An insight on semantic change

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011
24 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. The process of semantic change

3. Types of semantic change
3.1 Metaphor
3.1.1 Definition
3.1.2 Process of creation
3.1.3 Conceptual metaphors
3.2 Metonymy
3.3 Ellipsis (lexical absorption)

4. Motivations for semantic change
4.1 New concept (need for an new name)
4.2 Abstract concepts, distant and usually invisible referents
4.3 Sociocultural change
4.4 Close conceptual or factual relation
4.5 Complexity and irregularity in the lexicon
4.6 Emotionally marked concepts

5. Is semantic change predictable?

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Nothing is perfectly static. Every word, every grammatical element, every locution, every sound and accent is a slowly changing configuration, molded by the invisible and impersonal drift that is the life of language.” (Sapir 1949: 171)

Reading this quote, in which Edward Sapir describes the nature of language, there are two important points, which I would like to use as a starting point for this paper. The first point is that language undergoes a continuous change and is never “perfectly static”. This is especially true for semantics as Ullmann states: “Of all linguistic elements caught up in this drift, meaning is probably the least resistant to change.” (Ullmann 1977: 193) The meaning of words is in a constant process of alteration.

The second point is that the change mentioned above is done by “the invisible and impersonal drift” or to put it in simple words: The change in language in general and in meaning in particular happens unconsciously to the speakers. This fact poses the following questions: Why do speakers change the meaning of a word if they are not aware of it? What are the forces behind this process, how does this process look like and what are the most relevant types of change? Or in general: What is semantic change?

To give answers to exactly these major questions about semantic change, will be the aim of this paper. The basis for this paper will be the theories of Andreas Blank, who even though being a Romanist, developed a precise, extensive and still very comprehensive theoretical work on semantic change, which is “[…] recommendable for historical semanticists of all languages.” (Grzega 2000: 233) To illustrate the theoretical process of meaning change in simple terms, Blank uses the metaphor bridge. Starting on the left-hand side there is the motivation for the concrete innovation. The bridge itself is constituted by the associative principles1. This is according to Blank the cognitive psychological basis of the corresponding type of semantic change. However the associative principle is not the force triggering a certain type of semantic change, it is its necessary basis. On the right-hand side then comes finally the concrete type of semantic change. Underlying this whole process are the general communicative principles success and efficiency.

In order to clarify this theoretical framework we will take a look at the example torpedo. Originally it meant only ‘electric ray’ but then also gained the additional meaning ‘underwater weapon system’. If we look at the left-hand side of the bridge, we will see that the motivation in this concrete case was the ‘need for a new name’. This was the force, which made the speaker use metaphor as the type of semantic change with similarity as the underlying associative principle. The general motivation was efficient and successful communication. In our example the scientists considered the presentation of the underwater weapon system as an electric ray, whose contact can led to death, as especially successful and efficient. Afterwards the lexicalization of torpedo bears this consideration out. (cf. Blank 1997: 347;374)

2. The process of semantic change

The term semantic change is in some way unprecise. It is not a meaning that changes through the process of semantic change, but a new one will be added and later lexicalised or a already lexicalised meaning becomes unusual and will cease. Blank refers to the first phenomenon as “innovative semantic change” or “semantic innovation” and to the latter one as “reductive semantic change”. In the following only the first one will be of our interest.

At first semantic change starts as a semantic innovation in the discourse of a single speaker or a small group of speakers. If this innovation is adopted by other speakers, names, contiguity of concepts, contiguity of signifiants, contrast of concepts, contrast of concepts plus contrast of signifies/ Zeicheninhalte/ senses. may it be because he expects a communicative profit or he likes it for personal reasons, the new meaning can be lexicalised. As a further development the new meaning can lose its restrictions to a certain “speech situation“ and reach the unmarked common level of a language so that every speaker will adopt it to his vocabulary. (cf. Blank 2001 71)

It is important to notice that semantic change must not be considered as a sudden or abrupt change from the old to the new meaning but as a slow and gradual process2. “[…] [A] situation where a word has only meaning ‘A’ is not typically followed by a situation where it has only meaning ‘B’, but by an intermediate period in which it has both meanings ‘A’ and ‘B’.” (Durkin 225). This “intermediate period” as Durkin calls it, a stage where a word has more than one meaning coexisting, is referred to as Polysemy. Durkin illustrates therefore the stages of semantic change as following3:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Wanting to understand the nature of semantic change one must not only compare the current to an historical meaning but the whole etymological process, which the word has undergone. (Durkin 2009: 225-227)

3. Types of semantic change

Blank’s list of types of semantic change is based on Stephen Ullmann’s traditional types4, which he however not simply adopts but critically revises for his own work. Striking here is the fact that he excludes both amelioration and pejoration from the list of types. The reason he gives is that these “phantoms of semantic change” both lack objective judgements and therefore should not be part of the set. (cf. Blank 1997: 333- 339, 1993: 57-85) To this basis Blanks introduces a number of new types to the list: cohyponymic transfer, antiphrasis, auto-antonymy, auto-converse, reinforcement of meaning and weakening of meaning.

In this paper I will however restrict myself to the types, which are according to Blank of highest frequency and therefore of highest relevance for semantic change. These are metaphor, metonymy and ellipsis.

