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Polysemy is characteristic of most words in many languages, however different they may be. But it is more characteristic of the English vo-


1 There is a vast literature on the problems of denotation, connotation and im­plication that can be recommended as background reading. These are works by E.S. Aznaurova, M.V. Nikitin, I.V. Arnold, I.P. Sternin, V.I. Shakhovsky and oth­ers. The references are given in full at the end of the book.

cabulary as compared with Russian, due to the monosyllabic character of English and the predominance of root words. The greater the relative frequency of the word, the greater the number of variants that constitute its semantic structure, i.e. the more polysemantic it is. This regularity is of course a statistical, not a rigid one.1

Word counts show that the total number of meanings separately registered in NED for the first thousand of the most frequent English words is almost 25, 000, i.e. the average number of meanings for each of these most frequent words is 25.

Consider some of the variants of a very frequent, and consequently polysemantic word run. We define the main variant as 4to go by moving the legs quickly' as in: Tired as I was, I began to run frantically home. The lexical meaning does not change in the forms ran or running. The basic meaning may be extended to inanimate things: / caught the bus that runs between C and B; or the word run may be used figuratively: // makes ike blood run cold. Both the components lon foot' and 'quickly' are suppressed in these two last examples, as well as in The car runs on petrol. The idea of motion remains but it is reduced to 'operate or func­tion'. The difference of meaning is reflected in the difference of syntactic valency. It is impossible to use this variant about humans and say: *We humans run on food. The active-passive transformation is possible when the meaning implies 'management': The Co-op runs this self-service shop This self-service shop is run by the Co-op, but */ was run by home is obviously nonsense.

The component 'speed' is important in the following:

Then though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run (Marvel]).

There are other variants of run where there is no implication of speed or 'on foot' or motion of any kind but the seme of direction is retained: On the other side of the stream the bank ran up steeply. *The bank ran without the implication of direction is meaningless. There are also other variants of the verb run, they all have something in com­mon with some of the others. To sum up: though there is no single se­mantic component common to all the lexico-semantic variants of the verb run, every variant has something in common with at least one of the others.

Every meaning in language and every difference in meaning is sig­nalled either by the form of the word itself or by context, i.e. its syntag-matic relations depending on the position in the spoken chain. The unity of the two facets of a linguistic sign — its form and its content in the case of a polysemantic word — is kept in its lexico-grammatical variant.

No universally accepted criteria for differentiating these variants within one polysemantic word can so far be offered, alt hough the problem has lately attracted a great deal of attention. The main points can be

1 A special formula known as " Zipf's Law" has been worked out to express the correlation between frequency, word length and polysemy.


summed up as follows: lexico-gramniatical variants of a word are its variants characterized by paradigmatic or morphological peculiarities, different valency, different syntactic functions; very often they belong to different lexico-grammatical groups of the same part of speech. Thus run is intransitive in / ran home, but transitive in / run this office. Some of the variants demand an object naming some vehicle, or some adverbials of direction, and so on.

All the lexical and lexico-grammatical variants of a word taken together form its semantic structure or semantic para­digm. Thus, in the semantic structure of the word youth three lexico-grammatical variants may be distinguished: the first is an abstract uncountable noun, as in the frietids of one's youthKihe second is a count­able personal noun 'a young man' (plural youths) that can be substituted by the pronoun he in the singular and they in the plural; the third is a collective noun 'young men and women' having onh one form, that of the singular, substituted by the pronoun they. Within the first lexico-grammatical variant two shades of meaning can be distinguished with two different referents, one denoting the state of being young, and the other the time of being young. These shades of meaning are recognized due to the lexical peculiarities of distribution and sometimes are blended together as in to feel that one's youth has gone, where both the time and the state can be meant. These variants form a structured set because they are expressed by the same sound complex and are interrelated in meaning as they all contain the semantic component 'young' and can be explained by means of one another.

No general or complete scheme of types of lexical meaning as elements of a word's semantic structure has so far been accepted by linguists. Linguistic literature abounds in various terms reflecting various points of view. The following terms may be found with different authors: the meaning is direct when it nominates the referent without the help of a context, in isolation, i.e. in one word sentences. The meaning is figurative when the object is named and at the same time char­acterized through its similarity with another object. Note the word characterized: it is meant to point out that when used figuratively a word, while naming an object simultaneously describes it.

Other oppositions are concrete:: abstract; main/ primary:: secondary; central:: peripheric; nar-r o w: : e x t e n d e d; general:: special/particular, and so on. One readily sees that in each of these the basis of classification is different, although there is one point they have in common. In each case the comparison takes place within the semantic structure of one word. They are characterized one against the other.

Take, for example, the noun screen. We find it in its direct meaning when it names a movable piece of furniture used to hide something or protect somebody, as in the case of fire-screen placed in front of a fire­place. The meaning is figurative when the word is applied to anything which protects by hiding, as in smoke screen. We define this meaning as figurative comparing it to the first that we called direct. Again, when by a screen the speaker means 'a silver-coloured sheet on which



pictures are shown', this meaning in comparison with the main/primary will be secondary. When the same word is used attributively in such combinations as screen actor, screen star, screen version, etc., it comes to mean 'pertaining to the cinema' and is abstract in comparison with the first meaning which is concrete. The main mean­ing is that which possesses the highest frequency at the present stage of vocabulary development. All these terms reflect relationships existing between different meanings of a word at the same period, so the classi­fication may be called synchronic and paradigmatic, although the terms used are borrowed from historical lexicology and stylistics.1

If the variants are classified not only by comparing them inside the semantic structure of the word but according to the style and sphere of language in which they may occur, if they have stylistic connotations, the classification is stylistical. All the words are classified into stylis­tically neutral and stylistically coloured. The latter may be classified into bookish and colloquial, bookish styles in their turn may be (a) general, (b) poetical, (c) scientific or learned, while colloquial st> les are subdivided into (a) liter­ary colloquial, (b) familiar colloquia 1, (c) slang.

