Semantic Change. A Comparison between "Wandel der Wortbedeutung" by Hermann Paul and "Semantic change and cognition" by Gábor Györi

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2013 16 Pages

German Studies - Semiotics, Pragmatics, Semantics


Table of Contents

0. Introduction

1. Summaries
1.1. Hermann Paul: Wandel der Wortbedeutung
1.2. Gábor Györi: Semantic change and cognition

2. Comparison
2.1. Terminology
2.2. Similarities and differences
2.3. The authors’ notion of language

3. Conclusion

0. Introduction

The study of language change has evolved at a high rate throughout the last century. Significant insights have been gained concerning the workings of the human mind and, by extension, the workings of semantic and linguistic change. Set in comparison and contrast, however, it becomes obvious that some convictions have remained stable and still play a role as prominent as they did in the year of 1880. It can even be argued that most of the accomplishments of today’s language change researchers strongly build on those of the last century and could not have been achieved without them. To illustrate this assumption, the present termpaper compares two works on language change that were written in two different centuries in two different countries; Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte (Chapter 4: Wandel der Wortbedeutung) written by Hermann Paul in 1880 and Semantic Change and Cognition written by Gábor Györi in 2002. Hermann Paul was a German linguist and lexicographer, who was born on August 7 in 1846 and passed away on December 29 in 1921. He was a significant representative of the Neogrammarian1 school of thought. The cognitive linguist Gábor Györi is associate professor and head of the department of English linguistics at the University of Pécs, Hungary and has a strong focus on the evolution of cognition and categorization.

It shall furthermore be shown that Paul’s work shares many of the tenets of modern cognitive linguistics even though that might not be obvious at the first glance, due to differences in terminology and methodology.

In order to filter out similarities and differences between both the authors’ points of view, chapter 1.1 will briefly summarize the contents of Paul’s text, while chapter 1.2 will give an account of the most important tenets of Györi’s work2. In chapter 2.1, the terminology Paul and Györi used will be explained and contrasted. Chapter 2.2 then deals with the contentual comparison of both texts. Here the focus will be set on the role that the authors assign to metaphor and metonymy as mechanisms of semantic change. In chapter 2.3, it will be analyzed, which notion of language is manifested in the respective works.

1. Summaries

1.1. Hermann Paul: Wandel der Wortbedeutung

An important distinction that is drawn in Paul’s chapter about changes in word- signification is the one between usual and occasional signification. The usual meaning comprises the entirety of associations of a speaker with a word. The occasional meaning, as can be inferred from the expression, is built ad hoc. It comprises the entire contents of conception that the speaker associates with the word that he utters. It is commonly richer in content, and narrower in extent than the usual one. Paul’s main intention is to describe how the occasional signification of a word comes to be its usual one, or in other words; he describes the workings of semantic change.

Paul furthermore discusses the question under which circumstances speakers feel the need for the creation of new, occasional meanings. Concerning these processes, Paul names three major categories; a specialization of meaning, an extension of meaning and the transference of a concept onto other concepts that are locally, causally, or temporally related. In the following, these three mechanisms are going to be summarized.

According to Paul, a specialization of meaning by reducing the scope and enriching the content of a concept is the first main kind of modification of the usual to the occasional meaning. One of the areas where specialization of meaning can be seen at work is e.g. the emergence of proper names and toponyms. Furthermore, Paul subsumes amelioration, pejoration, agentive derivation and compounding under the heading of specialization.

The second main kind of semantic change according to Paul is contrasting with the first one: an extension of the scope of a word. Here, word signification is reduced to one part of the original contents and the word’s scope is extended. A special case of extension is the use of metaphors. Paul names the metaphor as one of the most important means for the creation of names for concepts that are yet without appropriate names. He goes on, saying that even when a concept already has a name, an inner urge makes the speaker give preference to a new metaphorical one. (cf. Paul: 94)

The third main kind of semantic change, according to Paul, is the transference of the idea to what is connected with the fundamental conception by local, temporal or causal relations. Here, Paul describes mechanisms of change that we would today call metonymy, or respectively meronymy; a characteristic part of a concept stands for the whole, or concepts that are naturally adjacent or related stand for each other. This relation can be causal, temporal or local.

Finally, Paul describes modifications of word signification that cannot be categorized according to the three main kinds of change discussed above. Two of these modifications are euphemisms on the one hand, and swearwords on the other. Both can lose their expressive power and thus their negative or positive tone over time. If that is the case, they usually are replaced by new expressions. Paul concludes his essay with a few notes on the subjectivity and variability of language and language change.

