Monday, May 9, 2016

What is Semantic Change?

Let's delve into linguistics! It was one of my favorite subjects at university, but sadly it only lasted one year. (I studied Translation and Interpreting--English, Spanish, Catalan, French and Arabic.)

More specifically, let's take a look at one of the main branches on linguistics: semantics. Semantics is the study of meaning. We can look at semantics from a logical point of view (logical semantics), and study sense and reference and presupposition and implication, or we can study lexical semantics, analyzing the meaning of words and the relationships between them. We can also study computational semantics, which deals with how to implement programs to process natural language.

The meaning associated to a word is susceptible to change over time--to the point that it can actually mean something completely different! This process is called semantic change or shift in meaning. This is a common event in all languages and it simply implies that communication is forever undergoing evolution. If a language can't adapt to its users, it stops being useful!

An example of this phenomenon appeared in an earlier post, where I commented on the shift of meaning for "nimrod." Nimrod is the biblical name of the great-grandson of Noah, an expert hunter and ruler of Shinar, but thanks to some general wackiness the word is now synonymous to "idiot." This type of shift, which turned a name into an insult, is called pejoration.

In the following months, I'll be posting about some interesting shifts in meaning. Just for the more curious readers, here are some of the proposed types of semantic change.

- Metaphor - We've seen several examples of metaphors which have now become the common term in medicine. For example, the Latin musculus, meaning "little mouse" has given us muscle. But metaphors can be much more recent. For example, and let's look at the same furry rodent: the word mouse refers to the animal, but (given its physical similarity) it also to a computer device.

- Metonymy - Instead of calling something by its own name, we use an associated term to refer to it. For example, in the expression "The pen is mightier than the sword", words such as "pen" and "sword" are substituting their associated ideas "writing" and "force."

- Specialization of meaning - Also known as narrowing. A general word becomes more specific. For example, the Old English word mete used to refer to food. Nowadays, the word is spelled "meat" and its meaning has been narrowed down to "food which is animal flesh."

- Generalization of meaning - Also known as broadening. A specific word becomes more general. This occurs with famous brand names. For example, the brand name Kleenex is commonly used as a general term for "handkerchief."

Synecdoche - There are various types of synecdoche. This figure of speech uses part of something to represent the whole, for example: "they hired some extra hands." Here, the word "hands" is substituting "people." It can also use the whole to represent just part of something, for example: "The police arrived five minutes later." Here, we can safely assume that only a few officers arrived, and not the entire police force.

- Antiphrasis - This figure of speech uses a word to mean the opposite of what it usually means. It's basically used for humorous or sarcastic effects, for example: "So you dropped your keys down the well? You're so smart!"

- Auto-antonymy - Also called contronymy, this technique involves changing the sense and concept of a word to mean its complementary opposite. For example, the word "dust" can mean to add dust to something, or to clean dust off of something.

These are just a few of the linguistic processes involved in semantic change. Over the next few weeks, I'll post some specific examples of words that have undergone a transformation. Some of them are evident, such as brand names (using the brand "Kleenex" to refer to a tissue), but others not so much... I'm sure we're all in for a surprise!

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