The factors accounting for semantic changes may be roughly subdivided into two groups:
1. extra-linguistic causes
2. 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 activities as reflected in word meanings. Although objects, institutions, concepts, etc. change in the course of time in many cases the soundform of the words which denote them is retained but the meaning of the words is changed. The word car, e.g., ultimately goes back to Latin carrus which meant ‘a four-wheeled wagon’ (ME. carre) but now that other means of transport are used it denotes ‘a motor-car’, ‘a railway carriage’ (in the USA), ‘that portion of an airship, or balloon which is intended to carry personnel, cargo or equipment’.
Some changes of meaning are due to what may be described as purely linguistic causes, i.e. factors acting within the language system. The commonest form which this influence takes is the so-called ellipsis. In a phrase made up of two words one of these is omitted and its meaning is transferred to its partner. The verb to starve, e.g., in Old English (OE. steorfan) had the meaning ‘to die’ and was habitually used in collocation with the word hunger (ME. sterven of hunger). Already in the 16th century the verb itself acquired the meaning ‘to die of hunger’. Similar semantic changes may be observed in Modern English when the meaning of one word is transferred to another because they habitually occur together in speech.
Another linguistic cause is discrimination of synonyms which can be illustrated by the semantic development of a number of words. The word land, e.g., in Old English (OE. land) meant both ’solid part of earth’s surface’ and ‘the territory of a nation’. When in the Middle English period the word country (OFr. contree) was borrowed as its synonym, the meaning of the word land was somewhat altered and ‘the territory of a nation’ came to be denoted mainly by the borrowed word country.
Some semantic changes may be accounted for by the influence of a peculiar factor usually referred to as linguistic analogy. It was found out, e.g., that if one of the members of a synonymic set acquires a new meaning other members of this set change their meanings too. It was observed, e.g., that all English adverbs which acquired the meaning ‘rapidly’ (in a certain period of time — before 1300) always develop the meaning ‘immediately’, similarly verbs synonymous withcatch, e.g. grasp, get, etc., by semantic extension acquired another meaning — ‘to understand’.
Types of semantic change
The development and change of the semantic structure of a word is always a source of qualitative and quantitative development of the vocabulary. M. Bréal was probably the first to emphasise the fact that in passing from general usage into some special sphere of communication a word as a rule undergoes some sort of specialisation of its meaning. The word case, for instance, alongside its general meaning of ‘circumstances in which a person or a thing is’ possesses special meanings: in law (a law suit), in grammar (e. g. the Possessive case), in medicine (‘a patient’, ‘an illness’). Compare the following: One of Charles’s cases had been a child ill with a form of diphtheria (Snow). (case = ‘a patient’) The Solicitor whom I met at the Rolfords’ sent me a case which any young man at my stage would have thought himself lucky to get (Idem), (case = ‘a question decided in a court of law, a law suit’) The general, not specialised meaning is also very frequent in present-day English. E. g.: At last we tiptoed up the broad slippery staircase, and went to our rooms. But in my case not to sleep, immediately at least...(Idem). (case = ‘circumstances in which one is’) This difference is revealed in the difference of contexts in which these words occur, in their different valency. Words connected with illnesses and medicine in the first example, and words connected with law and court procedures in the second determine the semantic structure or paradigm of the word case.
The word play suggests different notions to a child, a playwright, a footballer, a musician or a chess-player and has in their speech different semantic paradigms. The same applies to the noun cell as used by a biologist, an electrician, a nun or a representative of the law; or the word gas as understood by a chemist, a soldier, a housewife, a motorist or a miner.
In all the examples considered above a word which formerly represented a notion of a broader scope has come to render a notion of a narrower scope. When the meaning is specialised, the word can name fewer objects, i.e. have fewer referents. At the same time the content of the notion is being enriched, as it includes a greater number of relevant features by which the notion is characterised. Or, in other words, the word is now applicable to fewer things but tells us more about them. The reduction of scope accounts for the term “narrowing of the meaning” which is even more often used than the term “specialisation”. We shall avoid the term “narrowing", since it is somewhat misleading. Actually it is neither the meaning nor the notion, but the scope of the notion that is narrowed.
There is also a third and more exact term for the same phenomenon, namely “differentiation", but it is not so widely used as the first two terms.
H. Paul, as well as many other authors, emphasises the fact that this type of semantic change is particularly frequent in vocabulary of professional and trade groups. H. Paul’s examples are from the German language but it is very easy to find parallel cases in English. This type of change is fairly universal and fails to disclose any specifically English properties.
The best known examples of specialisation in the general language are as follows: OE deor ‘wild beast'>ModE deer ‘wild ruminant of a particular species’ (the original meaning was still alive in Shakespeare’s time as is proved by the following quotation: Rats and mice and such small deer); OE mete ‘food'>ModE meet‘edible flesh’, i. e. only a particular species of food (the earlier meaning is still noticeable in the compound sweetmeat). This last example deserves special attention because the tendency of fixed context to preserve the original meaning is very marked as is constantly proved by various examples. Other well-worn cases are: OE fuzol ‘bird’ (||Germ Vogel) >ModE fowl ‘domestic birds’. The old meaning is still preserved in poetic diction and in set expressions like fowls of the air. Among its derivatives, fowler means ‘a person who shoots or traps wild birds for sport or food’; the shooting or trapping itself is called fowling; a fowling piece is a gun. OE hand ‘dog’ (||Germ Hund) > ModE hound ‘a species of hunting dog’. Many words connected with literacy also show similar changes: thus,teach < OE tæcan ‘to show’, ‘to teach’;write < OE writan ‘to write’, ‘to scratch’, ‘to score’ (|| Germ reißen); writing in Europe had first the form of scratching on the bark of the trees. Tracing these semantic changes the scholars can, as it were, witness the development of culture. an increase) and arrangement of word-meanings without a single meaning disappearing from its semantic structure.
