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CHANGE OF MEANING
4.1. Three aspects of semantic change.
4.2. Causes of semantic change.
4.3. Nature of semantic change. Metaphor and metonymy.
4.4. Results of semantic change.
4.1. Word meanings are liable to change in the process of historical development of the language. The semantic structure of a word is never static. The number of meanings may change, with new meanings being added and some meaning dropping out; the existing meanings may be rearranged in the semantic structure.
When speaking about semantic change, we must distinguish between:
2) the causes of semantic change, i.e. the factors bringing it about; we try to find out why the word has changed its meaning;
3) the nature of semantic change; we describe the process of the change and try to answer the question how it has been brought about;
4) the results of semantic change; we try to state what has been changed.
These are three different but closely connected aspects of the same problem.
4.2. The causes, or factors, that bring about semantic changes are classified into linguistic and extralinguistic. By extralinguistic causes we mean various changes in the life of a speech community; changes in social life, culture, science, technology, economy, etc. as reflected in word meanings,
e.g. mill originally was borrowed from Latin in the 1st c. B.C. in the meaning " a building in which corn is ground into flour". When the first textile factories appeared in Great Britain it acquired a new meaning - " a textile factory". The cause of this semantic change is scientific and technological progress.
Linguistic causes are factors that operate within the language system. They are:
1) Ellipsis. In a phrase made up of two words one of them is omitted and its meaning is transferred to the other one,
e.g. In OE sterven (MnE to starve) meant “to die, perish". It was often used in the phrase " sterven of hunger", the second word was omitted and the verb acquired the new meaning n die of hunger".
2) Discrimination of synonyms,
e.g. In OE land had two meanings: " 1. solid part of Earth's surface; 2. the territory of a nation". In ME the word country was borrowed as a synonym to land. Then the second meaning of land came to be expressed by country and the semantic structure of land changed.
3) Linguistic analogy. If one member of a synonymic set takes on a new meaning, other members of the same set may acquire this meaning, too,
e.g. to catch acquired the meaning " understand"; its synonyms to get, to qrasp also acquired the same meaning.
4.3 A necessary condition of anу semantic change is some connection or association between the old, existing meaning and the new one. There are two main types of association:
1) Similarity of meaning or metaphor,
2) Contiguity of meaning or metonymy, i.e. contact, proximity in place or time.
Metaphor is the semantic process of associating two referents, one of which in some way resembles the other. Metaphors may be based on similarity of shape, size, position, function, etc.
In various languages metaphoric meanings of words denoting parts of the human body are most frequent,
e.g. the eye of a needle " hole in the end of a needle", the neck of a bottle, the heart of a cabbage - the metaphoric meaning has developed through similarity of the shape of two objects; the foot of the hill - this metaphoric change is based on the similarity of position; the hand of the clock, the Head of the school - the metaphoric meaning is based on similarity of function.
A special group of metaphors comprises proper nouns that have become common nouns,
e.g. a Don Juan - " a lady-killer", a vandal - " one who destroys property, works of art" (originally " Germanic tribe that in the 4th-5th c. ravaged Gaul, Spain, N. Africa, and Rome, destroying many books and works of art").
Metonymy is a semantic process of associating two referents which are somehow connected or linked in time or space. They may be connected because they often appear in the same situation,
e.g. bench has developed the meaning " judges" because it was on benches that judges used to sit,
or the association may be of material and an object made of it, etc.,
e.g. silver – 1) certain.precious metal; 2) silver coins; 3) cutlery; 4) silver medal,
or they may be associated because one makes part of the other,
e.g. factory/farm hands " workers" (because strong, skillful hands are the most important part of a person engaged in physical labour).
Common nouns may be derived from proper names through metonymic transference,
e.g. Wellingtons " high boots covering knees in front" (from the 1st Duke of Wellington, Br. general and statesman, who introduced them in fashion).
4.4. Results of semantic change may be observed in the changes of the denotative component and the connotative component of word meaning.
1) Changes of the denotative component are of two types:
(a) broadening (or generalization, = widening, = extension) of meaning, i.e. the range of the new meaning is broader, the word is applied to a wider range of referents,
e.g. to arrive, borrowed from French, originally meant " to come to shore, to land". In MnE it has developed a broader meaning " to come". Yankee – 1) a native of New England (originally); 2) a citizen of the USA (now).
(b) narrowing (or specialization, = restriction) of meaning.
The word comes to denote a more limited range of referents, fewer types of them,
e.g. meat in OE meant " any food", now it means " flesh of animals used as food" (i.e. some special food); in OE hound meant " a dog", now it is " a dog of special breed used in chasing foxes".
As a special group, we can mention proper names derived from common nouns,
e.g. the Border - between Scotland and England,
the Tower - the museum in London.
2) Changes in the connotative component of meaning are also of two types:
(a) degeneration (or degradation, = deterioration) of meaning, i.e. a word develops a meaning with a negative evaluative connotation which was absent in the first meaning,
e.g. silly " happy" (originally) - " foolish" (now);
(b) elevation (or amelioration) of meaning, i.e. the first meaning has a negative connotation and the new one has not,
e.g. nice originally " foolish" - now " fine, good".
In other cases the new meaning acquires positive connotation absent in the original meaning,
e.g. knight " manservant" (originally) - " noble, courageous man" (now)
The terms elevation and degeneration of meaning are inaccurate as we actually deal not with elevation or degradation of meanings but of referents.