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Narrowing (or Specialization) of Meaning



 

Sometimes, the process of transference may result in a considerable change in range of meaning. For instance, the verb to arrive (French borrowing) began its life in English in the narrow meaning "to come to shore, to land". In Modern English it has greatly widened its combinability and developed the general meaning "to come" (e. g. to arrive in a village, town, city, country, at a hotel, hostel, college, theatre, place, etc.). The meaning developed through transference based on contiguity (the concept of coming somewhere is the same for both meanings), but the range of the second meaning is much broader.

Another example of the broadening of meaning is pipe. Its earliest recorded meaning was "a musical wind instrument". Nowadays it can denote any hollow oblong cylindrical body (e. g. water pipes). This meaning developed through transference based on the similarity of shape (pipe as a musical instrument is also a hollow oblong cylindrical object) which finally led to a considerable broadening of the range of meaning.

The word bird changed its meaning from "the young of a bird" to its modern meaning through transference based on contiguity (the association is obvious). The second meaning is broader and more general.

It is interesting to trace the history of the word girl as an example of the changes in the range of meaning in the course of the semantic development of a word.

In Middle English it had the meaning of "a small child of either sex". Then the word underwent the process of transference based on contiguity and developed the meaning of "a small child of the female sex", so that the range of meaning was somewhat narrowed. In its further semantic development the word gradually broadened its range of meaning. At first it came to denote not only a female child but, also, a young unmarried woman, later, any young woman, and in modern colloquial English it is practically synonymous to the noun woman (e. g. The old girl must be at least seventy), so that its range of meaning is quite broad.



The history of the noun lady somewhat resembles that of girl. In Old English the word (hlxfdiZq)denoted the mistress of the house, i. e. any married woman. Later, a new meaning developed which was much narrower in range: "the wife or daughter of a baronet" (aristocratic title). In Modern English the word lady can be applied to any woman, so that its range of meaning is even broader than that of the O. E. hlxfdiZq. In Modern English the difference between girl and lady in the meaning of woman is that the first is used in colloquial style and sounds familiar whereas the second is more formal and polite. Here are some more examples of narrowing of meaning:

Deer: | any beast | > | a certain kind of beast |

Meat: | any food | > | a certain food product) |

Boy: | any young person of the male sex | > | servant of the male sex |

 

It should be pointed out once more that in all these words the second meaning developed through transference based on contiguity, and that when we speak of them as examples of narrowing of meaning we simply imply that the range of the second meaning is more narrow than that of the original meaning.

 

The So-called "Degeneration" ("Degradation") and "Elevation" of Meaning

 

These terms are open to question because they seem to imply that meanings can become "better" or "worse" which is neither logical nor plausible. But, as a matter-of-fact, scholars using these terms do not actually mean the degeneration or elevation of meaning itself, but of the referent onto which a word is transferred, so that the term is inaccurate.



But let us try and see what really stands behind the examples of change of meaning which are traditionally given to illustrate degeneration and elevation of meaning.

 

I. "Degeneration" of meaning.

 

 

These examples show that the second meaning, in contrast with the one from which it developed, denotes a person of bad repute or character. Semantically speaking, the second meaning developed a negative evaluative connotation which was absent in the first meaning.

Such a readjustment in the connotative structure accompanying the process of transference can be sometimes observed in other parts of speech, and not only in nouns.

 

E. g. Silly: | happy | > | foolish |

 

II. "Elevation" of meaning.

Fond: | foolish] > | loving, affectionate |

Nice: | foolish] > | fine, good |

 

In these two cases the situation is reversed: the first meaning has a negative evaluative connotation, and the second meaning has not. It is difficult to see what is actually "elevated" here. Certainly, not the meaning of the word. Here are two more examples.

Tory: | brigand, highwayman | > | member of the Tories |

Knight: | manservant | > |"noble, courageous man]

 

In the case of Tory, the first meaning has a pronounced negative connotation which is absent in the second meaning. But why call it "elevation"? Semantically speaking, the first meaning is just as good as the second, and the difference lies only in the connotative structure.

The case of knight, if treated linguistically, is quite opposite to that of Tory: the second meaning acquired a positive evaluative connotation that was absent in the first meaning. So, here, once more, we are faced with a mere readjustment of the connotative components of the word.

There are also some traditional examples of "elevation" in which even this readjustment cannot be traced.

 

 

In these three words the second meaning developed due to the process of transference based on contiguity. Lord and lady are also examples of narrowing of meaning if we compare the range of the original and of the resultant meanings. No connotations of evaluation can be observed in either of the meanings. The fact that in all these three cases the original meaning denoted a humble ordinary person and the second denotes a person of high rank is absolutely extralinguistic.

All that has been said and the examples that have been given show that the terms "degradation" and "elevation" of meaning are imprecise and do not seem to be an objective reflection of the semantic phenomena they describe.

It would be more credible to state that some cases of transference based on contiguity may result in development or loss of evaluative connotations.

 

Exercises


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