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Linguistic causes of semantic change

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Extralinguistic causes of semantic change

Causes of semantic change

The factors accounting for semantic changes may be subdivided into two main groups: (1) extralinguistic causes and (2) linguistic cases.

The extralinguisticcauses are determined by the social nature of the language. They are observed in changes of meaning resulting from the development of the notion expressed and the thing named and by the appearance of new notions and things.

The history of the social, economic and political life of the people, the progress of culture and science bring about changes in notions and things influencing the semantic aspect of language. The changes of notions and things named go hand in hand. They are conditioned by the above-mentioned factors of social life, so that the extralinguistic causes of semantic change may be classified in accordance with these factors.

The word is a linguistic realization of notion. It changes with the progress of human consciousness. This process is reflected in the development of lexical meaning. For instance, the OE word eorþe ‘the earth’ meant ‘the soil’ and ‘the world of man’. With the progress of science the word earth came to mean the ‘planet’.

The constant development of all spheres of human life brings into being new objects and notions. Words to name them are either borrowed from foreign languages or created from the native language material. And it often happens that new meanings are thus acquired by old words. For example, economic causes are obviously at work in the semantic development of the word fee. The MnE fee means ‘the price paid for services’. It stems from the OE feoh which meant ‘cattle’ and ‘money’; likewise Goth faihu; cf. Lat pecus ‘cattle’ and pecunia ‘money’.

Although notions and things change in the course of time, in many cases the sound-form of the words denoting them is retained, but the meaning of these words is changed. For example, the word car borrowed from Latin carrus ‘a four-wheeled wagon’ now means ‘a motor-car’ and ‘a railway-carriage’.

The linguistic causes are factors acting within the language system. They deal with changes due to the constant interdependence of vocabulary units in language and speech, such as differentiation between synonyms, changes taking place in connection with ellipsis, and with fixed contexts, changes resulting from the ambiguity in certain contexts and some other cases.

Ellipsis as a linguistic cause of semantic change. Semantic changes due to ellipsis may be observed when the meaning of one word is transferred to another because they habitually occur together in speech. In a phrase made up of two words one of them is omitted and its meaning is transferred to its partner. For example, the verb to starve (in OE steorfan) had the meaning ‘to die’ and was habitually used in collocation with the word hunger (ME sterven of hunger). In the 16th century the verb itself acquired the meaning ‘to die of hunger’.

Discrimination of synonyms as a linguistic cause of semantic change. Let us take, for example, the word land. In OE land meant both ‘solid part of earth’s surface’ and ‘the territory of a nation’. When in the ME period the word country was borrowed from OFr (contree) as its synonym, the meaning of the word land was altered and ‘the territory of a nation’ came to be denoted mainly by borrowed word country.

Linguistic analogy as a cause of semantic change. If one of the members of a synonymic set acquires a new meaning, other members of this set change their meanings and by analogy acquire the same meaning, too. For example, in the set of synonyms to the notion catch‘хватать’– graspandget, the dominant of this synonymic set catch acquired the new meaning ‘to understand’; then the other two synonyms grasp and get developed this new meaning, too.

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