Semantics: fluidity and change in language

To support our regular social media campaigns Usage Corner and Prism’s Authorisms, we’re discussing the most common subject of all our social media features: semantics.

What is semantics?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines semantics as “the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning”. The word itself is a plural term for the noun ‘semantic’ meaning “relating to meaning in language or logic”. But the plural is treated as a singular, as a branch of study. But for non-linguists (like myself) semantics is essentially the collective term for the meaning of words and/or phrases.

Why do we study semantics?

Semantics isn’t just for linguists. It’s also a prominent area of study in philosophy or logic. It’s still related to the meaning of words. But philosophy focuses primarily on how understanding the meaning of words and their change can help answer the bigger questions. For example, philosophers may study semantics to better understand how language reflects how people perceive the world around them. Therefore changes in semantics may reflect how and why their shared reality changed. But linguists may study semantics to better understand the construction of language as we know it and why it changes.

This question of why, and the frameworks for how to answer this question can get messy across schools of thought. In the mid to late 20th century academics fought over whether philosophy and linguistics had the ‘right’ theoretical frameworks to study semantics most efficiently. Interdisciplinary studies have recently become more popular as a result. Ultimately all scholars study semantics to understand how and why the meaning of words and phrases change.

Types of semantic change

The issue of debate doesn’t stop at philosophers vs. linguists. The way different types of semantic change is categorised has also been the source of huge debate. This means that there are numerous versions of semantic typologies. The most commonly used being Leonard Bloomfield’s (1933, see pictured below) and Andreas Blank’s (1999). For the sake of this blog, we will look at different types semantic change using Bloomfield’s typology. Bloomfield’s is the more established framework used in English-speaking academia and gives a more general overview of what semantic change.

Narrowing and Widening

When a word’s meaning has narrowed or widened (or broadened) it means that it has either becoming more specific (narrowing) or more general (widening).

There are two examples of narrowing that have already been explored in Usage Corner: the words ‘girl’ and ‘meat’. In the 12/1300s (AD) both words had much broader meanings. Originally girl or ‘gyrle’ referred to young children of no specific gender. It only began relating to female children in the late 1300s. Similarly meat or ‘mete’ originally referred to all solid foods and wasn’t used to describe animal flesh until the early 1300s.

Examples of widening, however, are often the use of specific brands to describe broad categories of products or services. A famous modern example of this is the use of the word ‘google’ as a transitive verb to refer to all internet searching. Google even went as far as to get a court ruling that ‘google’ was legally not a verb. Which they did to avoid the name becoming so generic that it caused the death of its trademark rights. Other examples of this type of widening includes: Aspirin, Kleenex and even Elevators. There are plenty of other (non-brand) based examples, however. The word bird, for example, or ‘bridd’ originally referred to chicks that were still in the nest, but was eventually broadened out to mean all birds.

Degeneration and Elevation

The degeneration or elevation of a word’s meaning refers to the semantic process of lowering or raising the status of the subject. Whether these changes is status are explicitly negative or positive is still massively debated. Which is why you’ll find that more neutral academic channels describe the semantic change as being status-focused. Even though a lot of the words have elements of negative and positive emotion.

For instance, an example of ‘degeneration’ is the change of the meaning of ‘silly’. It originally referred to a happy or innocent individual but now is more commonly used to describe someone who is foolish or stupid. ‘Spinster’ is another example of degeneration. The current definition often refers to an unmarried woman, but the original simply meant someone person who spins wool. This is one of the examples of whether degeneration inherently reflects a negative shift in meaning. As the word has often been used in a derogatory way, it can be hard to separate the semantic change from its negative application. It begs the question ‘was the semantic change rooted in derogatory views of unmarried women, or did these views come later?

On the contrary, elevation is the process by which the status subject is raised by the semantic changes. For example, the word ‘nice’ originally referred to someone who was foolish, stupid or ignorant. But by the 1800s it was more commonly used to describe someone who was kind or considerate, as remains the case today.

Hyperboles

Hyperboles in semantics refer to the process of exaggerating the word to achieve a stronger meaning. They are not meant literally, and are used for emphasis, often for comic or descriptive purposes and so are often found in literature.

Examples of hyperboles date back hundreds (and in some cases thousands) of years. In Greek mythology, particularly, the comparison of mortals to gods is a common example of a hyperbole. For example, “such a woman—just like a goddess, immortal, awe-inspiring. She’s beautiful.” (Iliad, Ch.3 L.171-2). This quote is a description of Helen of Troy in Homer’s Iliad. Helen of Troy is mortal, but in order to do her beauty justice Homer decides to compare her to the figures of idealism; the gods and goddesses of Olympus.