If we are primarily interested in the historical perspective, the mean­ings will be classified according to their genetic characteristic and their growing or diminishing role in the language. In this way the follow­ing terms are used: etymological, i.e. the earliest known meaning; archaic, i.e. the meaning superseded at present by a newer one but still remaining in certain collocations; obsolete, gone out of use; present-day meaning, which is the one most frequent in the present-day language and the original meaning serving as basis for the derived ones. It is very important to pay atten­tion to the fact that one and the same meaning can at once belong, in accordance with different points, to different groups. These features of meaning ma\ therefore serve as distinctive features describing each meaning in its relationship to the others.

Diachronic and synchronic ties are thus closely interconnected as the new meanings are understood thanks to their motivation by the older meanings.

Hornby's dictionary, for instance, distinguishes in the word witness four different variants, which may be described as follows.

witness1 'evidence, testimony' — a direct, abstract, primary meaning witness2 'a person who has first-hand knowledge cf an event and is

able to describe it' —ja metonymical, concrete, secondary

meaning witness^ 'a person who gives evidence under oath in a law court* —

a metonymical, concrete, secondary meaning specialized

from witness^ witness^ 'a person who puts his signature to a document by the side

of that of the chief person who signs it' — a metonymical,

concrete, secondary meaning specialized from wil/iess2

1 Some authors call relations within one word — epidigmatic. See p. 41.


Polysemy is a phenomenon of language not of speech. The sum total of many contexts in which the word is observed to occur permits the lexicographers to record cases of identical meaning and cases that differ in meaning. They are registered by lexicographers and found in dictionaries.

A distinction has to be drawn between the lexical meaning of a word in speech, we shall call it contextual meaning, and the semantic structure of a word in language. Thus the semantic structure of the verb act comprises several variants: ‘do something’, ‘behave’, ‘take a part in a play’, ‘pretend’. If one examines this word in the following aphorism: Some men have acted courage who had it not; but no man can act wit (Halifax), one sees it in a definite context that particularises it and makes possible only one meaning ‘pretend’. This contextual meaning has a connotation of irony. The unusual grammatical meaning of transitivity (act is as a rule intransitive) and the lexical meaning of objects to this verb make a slight difference in the lexical meaning.

As a rule the contextual meaning represents only one of the possible variants of the word but this one variant may render a complicated notion or emotion analyzable into several semes. In this case we deal not with the semantic structure of the word but with the semantic structure of one of its meanings. Polysemy does not interfere with the communicative function of the language because the situation and context cancel all the unwanted meanings.

Sometimes, as, for instance in puns, the ambiguity is intended, the words are purposefully used so as to emphasise their different meanings. Consider the replica of lady Constance, whose son, Arthur Plantagenet is betrayed by treacherous allies:

LYMOGES (Duke of Austria): Lady Constance, peace!
CONSTANCE: War! war! no peace! peace is to me a war (Shakespeare).

In the time of Shakespeare peace as an interjection meant ‘Silence! ’ But lady Constance takes up the main meaning — the antonym of war.

Geoffrey Leech uses the term reflected meaning for what is communicated through associations with another sense of the same word, that is all cases when one meaning of the word forms part of the listener’s response to another meaning. G. Leech illustrates his point by the following example. Hearing in the Church Service the expression The Holy Ghost, he found his reaction conditioned by the everyday unreligious and awesome meaning ‘the shade of a dead person supposed to visit the living’. The case where reflected meaning intrudes due to suggestivity of the expression may be also illustrated by taboo words and euphemisms connected with the physiology of sex.

Consider also the following joke, based on the clash of different meanings of the word expose (‘leave unprotected’, ‘put up for show’, ‘reveal the guilt of’). E. g.: Painting is the art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.

Or, a similar case: “Why did they hang this picture? ” “Perhaps, they could not find the artist.”



Contextual meanings include nonce usage. Nonce words are words invented and used for a particular occasion.

The study of means and ways of naming the elements of reality is called onomasiology. As worked out in some recent publications it received the name of Theory of Nomination.1 So if semasiology studies what it is the name points out, onomasiology and the theory of nomination have to show how the objects receive their names and what features are chosen to represent them.

Originally the nucleus of the theory concerned names for objects, and first of all concrete nouns. Later on a discussion began, whether actions, properties, emotions and so on should be included as well. The question was answered affirmatively as there is no substantial difference in the reflection in our mind of things and their properties or different events. Everything that can be named or expressed verbally is considered in the theory of nomination. Vocabulary constitutes the central problem but syntax, morphology and phonology also have their share. The theory of nomination takes into account that the same referent may receive various names according to the information required at the moment by the process of communication, e. g. Walter Scott and the author of Waverley (to use an example known to many generations of linguists). According to the theory of nomination every name has its primary function for which it was created (primary or direct nomination), and an indirect or secondary function corresponding to all types of figurative, extended or special meanings (see p. 53). The aspect of theory of nomination that has no counterpart in semasiology is the study of repeated nomination in the same text, as, for instance, when Ophelia is called by various characters of the tragedy: fair Ophelia, sweet maid, dear maid, nymph, kind sister, rose of May, poor Ophelia, lady, sweet lady, pretty lady, and so on.

To sum up this discussion of the semantic structure of a word, we return to its definition as a structured set of interrelated lexical variants with different denotational and sometimes also connotational meanings. These variants belong to the same set because they are expressed by the same combination of morphemes, although in different contextual conditions. The elements are interrelated due to the existence of some common semantic component. In other words, the word’s semantic structure is an organised whole comprised by recurrent meanings and shades of meaning that a particular sound complex can assume in different contexts, together with emotional, stylistic and other connotations, if any.

