Semantic Changes

"Specialization" and "generalization" are thus identified on the evid-' ence of comparing logical notions expressed by the meaning of words.

Semantic Changes



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uage: they are observed in changes of meaning resulting from the development of the notion expressed and the thing named and by the appearance of new notions and things. In other words, extralinguistic causes of semantic change are connected with the development of the human mind as it moulds reality to conform with its needs.

Languages are powerfully affected by social, political, economic, cultural and technical change. The influence of those factors upon linguistic phenomena is studied by sociolinguistics. It shows that social factors can influence even structural features of linguistic units, terms of science, for instance, have a number of specific features as compared to words used in other spheres of human activity.

The word being a linguistic realization of notion, it changes with the progress of human consciousness. This process is reflected in the development of lexical meaning. As the human mind achieves an ever more exact understanding of the world of reality and the objective relationships that characterize it, the notions become more and more exact reflections of real things. The history of the social, economic and political life of people, the progress of culture and science bring about changes in notions and things influencing the semantic aspect of language. For instance, OE eorpe meant 'the ground under people's feet', 'the soil' and 'the world of man' as opposed to heaven that was supposed to be inhabited first by Gods and later on, with the spread of Christianity, by God, his saints and the souls of the dead. With the progress of science earth came to mean the third planet from the sun and the knowledge of it was constantly enriched.

The word space from the meanings of 'extension' or 'intervening distance' came to mean 'the limitless expanse in which everything exists' and more recently came to be used especially in the meaning of 'outer space'. Atoms (Gr. atomos 'indivisible' from a 'not' and tomos 'cut') were formerly thought to be indivisible smallest particles of matter and were usually associated in layman's speech with smallness. The word could be metaphorically used in the meaning of 'a tiny creature'. When atoms were found to be made up of a positively charged nucleus round which negatively charged electrons revolve, the notion of an atom brought about connotations of discrete (discontinuous) character of matter. With the advances made since science has found ways of releasing the energy hidden in the splitting of the atomic nucleus, the notion is accompanied with the idea of immense potentialities present, as, for instance, in the phrase Atoms for peace. Since the advent of the atomic bomb the adjective atomic distinctly connotes in the English language with the threat of a most destructive warfare (atomic bomb, atomic warfare).

The tendency to use technical imagery is increasing in every language, thus the expression to spark off in chain reaction is almost international. Some expressions tend to become somewhat obsolete: the English used to talk of people being galvanized into activity, or going full steam ahead but the phrases sound out dated now.

The changes of notions and things named go hand in hand. As they are conditioned by changes in the economic, social, political and cultural history of the people, the extralinguistic causes of semantic change might be conveniently subdivided in accordance with these. Social relationships are at work in the cases of elevation and pejoration of meaning discussed in the previous section where the attitude of the upper classes to their social inferiors determined the strengthening of emotional tone among the semantic components of the word.

Euphemisms may be dictated by publicity needshence ready-tailored and ready-to-wear clothes instead of ready-made. The influence of mass-advertising on language is growing; it is felt in every level of the language. Innovations possible in advertising are of many different types. A kind of orange juice, for instance, is called Tango. The justification of the name is given in the advertising text as follows: Get this different tasting Sparkling Tango. Tell you why: made from whole oranges. Taste those oranges. Taste the tang in Tango. Tingling tang, bubbles sparks. You drink it straight. Goes down great. Taste the tang in Tango. New Sparkling Tango. The reader will see for himself how many expressive connotations are introduced by the salesman in this commercial name in an effort to attract the buyer's attention.

Economic causes are obviously at work in the semantic development o! the word wealth. It first meant 'well-being', 'happiness' from weal from OE wela whence well. This original meaning is preserved in the compounds commonwealth and commonweal. The present meaning became possible due to the role played by money both in feudal and bourgeois society. The chief wealth of the early inhabitants of Europe being the cattle, OE feoh means both 'cattle' and 'money', likewise Goth faihu; Lat. pecu meant 'cattle' and pecunia meant 'money'. ME fee-house is both a cattle-shed and a treasury. The present-day English fee most frequently means the price paid for services to a lawyer or a physician. It appears to develop jointly from the above mentioned OE feoh and the Anglo-French fe, fie, fief, probably of the same origin, meaning 'a recompense' and 'a feudal tenure'. This modern meaning is obvious in the following example: Physicians of the utmost Fame/Were called at once; but when they came/ They answered as they took their fees,/ "There is no cure for this disease." (BELLOC)














We have dialled 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.

The constant development of industry, agriculture, trade and transport bring into being new objects and new notions. Words to name them are either borrowed or created from material already existing in the language and it often happens that new meanings are thus acquired by old words.






























  1. Rinaburg R. “A course in Modern English”. Moscow 1976.
  2. Griberg S. I. “Exercises in Modern English”. Moscow 1980.
  3. Antrushina. “English Lexicology”. 1985.
  4. Kunin A. “English Lexicology” Moscow 1972.
  5. Mednikova E. M. “Seminars in English Lexicology” Moscow “Vyshaja shkola” 1978.
  6. Cruise. “Lexical semantic” Cambridge University press 1995.
  7. “English Word Formation” Cambridge University press 1996.





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