The Processes of Semantic Changes in Language

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Language is a tool we use on a daily basis to communicate with each other. But as significant as language is to us, it hasn’t always been this way. Language has been evolving over the years, and with it, the meanings of words that come so naturally to us today.

Stylized depiction of the dictionary meaning of the word 'semantic'.
Language has been evolving ever since it began to be used. An integral part of language evolution is semantic changes, or changes in the meanings of words.
(Image: aga7ta/Shutterstock)

Semantics, or the meaning of words, have been changing ever since the first language began to be spoken, and have evolved into what they mean now, when there are more than 6,000 existing languages on record. Not surprisingly, there have been a number of processes that have contributed to these changes, although admittedly, some have had much more profound impacts than others. 

Semantic Drift

Semantic drift is the simple phenomenon by which the correspondence between a word and the real-world entity or process that it is connected to, tends to undergo a shift over time. This drift can take place in a number of directions, often seeming completely random, although there is almost always a logical connection from point to point. 

For instance, the word silly very plainly means foolish to us today. What is surprising is the fact that in Old English, it meant that one was blessed. In fact, the word derives its roots from the same place as the German word, selig, which means blessed. So, selig and silly were cognates, both meaning blessed. 

Mementos of English in which silly meant blessed can be found dating as late as 1400. From here, the words started to drift in meaning. One who was blessed was likely to be innocent, which is why by the Middle Ages, silly began to mean innocent

Here, one starts to see the drift taking place in different directions. One who was innocent tended to elicit compassion, which slowly began to blur the fine line between eliciting compassion and seeming weak. With time, the fine line between being weak and being foolish further began to get blurred. As a result, step by step, a word that used to mean blessed came by to mean foolish, and at no point did anyone notice a major shift in language, which actually happened over generations.

Similarly, the word nice went through a semantic drift. In older sources, nice used to mean fine. Then, as time passed by, nice, which should have meant subdivided finely, began to get perceived differently, which made the word mean what it does today. 

When we hear nicety, our mind immediately moves to think of the object of description as nice. What that really meant was something fine. Nicety meant a finer distinction, something more specific. As the meaning of the words have evolved, the usage of some words has changed, which is why nicety is used the way it is today. 

This is how languages evolve: when these phenomena occur to all or most  of the words in a language, the language itself goes through a shift. One can notice a lot of differences in the first language that was used and the 6,000 or so new languages that exist now. The differences have appeared in the new languages as well.

Learn More about how language changes.

Semantic Narrowing

Another phenomenon that can be commonly seen in languages and the changing meaning of words is semantic narrowing. This happens when words begin to develop more specific, more particular meanings than the ones that they started out with. 

An evident example of a word that went through such a process is meat. In Old English, meat referred to any and all items of food. It could also mean something sweet, any sweet that existed at the time. As time passed, meat gradually began to refer only to animal flesh. 

Some old form of language generally tends to linger on the fringes of usage, which can be seen in this example, the word sweetmeat is now used to refer to fruits and candies. Although one may wonder about the usage of meat in the context if the etymology is not known, we do not spend too long thinking about it, as this is how the language has evolved to be used. 

Colorful candies, including those in the shapes of fruits, on a wooden table.
The fact that the word sweetmeat now refers to fruits and candies is an example of how the remnants of semantic narrowing linger on in a language.
(Image: Vorobyeva/Shutterstock)

Semantic Broadening

On the other hand, as a sort of converse process to semantic narrowing, is the process of semantic broadening, which is the process through which the usage of words begins to become more general than it used to be. A commonly cited example of this phenomenon is the Old English word bird, which was earlier and originally brid, which actually only referred to young birds, similar in usage to the way birdie is today. The word which was used to refer to birds in general, on the other hand, was fugol. German speakers will identify this word and its resemblance to the German Vogel. Again, this example stands as testimony to the fact that German and English were much more closely related in the past than they are now.
Gradually, brid, the Old English word for bird semantically broadened in meaning to refer to all birds, as it is today,  and fugol transformed over time to fowl, which today, is used in reference to game birds, or is at times a lesser used, stylistic usage in reference to birds. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Tracing Back to the Roots

When we look at the vocabulary that is used today, it is easy to see how a lot of it is the result of evolution over a number of years, a result of words passing over millions of mouths over many, many years. 

Proto-Indo-European language, and the fact that it is the biggest language family to exist, is perhaps the reason why linguists are able to see so many different processes in language and find connections between languages. 

Learn More about the Indo-European language family.

Commonly Asked Questions about Semantic Changes:

Q: Why do semantic changes occur?

Although there is no set reason for which the meanings of words change, semantic changes occur when the usage of words gradually changes as a language gets spoken generation after generation.

Q: What are the various kinds of semantic changes?

Any process by which the meanings of words undergo a shift over time is a semantic change, such as semantic drift, semantic broadening, or semantic narrowing.

Q: What is semantic broadening?

Semantic broadening is the process in which the meaning of a word evolves over time to represent a more general concept or thing than it did originally.

Keep Reading
Wily Words: How Languages Mix on the Level of Words
The Social Context that Shapes our Talk
Language Evolution: How One Language Became Five Languages