Historical Development of Word Meaning - Semantic Change
this paper, I want to give an overview on what semantic change is all about and how it can be shown in a number of examples in the English language: I subdivided the paper into five parts: After this introduction, information on the background on semantic change and the basis for semantic change will be given. As a next point, the mechanisms and causes for semantic change will be presented. Finally, results of semantic change and shifts in semantic fields will be presented. At the end of this paper I will sum up what I experienced during the research concerning semantic change.
1. Background on Semantic Change
his book Principles of Historical Linguistics, Hans Henrich Hock says that when one thinks of the number of meanings which can be conveyed through language - in this paper I will concentrate on the English language - one eventually comes to the conclusion that there is an infinite number. Yet the human brain can only process and understand a limited amount of linguistic symbols. That is why the infinite number of possible meanings is reduced already by the problem of encoding so much information (cf. Hock 1991: 280). In addition to that, the problem of the infinity of word meaning is remedied by a number of other phenomena:
There is a finite set of conventional linguistic symbols present which is known as the lexical items.
There is a finite set of rules (syntax) which makes it possible that symbols can be combined into a larger structure. The syntax assures that the meanings of larger structures not simply form a composite of the meanings of lexical items they are composed of.
The lexical items themselves are in a way «constructed» out of smaller sets of building blocks (these blocks are called phonemes and morphemes). «[The phonemes and morphemes are again] governed by a finite set of rules» (Hock 1991: 280). These rules are known as phonology and morphology.a consequence, the meaning of a word can be conveyed in an economical way by using a limited set of speech sounds. These speech sounds range between approximately 25 and 125. Here, the lexicon and the rules of syntax come into play: These two make it possible that infinity of possible sentences can be produced. So it is the economy and the conventional nature of the building blocks and their rules for combination that make it possible for humans to communicate. Yet at this point a problem arises: The economy and the conventional nature of the English language that have been praised before, are also responsible for the fact that the number of meanings that one wants to convey without having an ambiguous expression is indeed limited., a...