Every meaning is thus characterised according to the function, significative or pragmatic effect that it has to fulfil as denotative and connotative meaning referring the word to the extra-linguistic reality and to the speaker, and also with respect to other meanings with which it is contrasted. The hierarchy of lexico-grammatical variants and shades of meaning within the semantic structure of a word is studied with the help of formulas establishing semantic distance between them developed by N. A. Shehtman and other authors.


1 The problem was studied by W. Humboldt (1767-1835) who called the feature chosen as the basis of nomination— the inner form of the word.


The contextual method of linguistic research holds its own alongside statistical, structural and other developments. Like structural methods and procedures, it is based on the assumption that difference in meaning of linguistic units is always indicated by a difference in environment. Unlike structural distributional procedures (see §5.2, 5.3) it is not formalised. In some respects, nevertheless, it is more rigorous than the structural procedures, because it strictly limits its observations and conclusions to an impressive corpus of actually recorded material. No changes, whether controlled or not, are permitted in linguistic data observed, no conclusions are made unless there is a sufficient number of examples to support their validity. The size of a representative sample is determined not so much by calculation though, but rather by custom. Words are observed in real texts, not on the basis of dictionaries. The importance of the approach cannot be overestimated; in fact, as E. Nida puts it, “it is from linguistic contexts that the meanings of a high proportion of lexical units in active or passive vocabularies are learned." 1

The notion of context has several interpretations. According to N. N. Amosova context is a combination of an indicator or indicating minimum and the dependant, that is the word, the meaning of which is to be rendered in a given utterance.

The results until recently were, however more like a large collection of neatly organised examples, supplemented with comments. A theoretical approach to this aspect of linguistics will be found in the works by G. V. Kolshansky.

Contextual analysis concentrated its attention on determining the minimal stretch of speech and the conditions necessary and sufficient to reveal in which of its individual meanings the word in question is used. In studying this interaction of the polysemantic word with the syntactic configuration and lexical environment contextual analysis is more concerned with specific features of every particular language than with language universals.

Roughly, context may be subdivided into lexical, syntactical and mixed. Lexical context, for instance, determines the meaning of the word black in the following examples. Black denotes colour when used with the key-word naming some material or thing, e. g. black velvet, black gloves. When used with key-words denoting feeling or thought, it means ‘sad’, ‘dismal’, e. g. black thoughts, black despair. With nouns denoting time, the meaning is ‘unhappy’, ‘full of hardships’, e. g. black days, black period.

If, on the other hand, the indicative power belongs to the syntactic pattern and not to the words which make it up, the context is called syntactic. E. g. make means ‘to cause’ when followed by a complex object: I couldn’t make him understand a word I said.




1 Nida E. Componential Analysis of Meaning. The Hague-Paris, Mouton 1975. P. 195.


A purely syntactic context is rare. As a rule the indication comes from syntactic, lexical and sometimes morphological factors combined. Thus, late, when used predicatively, means ‘after the right, expected or fixed time’, as be late for school. When used attributively with words denoting periods of time, it means ‘towards the end of the period’, e. g. in late summer. Used attributively with proper personal nouns and preceded with a definite article, late means ‘recently dead’.

All lexical contexts are subdivided into lexical contexts of the first degree and lexical contexts of the second degree. In the lexical context of the first degree there is a direct syntactical connection between the indicator and the dependent: He was arrested on a treason charge. In lexical context of the second degree there is no direct syntactical connection between a dependent and the indicator. E.g.: I move that Mr Last addresses the meeting (Waugh). The dependent move is not directly connected to the indicating minimum addresses the meeting.

Alongside the context N. N. Amosova distinguishes speech situation, in which the necessary indication comes not from within the sentence but from some part of the text outside it. Speech situation with her may be of two types: text-situation and life-situation. In text-situation it is a preceding description, a description that follows or some word in the preceding text that help to understand the ambiguous word.

E. Nida gives a slightly different classification. He distinguishes linguistic and practical context. By practical context he means the circumstances of communication: its stimuli, participants, their relation to one another and to circumstances and the response of the listeners.


A good deal of work being published by linguists at present and dealing with semantics has to do with componential analysis.1 To illustrate what is meant by this we have taken a simple example (see p. 41) used for this purpose by many linguists. Consider the following set of words: man, woman, boy, girl, bull, cow. We can arrange them as correlations of binary oppositions man: : woman = boy: : girl = bull: : cow. The meanings of words man, boy, bull on the one hand, and woman, girl and cow, on the other, have something in common. This distinctive feature we call a semantic component or seme. In this case the semantic distinctive feature is that of sex — male or female. Another possible correlation is man: : boy = woman: : girl. The distinctive feature is that of age — adult or non-adult. If we compare this with a third correlation man: : bull = woman: : cow, we obtain a third distinctive feature contrasting human and animal beings. In addition to the notation given on p. 41, the componential formula may be also shown by brackets. The meaning of man can be described as (male (adult (human being))), woman as (female (adult (human being))), girl as (female (non-adult (human being))), etc.




1 See the works by O.K. Seliverstova, J.N. Karaulov, E. Nida, D. Bolinger and others.

Componential analysis is thus an attempt to describe the meaning of words in terms of a universal inventory of semantic components and their possible combinations.1

Componential approach to meaning has a long history in linguistics.2 L. Hjelmslev’s commutation test deals with similar relationships and may be illustrated by proportions from which the distinctive features d1, d2, d3 are obtained by means of the following procedure:


As the first relationship is that of male to female, the second, of young to adult, and the third, human to animal, the meaning ‘boy’ may be characterised with respect to the distinctive features d1, d2, d3 as containing the semantic elements ‘male’, ‘young’, and ‘human’. The existence of correlated oppositions proves that these elements are recognised by the vocabulary.

