Lecture 12. Evolution of the ME Lexical System.


1. Evolution of the ME semantics.

2. Semantic changes in ME.


Evolution of the ME semantics


Semantics is the study of meaning: namely, the historical and psychological study of meaning, the study of the classification of changes in the signification of words.

These changes can be viewed as important factors in linguistic development and include such phenomena as:

specialization and expansion of meaning

meliorative and pejorative tendencies.

OE semantics underwent deep and profound changes as the history of semantics is connected with the history of the words.


Semantic changes in ME


There are various theories concerning the semantic changes and their nomenclature. E.g. B.Warren proposed a classification of semantic changes into:

- particularization ()

- implication ()

- metaphor

- metonymy

According to traditional classification the semantic changes in OE and ME are usually divided into shifts: expansion (widening , ), specialization (narrowing , ) of meaning, pejoration ( - ), mejoration ( - ), methaphoric and metonymic shifts. Lapshina adds (shift).



1. The examples of narrowing are found in the history of


OE dēor animal which changed into deer,

OE mete food > NE meat,

OE sellan give, sell > NE sell,

OE mōtan may, must > NE must,

OE talu number, story > NE tale,

OE loc fastening, prison > NE lock,

ME accident event > NE accident

ME client one who is under the protection of another, a dependant > NE a customer

ME engineer one who designs or invests > NE one who designs and constructs military engines or works of public utility


Narrowing of meaning can often be observed in groups of synonyms: in the course of time each synonym acquires its own, more specialised, narrow sphere of application: e.g.


deer was a synonym of animal and beest in ME, must may, lock prison

14th c. nature: inherent force directing the world, or the human race > the physical world


2. Widening of meaning can be illustrated by


journey which meant a day work or a days journey,

holiday was formerly a religious festival (the first component comes from OE hālig holy)

dog ME dog of a particular breed > NE any dog

rubbish ME broken stones and building material, fragments of plaster > NE anything useless or worthless


3. Many words of concrete meaning came to be used figuratively, which is the example of widening of meaning and of metaphoric change. Thus the verbs


grasp, drive, go, start, handle, stop etc. formerly denoted physical actions but then have acquired a more general, non-concrete meaning through metaphoric use. The change of


ME vixen she-fox to bad-tempered, quarrelsome woman can be interpreted as metaphor or metonymy.


4. A well-known example of metonymic change is


pen which meant a goose quill (feather) used in writing

MnE: any of various instruments used for writing or drawing with ink


Gang meant a set of tools > a group of workmen, people; the meaning of caravan was transferred from a company of travellers into wagon.


5. Shift (). Meliorative and pejorative tendencies. The meaning of the word can be shifted and evaluated, thus - meliorated or pejorated: e.g.


professor any person wearing glasses

blackguard a servant > one of the criminal class

boss employer, master > anyone thought to be the most wonderful, exciting

cobbler one who mends shoes > a clumsy workman

daddy father > the most respected performer in a field

Greek a native of Greece > a swindler, rogue

butcher one whose trade is to slaughter large tame animals for food > a man of blood, a brutal murderer

dog, lion, wolf, ape, swine


6. Some semantic changes are miscellaneous because they involve different kinds of semantic changes and sometimes structural changes too (e.g. the simplification or contraction of compounds and word phrases).

lord: OE hlāford = hlāf loaf + weard keeper. This compound word was simplified and shortened to NE lord.

lady: OE hlæfdige = hlāf + dige knead (bread-kneading), later simplified to NE lady.

daisy: OE dæges-ēage (eye of the day)

window: OE windoge < OIcel wind-auga (eye for the wind)

alone: OE all one

always: OE ealne weg (all the way)

good-bye: OE God be with you, an old form of farewell



  1. Analyze the meanings of the italicized words. Identify the result of the changes of the connotational aspect of lexical meaning in the given words.
  2. Arrange the following units into two lexical and two terminological sets. I Give them corresponding names.
  5. Derivational analysis and basic units of derivational system.
  6. LECTURE 1. Contrastive Stylistic as a Linguistic Discipline
  7. LECTURE 13
  8. Lecture 14. Evolution of the ME Nominal Morphology.
  9. Lecture 16
  10. Lecture 16
  11. Lecture 4

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