Words may be classified according to the concepts underlying their meaning. This classification is closely connected with the theory of conceptual or semantic fields. By the term “semantic fields” we understand closely knit sectors of vocabulary each characterised by a common concept. For example, the words blue, red, yellow, black, etc. may be described as making up the semantic field of colours, the words mother, father, brother, cousin, etc. — as members of the semantic field of kinship terms, the words joy, happiness, gaiety, enjoyment, etc. as belonging to the field of pleasurable emotions, and so on.
The members of the semantic fields are not synonyms but all of them are joined together by some common semantic component — the concept of colours or the concept of kinship, etc. This semantic component common to all the members of the field is sometimes described as the common denominator of meaning. All members of the field are semantically interdependent as each member helps to delimit and determine the meaning of its neighbours and is semantically delimited and determined by them. It follows that the word-meaning is to a great extent determined by the place it occupies in its semantic field.
Thus the semantic field may be viewed as a set of lexical items in which the meaning of each is determined by the co-presence of the others.
It is argued that we cannot possibly know the exact meaning of the word if we do not know the structure of the semantic field to which the word belongs, the number of the members and the concepts covered by them, etc. The meaning of the word captain, e.g., cannot be properly understood until we know the semantic field in which this term operates — the army, the navy, or the merchant service. It follows that the meaning of the word captain is determined by the place it occupies among the terms of the relevant rank system. In other words we know what captain means only if we know whether his subordinate is calledmate or first officer (merchant service), commander (‘navy’) or lieutenant (‘army’).
Semantic dependence of the word on the structure of the field may be also illustrated by comparing members of analogous conceptual fields in different languages. Comparing, for example, kinship terms in Russian and in English we observe that the meaning of the English term mother-in-law is different from either the Russian тёща or свекровь as the English term covers the whole area which in Russian is divided between the two words. The same is true of the members of the semantic field of colours (cf. blue — синий, голубой), of human body (cf. hand, arm — рука) and others.
The theory of semantic field is severely criticised by Soviet linguists mainly on philosophical grounds since some of the proponents of the semantic-field theory hold the idealistic view that language is a kind of self-contained entity standing between man and the world of reality (Zwischenwelt). The followers of this theory argue that semantic fields reveal the fact that human experience is analysed and elaborated in a unique way, differing from one language to another. Broadly speaking they assert that people speaking different languages actually have different concepts, as it is through language that we ‘"see” the real world around us. In short, they deny the primacy of matter forgetting that our concepts are formed not only through linguistic experience, but primarily through our actual contact with the real world. We know what hot means not only because we know the word hot, but also because we burn our fingers when we touch something very hot. A detailed critical analysis of the theory of semantic fields is the subject-matter of general linguistics. Here we are concerned with this theory only as a means of semantic classification of vocabulary items. Another point should be discussed in this connection. Lexical groups described above may be very extensive and may cover big conceptual areas, e g. space, matter, intellect, etc.
Words making up such semantic fields may belong to different parts of speech. For example, in the semantic field of space we find nouns: expanse, extent, surface, etc.; verbs: extend, spread, span, etc.; adjectives: spacious, roomy, vast, broad, etc.
There may be comparatively small lexical groups of words belonging to the same part of speech and linked by a common concept. The words bread, cheese, milk, meat, etc. make up a group with the concept of food as the common denominator of meaning. Such smaller lexical groups consisting of words of the same part of speech are usually termed lexico-semantic groups. It is observed that the criterion for joining words together into semantic fields and lexico-semantic groups is the identity of one of the components of their meaning found in all the lexical units making up these lexical groups. Any of the semantic components may be chosen to represent the group. For example, the word saleswoman may be analysed into the semantic components ‘human’, ‘female’, ‘professional’. Consequently the word saleswoman may be included into a lexico-semantic group under the heading of human together with the words man, woman, boy, girl, etc. and under the heading female with the words girl, wife, woman and also together with the words teacher, pilot, butcher, etc., as professionals.
It should also be pointed out that different meanings of polysemantic words make it possible to refer the same word to different lexico-semantic groups. Thus, e.g. make in the meaning of ‘construct’ is naturally a member of the same lexico-semantic group as the verbs produce, manufacture, etc , whereas in the meaning of compel it is regarded as a member of a different lexico-semantic group made up by the verbs force, induce, etc.
Lexico-semantic groups seem to play a very important role in determining individual meanings of polysemantic words in lexical contexts. Analysing lexical contexts we saw that the verb take, e.g,, in combination with any member of the lexical group denoting means of transportation is synonymous with the verbgo (take the tram, the bus, etc.). When combined with members of another lexical group the same verb is synonymous with to drink (to take tea, coffee, etc.). Such word-groups are often used not only in scientific lexicological analysis, but also in practical class-room teaching. In a number of textbooks we find words with some common denominator of meaning listed under the headings Flowers, Fruit, Domestic Animals, and so on.