In criticising this approach, the English linguist Prof. W. Haas3 argues that the commutation test looks very plausible if one has carefully selected examples from words entering into clear-cut semantic groups, such as terms of kinship or words denoting colours. It is less satisfactory in other cases, as there is no linguistic framework by which the semantic contrasts can be limited. The commutation test, however, borrows its restrictions from philosophy.

A form of componential analysis describing semantic components in terms of categories represented as a hierarchic structure so that each subsequent category is a sub-category of the previous one is described by R. S. Ginzburg. She follows the theory of the American linguists J. Katz and J. Fodor involving the analysis of dictionary meanings into semantic markers and distinguishers but redefines it in a clear-cut way. The markers refer to features which the word has in common with other lexical items, whereas a distinguishes as the term implies, differentiates it from all other words.

We borrow from R. S. Ginzburg her analysis of the word spinster. It runs as follows: spinster — noun, count noun, human, adult, female, who has never married. Parts of speech are the most inclusive categories pointing to major classes. So we shall call this component class seme (a term used by French semasiologists). As the grammatical function is predominant when we classify a word as a count noun it seems more logical to take this feature as a subdivision of a class seme.


1 Note the possibility of different graphical representation.

2 Componential analysis proper originates with the work of F.G. Lounsbury and W.H. Goodenough on kinship terms.

3 Prof. W. Haas (of Manchester University) delivered a series of lectures on the theory of meaning at the Pedagogical Institutes of Moscow and Leningrad in 1965.

It may, on the other hand, be taken as a marker because it represents a sub-class within nouns, marks all nouns that can be counted, and differentiates them from all uncountable nouns. Human is the next marker which refers the word spinster to a sub-category of nouns denoting human beings (man, woman, etc. vs table, flower, etc.). Adult is another marker pointing at a specific subdivision of living beings into adult and not grown-up (man, woman vs boy, girl). Female is also a marker (woman, widow vs man, widower), it represents a whole class of adult human females. ‘Who has never married’ — is not a marker but a distinguisher, it differentiates the word spinster from other words which have other features in common (spinster vs widow, bride, etc.).

The analysis shows that the dimensions of meaning may be regarded as semantic oppositions because the word’s meaning is reduced to its contrastive elements. The segmentation is continued as far as we can have markers needed for a group of words, and stops when a unique feature is reached.

A very close resemblance to componential analysis is the method of logical definition by dividing a genus into species and species into subspecies indispensable to dictionary definitions. It is therefore but natural that lexicographic definitions lend themselves as suitable material for the analysis of lexical groups in terms of a finite set of semantic components. Consider the following definitions given in Hornby’s dictionary:

cow — a full grown female of any animal of the ox family calf — the young of the cow

The first definition contains all the elements we have previously obtained from proportional oppositions. The second is incomplete but we can substitute the missing elements from the previous definition. We can, consequently, agree with J. N. Karaulov and regard as semantic components (or semes) the notional words of the right hand side of a dictionary entry.

It is possible to describe parts of the vocabulary by formalising these definitions and reducing them to some standard form according to a set of rules. The explanatory transformations thus obtained constitute an intersection of transformational and componential analysis. The result of this procedure applied to collective personal nouns may be illustrated by the following.

e. g. team → a group of people acting together in a game, piece of work, etc.

Procedures briefly outlined above proved to be very efficient for certain problems and find an ever-widening application, providing us with a deeper insight into some aspects of language.1



1 For further detail see: Арнольд И.В. Семантическая структура слова в современном английском языке и методика ее исследования. Л., 1966.





In what follows we shall deal in detail with various types of semantic change. This is necessary not only because of the interest the various cases present in themselves but also because a thorough knowledge of these possibilities helps one to understand the semantic structure of English words at the present stage of their development. The development and change of the semantic structure of a word is always a source of qualitative and quantitative development of the vocabulary.

All the types discussed depend upon some comparison of the earlier (whether extinct or still in use) and the new meaning of the given word. This comparison may be based on the difference between the concepts expressed or referents in the real world that are pointed out, on the type of psychological association at work, on evaluation of the latter by the speaker, on lexico-grammatical categories or, possibly, on some other feature.

The order in which various types are described will follow more or less closely the diachronic classification of M. Bré al and H. Paul. No attempt at a new classification is considered necessary. There seems to be no point in augmenting the number of unsatisfactory schemes already offered in literature. The treatment is therefore traditional.

M. Bré al was probably the first to emphasise the fact that in passing from general usage into some special sphere of communication a word as a rule undergoes some sort of specialisation of its meaning. The word case, for instance, alongside its general meaning of ‘circumstances in which a person or a thing is’ possesses special meanings: in law fa law suit’), in grammar (e. g. the Possessive case), in medicine (‘a patient’, ‘an illness’). Compare the following: One of Charles’s cases had been a child ill with a form of diphtheria (Snow). (case = ‘a patient’) The Solicitor whom I met at the Rolfords’ sent me a case which any young man at my stage would have thought himself lucky to get (Idem), (case = ‘a question decided in a court of law, a law suit’)

The general, not specialised meaning is also very frequent in present-day English. E. g.: At last we tiptoed up the broad slippery staircase, and went to our rooms. But in my case not to sleep, immediately at least... (Idem). (case = ‘circumstances in which one is’)

This difference is revealed in the difference of contexts in which these words occur, in their different valency. Words connected with illnesses and medicine in the first example, and words connected with


law and court procedures in the second determine the semantic structure or paradigm of the word case.

