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Narrowing

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English

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 this.

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 Narrowing Hounds StudySmarterHounds pixabay.com

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).

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 StudySmarterpixabay.com

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.

Narrowing - key takeaways

  • 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 specific process of semantic change where a word's meaning becomes more specific over time.
  • This is a common process that often takes place over many years.
  • Narrowing can be caused by socio-cultural and psychological factors.

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). 

Final Narrowing Quiz

Question

What is semantics? 

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Answer

Semantics is the term given to the study of the meaning of words

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Question

What is semantic change?

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Answer

Semantic change, is the term given to how the meanings of words can change over time

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Question

What are the two types of semantics?

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Answer

Logical  

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Question

 Which is an example of semantic change? 


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Answer

Lengthening

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What is semantic narrowing?

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Semantic narrowing is when a word's meaning becomes more specific over time.

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What is the synonym of narrowing?

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A common synonym of narrowing is specialisation

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Question

True or false?


Narrowing takes place over a short period of time.

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True

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What is the term given to the opposite of narrowing? 


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The term given is semantic broadening.

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What is semantic broadening?

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Broadening is when a word's meaning changes to become more generalised.

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What is the difference between narrowing and broadening?

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Answer

Narrowing is when the meaning of a word becomes more specialised whereas broadening happens when a word's meaning changes to be more generalised.

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Question

True or false?


Narrowing is commonly caused by extralinguistic factors

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Answer

True

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What are extralinguistic factors?

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Answer

These are defined as factors that occur outside the system of the language

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What are two examples of extralinguistic factors? 


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Sociocultural factors 

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How do socio-cultural factors influence semantic narrowing?

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Sociocultural factors can influence narrowing as a major shift in a country's politics or social landscape will lead to semantic changes.

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Question

Which is not an example of a potential socio-cultural factor? 


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Answer

Revolutions

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Question

The word, 'engine', was originally used to mean any war machine. What does it now mean?


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Answer

It now specifically refers to devices that are created to fulfil a specific purpose.

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How can psychological factors influence semantic narrowing?

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Answer

Psychological factors can influence narrowing as they can occur when a language undergoes widespread changes. This will cause a psychological change in how people view a word and its meaning

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Which is an example of a potential psychological factor?


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Languages overlapping

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The word, 'hound', traditionally referred to any type of dog. What does it now refer to?


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Answer

 It is now used to refer to hunting dogs, such as bloodhounds or beagles.

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Question

True or false?


The opposite of narrowing is called deepening.

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Answer

False

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Narrowing is also known as what?

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Answer

Semantic specialisation

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Question

Fill in the blank:


Semantic narrowing is caused by _____________ factors.

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Answer

extra-linguistic

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Question

True or false?


Narrowing can happen when a language undergoes widespread change.

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Answer

True

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Question

Deer came from the Old English word ____.

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Answer

dēor

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Question

The word meat is now used to specifically refer to what?

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Answer

The flesh of an animal

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