In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Semantic-Pragmatic Change

  • Introduction
  • Some Current Issues in Semantic Change
  • Early Classifications of Semantic Change
  • Constructionalization
  • Subjectification and Intersubjectification
  • Motivations for Semantic Change
  • Semantic Reconstruction
  • Corpus Linguistic Approaches
  • Formal Approaches

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Linguistics Semantic-Pragmatic Change
Elizabeth Closs Traugott
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0155


Semantic change is the subfield of historical linguistics that investigates changes in sense. In 1892, the German philosopher Gottlob Frege argued that, although they refer to the same person, Jocasta and Oedipus’s mother, are not equivalent because they cannot be substituted for each other in some contexts; they have different “senses” or “values.” In contemporary linguistics, most researchers agree that words do not “have” meanings. Rather, words are assigned meanings by speakers and hearers in the context of use. These contexts of use are pragmatic. Therefore, semantic change cannot be understood without reference to pragmatics. It is usually assumed that language-internal pragmatic processes are universal and do not themselves change. What changes is the extent to which the processes are activated at different times, in different contexts, in different communities, and to which they shape semantic and grammatical change. Many linguists distinguish semantic change from change in “lexis” (vocabulary development, often in cultural contexts), although there is inevitably some overlap between the two. Semantic changes occur when speakers attribute new meanings to extant expressions. Changes in lexis occur when speakers add new words to the inventory, e.g., by coinage (“affluenza,” a blend of affluent and influenza), or borrowing (“sushi”). Linguists also distinguish organizing principles in research. Starting with the form of a word or phrase and charting changes in the meanings of that the word or phrase is known as “semasiology”; this is the organizing principle for most historical dictionaries. Starting with a concept and investigating which different expressions can express it is known as “onomasiology”; this is the organizing principle for thesauruses.

General Overviews of Semantic/Pragmatic Change

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