Last Updated 12 Feb 2021

The Natural of Semantic Change

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70 years ago, Edward Sapir introduced a new concept of linguistics. He said that language moved on every time and then created their own forms and never static. Every word, every grammatical element, proverbs, sounds and accents configured which was changed slowly and this was the ways how a language could long lasting.

This concept of language made the other linguists interested. The change of meaning could happen because of some reasons, according to Millet a meaning could change easily because of the discontinuous from one generation to the other generations, the blur of meaning, the lost of motivation, the appearance of polysemy, there are some ambiguous contexts, vocabulary structures, and so on. The nature of semantic change can be divided into some categories, metaphor, metonymy, popular etymology, ellipsis, and also some consequences change of meaning.

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Semantic Change

The nature of semantic change Aksioma Leibniz said “natura non facit saltus” that means the nature changed indirectly and slowly, this sentence also can we applied in change of meaning. Every changing had their each reason and always related and associated from the old meaning into the new meaning. One of semantics tradition looks up meaning as “the interrelationship between name and meaning”. So, we can conclude that change of meaning divide into two types: change of meaning based on association of meaning-meaning, and also name-name. Every type can be differs into similarity ad contiguity.


Metaphor is important in language because it can make them more creative and aesthetics, it is common in literary field such as poem. Metaphor has some functions in everyday life, there are as the motivation, expression ways, as the source of synonym and polysemy, to fill the blank in vocabulary, and the way to express the emotion, etc. The structure of metaphor is simple, it always said one thing is another thing. It does not use the word as, like, and comparative words and other, this case make the reader try to find the similarities.

For example: a) Her home is a prison, in this case her home have same characteristic of prison, we can imagine that she can’t leave her home, she tapped inside, and maybe afraid of the outside. b) The police man let him off by a yellow card, in this sentence ‘yellow card’ refers to warning, the original sense is in soccer player a yellow card that the referee shows to the player when cautioning them and give the second chance to introspect themselves. c) in Indonesian language we can take the example Gonzales menanduk bola, we know that Gonzales is a human and he did the work which is did by an animal buffalo.

In this case, menanduk have same meaning with the other, because it refers to an action using a head, in human we call menyundul and in buffalo we cal menanduk.

Anthropomorphic metaphor

The person who is interested toward this kind of metaphor is Giambattista Vico, he said that in every language the most part of expression refer to inanimate, compared by transferring from any part of body, sense, and also the emotion of human being. For example: a) in Indonesian language: jantung kota, bahu jalan, mulut sungai, etc. b) in English language muscle comes from Latin language musculus that means ‘little mouse’.

Animal metaphor

This category applied for animal or inanimate types, many plants using animal’s name to call them. For example: a) lidah buaya, kumis kucing, jambu monyet, etc. b) in English there are some plants with animal’s name goat’s-beard and dog’s tail. Beside that, there are animal’s name transferred into human being for describe humor, irony, and other. For example: si beo, the speaker use this word toward the other because they have same characteristic or their action refer to the animal itself.

From concrete to abstract

One of the tendency in metaphor is explaining the abstract into the concrete, when we try to find the abstract word at first we must know the concrete one. For example in English light ‘sinar, cahaya, lampu’ which is concrete, when this word close to the other morpheme they sometimes become abstract like highlights ‘menyoroti’. If it compares to Indonesian language the condition is same, for example the concrete one is ‘sinar, cahaya’, it become abstract metaphor in sorot mata, hidupnya sedang bersinar, ajarannya menyinari dunia, harta yang menyilaukan, and so on. Synaesthetic metaphor This metaphor based on the transferred of one sense to the other sense, for example from sense of hearing to sight, from touch to sound, etc. If we talk about the sound which is warm and cool, we can see that there are the similarities between temperatures with the kind of sounds. The structure of metaphor begin in literary works when the raising of symbolism era. We can see from one of Shakespeare’s work: I see a voice; now will I to the chink To spy an I can hear my Thisby’s face.


