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
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 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
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
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.
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.