Semantic Change (Linguistic)

Why the meaning of word change? In an example, which word you choose; “perempuan” or “wanita”? Cited from Alan Cruse in his book, A Glossary of Semantics and Pragmatics, there are six kind of semantic change. He gives sample from English language, and below is the elaboration.

  1. Gain and loss of meaning.
    With the advent of personal computers, an obvious example of a word that has gained a meaning is mouse. A word which has lost a meaning is direction. In Jane Austen’s day, one of the meanings of direction was what we now call address (e.g. on an envelope). This represents a concomitant gain for the word address. A new meaning is frequently a metaphoric or metonymic extension from an earlier meaning.
  2. Change of default meaning.
    A primary meaning may become secondary. A hundred years ago the primary meaning of expire was ‘die’. This meaning still exists but it is somewhat archaic. The primary meaning now is ‘come to the end of a period of validity’.
  3. Semantic drift
    As the details of everyday life change gradually, there is often a gradual shift in the meanings of words. One such shift is a change in the prototype of a category. Think of the gradual change in the prototype of a weapon or vehicle over the centuries.
  4. Specialization and generalization
    These terms refer to the widening or narrowing of category boundaries. Specialization is illustrated by doctor, which at one time meant simply ‘teacher’ or ‘learned person’. An example of generalization is actor, which originally denoted only male thespians, but is now used without discrimination of gender.
  5. Pejoration and amelioration
    Words which originally expressed a positive or neutral attitude sometimes come to be derogatory, or at least express a negative judgment. One example of this is interfere, which originally meant simply ‘intervene’, without the negative overtones it now has. Another example is typical in Isn’t that just typical? Historically, words referring to women have been particularly prone to pejoration: mistress, madam, working girl. Change in the opposite direction, known as amelioration, is somewhat rarer; perhaps the development of queen from an earlier form meaning simply ‘woman’ or ‘wife’ is an example, although this word has also undergone pejoration at various times. Another example is sturdy, which had a pejorative meaning of ‘reckless, violent, obstinate’, but now has a positive meaning.
  6. Bleaching
    This refers to a loss of meaning, as with, for example, make in to make a phone call, where the original meaning of ‘construct’ has virtually disappeared, leaving only something like ‘do something’. The term also applies to a weakening of meaning, as with words such as awful, terrible, fantastic.


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