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Change of meaning

Word meaning and motivation.

Motivation of the word describes the features chosen as the basis for nomination, it denotes the relationship between the phonetic or morphemic composition and structural pattern of the word on the one hand, and its meaning on the other. There are three main types of motivation: a) phonetical motivation; b) morphological motivation and c) semantic motivation.

The phonetical motivation implies a direct connection between the phonetic structure of the word and its meaning. The word building process called onomatopoeia has been described in the above sections.

The morphological motivation implies a direct connection between the lexical meaning of the constituent morphemes, the pattern of their arrangement and the meaning of the word. The direct connection between the order of morphemes in words and their meaning can be illustrated by the semantic analysis of different words composed of phonetically identical morphemes with identical lexical meaning. The difference in the arrangement of the constituent morphemes in the words “finger-ring” and “ring-finger” accounts for the difference in their meanings.

The semantic motivation implies a direct connection between the central (main) and marginal (derived) meanings of the word. For example, the compound noun “painkiller” has the main meaning of “a remedy to sooth the pain” and it is morphologically motivated as the lexical meanings of its constituent morphemes account for the meaning of the whole word. The derived meaning of “painkiller” is “an alcohol drink”, which is metaphoric or figurative and is connected with the main one by means of implicational ties. Here the motivation is semantic. Semantic motivation is based on the coexistence of direct and figurative meanings within the semantic structure of the word.

Any language is a developing system, it does not remain the same as historical research proves. There are changes in all aspects of the language: phonetics, morphology, grammar and vocabulary. Not only words appear and become obsolete, but there are changes in the meanings of separate words. Speaking of the reasons of semantic change, two main causes are distinguished: a) extra-linguistic and b) linguistic.

By extra-linguistic causes various changes in the life of the speech community are meant, among them changes in economic and social structure, development of science and technology etc. For example, changes in the way of life of the British brought about changes in the meaning of the word “hlāford” (MnE “lord”), which originally meant “bread-keeper”, and later changed its meaning into “master” often referring to a high social rank of a person. Such word as “villain” originally meant “an inhabitant of a farm”, later it began to mean “a vile person”.



Some changes in the word meaning occur due to purely linguistic causes, i.e. processes taking place within the language system. The commonest of them is the so-called ellipsis. When two words are often used together in the same linguistic context and then one of these is omitted, its meaning is transferred to the other. This happened to the verb “steōrfan”, which in Old English meant “to perish” and was habitually used in collocation with the word “hunger”. When the verb “to die” was borrowed from Scandinavian, these two synonyms collided, and as a result in the 16th century the verb “to starve” acquired the meaning “to die (or suffer) of hunger”.

Another linguistic cause is discrimination, or differentiation of synonyms. In Old English the word “land” meant both “solid part of earth’s surface” and “the territory of the nation”. In the Middle English period the word “country” was borrowed as its synonym, so the two synonymous words differentiated in the meanings, the former began to mean “solid part of the earth’s surface” and the latter - “the territory of the nation”. One more example of this kind is the noun “deer”, which in Old English meant any beast. When the Latin borrowing “animal” appeared, the former specialized in the meaning and began to denote a particular kind of animal.

Fixed context is regarded as one more linguistic cause of semantic change. For example, the word “token” when competing with the loan word “sign” was restricted to usage in a number of set expressions, such as “love token, a token of respect” and specialized in meaning.

6.7. Nature of semantic change.

Words change their meanings on condition that there is some connection, some association between the two objects or notions. There two kinds of associations involved in various semantic changes: a) similarity of meaning and b) contiguity of meaning.

Similarity of meaning, or linguistic metaphor, is the semantic process of associating two referents on the basis of their outward resemblance. For example the word “hand” acquired in the 16th century the meaning “a pointer of a clock or watch” due to the similarity of the function to point to something.

Contiguity of meaning, or linguistic metonymy, is the linguistic process of associating two referents one of which makes part of the other or is in some way connected with it. The two referents may be associated when they appear in common situations, so the image of one is easily accompanied by the image of the other, or they are associated as cause and effect, or common function, or material and object made of it etc. For example, in Old English “glad” meant bright, shining and was applied to describe the sun, gold, precious stones, shining armour; the modern meaning “joyful” developed on the basis of the usual association of light with joy, besides this association may be traced in many languages, cf. Russian светлое настроение, светло на душе.

6.8. Results of semantic change.

Results of the change in meaning can be observed in the changes of the denotative component of the word meaning and in the connotative components.

In the denotative component there may be either restriction (specialization) or extension (generalization) of meaning.

Restriction of meaning can be illustrated by the semantic development of the word “deer”, which used to denote any kind of beast, but then restricted to one particular kind. If the word with a new restricted meaning comes to be used in the specialized vocabulary of some limited group within the speech community we speak of the specialization of the meaning.

Extension of meaning can be illustrated by the changes in the meaning of the word “target” which used to denote a small round shield, but now means “anything that is aimed at”. If the word with the extended meaning passes from the specialized vocabulary into common use, we can speak of the generalization of meaning.

Changes in the word’s connotations result in amelioration or deterioration of meaning.

Amelioration of meaning implies the improvement of the connotational component of meaning. For example, the word “minister” originally meant “a servant” but now it has improved its meaning and denotes “a civil servant of higher rank administering a department of a state”.

Deterioration (degradation, or pejoration) of meaning implies the acquisition by the word of some derogatory emotive charge. For example, the word “villain” used to mean a farm servant, a serf, but now it has acquired the meaning “a base, vile person”; or the word “gossip” which originally meant god parent now means the one who tells slanderous stories about other people.

The terms amelioration and pejoration however are imprecise and do not seem to reflect objectively the semantic changes they describe. It would be more credible to speak of the acquisition or loss of additional evaluative connotations, or, in some cases, of a pragmatic component in the structure of the word meaning, because linguistically any word cannot be better or worse than any other and it is the social status of the referent or our attitude to it that may be improved or changed to the worse.

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