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Semantic changes within the domain boy in panchronic perspective.


Traditionally considered a subject of historical linguistics studies par excellence--semantic Change--can be understood as conventionalisation of context-dependent modification of usage. Treated in this way, it does not necessarily imply reference to diachrony, but instead, may be approached as a timeless, universal and geographically boundary-free panchronic process; its constraints being delimited by cognitive mechanisms, especially that of conceptual blending. (2) This paper examines selected cases of changes in meaning pertaining to the semantic domain BOY and seeks the basis for their explanation in the blending operations of meaning construction. From this perspective, semantic change appears as a natural consequence of language usage directly related to cognitive processing.


1. Discussion

In the body of the paper we will analyse the cognitive principles which condition the mechanism of semantic change in a particular case taking as an example the concept 'boy' and its panchronic variation. An attempt will be made to provide answers to the following questions: What lexical items were/are used to express the meaning? How in the course of the diachronic development do certain expressions come to stand for the concept and how does it happen that later they become associated with other ideas? Although only a fragment of the development will be discussed here in detail, I hope that it will suffice to demonstrate the analysability of semantic change in terms of conceptual blending.

Kleparski (1996) provides a historical onomasiological dictionary of the concept BOY which includes items that at a certain stage in the development of English possessed the meaning 'boy' (see Figure 1 opposite).
Figure 1. The historical onomasiological dictionary of the concept BOY
(Kleparski 1996: 70)

 Old English / Middle English / Modern English

byre [left and right arrow]
cnapa [left and right arrow]
cnaepling [left and right arrow]
cniht [left and right arrow]
cnihtcild [left and right arrow]
hysecild [left and right arrow]
mago [left and right arrow]
waepnedbearn [left and right arrow]
waepnecild [left and right arrow]
beardleas [left and right arrow]
maegcnafa [left and right arrow]
frumbyrdling [left and right arrow]
frysca [left and right arrow]
geongling [left and right arrow]
magu [left and right arrow]
samgeong [left and right arrow]
cnihtcild [left and right arrow]
knave < cnapa [right arrow] 1470
knave-child 1175 [right arrow] 1440
knave-child 1200-1220
knight-bairn 1205
groom 1225 [right arrow] 1675
bird 1300 [right arrow] 1571
girl 1290 [right arrow] 1490
swain 1300 [right arrow] 1582
boy 1300 [right arrow] 20th c.
page 1300 [right arrow] 1582
little man 1300 [right arrow] 1854
stripling 1398 [right arrow] 20th c.
imp 1412 [right arrow] 20th c.
nipper 1535 [right arrow] 20th c.
laddie 1546 [right arrow] 20th c.
boykin 1547 [right arrow] 1822
tomboy 1553-1599
ragamuffin 1581 [right arrow] 20th c.
kid 1599 [right arrow] 20th c.
urchin 1600 [right arrow] 20th c.
chappie 1821 [right arrow] 20th c.
bo 1825 [right arrow] 20th c.
gamin 1840 [right arrow] 20th c.
sonny 1850 [right arrow] 20th c.
shaveling 1854 [right arrow] 20th c.
boyo 1870 [right arrow] 20th c.
spalpeen 1891 [right arrow] 20th c.
bug [left and right arrow]
spadger [left and right arrow]
sonny boy [left and right arrow]

Among other things, it should be pointed out that not all the items could be treated as equally representative members of the category BOY. Those which occupied a central position in the onomasiological structure of BOY include chronologically: cniht, cnapa/cnafa and boy. Also, if we compare the dating of the OED quotations with the respective words used in the sense of 'boy', we will observe a considerable degree of overlapping and rivalry between them. This, in most cases, led to the predominance of one of the items as a central expression displaying the meaning, and final elimination of the other. Thus, cniht meaning 'boy' could be limited in its use to the Old English period, e.g.:

e893 Philippus, [THORN]a he cniht waes, woes Thebanum to zisle zeseald.

971 He wear[THORN] foeringa zeong cniht & sona eft eald man.

Around the year 1000, a clear decrease ofcniht in the sense of 'boy' can be observed (cf. Diensberg 1985: 326), and this meaning was from then on more and more frequently primarily associated with cnapa/cnafa, e.g.:

a1050 Na zedafena[eth] [THORN]am se to fulfremednysse hoza[eth], gamenian mid cnafan.

e1460 Is youre chyld a knave?

In Old English, cniht and cnapa/cnafa were close enough to each other for Dongen (1933: 18) to claim they constituted a pair of absolute synonyms. However, Lozowski (2000: 123-124) questions this possibility believing there is a clear progression in age from cild via cnapa to cniht and the words can, by no means, be treated as completely interchangeable.

