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Causes of Semantic Change



Word meaning is liable to change in the course of the historical development of language. Words acquire new meanings while some of the old ones die away. When the new meaning replaces the older or exists side by side with it as part of the semantic structure of a polysemantic word, it enriches the vocabulary qualitatively. When it exists side by side with the older meaning, but is no longer associated with it. so that the semantic development results in the emergence of a new word, this contributes to the quantitative growth of the vocabulary. Thus the break of the word 'club' into a pair of homonyms ('stick with one thick end' and 'association of people meeting periodically') gave a new lexical unit to the English vocabulary.


Causes of Semantic Change


The factors accounting for semantic changes may be roughly subdivided into two groups: a) extra-linguistic, and b) linguistic causes.

By extra-linguistic causes we mean various changes in the life of the speech community, changes in' economic and social structure, changes in ideas, scientific concepts, way of life and other spheres of human activity as reflected in word meaning.

The appearance of a new meaning is due either to 1) the appearance, of new referents (e.g. radio, television, computer) or a factual change of 'referents - (for instance the word; machine originally meant any kind of erection;, it acquired its modern meaning in the 17 century because of

technical, progress); or to 2) a change of our knowledge of the referent or a change in otn emotional attitude to the referent, while in reality the referent remains unchanged.

The progress of scientific knowledge has brought new notions attached to new meanings' for many words, such as: atom, atomic energy, solar system, etc.

The change in emotional attitude to the referent is found, for instance,in the so-called degradation of meaning. Knave isa good example of this process. In Old English cnafa first meant a boy, then a servant-boy, later a l male servant, then it acquired the meaning of a man of humble birth or.] position and finally the word acquired a derogatory meaning - a tricky I deceitful person.

Some changes of meaning are due to what may be described as purely ij linguistic causes, i.e. factors acting within the language system. The most!! common is the so-called ellipsis. If in a phrase made up of two words one j of the word is omitted, its meaning is transferred to its partner.

For example-, (he verb starve (Old English steorfari) originally meant' 'to die'. It Was habitually used in the collocation starve of hunger, then the second element was dropped but its meaning was transferred to the verb starve. The verb die (Danish loan word) came to be used in a more general sense.

Similar semantic change may be observed in Modern English when the meaning of one word is transferred to another because they habitually occur together in speech.

e.g. a weekly (newspaper)

Another linguistic cause is discrimination of synonyms which can be illustrated by the semantic development of the words 'land' and 'country.'

Some semantic changes may be accounted for by the so-called linguistic analogy. It was found out, for example, that if one member of the synonymic group acquires a new meaning other members of this set also change their meaning.'

e.g. to catch - to grasp - to get


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