The word play suggests different notions to a child, a playwright, a footballer, a musician or a chess-player and has in their speech different semantic paradigms. The same applies to the noun cell as used by a biologist, an electrician, a nun or a representative of the law; or the word gas as understood by a chemist, a soldier, a housewife, a motorist or a miner.

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 specialised, the word can name fewer objects, i.e. have fewer referents. At the same time the content of the notion is being enriched, as it includes a greater number of relevant features by which the notion is characterised. Or, in other words, the word is now applicable to fewer things but tells us more about them. The reduction of scope accounts for the term “narrowing of the meaning” which is even more often used than the term “specialisation”. We shall avoid the term “narrowing", since it is somewhat misleading. Actually it is neither the meaning nor the notion, but the scope of the notion that is narrowed.

There is also a third and more exact term for the same phenomenon, namely “differentiation", but it is not so widely used as the first two terms.

H. Paul, as well as many other authors, emphasises the fact that this type of semantic change is particularly frequent in vocabulary of professional and trade groups.

H. Paul’s examples are from the German language but it is very easy to find parallel cases in English. This type of change is fairly universal and fails to disclose any specifically English properties.

The best known examples of specialisation in the general language are as follows: OE deor ‘wild beast'> ModE deer ‘wild ruminant of a particular species’ (the original meaning was still alive in Shakespeare’s time as is proved by the following quotation: Rats and mice and such small deer); OE mete ‘food'> ModE meat ‘edible flesh’, i. e. only a particular species of food (the earlier meaning is still noticeable in the compound sweetmeat). This last example deserves special attention because the tendency of fixed context to preserve the original meaning is very marked as is constantly proved by various examples. Other well-worn cases are: OE fuzol ‘bird’ (||Germ Vogel) > ModE fowl ‘domestic birds’. The old meaning is still preserved in poetic diction and in set expressions like fowls of the air. Among its derivatives, fowler means ‘a person who shoots or traps wild birds for sport or food’; the shooting or trapping itself is called fowling; a fowling piece is a gun. OE hand ‘dog’ (||Germ Hund) > ModE hound ‘a species of hunting dog’. Many words connected with literacy also show similar changes: thus, teach < OE tæ can ‘to show’, ‘to teach’; write < OE writan ‘to write’, ‘to scratch’, ‘to score’ (|| Germ reiß en); writing in Europe had first the form of scratching on the bark of the trees. Tracing these semantic changes the scholars can, as it were, witness the development of culture.


In the above examples the new meaning superseded the earlier one. Both meanings can also coexist in the structure of a polysemantic word or be differentiated locally. The word token < OE tac(e)n || Germ Zeichen originally had the broad meaning of ‘sign’. The semantic change that occurred here illustrates systematic inter-dependence within the vocabulary elements. Brought into competition with the borrowed word sign it became restricted in use to a few cases of fixed context (a love token, a token of respect, a token vote, a token payment) andconsequently restricted in meaning. In present-day English token means something small, unimportant or cheap which represents something big, important or valuable. Other examples of specialisation are room, which alongside the new meaning keeps the old one of ‘space’; corn originally meaning ‘grain’, ‘the seed of any cereal plant’: locally the word becomes specialised and is understood to denote the leading crop of the district; hence in England corn means ‘wheat’, in Scotland ‘oats’, whereas in the USA, as an ellipsis for Indian corn, it came to mean ‘maize’.

As a special group belonging to the same type one can mention the formation of proper nouns from common nouns chiefly in toponymies, i.e. place names. E. g.: the City — the business part of London; the Highlands — the mountainous part of Scotland; Oxford — University town in England (from ox + ford, i.e. a place where oxen could ford the river); the Tower (of London) —originally a fortress and palace, later a state prison, now a museum.

In the above examples the change of meaning occurred without change of sound form and without any intervention of morphological processes. In many cases, however, the two processes, semantic and morphological, go hand in hand. For instance, when considering the effect of the agent suffix -ist added to the noun stem art- we might expect the whole to mean ‘any person occupied in art, a representative of any kind of art’, but usage specialises the meaning of the word artist and restricts it to a synonym of painter. Cf. tranquilliser, tumbler, trailer.

The process reverse to specialisation is termed generalisation and widening of meaning. In that case the scope of the new notion is wider than that of the original one (hence widening), whereas the content of the notion is poorer. In most cases generalisation 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. The change may be explained as occasioned by situations in which not all the features of the notions rendered are of equal importance for the message.

Thus, ready < OE ræ de (a derivative of the verb ridan ‘to ride’) meant ‘prepared for a ride’. Fly originally meant ‘to move through the air with wings’; now it denotes any kind of movement in the air or outer space and also very quick movement in any medium. See also pirate, originally ‘one who robs on the sea’, by generalisation it came to mean ‘any one who robs with violence’.

The process of generalisation went very far in the complicated history of the word thing. Its etymological meaning was ‘an assembly for

deliberation on some judicial or business affair’, hence — ‘a matter brought before this assembly’ and ‘what was said or decided upon’, then ‘cause’, ‘object’, ‘decision’. Now it has become one of the most general words of the language, it can substitute almost any noun, especially non-personal noun and has received a pronominal force. Cf. something, nothing, anything, as in Nothing has happened yet.

Not every generic word comes into being solely by generalisation, other processes of semantic development may also be involved in words borrowed from one language into another. The word person, for instance, is now a generic term for a human being:

editor — a person who prepares written material for publication; pedestrian — a person who goes on foot;

refugee — a person who has been driven from his home country by war.

