LINGUIST List 12.2219

Tue Sep 11 2001

Sum: Linguist12.1947:Semantic narrowing in borrowing

Editor for this issue: Richard John Harvey <>


  1. Patrick McConvell, semantic narrowing in borrowing

Message 1: semantic narrowing in borrowing

Date: Mon, 10 Sep 2001 11:57:34 +1000
From: Patrick McConvell <>
Subject: semantic narrowing in borrowing

Re: Linguist 12.1947

The original posting in early August asked about work on semantic
narrowing in borrowing; this summary combines responses on Linguist
and Australian-languages-list. Thanks to Luise Hercus, Ghil'ad
Zuckermann, Wayles Brown, Barry Alpher, Matt Stevens, Richard Cameron
and Lotta Hellstrand.

I gave examples from Australian indigenous languages: a word in one
language for 'large group (of anything).' being borrowed as a 'herd of
cattle' in the context of the cattle industry. It seemed to me that
many people in linguistics were aware of the phenomenon, to the extent
that it was regarded as commonplace, but there had been less actual
study and theorisation of it. Luise Hercus provided me with an
additional nice example from Indigenous Australian languages: Arabana
borrowed Western Desert 'pirdi' 'hole' in the meaning 'quarry' -
Western Desert speakers used to come to Arabana country to dig for
stone. It seems to me that both this and the example above represent a
transition from pragmatics to semantics. The transaction that the two
groups were involved was one of restricted reference which turned into
restricted sense. The difference in these two cases is that in the
first case the group that comes in borrows the word from residents and
vice-versa in the second case.

As in the above cases, there is usually a perfectly good word already
in the recipient language for the broader sense of the borrowed
item. Ghil'ad Zuckermann gives the example of Ivrit (Israeli Hebrew)
BUK "portofolio (of a model)", from English BOOK. Ivrit already had a
word for "book": sefer.

Wayles Brown reports that the late Rudolf Filipovic, of Zagreb,
Croatia, found semantic narrowing to be a frequent phenomenon in
borrowing. A favorite example of his was "pantry", which in English
means primarily a space next to a kitchen in a house, but in Croatian
and some other European languages has been borrowed in the sense of
part of a galley (kitchen on a ship). His project 'The English Element
in European Languages' aimed to analyze the contact of about twenty
European languages with English as a donor language. The analysis is
based on the principles defined in the author's books: Theory of
Languages in Contact(1986) and Anglicisms in Croatian: Their Origin,
Development and Meaning (1990).

Germane to our present context, Lotta Hellstrand reports that the
English word 'mail' (mejl) has been borrowed into Swedish only in the
sense of 'email'. Barry Alpher suggested a few examples going from
other languages into English, including Spanish 'macho' which has a
broader meaning of 'masculine' in Spanish as well as a narrower usage
akin to the sense in which it was borrowed.

Richard Cameron did some research into borrowings from Spanish into a
Mayan language spoken in Guatemala and Belize: Cameron, Richard and
Joseph DeChicchis. 1989. Semantic field, linguistic geography, and
semantic change: Original Spanish vocabulary in Kekchi. _Penn Review
of Linguistics_ 13:91-105. The authors found a number of narrowings
very similar to what was described in the posting.

Matt Stevens writes that the phenomenon outlined has certainly been
named and discussed in German linguistics. It has generally been
termed "Bedeutungsverengung" (literally: meaning/semantic narrowing) a
term which Stevens thinks may have been coined by Werner Betz in the
1930's. It has been discussed for example by Horst Haider Munske and
Broder Carstensen. Stevens kindly sent me several references, which
are not included here, but which I can pass on to anyone interested.

Nobody mentioned use of this concept in historical linguistics. It is
clear that semantic narrowing also occurs in languages without
borrowing being involved, but if the diffusion context produces a
special pattern of semantic change, such a generalisation would also
be very useful in distinguishing borrowing from inheritance in
disputed cases in historical linguistics.

Patrick McConvell
Research Fellow, Language and Society
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
Canberra ACT 2601

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