Historical Development of Word Meaning – Semantic Change

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Historical Development of Word Meaning - Semantic Change




this paper, I want to give an overview on what semantic change is all about and how it can be shown in a number of examples in the English language: I subdivided the paper into five parts: After this introduction, information on the background on semantic change and the basis for semantic change will be given. As a next point, the mechanisms and causes for semantic change will be presented. Finally, results of semantic change and shifts in semantic fields will be presented. At the end of this paper I will sum up what I experienced during the research concerning semantic change.


1. Background on Semantic Change

his book Principles of Historical Linguistics, Hans Henrich Hock says that when one thinks of the number of meanings which can be conveyed through language - in this paper I will concentrate on the English language - one eventually comes to the conclusion that there is an infinite number. Yet the human brain can only process and understand a limited amount of linguistic symbols. That is why the infinite number of possible meanings is reduced already by the problem of encoding so much information (cf. Hock 1991: 280). In addition to that, the problem of the infinity of word meaning is remedied by a number of other phenomena:

There is a finite set of conventional linguistic symbols present which is known as the lexical items.

There is a finite set of rules (syntax) which makes it possible that symbols can be combined into a larger structure. The syntax assures that the meanings of larger structures not simply form a composite of the meanings of lexical items they are composed of.

The lexical items themselves are in a way constructed out of smaller sets of building blocks (these blocks are called phonemes and morphemes). [The phonemes and morphemes are again] governed by a finite set of rules (Hock 1991: 280). These rules are known as phonology and morphology.a consequence, the meaning of a word can be conveyed in an economical way by using a limited set of speech sounds. These speech sounds range between approximately 25 and 125. Here, the lexicon and the rules of syntax come into play: These two make it possible that infinity of possible sentences can be produced. So it is the economy and the conventional nature of the building blocks and their rules for combination that make it possible for humans to communicate. Yet at this point a problem arises: The economy and the conventional nature of the English language that have been praised before, are also responsible for the fact that the number of meanings that one wants to convey without having an ambiguous expression is indeed limited., a single phonetic expression (which I will analyze in detail in the following example) can actually have a number of different meanings. They can either be quite close to each other concerning their meaning or they can have completely unrelated meanings. These different shades of meaning or the completely unrelated meanings depend on the linguistic, the social and on the cultural context. The following example is simply meant to be a lead-in to the great variety of phenomena the historical development of word meaning has caused. It illustrates in how far one single sentence can be understood in different ways. Starting from here, one will understand how much word meaning has developed.

History should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty. There are many ways to discuss the real functions of the subject-as there are many different historical talents and many different paths to historical meaning. All definitions of historys utility, however, rely on two fundamental facts.

History Helps Us Understand People and Societiesthe first place, history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave. Understanding the operations of people and societies is difficult, though a number of disciplines make the attempt. An exclusive reliance on current data would needlessly handicap our efforts. How can we evaluate war if the nation is at peace-unless we use historical materials? How can we understand genius, the influence of technological innovation, or the role that beliefs play in shaping family life, if we dont use what we know about experiences in the past? Some social scientists attempt to formulate laws or theories about human behavior. But even these recourses depend on historical information, except for in limited, often artificial cases in which experiments can be devised to determine how people act. Major aspects of a societys operation, like mass elections, missionary activities, or military alliances, cannot be set up as precise experiments. Consequently, history must serve, however imperfectly, as our laboratory, and data from the past must serve as our most vital evidence in the unavoidable quest to figure out why our complex species behaves as it does in societal settings. This, fundamentally, is why we cannot stay away from history: it offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run their own lives.

History Helps Us Understand Change and How the Society We Live in Came to Besecond reason history is inescapable as a subject of serious study follows closely on the first. The past causes the present, and so the future. Any time we try to know why something happened-whether a shift in political party dominance in the American Congress, a major change in the teenage suicide rate, or a war in the Balkans or the Middle East-we have to look for factors that took shape earlier. Sometimes fairly recent history will suffice to explain a major development, but often we need to look further back to identify the causes of change. Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society persist despite change.importance of history in explaining and understanding change in human behavior is no mere abstraction. Take an important human phenomenon such as alcoholism. Through biological experiments scientists have identified specific genes that seem to cause a proclivity toward alcohol addiction in some individuals. This is a notable advance. But alcoholism, as a social reality, has a history: rates of alcoholism have risen and fallen, and they have varied from one group to the next. Attitudes and policies about alcoholism have also changed and varied. History is indispensable to understanding why such changes occur. And in many ways historical analysis is a more challenging kind of exploration than genetic experimentation. Historians have in fact greatly contributed in recent decades to our understanding of trends (or patterns of change) in alcoholism and to our grasp of the dimensions of addiction as an evolving social problem.of the leading concerns of contemporary American politics is low voter turnout, even for major elections. A historical analysis of changes in voter turnout can help us begin to understand the problem we face today. What were turnouts in the past? When did the decline set in? Once we determine when the trend began, we can try to identify which of the factors present at the time combined to set the trend in motion. Do the same factors sustain the trend still, or are there new ingredients that have contributed to it in more recent decades? A purely contemporary analysis may shed some light on the problem, but a historical assessment is clearly fundamental-and essential for anyone concerned about American political health today., then, provides the only extensive materials available to study the human condition. It also focuses attention on the complex processes of social change, including the factors that are causing change around us today. Here, at base, are the two related reasons many people become enthralled with the examination of the past and why our society requires and encourages the study of history as a major subject in the schools.Importance of History in Our Own Livestwo fundamental reasons for studying history underlie more specific and quite diverse uses of history in our own lives. History well told is beautiful. Many of the historians who most appeal to the general reading public know the importance of dramatic and skillful writing-as well as of accuracy. Biography and military history appeal in part because of the tales they contain. History as art and entertainment serves a real purpose, on aesthetic grounds but also on the level of human understanding. Stories well done are stories that reveal how people and societies have actually functioned, and they prompt thoughts about the human experience in other times and places. The same aesthetic and humanistic goals inspire people to immerse themselves in efforts to reconstruct quite remote pasts, far removed from immediate, present-day utility. Exploring what historians sometimes call the pastness of the past - the ways people in distant ages constructed their lives-involves a sense of beauty and excitement, and ultimately another perspective on human life and society.

History Contributes to Moral Understandingalso provides a terrain for moral contemplation. Studying the stories of individuals and situations in the past allows a student of history to test his or her own moral sense, to hone it against some of the real complexities individuals have faced i