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Semantic change

Semantic differentiation
Extending the word-stock
Types of semantic change
Word fields

Changes in meaning are as common as changes in form. Like the latter they can be internally or externally motivated. The equivalent to the paradigm in morphology is, in semantics, the word field in which words and their meanings stand in a network of relationships. The alteration of meaning occurs because words are constantly used and what is intended by speakers is not exactly the same each time. If a different intention for a word is shared by the speech community and becomes established in usage then a semantic change has occurred.

There are different types of change which will be discussed presently. The most neutral way of referring to change is simply to speak of semantic shift which is to talk of change without stating what type it is. To begin with a series of shifts are presented to familiarise students with what is possible in the realm of semantic change.

Old English fæger ‘fit, suitable’, Modern English fair came to mean ‘pleasant, enjoyable’ then ‘beautiful’ and ‘pleasant in conduct’, from which the second modern meaning ‘just, impartial’ derives. The first meaning continued to develop in the sense of ‘of light complexion’ and a third one arose from ‘pleasant’ in a somewhat pejorative sense, meaning ‘average, mediocre’, e.g. He only got a fair result in his exam.

Gentle was borrowed in Middle English in the sense of ‘born of a good-family, with a higher social standing’. Later the sense ‘courteous’ and then ‘kind, mild in manners’ developed because these qualities were regarded as qualities of the upper classes.

Lewd (Old English læwede) originally meant ‘non-ecclesiastical, lay’, then came to mean ‘uneducated, unlearned’ from which it developed into ‘vulgar, lower-class’ and then through ‘bad-mannered, ignorant’, to ‘sexually insinuating’.

Sophisticated meant ‘unnatural, contaminated’ but now has the sense of ‘urbane, discriminating’. The word sophistry (from Old French sophistrie) still has its original meaning of ‘specious, fallacious reasoning’.

Artificial originally meant ‘man-made, artful, skillfully constructed’, compare artifice ‘man-made construction’. But by comparison with ‘natural’ the word came to acquire a negative meaning because everything which is natural is regarded positively.

Nice (Latin nescius ‘not knowing') is recorded from the 13th century in the sense of ‘foolish’, then it shifted to ‘coy, shy’ and by the 16th century had the meaning ‘fastidious, dainty, subtle’ from which by the 18th century the sense ‘agreeable, delightful’ developed.

Silly (Old English sēlig ‘happy, fortuitous') had by the 15th century the sense of ‘deserving of pity’ and then developed to ‘ignorant, feeble-minded’ and later ‘foolish’.

Fast (OE fæste ‘firm') later developed the meaning ‘quick’. The original sense is still seen in steadfast ‘firm in position’.

The following graphs show two further cases of semantic shift in which the increase in the scope of one word is paralleled by the reduction in scope of a related word.



Semantic differentiation

The above cases are all cases of shift, the original meaning is not available anymore, or only in an opaque compound (see last example). The process whereby two meanings arise from a single original one is termed semantic differentiation. The following instance illustrates the phenomenon.

In English there has been considerable fluctuation in the preterite and past participle ending after sonorants for weak verbs: either a voiced /-d/ or a voiceless /-t/. This has resulted in the exploitation of the two options for semantic purposes. The situation for most varieties of English today is that the ending -ed stresses the process of the verb and the ending -t emphasises the result as seen in the following examples.

Process Result
He spoiled his daughters A spoilt brat
The timber burned for hours Burnt timber

POLYSEMOUS WORDS These are words which have a basic and a related figurative meaning, e.g. foot and foot of the mountain. Characteristic for the figurative meaning is that it occurs in a phrase in which its metaphorical use is clear. But with time the secondary use may occur without any specifying information. This is the first step towards a shift from basic to figurative meaning as the unmarked member of a pair. For instance decimate formerly meant to reduce to one tenth in size (from Latin decem) but now the secondary meaning ‘to waste, destroy’ has become the primary meaning and the original basic one is lost. An example of a word which has both meanings in equilibrium would be headache which means both ‘pain in the head’ and ‘unwanted problem’ (also true of German, cf. Das bereitet mir grosse Kopfschmerzen).

