Thursday, November 13, 2008

Deer Meat & Semantic Narrowing

Andrew Sullivan! PLEASE! PLEASE! PLEASE! Take a frikkin linguistics course! Ugh! Sullivan (and I love the little blogging devil, really) but damn! He promotes some of the most ass-backwards, wrong-headed linguists outside of that dried up old fogy Willy-boy Safire. Today, Sullivan posted a passage from another blogger decrying the degradation of language (yawn) which made a plainly wrong and easily falsifiable claim:

"Words have value in their ability to distinguish and to discriminate. And they are only ever damaged in one direction: they become more abstracted, more broad, less specific, less forceful, less memorable, less powerful, more middling, less individual. " [my emphasis]

... after years of teaching Linguistics 101 courses, this is just tiresome. And yet, here I shall plunge into the conventional examples (with 21st century hyperlinks, oooh, ahhhh).

There are many kinds of semantic change. Sullivan's reference focuses on one, widening, where a word's meaning changes from subordinate level to superordinate level (i.e., from specific to general). But there are many examples of the opposite, or narrowing (or some would use the term sepcialization) involving a change from superordinate level to subordinate level (i.e., from general to specific).

You don't belive me? You want examples? Okay.

Example 1: meat (pdf here)
Narrowing: the meaning of the word narrows to have a more specific meaning. The word mete (“meat”) in Old English used to mean “food.” Its meaning has narrowed to mean “food in the form of animal flesh.”

Example 2: skyline (original here)
Narrowing: Change from superordinate level to subordinate level. For example, skyline used to refer to any horizon, but now it has narrowed to a horizon decorated by skyscrapers.

Example 3: hound (original from Google books here)
Old English hund 'dog' narrowed to Modern English hound to refer to 'a particular breed of dog'.

Example 4: deer (original here)
SPECIALIZATION, in which the meaning of a word narrows over the years (deer once meant any four-legged beast and now means only members of the family Cervidae).

Some fine day, these examples will be general knowledge ... someday ... (sigh) .. someday ...


Jason M. Adams said...

I always use starve as an example of narrowing, probably because I "independently" discovered it while trying to come up with the way to say something in German. To die in German is sterben and it occurred to me that starve probably came from it, and sure enough, starve and sterben were once Proto-Germanic sterban.

Chris said...

Yeah, that's a great example. Nice linguistic detective work, Jason!

tlsf said...

I think an example of a word that may be undergoing the process of semantic narrowing is "chagrin". A current popular author is being berated by many readers for using this word incorrectly, as some people believe that it requires a sense of embarrassment. However, when dictionary definitions are used or indeed, other writers use it in newspapers and the like, it is often used to mean simply "vexed" or "irritated". Some web dictionaries have only the definition implying embarrassment or mortification.

NLPers: How would you characterize your linguistics background?

That was the poll question my hero Professor Emily Bender posed on Twitter March 30th. 573 tweets later, a truly epic thread had been cre...