The word was borrowed into Middle English from Old French, where it was persone and came from Latin persona ‘the mask used by an actor’, ‘one who plays a part’, ‘a character in a play’. The motivation of the word is of interest. The great theatre spaces in ancient Rome made it impossible for the spectators to see the actor’s face and facial changes. It was also difficult to hear his voice distinctly. That is why masks with a megaphonic effect were used. The mask was called persona from Lat per ‘through’ and sonare ‘to sound’. After the term had been transferred (metonymically) to the character represented, the generalisation to any human being came quite naturally. The process of generalisation and abstraction is continuing so that in the 70s person becomes a combining form substituting the semi-affix -man (chairperson, policeperson, salesperson, workperson). The reason for this is a tendency to abolish sex discrimination in job titles. The plural of compounds ending in -person may be -persons or -people: businesspeople or businesspersons.

In fact all the words belonging to the group of generic terms fall into this category of generalisation. By generic terms we mean non-specific terms applicable to a great number of individual members of a big class of words (see p. 39). The grammatical categoric meaning of this class of words becomes predominant in their semantic components.

It is sometimes difficult to differentiate the instances of generalisation proper from generalisation combined with a fading of lexical meaning ousted by the grammatical or emotional meaning that take its place. These phenomena are closely connected with the peculiar characteristics of grammatical structure typical of each individual language. One observes them, for instance, studying the semantic history of the English auxiliary and semi-auxiliary verbs, especially have, do, shall, will, turn, go, and that of some English prepositions and adverbs which in the course of time have come to express grammatical relations. The weakening of lexical meaning due to the influence of emotional force is revealed in such words as awfully, terribly, terrific, smashing.

“Specialisation” and “generalisation” are thus identified on the evidence of comparing logical notions expressed by the meaning of words. If, on the other hand, the linguist is guided by psychological considerations and has to


go by the type of association at work in the transfer of the name of one object to another and different one, he will observe that the most frequent transfers are based on associations of similarity, or of contiguity. As these types of transfer are well known in rhetoric as figures of speech called metaphor (Gr metaphora < meta change’ and pherein ‘bear’) and metonymy (Gr metonymia < meta ‘change’ and onoma/onytna ‘name’), the same terms are adopted here. A metaphor is a transfer of name based on the association of similarity and thus is actually a hidden comparison. It presents a method of description which likens one thing to another by referring to it as if it were some other one. A cunning person for instance is referred to as a fox. A woman may be called a peach, a lemon, a cat, a goose, a bitch, a lioness, etc.

In a metonymy, this referring to one thing as if it were some other one is based on association of contiguity (a woman a skirt). Sean O'Casey in his one-act play “The Hall of Healing” metonymically names his personages according to the things they are wearing: Red Muffler, Grey Shawl, etc. Metaphor and metonymy differ from the two first types of semantic change, i.e. generalisation and specialisation, inasmuch as they do not result in hyponymy and do not originate as a result of gradual almost imperceptible change in many contexts, but come of a purposeful momentary transfer of a name from one object to another belonging to a different sphere of reality.

In all discussion of linguistic metaphor and metonymy it must be borne in mind that they are different from metaphor and metonymy as literary devices. When the latter are offered and accepted both the author and the reader are to a greater or lesser degree aware that this reference is figurative, that the object has another name. The relationship of the direct denotative meaning of the word and the meaning it has in a particular literary context is based on similarity of some features in the objects compared. The poetic metaphor is the fruit of the author’s creative imagination, as for example when England is called by Shakespeare (in “King Richard II" ) this precious stone set in the silver sea.

The term poetic here should not be taken as ‘elevated’, because a metaphor may be used for satirical purposes and be classed as poetic. Here are two examples:

The world is a bundle of hay,

Mankind are the asses who pull (Byron).

Though women are angels, yet wedlock’s the devil (Byron).

Every metaphor is implicitly of the form ‘X is like Y in respect of Z’.1 Thus we understand Byron’s line as ‘women are like angels, so good they are, but wedlock is as bad as the devil’. The words world, mankind, women, wedlock, i.e. what is described in the metaphor, are its tenor, while a bundle of hay, asses, angels, the devil are the vehicle, that



1 The formula is suggested in: Leech G. A Linguistic Guide to Poetry. London: Longman, 1973.

is they represent the image that carries a description and serves to represent the tenor. The third element Z is called the ground of the metaphor. In the second example the ground is ‘good’ (used ironically) and ‘bad’. The ground, that is the similarity between the tenor and vehicle, in a metaphor is implied, not expressed.

The ground of the metaphors in the examples that follow is the insincerity of the smiles that Gr. Greene mocks at: he excavated his smile; the woman hooked on another smile as you hook on a wreath; she whipped up a smile from a large and varied stock (Greene). (Examples are borrowed from V. K. Tarasova’s work.)

In a linguistic metaphor, especially when it is dead as a result of long usage, the comparison is completely forgotten and the thing named often has no other name: foot (of a mountain), leg (of a table), eye (of a needle), nose (of an aeroplane), back (of a book).

Transfer of names resulting from tropes (figurative use of words) has been classified in many various ways. Out of the vast collection of terms and classifications we mention only the traditional group of rhetorical categories: metaphor, metonymy, hyperbole, litotes, euphemism, because it is time-honoured and every philologist must be acquainted with it, even if he does not accept it as the best possible grouping.

The meaning of such expressions as a sun beam or a beam of light are not explained by allusions to a tree, although the word is actually derived from OE beam ‘tree’ || Germ Baum, whence the meaning beam ‘a long piece of squared timber supported at both ends’ has also developed. The metaphor is dead. There are no associations with hens in the verb brood ‘to meditate’ (often sullenly), though the direct meaning is ‘to sit on eggs’.

There may be transitory stages: a bottleneck ‘any thing obstructing an even flow of work’, for instance, is not a neck and does not belong to a bottle. The transfer is possible due to the fact that there are some common features in the narrow top part of the bottle, a narrow outlet for road traffic, and obstacles interfering with the smooth working of administrative machinery. The drawing of sharp demarcation lines between a dead metaphor and one that is alive in the speaker’s mind is here impossible.