Hyperboles aren’t just used in literature, we use them regularly in everyday speech. Some common examples are “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”or “these bags weigh a ton”. Therefore hyperbolic semantic change is where a word gains a permanently change in meaning or association through exaggeration. For example, the word ‘kill’ originally meant to ‘hit’ or ‘strike’ in 13th century AD, but by the 14th century the word was used to refer to the act of putting to death.

Meiosis

Meiosis is the exact opposite of hyperboles, and also has examples of usage from thousands of years ago. It describes when a word’s meaning is changed by an emphasis of understatement. Similarly to hyperboles, examples of meiosis are often used for comic and emotive effect. And so are also a key feature of literature. For example, Shakespeare’s King Lear muses “I fear I am not in my perfect mind” (Act 4 Scene 7) at a point in the play where it is clear that he is mentally fragile. The comment is often interpreted as being written for comic effect – although it could also be used to emphasis the deeply tragic events of the play.

Another example is the use of meiosis to name or describe traumatic or politically sensitive events. For example the use of the phrase ‘The Troubles’ to describe the thirty year conflict in Northern Ireland in the late 20th century. Finally a specific type of meiosis called ‘litotes’ are often referred to alongside meiosis. Litotes use understatement for ironic emphasis and are used loads in everyday speech and literature. Examples include: “not too shabby” meaning ‘good’ or “it’s not exactly a walk in the park” referring to something that is not easy. The Old English epic poem famously Beowulf has a lot of examples of litotes throughout. For instance “Hildeburh had little cause To credit the Jutes: son and brother, She lost them both on the battlefield.” (1999, Seamus Heaney).

Metaphor

Metaphorical semantic changes describe when a word’s meaning is applied changed by the association with one or more words with recognisable similarities. For example, the word ‘chill’ originally meant ‘to cool down’ but from the mid-1800s onwards began to mean ‘relax’ or ‘de-escalate’. The metaphor being based on the similarity between the reduction in temperature and the reduction of a ‘hot-tempered’ situation or emotion; thereby playing on the relationship between temperature and temperament.

An example of metaphorical semantic change being applied to multiple words is the use of the word ‘root’. The original definition of the word refers to the underground part of a plant. But as early as the 13th century was used to refer to the grounding or core aspect of a noun. For example, the ‘root’ of a word or the ‘root’ of a problem. The similarities between the words differ as the recognised relationship between the original definition and the applied definitions differ.

Metonymy

Metonymy is where a word picks up and incorporates multiple meanings, including the word’s original definition. The multiple meanings are linked by how closely associated the concepts are. Similarly to metaphor, metonymy is often used in literature and everyday speech to create imagery, and often evoke emotion. The main difference between metaphor and metonymy is that similarities in metonymy do not include the transfer of characteristics that metaphor changes have.

One well-known example of metonymy is the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword.” (penned by the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839). The comparison of the pen (as a symbol of the written word) to the military strength of the sword emphasises the power of the written word. An example of metonymy in semantic change – specifically – is the word ‘seed’. The original definition of ‘seed’ refers to the reproductive anatomy of plants. But by the 1300s the reproductive and ‘flourishing’ elements of ‘seed’ were applied to humans and the word ‘seed’ began to refer to semen.

Synecdoche

Synecdoches are technically a type of metonymy. But are often grouped separately because they are such a specific and large type. They refer to when the word meaning part of a collective is used to represent to the whole collective (or vice-versa). Common examples include the use of: ‘cement’ to refer to concrete (cement being the binding element of concrete), ‘threads’ to refer to clothing, ‘kegs’ to refer to kegs of beer and ‘blade’ to refer to a sword.

As is the case with a lot of semantic change, synecdoches are an important part of imagery in literature. A common example is the use of ‘ear’ to represent the attention of one or more person(s): for example “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 3 Scene 2). Shakespeare uses this specific synecdoche a few times (including by Hamlet). It is – unsurprisingly – applied in literature in a similar way to metaphor and metonymy as a way of exploring concepts through imagery.

Final thoughts

Semantics is officially the study of the meaning of words. But it’s the fluidity of language that I think defines this blog. Language as we know it wouldn’t look the way it does today without fluidity. Having grammatical rules give us a framework. Which gives us access to literacy. For some, grammar is an art form. For others it’s a burden. But ultimately, reading and writing is about having a voice. And by including diversity in the voices we hear, we include fluidity in the way we express ourselves. Semantics is at the heart of written language and therefore willingly embraces frameworks as well as change. So the next time we argue with someone over the use of metaphors or metonymies let’s remember that fluidity is just as important a part of semantics as the framework of rules surrounding it.