One should also realise that the various items aspiring to the meaning 'boy' or at least being attached to some facet of the concept associated with it, did not come out of the blue and disappeared into thin air, but rather underwent a process of semantic change which might be schematised as follows:

The first item from Kleparski's (1996) list--byre--was, as Back (1934: 64) notes, an abstract noun meaning 'birth' and its use in the sense 'boy' appears already in Beowulf. The association of ideas--BIRTH and BOY--is also attested by The Aberdeen bestiary f91v (Liber de bestiarum natura) while providing the etymology of each age and where the Latin word itself--puer--designates both 'boy and 'child'.

Actually, the change of meaning from BIRTH to BOY as well as from BIRTH to CHILD could be explained by what Fauconnier and Turner (2002) call cause-effect conceptual blending. They claim that mental spaces are built up dynamically in working memory and used for on-line meaning construction, but they can also become entrenched in long-term memory as conventionalised blends. However, the productive way in which people are able to extend these conventionalised blends suggests that the blended model maintains links to its original inputs. In this case, it is not enough to see one thing as caused by the other; but rather, we need the two proper mental spaces, in this particular situation, the one with a woman giving birth to a baby and the other with a new bore child. These are connected by vital relations of time (one space takes place later than the other), space (they are originally in the same space), change (one state is followed by a different one) and cause-effect (we have production and its product). This already entrenched conceptual blending is further extended, by means of yet another vital relation--analogy, onto animals and plants, both capable of reproduction that tan be likened to human experiences. The semantic development could be documented with the following OED quotations where 'birth' is used in the sense of 'the product of bearing, that which is born; offspring, child; young (of animals)', e.g.:

a1400 For [eth]i of pe be[eth] born a bur[eth].

1711 Others hatch their Eggs and tend the Birth, 'till it is able to shift for it self.

The onomasiological dictionary of the concept BOY abounds in words primarily related to the sense '(Plant), Animal, Human offspring (shoot)'. For example, words ending in -ling, such as cnoepling, frumbyrdling, geongling, stripling, shaveling where the diminutive suffix -ling was originally used for forming names of baby animals, e.g.: duckling, yeanling 'young lamb', fledgling 'a young bird', yearling 'an animal, especially horse, between one and two years old', Swedish killing 'goatling', also by extension sapling 'a young tree'; many of which tan also refer to a 'boy'. Other words from the domain '(Plant), Animal, Human offspring (shoot)' that became attached to the concept BOY as indicated by the RIT include kid, chick, cub, puppy, calf, runt and also sprout or Turkish cocuk 'boy; child; sprout, shoot' and Polish latorosl 'sprout, shoot, grape-vine; human off-spring of both sexes'. Notice that the English word imp before acquiring the meaning of 'child' and then 'boy' used to designate 'a young shoot of a plant or tree, a sapling; a sucker, slip, scion', e.g.:

c897 Sio halize zesomnung Godes folces, [eth]oet earda[eth] on aeppeltunum, [eth]onne hie wel bega[eth] hira plantan & hiera impan, o[eth] hie fulweaxne beo[eth].

1669 When the young Imps or Seedlings are sprung up, you must be very careful in keeping them from weeds.

The change of meaning from CHILD to BOY, apart from semantically transparent compounds such as cnihtcild, hysecild, woepnecild, knave-child, knape-child, knight-bairn as well as man-child, is also visible in the history of nipper, bairn and girl that originally referred to children of both sexes and later started to be used as synonyms for boy, for example, girl appears in phrases such as knave girl 'a boy' and gal girl 'a girl'. Similarly, in Polish dzieciak 'kid', derived from dziecko 'child', could be considered a category in transition as it shows semantic characteristics of both CHILD and BOY, whereas Serbian decak has permanently changed its sense to 'boy'; the word decko also meaning 'boy'. The same kind of conceptual development tan be observed in the Arabic counterpart of the English word boy--[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [walad]. Note that an identical root is also associated with the following meanings: 'to bear, to give birth to, to produce, descendant, offspring, scion, child, son, young animal'.

The concept BOY could be characterised by a number of attributes that may themselves be referents for the whole category, e.g. Old English beardleas and frumbyrdling as well as Modern English shaveling or shaver stress the feature of having no beard, having first beard or shaving first time in life, respectively, as the most recognisable aspect of being a boy, probably in contrast to a man or a child. In the same way, Spanish word for 'boy'--muchacho comes from the Old Spanish mochacho originally meaning 'trimmed, cut short' just like Portuguese principal term for 'boy'--rapaz is etymologically connected to the verb rapar 'to scrape or shave'. Other attributes include, in the first place, being young, e.g.: geongling < youngling, samgeong, youngster, youth, juvenile, junior, Dutch jongen 'a boy' (jong meaning both 'a boy' and 'a young animal'), Serbian mladic 'youth' and junak (which changed meaning into 'a brave man, hero' like Russian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [molodec]); and being small, e.g.: little man, Spanish chico 'boy', Russian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [mal'cik] 'boy', Serbian malisan 'a small boy'. Further selection of attributes which highlight particular characteristics of the category may restrict the number of its representatives to very specific groups, e.g. Polish miesniak 'a muscular boy, athlete', dresiarz 'a boy wearing a tracksuit who belongs to a kind of a street gang', English skinhead, etc. Also, seemingly peripheral aspects of a concept can be recruited in blends when demanded by current goals like in the OED attested use of boy in the sense 'champagne', (3) which suggests that the conceptual core is of little relevance outside of what Coulson (2001) calls restricted default contexts.