Metaphors, H. Paul points out, may be based upon very different types of similarity, for instance, the similarity of shape: head of a cabbage, the teeth of a saw. This similarity of shape may be supported by a similarity of function. The transferred meaning is easily recognised from the context: The Head of the school, the key to a mystery. The similarity may be supported also by position: foot of a page/of a mountain, or behaviour and function: bookworm, wirepuller. The word whip ‘a lash used to urge horses on’ is metaphorically transferred to an official in the British Parliament appointed by a political party to see that members are present at debates, especially when a vote is taken, to check the voting and also to advise the members on the policy of the respective party.

In the leg of the table the metaphor is motivated by the similarity of the lower part of the table and the human limb in position and partly

5 И. В. Арнольд 65


in shape and function. Anthropomorphic1 metaphors are among the most frequent. The way in which the words denoting parts of the body are made to express a variety of meanings may be illustrated by the following: head of an army/of a procession/of a household; arms and mouth of a river, eye of a needle, foot of a hill, tongue of a bell and so on and so forth. The transferred meaning is easily recognised from the context: ...her feet were in low-heeled brown brogues with fringed tongues (Plomber).

Numerous cases of metaphoric transfer are based upon the analogy between duration of time and space, e. g. long distance: : long speech; a short path : : a short time.

The transfer of space relations upon psychological and mental notions may be exemplified by words and expressions concerned with understanding: to catch (to grasp) an idea; to take a hint; to get the hang of; to throw light upon.

This metaphoric change from the concrete to the abstract is also represented in such simple words as score, span, thrill. Score comes from OE scoru ‘twenty’ < ON skor ‘twenty’ and also ‘notch’. In OE time notches were cut on sticks to keep a reckoning. As score is cognate with shear, it is very probable that the meaning developed from the twentieth notch that was made of a larger size. From the meaning ‘line’ or ‘notch cut or scratched down’ many new meanings sprang out, such as ‘number of points made by a player or a side in some games’, ‘running account’, ‘a debt’, ‘written or printed music’, etc. Span < OE spann — maximum distance between the tips of thumb and little finger used as a measure of length — came to mean ‘full extent from end to end’ (of a bridge, an arch, etc.) and ‘a short distance’. Thrill < ME thrillen ‘to pierce’ developed into the present meaning ‘to penetrate with emotion.'

Another subgroup of metaphors comprises transitions of proper names into common ones: an Adonis, a Cicero, a Don Juan, etc. When a proper name like Falstaff is used referring specifically to the hero of Shakespeare’s plays it has a unique reference. But when people speak of a person they know calling him Falstaff they make a proper name generic for a corpulent, jovial, irrepressibly impudent person and it no longer denotes a unique being. Cf. Don Juan as used about attractive profligates. To certain races and nationalities traditional characteristics have been attached by the popular mind with or without real justification. If a person is an out-and-out mercenary and a hypocrite or a conformist into the bargain they call him a Philistine, ruthlessly destructive people are called Vandals, Huns, unconventional people — Bohemians.

As it has been already mentioned, if the transfer is based upon the association of contiguity it is called metоnуmy. It is a shift of names between things that are known to be in some way or other connected in reality or the substitution of the name of an attribute of a thing for the name of the thing itself.


1 Anthropo- indicates ‘human’ (from Gr anthropos ‘man’).


Thus, the word book is derived from the name of a tree on which inscriptions were scratched. ModE win < OE winnan ‘to fight’; the word has been shifted so as to apply to the success following fighting. Cash is an adaptation of the French word casse ‘box’; from naming the container it came to mean what was contained, i.e. money; the original meaning was lost in competition with the new word safe. The transfer may be conditioned by spatial, temporal, causal, symbolic, instrumental, functional and other connections. The resulting polysemy is called regular because it embraces whole classes of words.

Regular spatial relations are, for instance, present when the name of the place is used for the people occupying it. The chair may mean ‘the chairman’, the bar ‘the lawyers’, the pulpit ‘the priests’. The word town may denote the inhabitants of a town and the House — the members of the House of Commons or of Lords.

A causal relationship is obvious in the following development: ModE fear < ME fere/feer/fer < OE fæ r ‘danger’, ‘unexpected attack’. States and properties serve as names for objects and people possessing them: youth, age, authorities, forces. The name of the action can serve to name the result of the action: ModE kill < ME killen ‘to hit on the head’, ModE slay < Germ schlagen. Emotions may be named by the movements that accompany them: frown, start.1

There are also the well-known instances of symbol for thing symbolised: the crown for ‘monarchy’; the instrument for the product: hand for ‘handwriting’; receptacle for content, as in the word kettle (cf. the kettle is boiling), and some others. Words denoting the material from which an article is made are often used to denote the particular article: glass, iron, copper, nickel are well known examples.

The pars pro toto (also a version of metonymy) where the name of a part is applied to the whole may be illustrated by such military terms as the royal horse for ‘cavalry’ and foot for ‘infantry’, and by the expressions like I want to have a word with you. The reverse process (totum pro parte) is observed when OE ceol ‘a ship’ develops into keel ‘a lowest longitudinal frame of a ship’.

A place of its own within metonymical change is occupied by the so-called functional change. The type has its peculiarities: in this case the shift is between names of things substituting one another in human practice. Thus, the early instrument for writing was a feather or more exactly a quill (OE pen< OFr penne< It penna< Lat penna ‘feather’). We write with fountain-pens that are made of different materials and have nothing in common with feathers except the function, but the name remains. The name rudder comes from OE roder ‘oar’ || Germ Ruder ‘oar’. The shift of meaning is due to the shift of function: the steering was formerly achieved by an oar. The steersman was called pilot; with the coming of aviation one who operates the flying controls of an aircraft was also called pilot. For more cases of functional change see also the semantic history of the words: filter, pocket, spoon, stamp, sail v.

