External and Internal Factors of Semantic Change

Topics: Etymology, Semantics, Linguistics Pages: 27 (10651 words) Published: May 12, 2011

The development and change of the semantic structure of a word is always a source of qualitative and quantitative development of the vocabulary. All the types discussed depend upon some comparison between the earlier (whether extinct or still in use) and the new meaning of the given word. This comparison may be based on the difference between notions expressed or referents in the real world that are pointed out, on the type of psychological association at work, on evaluation of the latter by the speaker or, possibly, on some other feature. The order in which various types are described will follow more or less closely the diachronic classifications of M. Breal and H. Paul. No attempt at a new classification is considered necessary. There seems to be no point in augmenting the number of unsatisfactory schemes already offered in literature. The treatment is therefore traditional. M. Breal was probably the first to emphasize the fact that in passing from general usage into some special sphere of communication a word as a rule undergoes some sort of specialisation of its meaning. The word case, for instance, alongside its general meaning of 'circumstances in which a person or a thing is' possesses special meanings: in law ('a law suit'), in grammar (e.g. the Possessive case), in medicine ('a patient', 'an illness'). Compare the following: One of Charles's cases had been a child ill with a form of diphtheria. (C. P. SNOW) (case = a patient). The Solicitor whom I met at the Holfords’ sent me a case which any young man at my stage would have thought himself lucky to get. (Idem) (case = a question decided, in a court of law, a law suit) /5,128/ The general, not specialized meaning is also very frequent in present-day English. For example: At last we tiptoed up the broad slippery staircase, and went to our rooms. But in my case not to sleep, immediately at least. (Idem) (case = circumstances in which one is) This difference is revealed in the difference of contexts in which these words occur, in their different valency. Words connected with illnesses and medicine in the first example, and words connected with law and court procedures in the second, form the semantic paradigm of the word case. The word play suggests different notions to a child, a playwright, a footballer, a musician or a chess-player and has in their speech different semantic paradigms. The same applies to the noun cell as used by a biologist, an electrician, a nun or a representative of the law; or the word gas as understood by a chemist, a housewife, a motorist or a miner. /3,27/ In all the examples considered above a word which formerly represented a notion of a broader scope has come to render a notion of a narrower scope. When the meaning is specialized, the word can name fewer objects, i.e. have fewer referents. At the same time the content of the notion is being enriched, as it includes -a greater number of relevant features by which the notion is characterized. Or as St. Ullmann puts it: "The word is now applicable to more things but tells us less about them." The reduction of scope accounts for the term "narrowing of the meaning" which is even more often used than the term "specialization". We shall avoid the term "narrowing", since it is somewhat misleading. Actually it is neither the meaning nor the notion, but the scope of the notion that .is narrowed. There is also a third term for the same phenomenon, namely "differentiation", but it is not so widely used as the first two terms. /9,72/ H. Paul, as well as many other authors, emphasizes the fact that this type of semantic change is particularly frequent in vocabulary of professional and trade groups. H. Paul's examples are from the German language but it is very easy to find parallel cases in English. So this type of change is fairly universal and fails to disclose any specifically English properties. The best known examples of specialization in the...
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