Reasons for semantic change in the english language

Term Paper, 2007

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Semantic Change – Basics
2.1 Categories of Semantic Change
2.2 Results of Semantic Change

3. Reasons for Semantic Change
3.1. General reasons for semantic change
3.1.1. Meillet’s distinction in Social, Historical and Linguistic Reasons
3.1.2. Metaphors, Euphemisms and Taboo as Reasons for Semantic Change
3.1.3. The avoidance of excessive homonymy
3.1.4. The avoidance of synonymy
3.1.5. Jost Trier’s Wortfeldtheorie
3.2. Individual Speaker Causes
3.3. The Invisible Hand Explanation

4. Criticism

5. Conclusion

6. List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

…thogh he hadde me bete on every bon,

He koude wynne agayn my love anon.

I trowe I loved hym best, for that he

Was of his love daungerous to me.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Looking at the quotation above, it just does not seem to make “good” sense in a modern context. Why would anyone love a man because his love is dangerous? If it is unknown that daungerous used to mean ‘difficult to deal with, chary of’ when the quotation was written, it will be almost impossible to comprehend the meaning of the quotation: that the Wife of Bath loves her fifth husband because she has to fight for his love again and again (cf Leisi147). But after finding out the meaning, there is still another question to be answered: why do words change their meanings at all? And is this a valid way of posing the question? Do really words change their meanings, or are they changed by a different influence – for example their users? All these questions can be summed up under the heading of semantic change. Semantic change then, if meaning is understood as a reciprocal relation between name and meaning, occurs whenever a new name is connected to a meaning and/or a new meaning is connected to an existing name (cf Ullmann 159).

Questions like the ones asserted above are what the study of semantic change deals with on a daily basis. In particular, the question “why”[1] has given linguists a hard time over the last one-and-a-half centuries. Nonetheless, many have attempted to solve the problem of finding reasons for semantic change. Depending on their starting point, the various approaches can roughly be divided into three major ways of reasoning[2]: first, there is the approach that deals with the more general causes of semantic change and observes it from a macro-perspective. This approach mainly argues for reasons which can be seen as separated from the individual speaker of a language. Secondly, there are approaches which look at the problem from the opposite point of view, from the individual speaker – or micro-perspective. Finally, there is also an approach that basically argues for the fact that semantic change can not be explained in any of the two categories, but instead as a “phenomenon of the third kind” (cf Keller). For all approaches equally good and reasonable arguments can be found. Therefore, it can not be the aim of this paper to decide which one is the most likely explanation. Instead, it is an attempt to give an overview of different authors and different approaches.

In order to understand the different reasonings why meanings have changed the way they did, it is first necessary to understand what exactly is meant by the term how words can change their meaning and what results from these changes. The first part of this paper therefore consists of a short description of the most common ways in which words can change their meanings; in addition to that, there will be an overview of some basic types (or results) of semantic change. Afterwards, there will be a discussion of the different approaches of finding reasons for semantic change, according to the division given above. Finally, there is also a section with the most obvious issues in criticism, followed by a short conclusion.

2. Semantic Change – Basics

Before actually entering the discussion about the reasons for semantic change in the English language, it is first helpful to give some background information on semantic change.

2.1 Categories of Semantic Change

The categorization of semantic change – that is in this case the ways in which words can change their meanings – used to be the major field of interest in historical linguistics for a long time (cf Bussmann 126). Therefore, there is a wide variety of literature available on this topic. But still, the different types of semantic change can be divided into basic types. All of them have in common that they only generate semantic change when the use of a word in a certain way becomes wide-spread among a speech community (cf Fritz 1998, 38).

As the most important or productive manner of semantic change there is metaphor, which is “the transfer of a literal meaning to a figurative area” (Jucker 114)[3]. A good example of this is the word head, which originally only referred to the top part of a living creature’s body. This distinct feature of the head could then be used metaphorically and transferred to other areas of life, as when using expressions like “head of the department”; thereby, the word head has extended its meaning capacity from only referring to a body part to also referring to people on high levels of professional life.

Another important way to change meanings is through metonymy, which is “the substitution of a word referring to an attribute for the thing that is meant” (Jucker 115). An example is the use of the word crown for a monarch, relying on the common knowledge of speakers and listeners that it is normally only monarchs who wear crowns.

