Quick Summary:

Words and morphemes may seem to any individual speaker of a language to be timeless and unchanging in their meanings. And while this may be true for most of the words any given language user knows, changes in meaning over time are actually quite common. Many of our words are no longer what they once were. This process is generally known as semantic shift, or semantic change.

The changes that words and morphemes go through can be classified into a number of different kinds of processes. A word can gain a more extensive meaning over time (broadening), or come to apply to a smaller set of circumstances (narrowing). Or how good or bad a word is taken to be can drift, too: a morpheme can generally improve in meaning (amelioration), or become more negative instead (pejoration). Sometimes, the meaning of a word can become weaker over time, so that a word with an extreme meaning becomes softer (weakening). Finally, if the evolution of the word's meaning doesn't really seem to fit a given category, but it's clearly changed, we just can refer to this as shift.

We can find these kinds of changes in pretty much every language in the world we've documented, and there's no limit on the number of time a given word can have its meaning change. Every generation of language learners can decide anew what they want a word to mean, and shift the word's use over time. And when they make their adjustments, they do it along the same lines people have made changes before.


Extra Materials:

We focused in the episode about ways in which words change within languages over time. But this isn't the only way that words go through meaning changes. A lot of changes are made by borrowing various morphemes or meanings in from other languages. We don't want to focus on just straight-up loans here, though; those words may have switched languages, but they didn't necessarily change meanings when they did.

One example of how words change meaning between their source language and the language they end up are words that are pseudo-loans. Sometimes, you see a word in a foreign language, and it looks kind of like a word or two from your own language, but the meaning just isn't the same. But when you ask speakers of that foreign language, they'll tell you - it came from your language. This could be like the German word Handy, which means mobile phone... except in English, the word handy has never come anywhere near that. There are multiple hypotheses about where this usage came from, but it may date back to walkie-talkies, known as Handie Talkies, from around World War II.

Japanese has many of these pseudo-loans, too, from a variety of languages. The Japanese word アルバイト [aɾɯbaito] originally comes from the German word arbeit, or work. But in Japanese, it means a part-time job, rather than just full-on work. Or there is a whole category of words in Japanese known as 和製英語,  wasei-eigo, or Japanese-created English, which takes English words and assigns them a different meaning. Not all examples of wasei-eigo are pseudo-loands, but if you check out the above link, you'll find a bunch of them are. A favorite of ours is ラストヘビー "last heavy," or the big push you need to make at the end of a project to finish things off.

Of course, English is not immune to such pseudo-loans. Just look at our entrée, which in North American English usually means main course. But in French, where the word came from, an entrée is the entry point to a meal, and so an appetizer. Or maybe you like playing shooting games, and you've gotten used to strafe meaning spraying fire from side to side. That's a pseudo-loan from the German strafen, which means to punish.

When we borrow things to change meanings from language to language, though, it's not just words that cross over. Sometimes, a language will just borrow a meaning from the same word in another language. Let's take a look at Lakota, a Native American language spoken around North and South Dakota. In Lakota, the verb iŋyaŋk meant originally "to run," as in using one's legs to get out there and move quickly. But through contact with English, and different senses of the word run English has to offer, Lakota picked some of them up. And so now, iŋyaŋk can mean to operate a machine, or to campaign for elected office. It just borrowed in the English meaning, without taking the English word.

Or we can see this with English and German again. If we think about the verb "to realize" in English, it has two different meanings: to make something come true (e.g. he realized his dreams of starting his own company), or to become aware of something (e.g. He realized that starting a company would be harder than he thought). In German, however, the same verb, realisieren, originally only had the former meaning. Over time, though, German has borrowed the other meaning from English, and now, the latter meaning has made it into German dictionaries, as well.

One interesting thing is that just as words can undergo semantic shift multiple times, they can also be borrowed from one language into another multiple times, as well. Consider the terms in English chief and chef. Those both derive from the same French word, chef. But as chief, the word got across the English Channel during Middle English times, and since then, it's undergone semantic shift away from its original meaning of "boss". For example, chief has undergone broadening to mean the most important part of a larger whole, as in the chief goal of the project. When we borrowed chef for the second time, with its current culinary bent, that was during the Modern English period, in the 1800s.

So beyond just borrowing words and morphemes outright with the same meanings they had where they came from, languages can play different kinds of tricks, just taking meanings from another language, or creating new nuances or senses that didn't exist in the old language. It's a free-for-all out there with language, but the play can be very meaningful!



So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about how words change over time, both within their own languages, and the influences different languages have on each other. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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