DOES A LANGUAGE LOSE WORDS? The answer to this question is not simple. The clearest instance is where a word is borrowed from another language and the original word is then lost. This has happened with Old English niman (cf. German nehmen) which was replaced in Middle English by take from Norse taka. However, most loans do not lead to the replacement of native words with similar meanings. Rather they attain connotations which the native words do not possess.

There may be an instance or two where a word almost dissolves phonologically. Old English æa from an earlier *ahu (cognate with Latin aqua and represented in German by Aue) was [æ:], and would have raised to [ɛ:, e:, i:] if it had continued, but it was replaced by the more substantial stream (itself from Old English) and river (a French loan in Middle English).

The more usual situation is for a language to differentiate two words semantically and for both to survive. For instance Old English fōda and mete co-existed with the meaning of what people eat. After the Middle English period the second word occurs only in the sense of ‘flesh of animals’ and the word flesh (< flesc) is itself restricted to ‘human flesh’. The original meaning of mete is found in mincemeat ‘minced food’ which does not contain any meat.

THE WORDS FOR ‘MAN’ In Old English there were at least three words for ‘man': guma, wer and mann. Only the last of these survived into Modern English. Guma ‘man’ was lost in the course of Middle English. It was formerly an independent noun and also occurred in compounds. One of these was brydguma which consisted of the words for ‘bride’ and ‘man’. With the loss of the independent form guma, it was reinterpreted in this compound as being groom, a form which still existed in English for instance with the meaning ‘someone who looks after, minds horses’. The second word wer disappeared unobtrusively and is today only found in the compound werewolf ‘man-wolf’.

ETYMOLOGY AND THE LEXICON The development of different meanings for words automatically raises the question of whether there is an original meaning. Lay speakers tend to think there is. By ‘original’ they mean ‘oldest’. This conception of meaning is termed the etymological fallacy and states that there is an original meaning to a word if one could only go back far enough in time. But this is obviously not true. No matter how far back you trace a word there will always have been a stage before that with a probably different meaning.

LOSS OF LEXICAL TRANSPARENCY If in the course of its development a word or part of a word becomes opaque to a later generation then its meaning may be re-interpreted in an incorrect way. Such a reinterpretation is called a folk etymology and occurs on the basis of another word or words which are similar in sound and meaning. A simple example is the German word Friedhof which was reinterpreted as ‘the place where one obtains one’s final peace’, ‘Ort des letzten Friedens’ but in fact it originally meant ‘an enclosed plot of land’, ‘der umfriedete Hof’.

Three examples from the history of English illustrate this process clearly. The Modern English word sandblind derives from Old English sam-blind which contains the element sam ‘half’ (cf. Latin semi). When sam was lost as a word in English the compound came to be reinterpreted as meaning ‘blind from sand’.

The Modern English word shamefaced comes from Middle English schamfast with the meaning ‘firm in modesty’. When the adverb fast altered its meaning to ‘quick’ it was reinterpreted in this compound as face and the compound came to mean ‘with a face full of shame’.

A key to the phenomenon of folk etymology is that words which are similar phonetically can develop similar meanings. The example this time is a Latin loan obnoxious which originally meant ‘liable to injury’ but came to mean ‘very objectionable’, probably under the influence of the related word noxious.

Means for extending word stock

As the lexicon of a language is an open class it is constantly expanding. The direct goal is gaining words for new phenomena, concepts, etc. in the society which uses the language in question. The side-effect is an increase in the size of the lexicon. There are various means of extending a language’s word stock which can be broken down into two basic groups. The first creates compounds out of material from the language itself and the second resorts to borrowing material, integrating it into the system (phonology, morphology, semantics) of the language as it does so.

1a) UTILISATION OF NATIVE RESOURCES This primarily refers to the twin processes of compounding and derivation. The former involves two or more elements which are combined to form a single word, e.g. hatchback from hatch and back. Derivation consists of adding a productive ending to a lexical stem in order to create a new word, e.g. more + ish > morish ‘tasty, enticing’, job + wise > jobwise.

