SEMANTIC CHANGES

Update of the English vocabulary is a process that happens via three mainstream ways:
borrowing from other languages (week 12)
word-formation (summer term)
semantic change (week 10).

We can observe the process of semantic change from two aspects. First, we can observe the
changes from the point of view of logic, or, in this sense, we observe the results of semantic
change. Here, the results can be studied in the denotative and the connotative meaning.

Results of semantic change in the denotative meaning:

widening of meaning (extension or generalization). The meaning of the word is
widened (this is usually observable diachronically). E.g.: rubbish in Old English
only meant broken stones; present-day expression is wider and covers all kinds of
unwanted or left-over property; camp had only the meaning of the military camp.
narrowing of meaning (specialization or restriction). Here, the new meaning is
more precise, covers only the part of the original meaning. E.g.: hound was
originally the general word for dog, today it only marks its hunting breeds. Meat
was the word for the food, today it is restricted for a type of food only.
branching. In this process the lexeme becomes polysemous; the newly
developed sememes coexist, e.g. head – mind and mental abilities, part of the
body, life (it cost him his head), individual person, leader, something resembling
the head of the body (of cabbage, of nail), culmination, the top or the beginning of
a page or letter, front or prominent part…

NB: many Slovak words have wider meaning than their English equivalents, e.g. noha –
leg/foot, ruka – hand/arm, prst – finger/toe, piecť – bake/roast etc.; or the narrower meaning,
e.g.: fork – vidlička, križovatka v tvare Y.

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Results of semantic change in the connotative meaning:
Pejoration (deterioration) – he new meaning is negative, the word acquires
derogatory emotive charge. E.g. counterfeit (today fake, originally copy), villain (today
ničomník, originally paholok, sluha na statku).
Amelioration – the new meaning adds positive charge, e.g. knight – rytier, originally
sluha, poskok; queen – original meaning was woman.

The second perspective from which we can approach semantic change is the nature
of the change, or, the condition of some connection or association between the new and the
old meaning. We also call this feature a transfer. The meaning can be transferred from the
original to the new position via three main types of association:
Metaphor (is a semantic change based on the association of similarity between
referents) – the meaning is transferred on the basis of the fact that the two referents
resemble one another. The basic structure of the metaphor is very simple. There is a
thing we are talking about and that to which we are comparing it.
Nevertheless, the similarity may involve different types:
similarity of shape (head of a cabbage),
similarity of position or location (foot of a page/mountain),
similarity of form and position (the neck of a bottle),
similarity of form and function (teeth of a saw, an arm of a robot),

similarity of function (head of department),

similarity in behaviour (bookworm, wirepuller, fox ),

similarity of color…

Consider the following types of similarities: mouth – ústa, ústie rieky; hand – ruka, ručička
(hodín); a drop of – kvapka, troška…
All mentioned similarities can be of two kinds – objective or emotive – more about
both kinds in Štekauer´s Essentials (1993, page 70) where he mentions also four major
groups of other classification of metaphors as given by Ullman (1970).
Metonymy (contiguity of meaning) – the name of an attribute of a thing is used
instead of the thing itself, e.g.: crown (koruna = monarchia), iron (žehlička), force
(ozbrojené jednotky), defence (ministerstvo obrany). Proper names as metonymy
can be illustrated by: read Shakspeare; listen to Mozart; it was a Waterloo…
Synecdoche – a part is used to mean the whole, e.g. have several mouths to
feed – „mouth“ instead of a whole „person“; Leeds defeated Manchester – football

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teams of each city. Synecdoches in Slovak include expressions: za volantom =
v aute; mať vlastnú strechu = vlastný dom.

Other types of meaning tranfer are:
Eponymy (functional change) – common words are derived from proper nouns,
e.g.: sandwich, china, bikini, rugby, White House (American government).
Personification – assigning human qualities to things, e.g.: the paper says…
Euphemisms – the need for a less expressive word, substitution of words which
can be harmful for words with milder connotations, e.g.: restroom (toilet), pass
away (die), sleep with … (have a sexual intercourse with…)
Hyperbole – exaggeration of meaning, statement not to be taken literally, e.g.:
wait for ages, weight a ton, I’ll kill him when I see him…
Litotes – the opposite of hyperbole, the understatement which can be often
ironical or moderating, e.g.: It wasn’t bad (in the sense of It was good), She’s not
stupid (She’s rather smart)…

The phenomenon of semantic change must have its cause, the motivating factor that
propels the change to happen. In the study of the lexicon we distinguish two main causes:

linguistic causes: English has its general tendencies and development
patterns, which cause certain semantic changes.
The tendency of language economy is apparent in ellipsis – a phrase
is made of two words, but the meaning of one of the words is gradually
transferred to its partner, so one word can stand for the whole phrase,
e.g.: to be expecting (to be expecting a baby), to propose (to propose
to marry).
language

economy is

also

responsible

for

the

tendency of

differentiating of synonymy – time and tide used to be synonymous,
today they differ considerably
analogy – when one member of a synonymic set acquires a new
meaning, the other members acquire it, too: when the word catch
acquired the meaning of understand, its synonyms get, grasp acquired
the new meaning as well. Today all three words also mean ‘to
understand’

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extra-linguistic causes: change of lexicon is most strongly pushed by the
changes in the society, the speech community, the culture. The changes can
be political, social, economic. Institutions are being established and abolished,
objects appear and disappear, phenomena come and go. In most cases the
words denoting the disappearing objects or events stay in the language, but
their meaning is shifted, e.g.: car originally named kára, today it is auto; atom
originally (in Greek) meant invisible, today it’s atóm, small matter particle.

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