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EXTRALINGUISTIC CAUSES OF SEMANTIC CHANGE

The extralinguistic causes are determined by the social nature of the language: they are observed in changes of meaning resulting from the development of the notion expressed and the thing named and by the appearance of new notions and things. In other words, extralinguistic causes of semantic change are connected with the development of the human mind as it moulds reality to conform with its needs.

Languages are powerfully affected by social, political, economic, cultural and technical change. The influence of those factors upon linguistic phenomena is studied by sociolinguistics. It shows that social factors can influence even structural features of linguistic units: terms of science, for instance, have a number of specific features as compared to words used in other spheres of human activity.

The word being a linguistic realisation of notion, it changes with the progress of human consciousness. This process is reflected in the development of lexical meaning. As the human mind achieves an ever more exact understanding of the world of reality and the objective relationships that characterise it, the notions become more and more exact reflections of real things. The history of the social, economic and political life of the people, the progress of culture and science bring about changes in notions and things influencing the semantic aspect of language. For instance, OE eorde meant the ground under peoples feet, the soil and the world of man as opposed to heaven that was supposed to be inhabited first by Gods and later on, with the spread of Christianity, by God, his angels, saints and the souls of the dead. With the progress of science earth came to mean the third planet fromthe sun and the knowledge is constantly enriched. With the development of electrical engineering earth n means a connection of a wire

1 For ellipsis combined with metonymy see p. 68.


conductor with the earth, either accidental (with the result of leakage of current) or intentional (as for the purpose of providing a return path). There is also a correspond ing verb earth. E. g.: With earthed appliances the continuity of the earth wire ought to be checked.

The word space meant extent of time or distance or intervening distance. Alongside this meaning a new meaning developed the limitless and indefinitely great expanse in which all material objects are located. The phrase outer space was quickly ellipted into space. Cf. spacecraft, space-suit, space travel, etc.

It is interesting to note that the English word cosmos was not exactly a synonym of outer space but meant the universe as an ordered system, being an antonym to chaos. The modern usage is changing under the influence of the Russian language as a result of Soviet achievements in outer space. The OED Supplement points out that the adjective cosmic (in addition to the former meanings universal, immense) in modern usage under the influence of Russian means pertaining to space travel, e. g. cosmic rocket space rocket.

The extra-linguistic motivation is sometimes obvious, but some cases are not as straightforward as they may look. The word bikini may be taken as an example. Bikini, a very scanty two-piece bathing suit worn by women, is named after Bikini atoll in the Western Pacific but not because it was first introduced on some fashionable beach there. Bikini appeared at the time when the atomic bomb tests by the US in the Bikini atoll were fresh in everybodys memory. The associative field is emotional referring to the atomic shock the first bikinis produced.

The tendency to use technical imagery is increasing in every language, thus the expression to spark off in chain reaction is almost international. Live wire one carrying electric current used figuratively about a person of intense energy seems purely English, though.

Other international expressions are black box and feed-back. Black box formerly a term of aviation and electrical engineering is now used figuratively to denote any mechanism performing intricate functions or any unit of which we know the effect but not the components or principles of action.

Feed-back a cybernetic term meaning the return of a sample of the output of a system or process to the input, especially with the purpose of automatic adjustment and control is now widely used figuratively meaning response.

Some technical expressions that were used in the first half of the 19th century tend to become obsolete: the English used to talk of people being galvanised into activity, or going full steam ahead but the phrases sound dated now.

The changes of notions and things named go hand in hand. They are conditioned by changes in the economic, social, political and cultural history of the people, so that the extralinguistic causes of semantic change might be conveniently subdivided in accordance with these. Social relationships are at work in the cases of elevation and pejoration of meaning discussed in the previous section where the attitude of the upper classes to their social inferiors determined the strengthening of emotional tone among the semantic components of the word.


Sociolinguistics also teaches that power relationships are reflected in vocabulary changes. In all the cases of pejoration that were mentioned above, such as boor, churl, villain, etc., it was the ruling class that imposed evaluation. The opposite is rarely the case. One example deserves attention though: sir + -ly used to mean masterful1 and now surly means rude in a bad-tempered way.

