Semantic change

Semantic change (also semantic shift, semantic progression, semantic development, or semantic drift) is the evolution of word usage—usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage. In diachronic (or historical) linguistics, semantic change is a change in one of the meanings of a word. Every word has a variety of senses and connotations, which can be added, removed, or altered over time, often to the extent that cognates across space and time have very different meanings. The study of semantic change can be seen as part of etymology, onomasiology, semasiology, and semantics.


George Chauncey, in his book Gay New York, would put this shift as early as the late 19th century among a certain "in crowd" knowledgeable of gay night life.


"Narrowing" redirects here. For E-unification in convergent term rewriting systems, see Narrowing (computer science).

A number of classification schemes have been suggested for semantic change. The most widely accepted scheme in the English-speaking academic world is from Bloomfield (1933):

However, the categorization of Blank (1999) has gained increasing acceptance:[2]

Blank considers it problematic, though, to include amelioration and pejoration of meaning as well as strengthening and weakening of meaning. According to Blank, these are not objectively classifiable phenomena; moreover, Blank has shown that all of the examples listed under these headings can be grouped into the other phenomena.

Forces triggering change

Blank[3] has tried to create a complete list of motivations for semantic change. They can be summarized as:

This list has been revised and slightly enlarged by Grzega (2004):[4]

Practical studies

Apart from many individual studies, etymological dictionaries are prominent reference books for finding out about semantic changes.

Theoretical studies

Recent overviews have been presented by Blank[5] and Blank & Koch (1999). Semantic change had attracted academic discussions already in ancient times. The first major works of modern times were Reisig (1839), Darmesteter (1887), Bréal (1899), Paul (1880), Stern (1931), Bloomfield (1933) and Stephen Ullmann.[6] Studies beyond the analysis of single words have been started with the word-field analyses of Trier (1931), who claimed that every semantic change of a word would also affect all other words in a lexical field.[7] His approach was later refined by Coseriu (1964). Fritz (1974) introduced Generative semantics. More recent works including pragmatic and cognitive theories are those in Warren (1992), Dirk Geeraerts,[8] Traugott (1990) and Blank (1997).

As stated above, the most currently used typologies are those by Bloomfield (1933) and Blank (1999) shown above. Other typologies are listed below.

Typology by Reisig (1839)

Reisig's ideas for a classification were published posthumously. He resorts to classical rhetorics and distinguishes between

Typology by Paul (1880)

Typology by Darmesteter (1887)

The last two are defined as change between whole and part, which would today be rendered as synecdoche.

Typology by Bréal (1899)

Typology by Stern (1931)

This classification does not neatly distinguish between processes and forces/causes of semantic change.

Typology by Ullmann (1957, 1962)

Ullmann distinguishes between nature and consequences of semantic change:

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Jeffers & Lehiste (1979:129)
  2. Grzega (2004) paraphrases these categories (except ellipses and folk etymology) as "similar-to" relation, "neighbor-of" relation, "part-of" relation, "kind-of" relation (for both specialization and generalization), "sibling-of" relation, and "contrast-to" relation (for antiphrasis, auto-antonymy, and auto-converse), respectively
  3. in Blank (1997) and Blank (1999)
  4. Compare Grzega (2004) and Grzega & Schöner (2007)
  5. Blank (1997:7–46)
  6. in Ullmann (1957), and Ullmann (1962)
  7. An example of this comes from Old English: meat (or rather mete) referred to all forms of solid food while flesh (flæsc) referred to animal tissue and food (foda) referred to animal fodder; meat was eventually restricted to flesh of animals, then flesh restricted to the tissue of humans and food was generalized to refer to all forms of solid food Jeffers & Lehiste (1979:130)
  8. in Geeraerts (1983) and Geeraerts (1997)


Further reading

External links

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