Metonymy involves some sort of connection between concepts, but in this case there is no similarity between them, but they are closely linked in some other way. Metonymy can divide into the association they based on. First, metonymy transfer based on spaces and places. The change of meaning the Latin word coxa ‘pinggul’ into France language cuisse ‘pupu;paha’ it explained that pinggul and paha is our part of body which is close and do not have correct constraint. Second, metonymy transfer based on time or temporal.

The name of action or event can be transferred into something that predate and follow the change. For example, in English, ‘collation’ now defined into different meaning ‘perbandingan’ and ‘makanan ringan’ where as both of them are relates. Previously, in Catholic ceremony the reading from Collationes Patrum by Cassian usually read before the end of mass, it followed by snack which called collation because the snack related with the reading. So, the name of book followed by the snack that also consume in the close time in mass period.

Third, the relation can create the change of metonymy, there are some part that is important but sometime it divide into own category, or we can call it pars pro toto. For example in Indonesia, ‘pasukan baju kuning’ it refers to the group who clean up the road. And the last metonymy is simple and famous because we don’t need the worst and crucial speech. We know that most of the founder named something which they found by their name. For example, the terminology in electricity ampere, volt, ohm named by the founder Andre Ampere, Count Allessandro Volta, and Georg Simon Ohm.

Popular Etymology

Etymology is the branch of linguistics that studies the origin and development of words and other linguistic forms. The examples of the areas that are studied include the earliest origins of a word, how its meanings and connotations have changed, the meanings and origins of its component parts, whether or how it has spread to other languages, and how its meaning or use has been influenced by other words. The history of a word also is called its etymology.

For example, France language forain become English foreign which come from Latin foranus, one of derivative from Latin foris ‘tidak dengan; ke luar negeri; the nature meaning is the foreign as we used in English.


Words which often occur side by side are act to have a semantic influence on each other. We have already sees an example of this in the history of negation in French. The commonest form which this influence takes in ellipsis. In a set phrase made up of two words, one of these it omitted and its meaning it transferred to its partner.

For example, in Jakarta’s dialect ‘tidak tahu’, sometimes just utter in ‘tahu’.

The Consequences of the Change of Meaning

The change in the area of meaning Many older writer divide change of meaning in three categories, there are: extension, restriction, and the last that do not grouped into both of them. The division can called as “logical division” they also has some weaknesses, although the division is simple and easy. The division does not give clearly describing about the formal form in causes or the background how it can be changed.

And then, the third division just grouped because can’t let in first and second division. Truthfully the basic is the meaning become wide or narrow and continuously by the time.


This change make the meaning of certain word become restrict and the intense become more variable. For example, English ‘poison’ means racun, first the word come from ‘potion’ that means ‘beer’ because beer can damage our body and sometimes make somebody die. Later poison just use to refer the drink that can make somebody die, not to all of beer.


In extension meaning, the word can be applied in large contexts by following the time the intense become weaker and something that referred become smaller. For example, arriver in France and arrive in English, this word come from Latin arripare, it become ripa ‘tepi sungai; pantai’ because it refers to the coming of someone.

The changes in evaluation: pejorative and ameliorative


The change caused the word become lower or negative than before, for example: ‘perempuan’ come from ‘empu’ that means ‘ibu jari’ it should be has higher meaning.

But nowadays, ‘perempuan’ is lower if compare to ‘wanita’.


The change caused the word become higher and positive than before, for example: ‘minister’ at first define as ‘minus or slave’ but nowadays the meaning become higher into ‘the person who stayed in governmental system.


The Nature of Semantic Change, there is must always be some connection, some association between the old and the new meaning, association is the necessary condition of semantic change.

Meaning is determined by three factors: the objective reference (the referent), the subjective apprehension (the subject, i. e. the speaker or the hearer) and the traditional range (the word). Any change has as its immediate cause a change in one of these three relations. Types of semantic change: Similarity of the senses (metaphor), Contiguity of the senses (metonymy), Similarity of the names (folk etymology), Contiguity of the names (ellipsis), all of these types is changes that occur with time.


  1. Ullman, Stephen. 2011. Pengantar Semantik. Pustaka Pelajar: Yogyakarta

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