1b) LOAN TRANSLATIONS, CALQUES These were common in Old English but have been recessive since. Examples are gospel consisting of good + spell and taken from Latin evangelium, itself from Greek. In German instances are to be seen in Vorsehung from Latin providentia. In Modern German a good example is Wolkenkratzer from skyscraper.

2) BORROWING WORDS FROM A FURTHER LANGUAGE This is a very common process which is attested for all periods of the history of English or any other language for that matter. The reasons for borrowing are basically twofold. On the one hand there may be a necessity for a foreign word, to fill a gap so to speak. This is the case with many adjectival formations in the Early Modern English period which were coined on the basis of classical stems and which provided a form either not available in English at the time or not appropriate, e.g. marine as an adjective to sea; pedestrian to walk : walker; equestrian to horse (horsy means ‘like a horse in manner or gait'); aquatic to water, etc.

The second reason for borrowing is because of the relative prestige (social standing) of the speakers using the donor language. This was the case with many French loans in European languages in the 18th century and is often the reason with loans from English in German today. However, loans made for this reason will only survive in the language if there is a semantic justification for them, i.e. if the loanword is separate from the corresponding native word in some aspect of its meaning. This is the case with German Behälter and English Container, for instance. It is embryonically the case with German Lied, Chanson (French) and Song (English) or German Gefühl and Feeling (English) or German kämpfen and fighten (English).

Note that the cases of semantically differentiated loans in German show that the broadest general meaning is retained for the native word (e.g. Sakko, Blazer, Blouson but the widest meaning is shown by Jacke). Now this is not always so. For instance the Scandinavian loans in English show a situation where the native English word is later the more restricted in meaning, e.g. die (from Scandinavian) and steorfan (Modern English starve) which was narrowed semantically to ‘die of hunger’. Here a comparison with the later French loans is illuminating. These do not usually replace the native English words but complement them by being located on a higher register, i.e. they are stylistically more elevated. Hence the word decease means ‘die’ but is used in a more solemn or ceremonious context much as German uses versterben.

One should also mention externally motivated borrowings. These are typical of overseas varieties of English. In the new environments into which English was introduced there were many phenomena for which there were no terms in English. These are often called collectively ‘flora and fauna’ terms, for instance with the native words in Australian and New Zealand English such as kangaroo, kiwi, koala bear, etc.

LOANWORDS AFTER BORROWING The treatment of loans in a language depends on the structure of the lexicon in the borrowing language. For instance German has a transparent vocabulary based on the principle of productive compounding, for instance in German Speiseröhre means ‘a pipe through which food reaches the stomach’ whereas English oesophagous is a Greek loanword the internal composition of which is opaque to the speaker of Modern English. One consequence of this situation is that German tends to be productive in its handling of loans from other languages. For instance the word Pullover is a normal loan from English but the word Pullunder is a German creation, which does not exist in English, based on the analysis of the original loan as pull + over and the replacement of the preposition over by under to indicate a sleeveless pullover. Another instance of this would be twens which was created analogically to teens in German but which does not exist in English. Furthermore German tends to be very liberal in its use of English formational elements, an example of this is the word Dressman which is obviously reached by combining the verb to dress and the noun man. However the word does not exist in English (the nearest equivalent is dandy).

PARTICIPATION IN MORPHOLOGY A reliable yardstick for measuring the degree to which a word is integrated into a language is the extent to which it partakes in productive word formational processes. Here one can distinguish between compounding and derivation (see above), the latter being the greater indicator of integration into the new language. For instance in German, Romance and English loans are commonly used in derivation as seen in examples like Etappensieg (with a formational /-n/ in the middle) and Managergehalt but the instances of German inflection on a foreign base are few and far between. What may happen is that a word-class ending is added because the foreign element is felt to lack this as in softig from soft + -ig (particularly in glatt und softig). But this is not quite the same as the integration into the native morphological system. Hence there are no English loans which show umlaut plurals nor are there any English verbs which are declined with ablaut (i.e. as ‘strong’ verbs).