1.2. Gábor Györi: Semantic change and cognition

The main objective of Gábor Györi’s paper is to provide a cognitive explanation of semantic change in contrast to pragmatic explanations that are usually preferred. According to Györi, when speakers of a language want to express something that cannot be expressed by common language structures, they tend to modify these structures by applying pragmatic devices like metaphor and metonymy. When these modifications are passed on to the new generation, language change is completed. While some other authors explain this process in pragmatic terms only, Györi names conceptual/cognitive structures in the minds of the speakers as determining factors concerning the development of novel expressions, as the speaker has to unconsciously decide how to conceptualize a given phenomenon. Györi’s aim is to find out which cognitive factors govern the detection of similarity, contrast and contiguity. In this regard, the author describes four factors that assumingly influence the speakers’ choice. These factors will be discussed in greater detail in chapter 2.2.

2. Comparison

In the following, Paul’s and Györi’s texts are going to be set in comparison and contrast; chapter 2.1 describes central terms and concepts of both texts in detail, while chapters 2.2 sheds light on similarities and differences concerning the authors’ assessment of semantic change and metaphor and metonymy. Chapter 2.3 describes the authors’ general notion of language.

2.1. Terminology

Naturally, since the present paper compares works that were written in different centuries and different languages, the concepts that are central to both texts are expressed with different terminology. However, set parallel, the key terms are surprisingly easy to compare. The terms and concepts that are to be compared in this chapter are the following: semantic change, occasion-bound and usual meaning and the authors’ terms for the human faculty for thinking and feeling.

According to Paul, semantic change arises due to an "Abweichung in der individuellen Anwendung von dem Usuellen, die allmählich usuell wird." (Paul: 75) Györi, likewise, states that semantic change "can only arise in speaker-hearer interaction and is thus the result of context-dependent alteration of usage" (Györi: 125). In order to stress the parallels between both approaches, the authors’ view on semantic change shall be broken down to three rather rudimentary steps in the following;

1. The speaker (unconsciously or consciously) feels the need for a novel expression.
2. The speaker chooses the source for an ad hoc expression and uses the expression to communicate successfully.
3. The expression comes to be used repeatedly in the speech community, is passed on to the next generation and becomes the usual expression.

Concerning the completion of semantic change, both authors describe an invisible-hand- process3. Györi states that "the cognitive motivation for the innovative use of expressions will first lead to individual linguistic action, which will actuate semantic change only if such actions of language users are eventually summated.”

In other words, the novel expression, respectively meanings have to be taken over and used by the language community. Paul, quite similarly, states that "sobald sie sich mit einer gewissen Regelmäßigkeit wiederholen, wird das Individuelle und Momentane allmählich generell und usuell. [...] Denn zum Wesen des Prozesses gehört es ja eben, dass er durch wiederholte gleichmässige Anwendung der anfänglich nur okkasionellen Bedeutung zu Stande kommt und dieser muss ein Verstehen wenigstens von Seiten eines Teiles der Verkehrsgenossen entsprechen [...] Ganz besonders wirksam aber für die Verwandlung der okkasionellen Bedeutung in eine usuelle ist die Überlieferung an die nachwachsende Generation." (Paul: 84, f.)

From the passage above it can be seen that both authors differentiate between usual meanings and occasion-bound meanings (usuelle Bedeutung, okkasionelle Bedeutung). Paul's definition of the two concepts is as follows:

"Wir verstehen also unter usueller Bedeutung den gesamten Vorstellungsinhalt, der sich für den Angehörigen einer Sprachgenossenschaft mit einem Worte verbindet, unter okkasioneller Bedeutung denjenigen Vorstellungsinhalt, welchen der Redende, indem er das Wort ausspricht damit verbindet und von welchem er erwartet, dass ihn auch der Hörende damit verbinde."

According to Paul, the occasional meaning, as can be inferred from the expression, is built ad hoc, “very commonly richer in content than the usual one and narrower in extent” (Paul: 75).


1 The main tenet of the Neogrammarians was „that sound laws admitted no exceptions (the Neogrammarian hypothesis). Their nickname in German Junggrammatiker (‘young grammarians’) arose from the attitude of older scholars who, while not necessarily rejecting the principle, objected to the forceful way in which it was promulgated.” (Crystal, David p. 324)

2 Note that in order to make both works comparable, the summary of Györi`s rather extensive text is broken down to essential parts which play a role in the comparison.

3 “Such a process occurs when individuals perform certain actions intentionally but not with the consequences that will nonetheless eventually be caused in mind.” (Györi: 129)


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Semantic Change




Title: Semantic Change. A Comparison between
"Wandel der Wortbedeutung" by Hermann Paul and "Semantic change and cognition" by Gábor Györi