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LINGUISTIC CAUSES OF SEMANTIC CHANGE
In the earlier stages of its development semasiology was a purely diachronic science dealing mainly with changes in the word meaning and classification of those changes. No satisfactory or universally accepted scheme of classification has ever been found, and this line of search seems to be abandoned.
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. Linguistic causes influencing the process of vocabulary adaptation may be of paradigmatic and syntagmatic character; in dealing with them we have to do with the constant interaction and 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 causes.
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 shifting waters, and time alone is used in the general sense.
The word beast was borrowed from French into Middle English. Before it appeared the general word for animal was deer which after the word beast was introduced became narrowed to its present meaning ‘a hoofed animal of which the males have antlers’. Somewhat later the Latin word animal was also borrowed, then the word beast was restricted, and its meaning served to separate the four-footed kind from all the other members of the animal kingdom. Thus, beast displaced deer and was in its turn itself displaced by the generic animal. 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 throw 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. Fixed context, then, may be regarded as another linguistic factor in semantic change. Both factors are at work in the case of token. The noun token originally had the broad meaning of ‘sign’. 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 specialised in meaning. Fixed context has this influence not only in phrases but in compound words as well.
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 propose marriage, be expecting for be expecting a baby, media for mass media. Or vice versa the kernel word of the phrase may seem redundant: minerals for mineral waters, summit for summit meeting.1 Due to ellipsis starve which originally meant ‘to die’ (|| Germ sterben) came to substitute the whole phrase die of hunger, and also began to mean ‘to 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’. One can be doubtful about a doubtful question, in a healthy climate children are healthy. To refer to these cases linguists employ the term conversives.