3.1 Metaphor

3.1.1 Definition

“Metaphor has traditionally been viewed as the most important form of figurative language use, and is usually seen as reaching its most sophisticated forms in literary or poetic language.” (Saeed 2009: 358) However metaphor is not restricted only to rhetoric or literature. According to cognitive linguistics it has to be pointed out that metaphors are omnipresent in everyday life and in the general human perception. (Blank 2001: 74) Still they are, unlike their character as the traditional figures of speech, “largely unconscious processes” in the speaker’s mind.

Metaphors and metonymies, the latter one will be treated later, play a very important role in cognitive linguistics. They are “[…] regarded as reflections of more fundamental mappings in the mind, i.e. as reflections of the ways in which people conceptualize the world and process abstract thought.” (Durkin 2009: 240) Concerning semantic change it has to be highlighted that both metaphor and metonymy as process of meaning change “[…] are not accidental, one-off affairs, but instead reflect characteristic patterns of thought.” (Durkin 2009: 240)

To put it in a simplified way metaphor could be described as a simile, which “[…] involves the identification of resemblances […]”. (Saeed 2009: 358-359) However a metaphor is more than just a shortened comparison. There is a complex innovative performance5 behind it, which Durkin describes as following: “[…] a term is taken from one sphere, usually a more concrete one, and applied in a new one, usually a more abstract one […]”. (Durkin 2009: 241) This is because “[…] so many of the concepts6 that are important to us are either abstract or not clearly delineated our experience (the emotions, ideas, time, etc.) we need to get grasp on them by means of other concepts that we understand in clearer terms (spatial orientation, objects, etc.).” (Lakoff Johnson 1980: 115)

According to Blank it is Important to notice that the decisive associative link is the similarity between the concepts and not between the senses7. Normally this transference goes from the near to the far, from the known to the unknown and so on. Summed up we can define a metaphor “[…] as a transfer of meaning based on the similarity of objects, or concepts, from different frames8 […]”, the transfer being a transfer from a concrete to an abstract concept. (Grzega 2000: 235)

Cognitivists argue that metaphor is deeply anchored in our minds, so that speakers will almost always use metaphor where facts are either not or hardly accessible or it seems to be a more efficient way of communication. Thus metaphor is, as mentioned before, ubiquitous in ordinary language and play an important role in our daily communication. To show how pervasive metaphor is in everyday life, Lakoff and Johnson collected a group of spatial metaphors connected to up and down orientation:

a) happy is up, sad is down

I’m feeling up. My spirits rose. You’re in high spirits. I’m feeling down. He’s really low these days

b) conscious is up, unconscious is down

Wake up. He fell asleep. He dropped off to sleep. He’s under hypnosis. He sank into a coma.

c) health and life are up, sickness and death are down

He’s at the peal of health. He’s in top shape. He fell ill. He is sinking fast. He came down with the flu. His health is declining. (cf. Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 14-21)

3.1.2 Process of creation

The basic creation of metaphor can be described as following: A concept is referred to by a name whose concept is normally located in a different area of the innovating speaker’s knowledge. In cognitive linguistics this process of highlighting peripheral, perceptual, functional or only subjective similarity between the two concept areas is referred to as “domain mapping”. (Blank 2001: 75) The described concept is referred to as “target domain” and the concept it is compared to is called “source domain” (cf. Saeed 2009: 359)

To describe the actual process of creation we will take the example mouse. Its change of meaning can be described as following:

(1) mouse ‘small rodent’ > ‘pointing device for computers’


1 According to Blank’s theory the three basic principles similarity, contiguity and contrast lead to seven possible associations which underlie every semantic change: similarity of concepts, similarity of concepts plus similarity of signifies/ Zeicheninhalte/senses, similarity of signifiants/ Zeichenausdrücke/

2 It is important to notice that the stages of this process can sometimes be centuries long.

3 I decided to choose Durkin’s simplified model of semantic change in contrast to Blank’s to give a brief and comprehensive illustration. Blank’s model is considerably more sophisticated and could be sum up as following: innovation of the speaker (stage 0), habitualized discourse rule of this user (stage A), polysemy within a variety of a language (stage B), homonymy (via semantic change of polysemy) or extinction of one of the meanings (stage C). (cf. Blank 1997 119-125)

4 These are broadening and narrowing, amelioration and pejoration, metaphor and metonymy, folketymology and ellipsis.

5 On the one hand the speaker has to see something as something different on the other hand he must also verbalize this new idea.

In cognitive linguistic ‘concept’ could be defined as the real-world knowledge and connotation a speaker connects to a sense of a sign. A certain number of related concepts can build up a domain. An example to make it clear: If we have the domain ‘breakfast’ we could imagine several typical concepts which are related to this domain: milk, sugar, morning, toast, table, egg, etc. (cf. Blank 1999b: 173)

7 Blank’s semiotic model on which his work is based clearly distinguishes between the intralinguistic sense and the extralinguistic concept. (cf. Blank 1997: 98-102)

Frame synonymous with domain, which will be explained in the following chapter “Process of creation”.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


An insight on semantic change
University of Bamberg  (Lehrstuhl für Englische Sprachwissenschaft )
English Etymology
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Semantic change, Etymology, Etymologie, Meaning change, Bedeutungswechsel, Semantics
Quote paper
Dipl. Germ. Florian Wenz (Author), 2011, An insight on semantic change, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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