Common names may be metonymically derived from proper names as



1These last cases are studied in paralinguistics.


in macadam — a type of pavement named after its inventor John McAdam (1756-1836) and diesel or diesel engine — a type of compression ignition engine invented by a German mechanical engineer Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913). The process of nomination includes ellipsis (Diesel engine diesel).

Many international physical and technical units are named after great scientists, as for instance ampere — the unit of electrical current after André Marie Ampè re (1775-1836), a great French mathematician and physicist. Compare also: ohm, volt, watt, etc.

Transfers by contiguity often involve place names. There are many instances in political vocabulary when the place of some establishment is used not only for the establishment itself or its staff but also for its policy. The White House is the executive mansion of the president of the USA in Washington, the name is also used for his administration and politics. Similarly The Pentagon, so named, because it is a five-sided building, denotes the US military command and its political activities, because it contains the USA Defence Department and the offices of various branches of the US armed forces. Wall Street is the name of the main street in the financial district of New York and hence it also denotes the controlling financial interests of American capitalism.

The same type is observed when we turn to Great Britain. Here the British Government of the day is referred to as Downing Street because the Prime Minister’s residence is at No 10 Downing Street. The street itself is named after a 17th century British diplomat.

An interesting case is Fleet Street — a thoroughfare in central London along which many British newspaper offices are located, hence Fleet Street means British journalism. The name of the street is also metonymical but the process here is reversed — a proper toponymical noun is formed from a common noun: fleet is an obsolete term for ‘a creek or an inlet in the shore’. Originally the street extended along a creek.

Examples of geographical names, turning into common nouns to name the goods exported or originating there, are exceedingly numerous. Such transfer by contiguity is combined with ellipsis in the nomination of various stuffs and materials: astrakhan (fur), china (ware), damask (steel), holland (linen), morocco (leather).

The similarly formed names for wines or kinds of cheese are international as, for instance: champagne, burgundy, madeira; brie cheese, cheddar, roquefort, etc.

Sometimes the semantic connection with place names is concealed by phonetic changes and is revealed by etymological study. The word jeans can be traced to the name of the Italian town Genoa, where the fabric of which they are made was first manufactured. Jeans is a case of metonymy, in which the name of the material jean is used to denote an object made of it. This type of multiple transfer of names is quite common (cf. china, iron, etc.). The cotton fabric of which jeans are made was formerly used for manufacturing uniforms and work clothes and was known for several centuries as jean (from Med Lat Genes, Genoa).

The process can consist of several stages, as in the word cardigan — a knitted jacket opening down the front. Garments are often known


by the names of those who brought them into fashion. This particular jacket is named after the seventh earl of Cardigan whose name is from Cardigan or Cardiganshire, a county in Wales.

Other examples of denominations after famous persons are raglan and Wellingtons. Raglan — a loose coat with sleeves extending in one piece to the neckline — is named after field-marshal lord Raglan; Wellingtons or Wellington boots — boots extending to the top of the knee in front but cut low in back — were popularised by the first Duke of Wellington.

Following the lead of literary criticism linguists have often adopted terms of rhetoric for other types of semantic change, besides metaphor and metonymy. These are: hyperbole, litotes, irony, euphemism. In all these cases the same warning that was given in connection with metaphors and metonymy must be kept in mind: namely, there is a difference between these terms as understood in literary criticism and in lexicology. Hyperbole (from Gr hyperbolē ‘exceed’) is an exaggerated statement not meant to be understood literally but expressing an intensely emotional attitude of the speaker to what he is speaking about. E. g.: A fresh egg has a world of power (Bellow). The emotional tone is due to the illogical character in which the direct denotative and the contextual emotional meanings are combined.

A very good example is chosen by I. R. Galperin from Byron, and one cannot help borrowing it:

When people say “I’ve told you fifty times, ”
They mean to scold and very often do.

The reader will note that Byron’s intonation is distinctly colloquial, the poet is giving us his observations concerning colloquial expressions. So the hyperbole here, though used in verse, is not poetic but linguistic.

The same may be said about expressions like: It’s absolutely maddening, You’ll be the death of me, I hate troubling you, It’s monstrous, It’s a nightmare, A thousand pardons, A thousand thanks, Haven’t seen you for ages, I'd give the world to, I shall be eternally grateful, I'd love to do it, etc.

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. Some of the most frequent emphatic words are: absolutely! lovely! magnificent! splendid! marvellous! wonderful! amazing! incredible! and so on.1

The reverse figure is called litotes (from Gr litos ‘plain’, ‘meagre’) or understatement. It might be defined as expressing the affirmative by the negative of its contrary, e. g. not bad or not half bad for ‘good’, not small for ‘great’, no coward for ‘brave’. Some




1 See awfully and terribly on p. 63.

understatements do not contain negations, e. g. rather decent; I could do with a cup of tea. It is, however, doubtful whether litotes should be considered under the heading of semantic change at all, because as a rule it creates no permanent change in the sense of the word used and concerns mostly usage and contextual meaning of words. Understatement expresses a desire to conceal or suppress one’s feelings, according to the code of reserve, and to seem indifferent and calm. E. g.:

“But this is frightful, Jeeves!

“Certainly somewhat disturbing, sir.”(Wodehouse)

“Long time since we met.

“It is a bit, isn’t it? ” (Wodehouse)

The indifference may be superficial and suggest that the speaker’s emotions are too strong to be explicitly stated.



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