By Deborah Williams,2014-04-11 23:22
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    The motivation of semantic changes

     2813103028 刘瑞海

    Abstract: lexical semantic change has always stood out as one of the central issues among linguists in any given languages. As is known to us all, lexical semantic change undergoes three stages: innovation, diffusion and result. This essay mainly focuses on the different motivation of semantic changes, social-historically and linguistically. The author wants to probe this issue from the angle of its inevitability as well as its urgency.

    Key wordslexical semantic change; motivation; inevitability and urgency.





    关键词,词汇语义变化 动因 必然性和紧迫性

    Introduction: semantic change, also known as change in word meaning, refers to a word loses its old meaning and comes to refer to something altogether different. Or we may put it in this way: semantic change is the alteration of the meaning of existing words as well as the addition of new meaning to established words. “Change of meaning is a commonplace, and indeed it would

    appear to be fundamental in living languagealmost every word we use today has a slightly

    different meaning from the one it had a century ago; and a century ago it had a slightly different meaning from the one it had a century before that.(Quirk 1963:123-124) There are four

    tendencies in semantic change, namely: A. restriction of meaning (specialization); B. extension of meaning (generalization); C. degeneration of meaning (pejoration) and D. elevation of meaning (amelioration). This issue plays a vital role in understanding the evolvement of languages and decoding the myths of languages, but it is an extremely complicated process, because changes of meaning can have many causes. One early semanticist distinguished thirty one possible causes. Hard as it may be, still, it is possible to discern some of the main causes of semantic changes. I conclude three main aspects----1.causes from the change of objective world. 2. Cause from subjective world. 3. Causes from language itself, which will be analyzed respectively.

1. Causes from objective world

1.1 The emergence of new inventions

    Through the development of science and technology, it is a certainty that new inventions will appear. In order to name a new invention, we have several ways. The first one is to use the inventors (the finders) name or to use a man of great significance in that area as a salutation, for instance, when French scientist Ampère discovered the effect of electromagnetic power, we use ampere to name the unit of electricity. Another example may be the discovery of some constellations; in 1964 we found a new star and named it Zu asteroid to memorize an outstanding scientist in ancient China, Zu Chongzhi for his extraordinary contribution. The second one is to give names buy their function or the purpose of inventing them, such as internet, aero plane and so on. The third one is to adopt some related old words but use them newly (out of economical consideration), for instance, straw originally means cut and dried stalks of grain

    plants (e.g. wheat, barley), but we now use it to refer to thin tube of paper or plastic through which a drink is sucked up. So we used an old thing to name a new thing for they take resemblance in shape and appearance. The last one is to refer to new things phonetically according to the name from its origin, such as coolie, shanghai, kungfu and so on. Through the emergence of new entity, the words changed their original meaning (some meanings changed from the old one to a new one, others changed from no meaning to have meaning).

1.2 Social-historical causes.

    Changes in word meaning resulting from a constant verbal traffic between common words and various technical words is referred to as social cause of semantic change.(Ullmann 1977: 199-200)

    As a result of this constant verbal traffic between common words and technical words, some technical words have lost their specialized meanings and have come to be used in more general senses. Among the numerous new words connected with electricity, physics, chemistry, medicine, mathematics, etc. many have become parts of everyones vocabulary.

    I’ll exemplify with a few examples, “dimension” originally comes from physics meaning

    extent in a particular aspect, but now it refers to an angle, point of view as in There is another

    dimension to this problem which you haven't mentioned. Allergic is from medical field, it means

    “being unusually sensitive to the action of particular foods, pollens, insect-bites, etc. but now it

    can denote dislike, unable to get on well with, as in “I am allergic to hypocrites. For another

    instance, at first, feedback means return of part of the output of a system to its source, esp. so as to modify the output its used mainly in technology and electricity-related area. But now it generally means “response” as in teachers constantly need our feedbacks.

    Whats more, the opposite process, in which a popular word can be given a specified mean in a special field, can also be detected. Such as carrier it has been given a new meaning as “the

    person who carries and passes diseases to others without himself suffering from the disease.

    And everyday vocabulary energy was taken into physics to refer to the ability of matter or

    radiation to do work.

    And some social policies can influence the meaning of words too. In China, many words are forbidden to say in the internet, such as political sensitive words,中国共产党, 藏独 and so on,

    highly offensive words such as fuck, shit, motherfucker, 操?日(for academic use only). As the

    result, many new forms shoot up like the bamboo shoots after a rain shower. Such as bs means bull shit, fk means fuck. In china, many words of similar sound were popped up like 草?艹

    means 操?卧槽means 我操, 太阳 means , 沙滩上的太阳 namely son of a bitch(sun of a

    beach). These words have their original meanings, but as the reasons of policies, they had to take on new meanings, often unplesant.

