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Narrowing

Words are like living organisms that evolve and adapt over time, and just as a species may undergo changes to better survive in its environment, so too do words undergo semantic narrowing to better fit the needs of language users.

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Words are like living organisms that evolve and adapt over time, and just as a species may undergo changes to better survive in its environment, so too do words undergo semantic narrowing to better fit the needs of language users.

Narrowing: meaning

Narrowing is a process that takes place in semantics. It is important that we first understand what semantics is and what semantic change is.

  • Semantics refers to the study of the meaning of words or phrases. There are two types of semantics: logical and lexical. Logical semantics has to do with reference (the symbolic relationship between language and real-world objects) and implication (the relationship between two sentences). Lexical semantics is about the analysis of word meaning.
  • Semantic change refers to how the meaning of words changes over time.

Narrowing is a type of semantic change in which the meaning of a word becomes less generalised over time. Narrowing may also be called 'semantic specialisation' and is a common process that can occur slowly over many years.

The opposite of semantic narrowing is called semantic broadening. This is when a word's meaning becomes more generalised over time.

What causes narrowing?

Semantic narrowing is typically caused by extra-linguistic factors. These are defined as factors that occur outside the system of the language spoken. This type of semantic change occurs naturally and gradually over time.

Narrowing is typically caused when a definition of a word is used more commonly than other definitions so the word's meaning changes to be more specific. This can be caused by factors such as socio-cultural and psychological reasons.

Let's take a look at some examples of the causes of narrowing in English.

Sociocultural causes

Sociocultural factors can also cause narrowing. This happens when there is a major shift in a country's politics or social landscape. Factors such as revolutions, wars and civil rights movements can lead to narrowing. One major example of this is how the meaning of some words changed following the Industrial Revolution.

Engine

The word engine (known as 'egin' in Old French and 'egyn' in Middle English) was traditionally used to describe machines used in war. Before industrialisation, the word was used to describe devices used in war, such as catapults. Following the Industrial Revolution, the word came to mean a mechanical device used to achieve a purpose. This shows that the word's meaning became narrower over time.

Psychological Causes

Narrowing can also happen when a language undergoes widespread change. Major changes like this can affect how people view a word and its meaning. This is especially common when the meaning of word becomes taboo or is used as a euphemism, like the way that 'passed away' can be used to describe someone dying.

Hound

The word 'hound', comes from the German word, 'hund', meaning 'dog'. It was then traditionally used to refer to any type of dog in English also. However, over the centuries, as the English language developed, the meaning narrowed, until it was only used for dogs and related to the action of hunting (using breeds like beagles and bloodhounds).

Narrowing, Hound Examples, StudySmarterFig. 1 - 'Hound' is an example of narrowing.

Examples of narrowing

Now that we have established what semantic narrowing is and how it occurs, let's look at some examples:

Meat

The word 'meat' has undergone semantic narrowing over the years. The word originally just meant 'food'. In time, this meaning grew to become more specific, until the word 'meat' was only used for one type of food (the flesh of an animal).

Deer

Originally, 'deer' came from the Old English word 'dēor'. Records from before 900 AD show that this word meant 'beast', and was used to refer to any four-legged animal. However, by 1400 AD, the meaning of the word had significantly narrowed to only refer to one type of creature.

Narrowing Deer in Woods StudySmarterFig. 2 - 'Deer' is an example of narrowing.

Girl

A similar process occurred for the word 'girl'. The word was used in Middle English to refer to any young child, regardless of gender. Over time this changed, and now the word is only used to refer to young and adolescent women.

Book

The word 'book' originally referred to any written or printed work, but over time it has come to be associated specifically with bound volumes, and its use to refer to other types of written or printed materials has become less common.

Narrowing - key takeaways

  • Narrowing is a specific process of semantic change where a word's meaning becomes more specific over time.
  • Semantics is a term that refers to the study of the meaning of words. Semantic change refers to how the meaning of a word can change over time.
  • Narrowing is a common process that often takes place over many years.
  • Narrowing can be caused by socio-cultural and psychological factors.
  • Examples of words that have undergone semantic narrowing are hound, book, girl, deer, and meat.

Frequently Asked Questions about Narrowing

Narrowing is the name given to a specific type of semantic change. It is the process by which the meaning of a word becomes more specific over time. This is a process that can occur over a long period of time.

The word 'meat' is an example of narrowing as it originally meant 'food' but now only refers to the flesh of an animal. 

Types of narrowing include word changes caused by sociocultural factors, and changes caused by psychological factors.

Narrowing is commonly used in the English language when changes occur outside of the language system (extra-linguistic factors). 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What are the two types of semantics?

 Which is an example of semantic change? 

True or false?Narrowing takes place over a short period of time.

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