Semantic Change

  • Created by: niamhkm08
  • Created on: 30-12-20 17:36

Processes of Semantic Change

1.  Generalisation/Broadening:

    • The meaning of a word broadens so that it retains it's old meaning but also takes on added meanings. 
    • Examples: 'holiday' - originally from 'holy-day' - in the past people were often allowed a day off during religous days of importance. 

2.  Specialising/Narrowing:

    • The opposite of broadening - a word becomes more specific in meaning.
    • Examples: 'meat' - used to mean food in general but now refers to a specific type of food.

3.  Amelioration:

    • Over time a word acquires a more plesant or positive meaning.
    • Examples: 'brave' - used to mean wild or savage. 
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Processes of Semantic Change

4.  Peioration 

    • The opposite of amelioration - over time a word becomes less favourable.
    • Examples: 'hussy' - used to mean 'housewife'. 

5.  Weakening/Bleaching:

    • The loss or reduction of the force of meaning of a word.
    • Example: 'thing' - used to refer to a meeting or assembly but now refers to an unspecified object.

6.  Metaphor:

    • Words acquire additional meanings as physical ideas are extended to abstract ideas with similar qualities, allowing abstract idea to be more clearly understood.
    • Examples: 'grasp' - physically grasp something or to grasp an idea.
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Processes of Semantic Change

7.  Euphemism:

    • The creation of polite, but roundabout, expression for things considered unplesant.
    • Examples: 'friendly fire' - when gunfire is directed at your allies rather than at youe enemies. 

8.  Polysemy:

    • Words acquire many possible meanings which co-exist with the original. 
    • Examples: 'milk/milking it' - where milking it has evolved from the verb 'to milk' in it's original sense. 
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Why do words change their meaning?

  • Internal Factors: 
    • Factors inside the language itself.
    • New meanings can be as a result of similarity.
    • For example, an actual virus can be likened to a computer virus.
  • External Factors:
    • Shifts in culture, technology or society may influence a words meaning.
    • For example, the rise of technology has seen developments in words such as virus, bug, crash and windows. 
  • Changing Social Ideas: 
    • These changing ideas mean that a need for a new term arises.
    • For example, LGBT to replace less acceptable words.
  • Cultural Changes: 
    • These can result in the broadening or bleaching of a word as the original usage loses significance.
    • For example, 'guy' originally referred to Guy Fawkes, but over time the term has replaced 'fellow' to refer to any man and this meaning exists alongside the current usage of guys to refer to both males and females.
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Attitudes Towards Semantic Change

  • Historically, words associated with less powerful groups in society (e.g. working class, women, disabilities) acquired negative connotations.
  • This shows that language is never neutral, and that it is a human construct, relflecting the interests of those in power in society.
  • Language can be used to label and represent individuals and groups of people.
  • In recent years, debates have raged about potentially racial terms, such as 'queer' and '****'.
  • An issue here is the power of language to shape, influence and control the way we think.
  • If word used to describe less powerful groups in society acquire negative connotations over time, this could be because of:
    • Worsening social attitudes towards these groups.
    • The words themselves may be so steeped in negativity that they cause people to feel a certain way about the groups who are labelled.
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Attitudes Towards Semantic Change


  • The linguistic debate around 2 positions - reflectionism and determinism - can be used to explore this.
  • Linguistic reflectionism:
    • Suggests language simply reflects the needs, views and opinions of it's users. 
    • The argument is that, to change language you need to change attitudes.
  • Linguistic determinism:
    • Associated with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
    • Maintains that language controls our perceptions of reality - therefore influencing us to think certain ways.
  • The argument is that to change attitudes, we need to change language. 
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Attitudes Towards Semantic Change


  • Deterministic approach (open to change).
  • The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that language controls and determines the way we think - hence the determinism.
  • Nowadays this is seen as too strong a claim, as if it was true, we would never be able to think beyond our language and create new terms.
  • A weaker version of the same idea is called linguistic relativity; this claims that language exerts a powerful influence over how we think and behave (but it doesn't control it). 
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Attitudes Towards Semantic Change


  • A relatively recent phenomenon in semantic change has been the process of semantic reclamation of negative words by the groups labelled by them.
  • It involves taking language that has negative connotations and trying to overturn them by using the language in new ways.
  • This is a complex process, and so it's worth thinking through worth the help of a practical case study example.
  • The term '****' is an interesting example of attempted semantic reclamation (refer to '****s are reappropriating language' article). 
    • This is article refers to a phenonemon know as '****walking', a form of protest that involves women dressing in a '****ty' style to draw attention to male sexual violence and double standards over dress codes an attitudes to women. 
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Examples that support Semantic Change

  • ****'s are re-appropriating language:
    • Aims to remove the negative connotations and re-establish its place in our lexicon.
    • The process of language re-appropriation is one where a word was at one time negatively used but now brought into acceptable usage.
    • Other words: 'gay' and 'wog'.
  • Simon Heffers Daily Mail Article:
    • Heffer adopts a strong perscriptivist stance and supports the idea that words should be used correctly and in the correct context. 
    • He uses the noun phrase 'sloppy English' to suggest language users have casual attitudes towards langauge use.
    • He uses the verb 'misused' to link to a notion of correctness - emphasising perscriptivist ideology.
    • He uses the phrase 'this is an absurdity' to make an assertion in a simple, declarative statement. Idea that there is no room for debate and only his opinion is considered.
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