OE semantics

Semantic change: terminology

Shifts in denotation

§       OE wann ‘dark, gloomy, black’ -> PDE ‘pale’

§       OE sae:lig ‘timely, fortunate, blessed’ (OE sael ‘time’) -> -> PDE silly

o     (cf French crétin ‘Christian’)

o     Language is transmitted discontinuously

Arbitrariness of semantic change

§       words from the same ‘family’ will commonly diverge

o     seethe and sodden

o     read and ready

§       ‘same’ word in different languages will develop differently

o     knight, German Knecht


Can you generalize about semantic change in English?

§       OE feoh ‘cattle’, OE rice ‘noble, powerful’

o     ?general monetarization of transactional terms? (Hughes)

§       Norman conquest: lots of loanwords from more prestigious language(s)

o     narrowing and pejoration of native words?


Some OE words have ‘generalized’ (less information, more situations)

o      OE brid ‘young bird’ -> young and old

o      cf. chicken ‘young of the domestic fowl’ -> young and old

o      cf. pigeon ‘young dove’ -> young and old


More have ‘narrowed’ (more information, fewer situations)

o      OE fugol ‘any bird’ -> ‘domesticated bird’

o      OE mete 'any solid food' -> 'flesh food'

o      OE déor ‘any sort of wild quadruped’ ->


Old meanings may survive in

o      compounds: e.g. waterfowl, sweetmeat

o      fixed/fossil phrases: e.g. the quick and the dead


Some OE words have remained in ‘higher’ register

o      OE neah ‘near’ -> PDE nigh


Others have pejorated (downward move in evaluative attitude, often due to social prejudice)

o      words for the lower ranks: OE ceorl ‘freeman’, OE cnapa ‘boy, young man, servant’

o      words for intelligence: cræftig ‘skilful’

o     (cf cunning ‘knowledgeable’)