The third major way in which words can change their meanings is by means of euphemisms. Speakers use euphemisms whenever they are in need of an inoffensive expression for an otherwise offensive utterance (cf Jucker 115 - 116). For example, it is highly inappropriate in Western cultures to speak of bodily functions in polite conversations. Therefore, speakers use euphemisms – and teach them to their children – in order to be able to speak politely, e.g. the child can speak of “number one” or “number two” in order to express its need to go to the bathroom.

Furthermore, speakers can use the stylistic device of irony to alter the meaning of a word; ironical use of words occurs when they are used in a way contradicting their normal use (cf Jucker 116). An example is the use of intensifiers, such as awfully or terribly, which normally refer to something dreadful, to express that something is particularly good or nice, as in “he’s awfully handsome”.

Implicatures are another device that can lead to meaning change. Implicatures are implicit meanings of utterances, or “additional conveyed meaning[s]” (Yule, 146). For example, if a speaker says that he succeeded in writing a paper, the word succeed implies that he tried to write his paper. These implicatures occur frequently in every day speech, but “because of their situation dependence they do not normally function as resources in semantic change” (Jucker 116). However, some of them “occur regularly with specific words and may, therefore, become conventionalised and part of the meaning of this word” (Jucker, 116) Jucker uses the conjunction since as an example:

The conjunction since, for instance, originally only had a temporal meaning (‘from the time that’). However, in many cases a temporal sequence also implies a causal sequence. The utterance “Since he moved, he has been doing better” may be understood in a strictly temporal sense, but generally it will be understood […] that his success was somehow caused by his moving (Jucker, 116)

Jucker also gives the application to new domains as a mode of semantic change. This means that “a word from one domain is adopted into a new domain and thus changes its usage potential” (Jucker 117). By domain Jucker means “larger socio-cultural contexts” (Jucker 117) of language use, probably comparable to registers. He chooses the example dinosaur which was adopted from the domain of biology into everyday language. Speakers can use the word dinosaur when referring to an item which is totally outdated, such as in “This coffe machine is a real dinosaur”.

Extension, that is expansion of the range of meaning of a word in “imperceptibly small steps” (Jucker 117; Fritz, 49 - 50), is also among the resources for semantic change. One example Fritz uses to illustrate extension is a quotation from Aijmer:

…the semantic development of will into a >pure< or non-volitional future is initiated […] in the third person where it is caused by the extension from human to non-human subjects. In the original (i.e. prototypical) use will requires a human subject. This (selectional) restriction can be relaxed so that will also collocates with a non-human subject. (Fritz 1998, 50)

Ellipsis is yet another way in which words can change their meanings. Ellipsis is the leaving out of words, such as in saying a daily instead of a daily paper (Jucker 117). A necessary precondition for this usage is that the speakers share enough common ground: „Bei ausreichendem gemeinsamem Wissen können Teile eines komplexen Ausdrucks weggelassen werden, ohne dass sich die Funktion des Ausdrucks ändert.” (Fritz 1998, 51)

Loan translations are also a resource for semantic change (Jucker 117 – 18). Yule describes loan translation as “a direct translation of the elements of a word into the borrowing language” (Yule, 65). The example he gives is English superman as being a loan translation from the German Übermensch.

The final resource Jucker gives is reanalysis, which he gives the following example for: dessicated originally only means ‘dried’. Since dessicated often occurs with coconut, and this dried coconut happens to be shredded, people started using dessiccated as meaning ‘shredded’ as well.

After introducing some of the ways in which words can change their meanings, there will now be a description of the results of semantic change.


[1] The question “why” here and in the following refers to the reasons for the triggering off of semantic change, not for its spreading

[2] The three major ways of reasoning will be explained in greater detail later on.

[3] Other books include lists of semantic change very similar to the one by Jucker; therefore, I will only use him as reference here

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Reasons for semantic change in the english language
University of Trier
Historische Semantik
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ISBN (eBook)
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Reasons, Historische, Semantik
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Judith Schwickart (Author), 2007, Reasons for semantic change in the english language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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