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date: 24 March 2017

Semantic Change

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

Traditional approaches to semantic change typically focus on outcomes of change and list types of change such as metaphoric and metonymic extension, and contradictory processes such as broadening and narrowing, melioration, and pejoration. Examples are usually considered out of context, and are lexical members of nominal and adjectival word classes. These in large part refer to objects in the world and their descriptors.

However, language is a communicative activity that is highly dependent on context, whether that of the ongoing discourse or of social and ideological changes. At the same time, language may contribute to linguistic and sociocultural change. Speakers’ knowledge of language is knowledge, sometimes totally unconscious, of how meaning is related to form. Much recent work on semantic change has focused, not on results of change, but on enabling factors for change in the flow of speech, including spoken interaction. Attention has been paid to the contributions of cognitive processes such as analogical thinking, production of cues to how a message is to be interpreted, and perception and interpretation of pragmatic meanings. Interest has shifted to pragmatic and semantic changes that accompany morphosyntactic changes such as grammaticalization, and the development of non-lexical meanings such as tense and modality. Research is emerging on how expressions come to be used to signal information packaging. Particularly relevant here are markers of topic maintenance and shift, of focus, and of connectivity.

Semantic change is normally gradual and incremental. It is gradual because it occurs in tiny, often hardly perceptible, steps. It is incremental because, when new meanings are assigned to extant expressions, the older meanings typically survive, either “in competition” with the newer meaning, or in a particular niche. Such niches may be morphosyntactic or genre-related. This accounts for the coexistence of older and newer meanings, and shifts in speakers’ assessment of what is a prototypical rather than a more marginal meaning of an expression.

Current methodologies usually draw on corpus data, and may be qualitative, quantitative, or both. The growing set of electronically searchable historical corpora of languages across the world includes trials and dialogues represented in plays, giving the researcher indirect insight into interactional practices in earlier times, despite the written mode.