REASONS FOR BORROWING The cases discussed above are instances of internally motivated or prestige borrowings. Words can be adopted into a language because a lexical gap in the language exists, e.g. marine as the adjective to sea. Other times words may be borrowed for prestige reasons, English in present-day German, (Central) French in the Middle English period. There is a generalisation that if loans co-exist with native words and are not semantically or stylistically differentiated then they fall away in the course of time. However if they attain a specific meaning or are typical of a recognisable register then they remain (older English loans and French borrowings in Middle English).

Types of semantic change

The simplest type of semantic change is a shift. For instance the Latin verb arrivare derives ultimately from ad ripam ‘at the shore’ but has long lost this meaning. But even such an innocuous case can be classified. A closer look at all changes in meaning shows that alterations in meaning can be classified according to type. There are four basic types of semantic change which on the one hand refer to the range of a word’s meaning and on the other, to the way the meaning is evaluated by speakers.

1) SEMANTIC EXPANSION Here a word increases its range of meaning over time. For instance in Middle English bridde was a term for ‘small bird’, later the term bird came to be used in a general sense and the word fowl, formally the more general word was restricted to the sense of ‘farmyard birds bred especially for consumption’, cf. German ‘Geflügel’. Another case is horn ‘bone-like protrusion on the heads of certain animals’, then ‘musical instrument’, then ‘drinking vessel’ of similar shape. The instance of arrivare just quoted belongs to this category.

2) SEMANTIC RESTRICTION This is the opposite to expansion. Already to be seen with fowl but also with many other words, such as meat which derives from Middle English mete with the general meaning of ‘food’ and now restricted to processed animal flesh. In turn the word flesh was narrowed in its range to ‘human flesh’ (see above).

Borrowing from another language may be involved here. For instance Old English sniþan (German schneiden) was replaced by Old Norse cut as the general term and the second Old English word ceorfan was restricted in meaning to ‘carve’.

3) SEMANTIC DETERIORATION A disapprovement in the meaning of a word. The term knave meant originally (Old English) ‘male servant’ from ‘boy’ (cf. German Knabe) but deteriorated to the meaning of ‘base or coarse person’, having more or less died out and been replaced by boy. Villain developed from ‘inhabitant of a village’ to ‘scoundrel’. The word peasant is used now for someone who shows bad behaviour as the word farmer has become the normal term. In official contexts, however, the term ‘peasant’ is found for small and/or poor farmers.

4) SEMANTIC AMELIORATION An improvement in the meaning of a word. The term nice derives from Latin nescius ‘ignorant’ and came at the time of its borrowing from Old French to mean ‘silly, simple’ then ‘foolish, stupid’, later developing a more positive meaning as ‘pleasing, agreeable’.

5) SHIFT IN MARKEDNESS The marked element becomes unmarked and vice versa. Originally a jet was a special type of aeroplane (a marked item in the semantic sense), now it is the norm (semantically unmarked) and the propeller machine is regarded as the special kind.

6) RISE OF METAPHORICAL USAGE A very common semantic development is for literal expressions to acquire figurative usages, for instance the phrase ahead of someone means literally ‘in front of someone’ but now has the meaning of ‘more advanced, in a better position’ as in She's ahead of her sister now.

7) REANALYSIS The Latin morpheme min- ‘little’ is seen in minor and minus but the words minimum and miniature led to the analysis of mini- as the morpheme meaning ‘small’ which has become general in English (and German) as a borrowed morpheme, cf. minibar, minicomputer, miniskirt.

8) TRUNCATION An element is deleted without substitution. Developments in word formation often show this with some elements understood but not expressed: mini in the sense of miniskirt. Other cases may involve compound phrases, e.g. documentary film and feature film have both been reduced by truncation of the head noun film to the qualifiers documentary and feature which are used on their own. Truncation may also involve an expansion in meaning. For instance, in American English the term Cologne, from Eau de Cologne, is often used in the broader sense of ‘perfume for men’.

9) MEANING LOSS THROUGH HOMOPHONY Old English had two verbs lætan ‘allow’ and lettan ‘obstruct, hinder’. These became homophonous and only the meaning ‘allow’ survived. However, in the expression without let or hindrance the original meaning survives.

