Word meaning is liable to change in the course of the historical development of language. Changes of lexical meaning may he illustrated by a diachronic semantic analysis of many соmmоnly used English words. Change of meaning has been thoroughly studied in linguistics. We shall concentrate on causes of semantic change, results of semantic change and the nature of semantic change.
Discussing the causes of semantic change we concentrate on the factors bringing about this change and attempt to find out why the word has changed its meaning. Analysing the nature of semantic change we seek to clarify the process of this change and describe how various changes of meaning were brought about. Our aim in investigating the results of semantic change is to find out what was changed; i.e. we compare the resultant and the ordinal meanings and describe the difference between them mainly in terms of the changes of the denotational or connotational components.
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 of ideas, scientific concepts, way of life and other spheres of human activities as reflected in word meanings. Because of these changes the referent becomes modified in the course of the development of the speech community, whereas the sound-form of the word remains unaltered.
By linguistic causeswe mean various changes of meaning that are due to factors acting within the language system. The first form of such influence is the so-called ellipsis.
Ellipsisis the omission of a word in a phrase made up of two words resulting in the transfer of meaning of the whole phrase to one word, e.g. starve from MEsterven of hunger.
Another linguistic cause is discrimination or differentiation of synonyms, which can be illustrated by the semantic development of a number of words, when two words coinciding in meaning and use develop in different directions and acquire different meanings, e.g.OEland meant both “solid part of earth’s surface” and “the territory of a nation”, but in ME the second meaning came to be denoted by its synonym country and the semantic structure of the word land changed.
Some semantic changes may be accounted for by the influence of a peculiar factor usually referred to as linguistic analogy. It was found out, that if one of the members ofa synonymic set acquires a new meaning other members of this set change their meaning too: verbs synonymous with catch e.g. grasp, get acquired another meaning ‘to understand”
Speaking about the nature of semantic change we must say that a necessary condition of any semantic change is the connection or some association between the old meaning and the new.
There are two kinds of association involved as a rule in various semantic changes and namely: a) similarity of meanings, and b) contiguity of meanings. There are two kinds of association involved as a rule in various semantic changes and namely: a) similarity of meanings, and b) contiguity of meanings. If the transfer of meaning is based on the association of similarity it is called metaphor.So, metaphor may be described аs a semantic process of associating two referents, one of which in some way resembles the other .e.g.headof a man::headof an army, eye of a girl::eyeof a needle, wing of a bird::wing of a mill, warm winter:warmreception.
If the transfer is based on association of contiguity it is called metonymy, so, metonymy may be described as the semantic process of associating two referents one of which makes part of the other or is closely connected with it, e.g., the bar = the lawyers, the crown=the monarchy, hand=handwriting, tongue=language, the chair = the chairman. The shift between the names similar in their function is also another type of metonymy called functional change, e.g. pilot formerly meant steersman, sail meaning “travel on water by use of sails” is now used for “navigate” Metonymy is also manifested when common names are derived from proper names. Many physical and technical units are named after their inventors: diesel, volt, ampere, watt. In political language the place of the establishment is used for its policy: the White House, the Kremlin, Fleet Street, Downing Street. There are cases when geographical names are used as common nouns to name the goods exported or originated there: champagne, malaga, china, boston, astrakhan. Garments came to be known by the names of those who brought them into fashion: cardigan, mackintosh, raglan. Proper names are used to name the work of these people: to readOscar Wilde (books by Oscar Wilde).
Results of semantic change can be generally observed in the changes of the denotational meaning of the word (restriction and extension of meaning) or in the alteration of its connotational component (amelioration and deterioration of meaning)
Changes in the denotational meaning may result in the restriction of the types or range of referents denoted by the word. This is generally described as specializationof meaning e.g. fowl in OE “bird” and in Mod.E “domestic bird”,hound in OE “ a dog of any breed” and in Mod.E “a species of huntibng dog”.
As a special group belonging to this type we can mention the formation of proper nouns from common nouns: e.g. the City- “the business part of London”, the Highlands –“the mountainous part of Scotland”, the Tower (of London)– originally a fortress and palace, later a state prison, now a museum.
Changes in the denotational meaning may also result in the application of the word to a wider variety of referents. This is commonly described as extension of meaning. If the word with the extended mеаning passes from the specialized vocabulary into common use, we describe the result of the semantic change as the generalization of meaning, e.g. camp “place where troops are ladged”:: camp “temporary quarters of holiday-makers, travellers”,
There are other cases, however, when the changes in the connotational meaning come to the fore. These changes as a rule accompanied by the change in the denotational component, may be subdivided into two main groups according to the character of the semantic change.
Pejorationor degradation of meaning is the acquisition by the word of some derogatory emotive charge or lowering it in social scale :e.g.boor “ a villager, a peasant :: boor “ill-bred fellow”, knave –“boy, servant:: knave “dishonest man, rogue”.
Amelioration or elevation of meaning is the improvement of the connotational component of meaning or a semantic shift due to the word’s referts coming up the social scale: e.g. minister-‘servant,an attendant”:: minister –“a person at head of main branch of government department”, queen – “a woman ” :: queen “female sovereign of kingdom”, knight “ a young servant”:: knight “military follower or champion in war or tournament devoted to service of lady”