Article details

Research area
Natural language & AI

Folia Linguistica Historica 6(1) pp.107-126



Social terms and social reality


The diachromic semantics of individual words has been described as erratic and unpredictable. Williams (1975) suggests that only three processes have been identified: narrowing, widening, and semantic shift. Here it will be argued that new generalizations emerge when a sociohistorical methodology is employed to trace the interaction between semantics and social history. A more refined approach to the semantics of various types of vocabulary increases the number of historical predictions which can be made. In particular, social kind terms, such as KING and FARMER, which denote groups of people with particular functions and positions in the social hierarchy, are fundamentally different from natural kind terms. The difference originates in the essential natures of the classes of objects they denote, and leads to significant psychological differences affecting lexical semantics. As a result, social kind terms change meaning inn predictably different ways. First, the distinct semantics of social kind terms will be analyzed briefly. Then the particular diachrony of several Anglo-Saxon terms will be traced. Finally the predictions that can be made about the likely semantic changes in social terms relative to other kinds of terms will be summarized.

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