Generalisations about semantic change

BAD MEANINGS REPLACE GOOD MEANINGS Pejoration is more usual than amelioration, i.e there are more instances of words developing a negative meaning than the opposite case. Two good examples related to terms for people. The word churl stems from a Germanic root meaning ‘man’ and came to mean ‘a peasant, someone of low birth’ and later still ‘an ill-bred person’. The root is still to be seen in the adjective churlish ‘mean, despicable’. The word knave (now somewhat antiquated) has the negative meaning ‘scoundrel’. But it comes from the more neutral word cnafa ‘boy, servant’ in Old English (cf. Gernan Knabe to which it is related).

MEANINGS TEND TO BECOME SUBJECTIVE The word feel originally meant only ‘touch’ but has shifted to a general term referring to the sentiments of the speaker. The word apparent meant ‘in appearance’ but now refers to the belief/opinion of the speaker: That's an apparent mistake on her part. Objective terms become discourse terms Words may become indicators of the structure of discourse. Two illustrations of this are but and while. The former once meant ‘outside of’ and the latter ‘a period’ (still to be seen in She rested for a while). Now these words mean ‘however’ and ‘during’.

It’s a beautiful painting but too large for the wall.
She took a rest while the others were in the restaurant.

The notion of ‘word field’

It is obvious from even the briefest of surveys of semantic change that if any one word in a group of semantically related words shifts, then the others are immediately effected and may well react by filling the semantic ‘space’ vacated by the item which made the move.

Semantic change does not occur with words in isolation. The group of items which are affected by a shift are called a word-field, i.e. a collection of items with related senses and denotations, e.g. terms for housing, for garments, for immediate relatives, for classification of human behaviour, etc. For instance there is a word-field which encompasses terms for denoting an individual’s mental abilities and in German and English it would include such words as the following.

German klug, weise, clever, intelligent, schlau, gewieft, helle, pfiffig,
schnell, gescheit, genial, brillant, aufgeweckt

English clever, wise, cute, smart, sharp, intelligent, bright, cunning,
quick, crafty, ingenious, brilliant

One of the major difficulties in translation lies in determining precisely the position of a single term in a word-field and thus finding an equivalent in range and connotation in the corresponding word-field of the language into which one is translating.

CURRENT SEMANTIC CHANGE Present-day English shows quite a number of semantic changes which consist of expansions, restrictions, ameliorations and deteriorations. To start with one can quote an unusual semantic development with the word sanction which has come to have two opposite meanings. It can mean ‘to allow something’ as in They sanctioned the proposal or ‘to forbid something’ especially in the nominalised form as in Britain imposed sanctions on the country.

Decimate originally meant to reduce something by one tenth but now simply means to reduce drastically The staff was decimated by the restructuring of the firm.

Up until recently the sole meaning of the word joy was ‘pleasurable, euphoric state’ but has come to be used in the sense of success as in They got no joy out of the insurance company.

Philosophy is originally a science concerned with the use of reasoning and argument in the pursuit of truth and greater understanding of reality and the metaphysical. Now it has come to mean little more than ‘policy’ in a sentence like The company's philosophy is to be aggressively competitive.

Culture is a collective term referring to the arts and human intellectual achievement in general. However it has come to be used in the sense of ‘general set of attitudes and behavioural types, usually in a public context’ as in The culture of violence in our inner cities.

Students used to be an exclusive term for those studying at universities and other institutions of higher education. But more and more the term is also being used for pupils perhaps to attribute more adult status to those still at school.

There are also grammatical changes taking place in English which are often used to achieve a certain semantic effect. For instance the verb talk is assumed to take the preposition about when the object is inanimate as in She was talking about the weather. But there is an increasing use without a preposition to add force and immediacy to what one is saying: Okay, so we're talking big money now.


Traugott, Elizabeth Closs and Richard B. Dasher 2002. Regularity in Semantic Change. Cambridge: University Press.

Stockwell, Robert and Donka Minkova 2001. English words, history and structure. Cambridge: University Press.

Hughes, Geoffrey 2000. A history of English words. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harley, Heidi 2003. English words. A linguistic introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.