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Semantic Change

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English

Semantics refers to the study of meaning. There are two types of semantics: logical and lexical. Logical semantics is the study of reference (the symbolic relationship between language and real-world objects) and implication (the relationship between two sentences). Lexical semantics is the analysis of word meaning.

What is semantic change?

The term 'semantic change' refers to how the meaning of words changes over time. We will cover five types of semantic change: narrowing, broadening, amelioration, pejoration, and semantic reclamation.

Let's learn about the causes of semantic change, the different types of semantic change, and look at some examples.

The term 'semantic shift' can also be used to refer to the changing meanings of words.

The causes of semantic change

There are two different causes of semantic change. These are extralinguistic causes (not involving language) and linguistic causes (involving language).

Extralinguistic Causes

Extralinguistic causes are mainly to do with the social or historical causes of semantic change. If we break the term 'extralinguistic' down we can see that it refers to factors that are 'extra' so exist outside the language itself. Linguist Andreas Blank breaks down this factor into three main subcategories.

1. Psychological Factors

Psychological factors are factors that affect how people view a word and its meaning. If a word's original meaning is unclear, it is given new meaning. The meaning of a word may also become taboo or is used as a euphemism, eg. the term 'pass away' can be used to describe someone dying.

2. Sociocultural Factors

This is perhaps the most common factor for extralinguistic causes of semantic change. Changes in the social, economical or political status of a country can have a significant impact on semantics. An example of this is how the meaning of words changed following the Industrial Revolution e.g. the meaning of the word 'engine' changed from describing general devices used in war to describing a specific mechanic device. This means that the word went the semantic change (more specifically narrowing).

3. Cultural / Encyclopedic Factors

These factors refer to the cultural reasons why a word's meaning may change. This can be because of cultural changes that lead to a change in how the word is categorised (causing a semantic change). For example, the word 'cool' was originally used in the context of jazz music but as the popularity of jazz increased, the word became associated with anything trendy.

Linguistic Causes

Linguistic causes of semantic change are factors that occur within the system of the language spoken. Natural language changes tend to take longer than extralinguistic causes. We see this throughout history, for example, Old English took centuries to develop into Middle English.

Linguistic factors can include:

Metonymy

Metonymy occurs when the name of an object is substituted for an attribute or adjective. For example, sometimes when discussing horse racing, the tracks are referred to as 'turf'.

Metaphors

Metaphors may also affect what certain words are associated with. The meaning words may be extended to show a connection between two similar things.

Ellipsis

This occurs when two words are consistently used together in a sentence until they acquire the same meaning. For example, the verb 'to starve' originally meant 'to die'; however, it was frequently used in sentences about hunger. This led to the word's meaning to die of hunger.

There are factors within these causes that will also impact semantic changes. Have a look at the table below to see some examples of extralinguistic and linguistic causes of semantic change.

Extralinguistic Causes
The fuzziness of a meaning
Cultural importance changes
Word becomes taboo
Change in a word's popularity
Communicative changes
Changes in worldview
Linguistic Causes
Metonymy / metaphor
Ellipses
Changes in the referents (what is being referred to)
Excessive length
Wordplay and puns
Disguising language / misnomers (i.e. an inaccurate name)

Different types of semantic change

There are five major types of semantic change. These changes occur for either extralinguistic or linguistic reasons. The five major kinds of semantic change are: narrowing, broadening, amelioration, pejoration, and semantic reclamation. Below, we will discuss the characteristics of these, and look at examples of each type of semantic change.

Narrowing

Semantic narrowing is the process by which a word's meaning becomes less generalised (in other words more specific) over time. This means that the new meaning derives directly from the original meaning. Typically this process is caused by linguistic factors, such as ellipses, and can take many years to occur. Narrowing can also be referred to as semantic specialisation or semantic restriction.

Let's look at two examples of semantic narrowing:

Hound

The word 'hound', traditionally was used to refer to any type of dog. However, over the centuries the meaning narrowed until it was only used when discussing dogs used when hunting (such as beagles and bloodhounds).

Semantic Change hounds StudySmarterHounds pixabay.com

Meat

Similarly, 'meat', has also undergone semantic narrowing over the years. The word originally just meant 'food'. This meaning grew more specific until the word 'meat' was only used when relating to one type of food (animal flesh).

Broadening

Broadening is the process in which the meaning of a word becomes more generalised over time. In order words, the word can be used in more contexts than it could originally. This is sometimes referred to as semantic generalisation.

Semantic broadening is the antonym of semantic narrowing, as the process that takes place is the opposite. However, like semantic narrowing, this process often occurs over the course of many years. Broadening can be caused by both extralinguistic and linguistic causes, such as a change in worldview, or linguistic analogy.

Below are two examples of semantic broadening:

Business

The word, 'business' originally was only used to refer to being busy. However, over the years, the meaning of this word broadened to refer to any type of work or job.

Cool

The term, 'cool', was popular within the language of jazz musicians, as it referred to a specific style of music ('cool jazz')! Over time, as jazz music grew in popularity, the word started to be used in other contexts.

Semantic Change man playing jazz StudySmarterJazz pixabay.com

Amelioration

Amelioration is a term that refers to when a word acquires a more positive meaning over time. It may also be referred to as semantic amelioration or semantic elevation. Typically this process occurs due to different extralinguistic reasons, such as cultural and worldview changes occurring.

Below are two examples of amelioration:

Nice

The word 'nice' is possibly the most well-known example of amelioration. In the 1300s, the word originally meant that a person was foolish or silly. However, by the 1800s, the process of amelioration had changed this, and the word came to mean that someone was kind and thoughtful. From this, we can see that amelioration is a process that can take centuries to occur.

