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32. Express your attitude on causes, nature and results of semantic change.


The systems of meanings of polysemantic words evolve gradually. The older a word is, the better developed is its semantic structure, i.e. words acquire new meanings. The semantic change may be analysed according to the cause, nature and results.

The factors accounting for semantic changes may be roughly subdivided into two groups: extra-linguistic, linguistic causes.

By extra-linguistic causes (non-verbal) we mean various changes in the life of the speech community, changes in economic and social structure, changes in ideas, scientific concepts, way of life, changes in culture, arts as reflected in word meanings. Newly created objects, new concepts and phenomena must obtain names. We already know of two ways for providing new names for newly created concepts: making new words (word-building) and borrowing foreign ones. One more way of filling such vocabulary gaps is by applying some old word to a new object or notion. F: when the first textile factories appeared in England, the old mill was applied to these early industrial enterprises. In this way mill (a Latin borrowing of the first century) added a new meaning to its former meaning “a building in which corn is ground into flour”. The new meaning was “textile factory”. F: carriage which had the meaning “a vehicle drawn by horses”, but with the first appearance of railways in England, it received a new meaning, that of “a railway car”.

By linguistic causes we mean factors acting within the language system or through the influence of other words, mostly of synonyms. F: the word land in old English meant both “solid part of earth’s surface” and “the territory of a nation”. When in middle English period the word country was borrowed at its synonym, the meaning of the word land was somewhat altered and “the territory of a nation” came to be denoted mainly by the borrowed word country.


Generally speaking, of any semantic change has some associations between the old meaning and the new. There are two kinds of association involved in various semantic changes: similarity of meaning (metaphor) and contiguity of meaning (metonymy). In other words transference based on Resemblance is metaphor. Transference based on contiguity is metonymy. The process of development of a new meaning or a change of meaning is traditionally termed transference. The transfer of the meaning on the basis of comparison or resemblance is called metaphor. For example,

  1. similarity of shape, e.g. head of a cabbage, bottleneck, teeth of a comb

  2. similarity of position, e.g. foot of a mountain, a page, leg of a table

  3. similarity of function, behaviour, e.g. branch of a science

  4. similarity of colour, e.g. orange, chestnut

  5. metaphors which are based on parts of a human body, e.g. an eye of a needle, mouth of a river, head of an army

  6. when proper names become common nouns, e.g. vandals-destructive people, a Don Juan-a lover of many women

The transfer of the meaning on the basis of contiguity is called metonymy. For example,

There are different types of metonymy:

  1. the material of which an object is made may become the name of the object, e.g. a glass, boards, iron

  2. the name of the place may become the name of the people or of an object placed there, e.g. the House –members of Parliament, Fleet Street – bourgeois press, the White House – the administration of the USA

  3. names of musical instruments may become names of musicians, e.g. the violin, the saxophone

  4. the name of some person may become a common noun, e.g. boycott was originally the name of an Irish family who were so much disliked by their neighbours that they did not mix with them, sandwich-was named after Lord sandwich who was a gambler. He did not want to interrupt his game and had his food brought to him while he was playing cards between two slices of bread not to soil his fingers.

  5. names of inventors very often become terms to denote things they invented, e.g. watt, om, roentgen

  6. some geographical names can also become common nouns through metonymy, e.g. Holland (linen fabrics), Brussels (a special kind of carpets), china (porcelain), astrakhan (a sheep fur)

Linguistic metonymy may be described as the semantic process of associating two referents one of which makes part of the other or is closely connected with it. This association is based upon subtle psychological links between different objects and phenomena, sometimes traced and identified with much difficulty. The two objects may be associated together because they often appear in common situations, and so the image of one is easily accompanied by the image of the other; or they may be associated on the principle of cause and effect, of common function, of some material and an object which is made of it.


Results of semantic change can be generally observed in the changes of the denotational meaning of the word (extension and restriction of meaning) or in the alteration of its connotational component (amelioration and deterioration of meaning). Changes in the denotational meaning may result in the restriction of the types or range of referents denoted by the word. Restriction of meaning is called specialization of meaning or narrowing of meaning. It is gradual process when a word passes from a general sphere to some special sphere of communication. The meaning of a word can specialize when it remains in the general usage. It happens in the case of the conflict between two absolute synonyms when one of them must specialize in its meaning to remain in the language. F: the City –the business part of London, Oxford-university town in England, the Tower-originally a fortress and palace, later a prison, now-a museum, room – originally a space, now-dining room, sleeping room

Changes in the denotational meaning may also result in the application of the word to a wider variety of referents. This is commonly described as extension of meaning. If the word with the extended meaning passes from the specialized vocabulary into common use, we describe the result of the semantic change as the generalization of meaning or broadening of meaning. F: the word borrowed into Middle English from old French where it was persone and came from Latin persona “the mask used by an actor, one who plays a part, a character in a play”. The great theatre spaces in ancient Rome made it impossible for the spectators to see the actor’s face and facial changes. It was also difficult to hear his voice distinctly. That is why masks with a megaphonic effect were used (chairperson, policeperson, salesperson, workperson)

A change in the connotational meaning may be subdivided into pejoration or degradation of meaning and amelioration or elevation or improvement of the connotational component of meaning. Semantically speaking deterioration or pejoration means the second meaning develops a negative evaluative connotation which was absent in the first meaning. They seem to imply that meanings can become worse which is neither logical nor plausible. Amelioration or elevation is a transfer of the meaning when becomes better in the course of time.

Elevation or amelioration of meaning is a transfer of the meaning when it becomes better in the course of time, e.g. knight – originally meant a boy, then a young servant, then a military servant, then a noble man. Now it is a title of nobility given to outstanding people; marshal originally meant a horse man., now it is the highest military rank.

Degradation or pejoration of meaning is a transfer of the meaning when it becomes worse in the course of time. It is usually connected with nouns denoting common people, e.g. villain-originally meant working on a villa, now it means a scoundrel.