A connection between semantic change and cognitive operations also becomes obvious when looking at the further sense development of lexical items that used to be associated with the concept BOY and later continued the process of acquiring new meanings. The vast majority of them slowly started to be associated with a new concept--SERVANT, while at the same time gradually losing the primary meaning of 'boy'. The items that underwnt this sort of semantic transformation include, among others, e.g.: cnapa/cnafa < knave, cniht, groom, page, as indicated by the following OED quotations:

c1000 Syle mihte cnafan [thorn]inum [L. puero tuo].

1825 Thou art an apt, and will doubtless be a useful knave.

c950 Onginne[eth]..slaa [eth]a cnoehtas & [eth]iuwas.

c1250 Swete leuedi, of me [THORN]u reowe & haue merci of [thorn]in knicht.

1297 Me may yse a bondemannes sone..& some gromes squiers & su[thorn][thorn]e kniztes some.

1827 His groom was walking about his favourite saddle-horse.

a1327 Palefreiours ant pages.

1847 78 Page, the common and almost only name of a shepherd's servant, whether boy or man ... Extensively used through Suffolk, and probably further.

Thus, the semantic change may be claimed to be the result of a conceptual integration network of mental spaces structured with frames which the speaker constructs from contextual information and background knowledge that with time become more and more entrenched in long-term memory. Coulson (2001: 134) stresses that while blending theory does not provide a detailed account of how abstract information represented in the inputs is accomodated in the blend, it suggests that speakers make use of constructive facets of retrieval processes to recruit specific information to structure the blended space. Furthermore, blending theory offers hypotheses about what kind of constraints are operating on the integrative mechanism.

As observed by Kleparski (1996), the fact that boys frequently entered the service of a lord or master gives an extralinguistic explanation of the development which took place in the conceptual structure of cniht already in the Old English period. Also Back (1934: 121) considers social conditions of earlier times, and especially the fact that the children of the house were almost like slaves in relation to the pater familias, as another reason contributing to the change. However, the process cannot be fully comprehended without reference to the more general cognitive dimension which makes the linguistic and sociocultural aspects interact in special ways, mostly by feeding one another and thus forming a chain which can lead to further concept modifications, e.g. restricting it to the meaning of 'the shepherd's attendant' like in the case of page or 'a servant who attends to horses' in the development of groom. Again, this kind of semantic innovation shows considerable universality and it seems to have proved culturally valid. Nevertheless, no words expressing the concept BOY, but at the same time lacking the characteristic 'low hierarchically', could change their meaning into 'servant'. This was the case with the Old English eafora which apart from the meaning 'boy' also referred to 'son, heir' or the Portuguese menino 'child, boy, the young master'. Also, such items as imp, urchin, ragamuffin, gamin could not become associated with the concept SERVANT as their semantic structure never indicated any implication of obedience, but rather developed in opposition to this feature.

2. Conclusion

Semantic change takes place hot only over long periods of time in the history of a language, but it can also be traced in pragmatic ambiguity, polysemy or dialectical variation. In general, semantic change tan be treated as panchronic conventionalisation of originally context dependent modification of word usage. This modification, or the formation of occasion-bound meanings, for the sake of efficient but economical reference and representation occurs under the pressure of both extra- and intralinguistic circumstances.

Semantic change is a natural consequence of the dynamic and creative nature of human cognitive capacities such as, for example, the ability to compress, remember, reason, categorise or need for reclassifying and reorganising constant flow of information we are confronted with. This unconscious act of creation results from the basic mental mechanism of putting two things together. Paradoxically, language is possible only if it allows a limited number of combinable linguistic forms to cover a very large number of meaningful situations. Thanks to conceptual blending we are able to envisage a new experience in well known and familiar expressions. Constructing cross-domain mappings and putting together mental spaces we can arrive at new meanings.

(1) I am greatly indebted to Prof. Grzegorz A. Kleparski for his valuable comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Author's e-mail address:

(2) For a detailed discussion of semantic change as a process of conceptual blending sec Grygiel (2004).

(3) Allegedly from Edward VII's habit of merely saying 'Boy!' to an attendant page who automatically brought him a glass of that wine (CDS).



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Title Annotation:Linguistics
Author:Grygiel, Marcin
Publication:Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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