1.3 Foreign culture influence

    It has several manifestations; mainly presents when one culture absorbs elements from another culture phonetically, semantically and pure absorption. Its inevitable that new words

    will appear through cultural exchange of different cultures, like sofa and Chinese words 沙发

    but this 沙发is still different from the沙发 in the internet (phonetic abbreviation of so fast),

    and coffee and its counterpart in China 咖啡. 沙发 in China makes no sense before the foreign

    entity sofa was introduced to China, but now its meaningful. Similarly, when some foreign words

intrude in one language, the original words of similar meanings shift. For instance, pig, in old

    English, refers to both pig as an animal and pigs meat. When French word pork was

    introduced to English, pig doesn’t refer to pigs meat anymore, in another word, its meaning

    has changed. At last, let me take a Chinese word as an example. Now, its popular to translate XXX

    complex as XXX(com and take some phonetic resemblance), like loli complex should be

    莉控, someone likes computer can be call 电脑控. traditionally means control, but after the

    wide spread of this translation, now means have some special(or weird) fondness in

    something, or extremely like something. , this words meaning has extended.

2. Subjective world

2.1 Psychological reasons

    Sometimes, people have a tendency to use a mild, agreeable language when speaking of an unpleasant or embarrassing fact (such as disease, accident or crime) or taboos (death, sex, excrement and so on). When somebody died you will say he has fallen asleep, fall asleep means mentally unconscious and physically relaxed, now it means death. Its obvious that the semantic

    change occurs. There are numerous examples one can think of. If a girl is ugly you just tell her that her inside is beautiful, if a man is poor, you say he is underachieved or underprivileged. Here the meanings all changed by the use of euphemism. The same rule can be applied to grandiloquence and cynicism.

2.2 For sake of convenience

    Lately, I sensed more and more about the abbreviation of our daily language, especially of those we use the most. As they are so frequently used, people will try their best to make it simple without making any ambiguity or misunderstandings. At first, they may be used in a small area or among small group of people, but after they are accepted by more and more people, they will be recognized and used daily. For instance, lol” (pronounced as law) means lots of laugh or laugh

    out loud, functionally, it is equal to haha, but it is so pervasively used, people now say often

    say lol, and lol is taken into a newly published dictionary as a word. The same thing happened on rofl/ r ɔ fl/ , which means roll on the floor and laugh. And there are many other words people create for sake of convenience such as idk means I don’t know, gg means good game and so


3. linguistic causes

3.1 figurative speech

    Semantic development or change may result from the figurative speech of the language. Since this is a very broad area to inquiry, I shall confine myself to semantic changes related to metaphor and ellipsis only.

    Metaphor means the use of a word or phrase to indicate something different from (though related in some way to) the literal meaning, as in I'll make him eat his words”

    The basic structure of metaphor is simple. There are always two terms present: the thing we are talking about, which is called tenor, and the thing we are comparing it to, called vehicle. The feature of features of the tenor and vehicle has in common form the ground of metaphor.

(Ullmann 1977: 213)

    The semantic range of words is widened as a result of their being used metaphorically. Usually a literal meaning of a word remains along with a new metaphorical one. For instance, we can say someones voice is warm or sweet. warm is a word to describe temperature

    and sweet is a word to describe a taste. How can someones voice be warm or sweet? But after

    metaphor, we know that warm and sweet is someones voice is so pleasant and makes you happy.

    So warm and”sweet has some new meanings besides referring to temperature and taste, i.e. their meaning has changed.

    Ellipsis can often be detected in all sorts of semantic field, it often occurs in habitual collocations, such as adj.+n., in which the noun is often deleted and only the fist element is left, but retaining the sense of the whole phrase. And thus, the first words meaning has changed

    from itself to refer to the phrase. For instance, daily refers to daily newspaper, duplicate refers to duplicate copy and general refers to the general officer and so on.

    There are many other figurative speeches whose use can result in semantic changes, such as metonymy, personification and so on. Its not possibly to discuss them one by one, but with the

    example above. They are imaginable and can easily be deducted.

3.2 language chain transformation

    Language chain transformation refers to a word meaning has gradually changed from its original meaning, step by step. We can clearly find its way of changing. for example, silly, which originally means blessed and happy since blessed people are usually those innocent of evil, the word came to mean”innocent . later, as innocent people are so often those leading simple lives, it came to mean simple and simple-minded, which is often associated with credulous,

    gullible , leading to lack of intelligence”; hence, the modern meaning of the word “silly” often

    means foolish. In this way sillys meaning has chain transformed. You can find many similar

    words changed in this type such as holiday, breakfast, corpse, salary and so on.


    The above essay has discussed the motivation of semantic changes, from subjective motivation, objective motivation and language causes itself. It’s neither systematic nor

    comprehensive, but I hope you can get some thinking and knowledge through my explanation. As the length is limited, many things can be discussed further have been omitted, so the essay is anything but an in-depth academic work.


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