Specialization and generalization of meanings

Results of semantic change can be observed in the changes of the denotational and connotational meanings of the word.

Changes in the denotational meaning may result in the restriction of the types or range of referents denoted by the word. This is termed as restrictionor narrowing of meaning. This may be illustrated by the semantic development of the word hound (OE hund) which used to denote ‘a dog of any breed’, but now denotes only ‘a hunting dog’. This is also the case with the word fowl(OE fuZol) which used to denote ‘any bird’ but now denotes only ‘a domestic bird’.

If the word with the restricted or narrowed meaning passes from the common vocabulary into specific use, we describe the result of the semantic change as specialization of meaning. For example, we can observe restriction and specialization of meaning in the case of the verb to glide (OE glidan) which had the meaning ‘to move smoothly’ and now has acquired a narrowed and specialized meaning ‘to fly without an engine’. The example of narrowing and specialization of meaning in the general language: OE dēōr ‘any wild beast’, now means ‘a certain kind of wild beast’, ‘олень’ in Russian.

In all the examples considered above a word which formerly represented a notion of a broader scope has come to render a notion of a narrower scope. When the meaning is specialized, the word can name fewer objects, that is fewer referents. That is why the reduction of scope accounts for the term narrowing of meaning.

Changes in the denotational meaning may also result in the application of the word to a wider variety of referents. This is termed as extension, wideningor broadening of meaning. It may be illustrated by the word target which originally meant ‘a small round shield’ a diminutive of targe, cf. ON (Old Norse) targa, but now means ‘anything that is fired at’ and also, figuratively, ‘any result aimed at’.

If the word with the extended meaning passes from the specialized vocabulary into common use, we describe the result of the semantic change as generalization of meaning. For example, the word ready (< OE rēāde (a derivative of the verb rīdan ‘to ride’) meant ‘prepared for a ride’. Here the scope of the new notion is wider than that of the original one. In most cases generalization is combined with a higher order of abstraction than in the notion expressed by the earlier meaning. The transition from a concrete meaning to an abstract one is a most frequent feature in the semantic history of words.

Amelioration and pejoration of meaning

Changes in the connotational meaning may be subdivided into two main groups: ameliorative and pejorative development of meaning. These changes depend on the social attitude to the object named.

Ameliorative development of meaning or amelioration,or elevation is an improvement of the connotational component of meaning. It is a semantic shift undergone by words due to their referents coming up the social scale. For example, OE cwēn ‘a woman’ > MnE queen; OE cniht ‘a young servant’ > MnE knight. The meanings of these words have been elevated through associations with aristocratic life.

Pejorative development of meaning or pejoration, or degradation, or degeneration is a deterioration of the connotational component of meaning. It is the acquisition by the word of some derogatory emotive charge. It is a semantic shift undergone by words due to their referents coming down or the social scale, or lowering in the social scale connected with the appearance of scornful or disdainful emotive tone. For example, MnE knave < OE cnafa ‘a boy’, cf. Germ Knabe, then acquired the meaning ‘a servant’ and finally became a term of abuse and scorn.

Hyperbole, litotes, irony, euphemism, disphemism, taboo

Hyperbole as a linguistic but not rhetoric device is an overstatement or exaggerated statement not meant to be understood literally but expressing an intensely emotional attitude of the speaker to what he is speaking about. The emotional tone is due to the illogical character in which the direct denotative and the contextual emotional meanings are combined. For example, It’s a nightmare, Haven’t seen you for ages, A thousand pardons.

The most important difference between a poetic hyperbole and a linguistic one lies in the fact that the former creates an image, whereas in the latter the denotative meaning quickly fades out and the corresponding exaggerating words serve only as general signs of emotion without specifying the emotion itself. For example, such emphatic words as awfully!, lovely!

Litotes [' laItoutÖz] or understatement may be defined as expressing the affirmative by the negative or its contrary. For example, not half badfor good, no cowardfor brave. As a rule, litotes creates no permanent change in the semantic structure of the word concerned. The purpose of understatement is not to deceive but to produce a stronger impression on the hearer.

Irony is the expression of one’s meaning by words of opposite meaning, especially a simulated adoption of the opposite point of view for the purpose of ridicule. For example, You’ve got us into a nice mess. Here the adjective nice means bad.



euphemism is the substitution of words of mild connotations for rough or unpleasant expressions. For example, queer for mad, deceased for dead, perspirationfor sweat.

From the semantic point of view euphemism is important because meanings with unpleasant connotations appear in words formerly neutral, as a result of their repeated use instead of other words that are for some reasons unmentionable.

euphemism has nothing to do with taboo of primitive peoples as a prohibition meant as a safeguard supernatural forces or taboo names of ritual objects or animals when their names were regarded as the equivalents of what was named. For example, the taboo name of the bear (whose name originally meant ‘brown’; cf. Russian медведь).

The term taboo in modern linguistics, especially in lexicology, is used to denote a vulgar connotation of the word which must not be used in a polite conversation. For example, the so-called ‘four-letter’ words are labeled vulgar.

Disphemism is the substitution of words of rough or unpleasant connotations for mild expressions. For example, to kick the bucket for to die, psycho or gagafor mad.

Lecture 3. Polysemy

The notion of polysemy

The term polysemy stems from the Greek word polýsēmos‘having many meanings’. It is defined as the ability of a word to have several meanings simutenuously.

It is very important to distinguish between the lexical meaning of a word in speech and its semantic structure in language. The meaning in speech is contextual. The definite context particularizes the lexical meaning of a word and makes possible the realization of only one meaning. Any word actually used in speech is monosemantic but it may render a complicated notion. Monosemantic words, that is words having only one meaning are few in number; these are mainly scientific terms, such as molecule.

The monosemantic property of a word used in context does not exclude the complexity of each denotative meaning as it serves to signify complex notions with many features. For example, the word table has at least 9 meanings in Modern English: (1) a piece of furniture; (2) meals; (3) a thin flat piece of stone, metal, wood; (4) an orderly arrangemet of facts, figures etc.

If we turn to the meaning of words as they exist in language we shall observe that frequently used words are polysemantic. A word that has more than one meaning in the language is called polysemantic. Its meanings form its semantic structure.

The semantic structure of a polysemantic word may be defined as a structured set of interrelated meanings. It is an organized set of recurrent variants and shades of meaning a given sound complex can assume in different contexts, together with their emotional colouring, stylistic peculiarities and other typical connotations. The semantic structure of the word is a fact of language, not of speech. It is developed and fixed in the course of the language’s history.

Special procedures of componential analysis have been developed to determine the components of each meaning and represent this as a combination of elementary senses or semes. A seme is the smallest, elementary, ultimate constituent of the lexical meaning of the word.

Polysemy exists only in language but not in speech. Polysemy does not interfere with the communicative function of the language because in every particular case the situation and context cancel all the meanings but one and make speech unambiguous.

Polysemy is inherent in the very nature of words and notions, as they always contain a generalization of several traits of the object. Some of these traits are common with other objects, hence the possibility of identical names for objects possessing common features. Thus polysemy is characteristic of most words in many languages. But it is more characteristic of the English vocabulary due to the monosyllabic character of English and the predominance of root words.

Approaches to polysemy









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