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Thread: Gesælig : explanations for semantic shifts?

  1. #1
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    Gesælig : explanations for semantic shifts?

    How come that some very common words like gesælig in English, were replaced by others? Is there some kind of logic in that, or are there more kinds of logic than one ?

    Some more examples:
    - marshal, once a horse servant
    - klein, small, in Dutch vs. clean in English
    - gesaelig, developed into silly (happy > silly !)
    More examples welcome !

    I thought of this: cleaning is like getting under control (fig. small)...
    Last edited by ThomasK; 24th March 2013 at 9:32 AM.

  2. #2
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    Re: Gesælig : explanations for semantic shifts?

    It is the same phenomenon we know in numerical mathematics: similarity is not transitive. A~B and B~C does not mean A~C. A succession of simple and easily understandable semantic shift can yield something you can't relate to original any more. Etymonline gives us the development chain for gesælig > silly: happy > blessed > pious > innocent > harmless > pitiable > weak > feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish.

    In the case of klein vs clean, it is English that preserved the original meaning. The change in German, Dutch and Frisian to mean small seems to have happened via just one intermediate step, the meaning dainty, delicate we find in Old Saxon (again according to Etymonline) but also still in Middle High German. Grimm quotes a sentence from late 14th century where it still has this meaning: "das (des speigels glas) hât ein cleini gestalt gên (gegeben) diesem falschen wîb" ("it (the mirror's glass) gave a dainty appearance to this deceptive woman"). For a similar development in the opposite direction, compare French petit and English petite.

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    Re: Gesælig : explanations for semantic shifts?

    Interesting reference to the non-transitivity. Had nog thought of that. I would distinguish a little less steps, but that is not that important of course.

    'Clean': so my weakness hypothesis cannot be accounted for, I suppose. As for petit/ petite: did petit have a different larger meaning???
    Last edited by ThomasK; 24th March 2013 at 4:15 PM.

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    Re: Gesælig : explanations for semantic shifts?

    One should not discount the effect slang and jargon has on language either. Although one tends to think of it as a modern phenomenon, slang has been around for as long as language.

    It is likely that gesælig (> happy >> pious >> harmless >> feeble) > silly started out as slang and just kept on changing. In modern Am.Eng. it means “joking, not serious”, and it tends to be a positive attribute.

    Nice has had a similar development, from Latin “ignorant”, OF “careless, clumsy”, ME “timid, fussy”, later “dainty”, “precise”, “delightful” and now “kind”. In Am. English slang it is moving towards “good at, clever”, such as in “He plays a nice horn” and “He has got nice moves” (and even “He is nice at basketball”).

    Mad has drifted to become the equivalent of “angry” in Am.Eng., and is also moving towards “very”, in the sense “mad good”. “Wicked” has moved the same way.

    A few years ago a friend of mine said: “Have you seen so-and-so movie – it is really cool. It is really hot”. In American English, ‘cool’ in reference to temperature, is increasingly replaced by ‘chill’ or ‘chilly’, since young people especially seem to only have a secondary understanding of ‘cool’ as related to ‘cold’. Such as in "it is chilly outside" and "it is chillier (or more chill) in the shade". This is probably pushed by the fact "chill" has the secondary meaning 'relax', and both are the opposites of "hot" (figuratively and physically)
    Last edited by NorwegianNYC; 24th March 2013 at 4:50 PM.

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    Re: Gesælig : explanations for semantic shifts?

    Interesting additions, and references to continuing shifts !

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    Re: Gesælig : explanations for semantic shifts?

    Quote Originally Posted by ThomasK View Post
    As for petit/ petite: did petit have a different larger meaning???
    French petit means small and the derived English petite means dainty again. It is the same shift as from Middle High German to Modern German but in the opposite direction.

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    Re: Gesælig : explanations for semantic shifts?

    I see, I did not know about that precise meaning...

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