D. Leith devotes a special paragraph in his Social History of English to the semantic disparagement of women. He thinks that power relationships in English are not confined to class stratification, that male domination is reflected in the history of English vocabulary, in the ways in which women are talked about. There is a rich vocabulary of affective words denigrating women, who do not conform to the male ideal. A few examples may be mentioned. Hussy is a reduction of ME huswif (housewife), it means now a woman of low morals or a bold saucy girl; doll is not only a toy but is also used about a kept mistress or about a pretty and silly woman; wench formerly referred to a female child, later a girl of the rustic or working class and then acquired derogatory connotations.

Within the diachronic approach the phenomenon of euphemism (Gr euphemismos < eu good and pheme voice) has been repeatedly classed by many linguists as tab, i.e. a prohibition meant as a safeguard against supernatural forces. This standpoint is hardly acceptable for modern European languages. St. Ullmann returns to the conception of taboo several times illustrating it with propitiatory names given in the early periods of language development to such objects of superstitious fear as the bear and the weasel. He proves his point by observing the same phenomenon, i.e. the circumlocution used to name these animals, in other languages. This is of historical interest, but no similar opposition between a direct and a propitiatory name for an animal, no matter how dangerous, can be found in present-day English.

With peoples of developed culture and civilisation euphemism is intrinsically different, it is dictated by social usage, etiquette, advertising, tact, diplomatic considerations and political propaganda.

From the semasiological point of view euphemism is important, because meanings with unpleasant connotations appear in words formerly neutral as a result of their repeated use instead of words that are for some reason unmentionable, cf. deceased dead, deranged mad.

Much useful material on the political and cultural causes of coining euphemisms is given in The Second Barnhart Dictionary of New English. We read there that in modern times euphemisms became important devices in political and military propaganda. Aggressive attacks by armadas of bombers which most speakers of English would call air raids are officially called protective reaction, although there is nothing protective or defensive about it. The CIA agents in the United States often use the word destabilise for all sorts of despicable or malicious acts and subversions designed to cause to topple an established foreign government or to falsify an electoral campaign. Shameful secrets of various underhand CIA operations, assassinations, interception of mail, that might, if revealed, embarrass the government, are called family jewels.


It is decidedly less emotional to call countries with a low standard of living underdeveloped, but it seemed more tactful to call them developing. The latest terms (in the 70s) are L.D.C. less developed countries and M.D.C. more developed countries, or Third World countries or emerging countries if they are newly independent.

Other euphemisms are dictated by a wish to give more dignity to a profession. Some barbers called themselves hair stylists and even hairologists, airline stewards and stewardesses become flight attendants, maids become house workers, foremen become supervisors, etc.

Euphemisms may be dictated by publicity needs, hence ready-tailored and ready-to-wear clothes instead of ready-made. The influence of mass-advertising on language is growing, it is felt in every level of the language.

Innovations possible in advertising are of many different types as G.N. Leech has shown, from whose book on advertising English the following example is taken. A kind of orange juice, for instance, is called Tango. The justification of the name is given in the advertising text as follows: Get this different tasting Sparkling Tango. Tell you why: made from whole oranges. Taste those oranges. Taste the tang in Tango. Tingling tang, bubbles sparks. You drink it straight. Goes down great. Taste the tang in Tango. New Sparkling Tango. The reader will see for himself how many expressive connotations and rhythmic associations are introduced by the salesman in this commercial name in an effort to attract the buyers attention. If we now turn to the history of the language, we see economic causes are obviously at work in the semantic development of the word wealth. It first meant well-being, happiness from weal from OE wela whence well. This original meaning is preserved in the compounds commonwealth and commonweal. The present meaning became possible due to the role played by money both in feudal and bourgeois society. The chief wealth of the early inhabitants of Europe being the cattle, OE feoh means both cattle and money, likewise Goth faihu; Lat pecus meant cattle and pecunia meant money. ME fee-house is both a cattle-shed and a treasury. The present-day English fee most frequently means the price paid for services to a lawyer or a physician. It appears to develop jointly from the above mentioned OE feoh and the Anglo-French fee, fie, probably of the same origin, meaning a recompense and a feudal tenure. This modern meaning is obvious in the following example: Physicians of the utmost fame were called at once, but when they came they answered as they took their fees, There is no cure for this disease. (Belloc)

The constant development of industry, agriculture, trade and transport bring into being new objects and new notions. Words to name them are either borrowed or created from material already existing in the language and it often happens that new meanings are thus acquired by old words.


Chapter 5

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