Sick

Many slang terms, such as 'sick', have undergone the process of amelioration over the years. Terms such as 'sick' or 'wicked' now also have positive connotations. This is because when used as slang, they gain a new, positive, meaning and are associated with the word, 'cool'.

Pejoration

Pejoration is a term used to describe the process where a word that once had a positive meaning acquires a negative one. It is sometimes also referred to as semantic deterioration. This type of semantic change usually occurs due to extralinguistic causes. This can include a word becoming taboo, or being linked with a taboo within the culture.

Below, we will look at two different examples of pejoration:

Silly

The word, 'silly', is a common example of pejoration. In Old and Middle English, the term was used to mean that someone was happy, or spiritually blessed. However, over the centuries, this changed and by the 1500s, the word became associated with acting foolishly - as it is today!

Attitude

This word was originally used to refer to someone's pose or posture. The meaning of the word changed, referring to someone's way of thinking instead. From this, the term began to be used colloquially which led it to be associated with acting rude or unkind. A phrase such as 'he has a bad attitude' can become shortened to 'he has an attitude', showing that the word has gained a negative meaning.

Semantic reclamation

Semantic reclamation occurs when a group of people who have been oppressed reclaim (or take back) a word that has been used in the past to disparage them. The people who reclaim these words use them in a positive context and in doing this, the word is stripped of its power to disparage the group.

Semantic reclamation is often a political and controversial act, as these words become special to one particular group. Words have been reclaimed by groups such as women, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQIA community.

It is important to remember when discussing this form of semantic change that, unlike amelioration, the word may still also be used in the pejorative sense.

Semantic Change - Key takeaways

  • Semantic change refers to a type of language change in which the meaning of a word changes over time.
  • Semantic change can be caused by extralinguistic and linguistic factors.
  • Narrowing is when a word's meaning becomes more specialised in time.
  • Broadening is when a word becomes more generalised and gains additional meanings.
  • Amelioration is when a word's meaning changes from negative to positive.
  • Pejoration is when a word's meaning changes from positive to negative.
  • Semantic reclamation is a process where a word that was once used to disparage a group of people is reclaimed by the group.

Semantic Change

There are many examples of semantic change that can be found in our day-to-day speech! One example of semantic change would be the word 'hound'. It was originally used to mean any dog, however, over time this word came to mean a hunting dog specifically. This is an example of narrowing.


Another example of semantic change is the word 'nice'. This word was first used to describe someone foolish then changed to mean someone nice and selfless instead. This is an example of amelioration.

Semantic change is the process in which the meaning of a word changes over time.

There are four major types of semantic change. These include narrowing, broadening, amelioration, and pejoration.


Narrowing is the process in which the meaning of a word becomes more specialised over time. Broadening is the opposite. It is the process in which a word's meaning becomes more generalised over time. 


Amelioration is when a word's meaning changes from negative to positive over time. Pejoration is the opposite of this. It is the process in which the word's meaning changes from negative to positive over time.

Final Semantic Change Quiz

Question

What is semantic change?

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Answer

Semantic change is a process where a word is given a new meaning.

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What causes semantic change?

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Answer

Semantic change can be caused by extralinguistic or linguistic causes.

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What is an example of an extralinguistic cause?

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 An example of an extralinguistic cause would be a word becoming taboo.

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What is an example of a linguistic cause?

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An example of a linguistic cause would be linguistic analogy - a process where when a word gets a new meaning, so does its synonyms.

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How many major types of semantic change are there? 

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There are three major types of semantic change.

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What are the major types of semantic change?

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They are narrowing, broadening, amelioration, pejoration, and semantic reclamation.

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What is narrowing?

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Narrowing is a process where a word's meaning changes to become more specific.

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What are two examples of semantic narrowing?

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Meat

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True or False - Meat is an example of semantic narrowing. 

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True - it is an example of narrowing.

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What is broadening?

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Broadening is a process where a word's meaning becomes more general.

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Spot two examples of semantic broadening!

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Cool

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True or false - broadening is only caused by linguistic factors.

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True- broadening can be caused by only linguistic 

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What is amelioration?

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Amelioration is a term used to describe when a word’s meaning changed from negative to positive.

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Spot two examples of amelioration!

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Nice

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What is pejoration?

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Pejoration is when a word's meaning changes from positive to negative.

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Spot two examples of pejoration!

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Silly

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Which is more common?

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Amelioration

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What is semantic reclamation?

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Semantic reclamation is when a group of people reclaim words that have once been used to disparage them.

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What is an example of semantic reclamation?

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The term 'gay' has undergone a process of semantic reclamation by LGBTQIA people.

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What is the difference between amelioration and semantic reclamation?

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When semantic reclamation occurs the word does not lose its pejorative meaning.  

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What is semantics? 

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

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What is semantic change?

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

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What are the two types of semantics?

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Logical  

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 Which is an example of semantic change? 


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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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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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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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True or false?


Narrowing is commonly caused by extralinguistic factors

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True

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What are extralinguistic factors?

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


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Revolutions

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


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

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What is semantics?

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Semantics is/refers to the study of the meaning of words

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What is semantic change?

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

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What are the two types of semantics?

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Two examples are logical and lexical semantics.

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Which is not an example of semantic change?


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Narrowing

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What is semantic broadening?

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Semantic broadening is the name given to the process where a word's meaning becomes more general over time.

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What is a synonym for broadening?


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A synonym for broadening is semantic generalisation.

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True or false?


Broadening is a slow process.

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True

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What is the opposite of broadening?

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The opposite of broadening is a process called narrowing.

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What is narrowing?

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Narrowing is a process where over time, a word's meaning becomes more specific.

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What is the difference between narrowing and broadening?

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

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What factor causes semantic broadening?


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It is caused by extralinguistic factors typically.

Show question

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