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TYPES OF SEMANTIC CHANGE
In what follows we shall deal 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.
All the types discussed depend upon some comparison of 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 the concepts 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, on lexico-grammatical categories or, possibly, on some other feature.
The order in which various types are described will follow more or less closely the diachronic classification of M. Bréal 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. Bréal was probably the first to emphasise 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 fa 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 (Snow). (case = ‘a patient’) The Solicitor whom I met at the Rolfords’ 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 specialised meaning is also very frequent in present-day English. E. g.: 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 determine the semantic structure or 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 soldier, 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 specialised, 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 characterised. Or, in other words, the word is now applicable to fewer things but tells us more about them. The reduction of scope accounts for the term “narrowing of the meaning” which is even more often used than the term “specialisation”. 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 and more exact 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, emphasises 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. This type of change is fairly universal and fails to disclose any specifically English properties.
The best known examples of specialisation in the general language are as follows: OE deor ‘wild beast'>ModE deer ‘wild ruminant 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 cases are: OE fuzol ‘bird’ (||Germ Vogel) >ModE fowl ‘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 hand ‘dog’ (||Germ Hund) > ModE 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 writan ‘to write’, ‘to scratch’, ‘to score’ (|| Germ reißen); 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 tac(e)n || Germ Zeichen originally had the broad meaning of ‘sign’. The semantic change that occurred here illustrates systematic inter-dependence 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) andconsequently restricted in meaning. In present-day English token means something small, unimportant or cheap which represents something big, important or valuable. Other examples of specialisation 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 specialised 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. E. g.: 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 specialises the meaning of the word artist and restricts it to a synonym of painter. Cf. tranquilliser, tumbler, trailer.
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 message.
Thus, ready < OE ræde (a derivative of the verb ridan ‘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. See also pirate, originally ‘one who robs on the sea’, by generalisation it came to mean ‘any one who robs with violence’.
The process of generalisation went very far in the complicated history of the word thing. Its etymological meaning was ‘an assembly for
deliberation on some judicial or business affair’, hence — ‘a matter brought before this assembly’ and ‘what was said or decided upon’, then ‘cause’, ‘object’, ‘decision’. Now it has become one of the most general words of the language, it can substitute almost any noun, especially non-personal noun and has received a pronominal force. Cf. something, nothing, anything, as in Nothing has happened yet.
Not every generic word comes into being solely by generalisation, other processes of semantic development may also be involved in words borrowed from one language into another. The word person, for instance, is now a generic term for a human being:
editor — a person who prepares written material for publication; pedestrian — a person who goes on foot;
refugee — a person who has been driven from his home country by war.
The word was 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 motivation of the word is of interest. 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. The mask was called persona from Lat per ‘through’ and sonare ‘to sound’. After the term had been transferred (metonymically) to the character represented, the generalisation to any human being came quite naturally. The process of generalisation and abstraction is continuing so that in the 70s person becomes a combining form substituting the semi-affix -man (chairperson, policeperson, salesperson, workperson). The reason for this is a tendency to abolish sex discrimination in job titles. The plural of compounds ending in -person may be -persons or -people: businesspeople or businesspersons.
In fact all the words belonging to the group of generic terms fall into this category of generalisation. By generic terms we mean non-specific terms applicable to a great number of individual members of a big class of words (see p. 39). The grammatical categoric meaning of this class of words becomes predominant in their semantic components.
It is sometimes difficult to differentiate the instances of generalisation proper from generalisation combined with a fading 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, smashing.
“Specialisation” and “generalisation” are thus identified on the evidence 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 metaphora < meta change’ and pherein ‘bear’) and metonymy (Gr metonymia < meta ‘change’ and onoma/onytna ‘name’), 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, a bitch, a lioness, etc.
In a metonymy, this referring to one thing as if it were some other one is based on association of contiguity (a woman —a skirt). 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. generalisation and specialisation, inasmuch as they do not result in hyponymy and 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 a particular literary context 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.
The term poetic here should not be taken as ‘elevated’, because a metaphor may be used for satirical purposes and be classed as poetic. Here are two examples:
The world is a bundle of hay,
Mankind are the asses who pull (Byron).
Though women are angels, yet wedlock’s the devil (Byron).
Every metaphor is implicitly of the form ‘X is like Y in respect of Z’.1 Thus we understand Byron’s line as ‘women are like angels, so good they are, but wedlock is as bad as the devil’. The words world, mankind, women, wedlock, i.e. what is described in the metaphor, are its tenor, while a bundle of hay, asses, angels, the devil are the vehicle, that
1 The formula is suggested in: Leech G. A Linguistic Guide to Poetry. London: Longman, 1973.
is they represent the image that carries a description and serves to represent the tenor. The third element Z is called the ground of the metaphor. In the second example the ground is ‘good’ (used ironically) and ‘bad’. The ground, that is the similarity between the tenor and vehicle, in a metaphor is implied, not expressed.
The ground of the metaphors in the examples that follow is the insincerity of the smiles that Gr. Greene mocks at: he excavated his smile; the woman hooked on another smile as you hook on a wreath; she whipped up a smile from a large and varied stock (Greene). (Examples are borrowed from V. K. Tarasova’s work.)
In a linguistic metaphor, especially when it is dead as a result of long usage, the comparison is completely forgotten and the thing named often has no other name: foot (of a mountain), leg (of a table), eye (of a needle), nose (of an aeroplane), back (of a book).
Transfer of names resulting from tropes (figurative use of words) has been classified in many various ways. Out of the vast collection of terms and classifications we mention only the traditional group of rhetorical categories: metaphor, metonymy, hyperbole, litotes, euphemism, because it is time-honoured and every philologist must be acquainted with it, even if he does not accept it as the best possible grouping.
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 possible 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 machinery. The drawing of sharp demarcation lines between a dead metaphor and one that is alive in the speaker’s mind is here impossible.
Metaphors, H. Paul points out, may be based upon very different types of similarity, for instance, the similarity of shape: head of a cabbage, the teeth of a saw. This similarity of shape may be supported by a similarity of function. The transferred meaning is easily recognised 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.
In the leg 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
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