes

Semantic Changes




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

Definition………………………………………………… ……… … ……….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



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 d?or '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

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 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 'sweat'.

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 unmentionable.

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.


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.


Rinaburg R. “A course in Modern English”. Moscow 1976.

Griberg S. I. “Exercises in Modern English”. Moscow 1980.

Antrushina. “English Lexicology”. 1985.

Kunin A. “English Lexicology” Moscow 1972.

Mednikova E. M. “Seminars in English Lexicology” Moscow “Vyshaja shkola”


Cruise. “Lexical semantic” Cambridge University press 1995.

“English Word Formation” Cambridge University press 1996.


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