Some Interesting Semantic Shifts in Adjectives

Would you prefer doing skilled work or physical work?

OK. I guessed so… But wait a minute! Isn’t skilled work also physical? It happens in the physical world, and all the laws of physics still apply to it. Of course it’s physical.

Where I want to go with this? I want to show how some adjectives derived from names of sciences or from Latin words can experience interesting semantic shifts (that is, changes of meaning), especially when it comes to their connotations. So the adjective “physical”, originally meaning “related to the science of physics” or “existing in physical world, concrete, not abstract or imaginary” after a while got another additional meaning: related to the use of brute physical force. It’s normal for languages to evolve and develop additional meanings for words, but I am not that happy with this particular change, because those new, derived meanings, can sometimes overshadow original meanings, with sometimes, questionable results. I will show it on two examples from Serbian language:

Serbian language adopted the word “socijalan” (social) from Latin, in a similar fashion like English did. The original meaning of the word “socijalan” is, well, social… that is related to society, social groups, social behavior etc. However, the same adjective did not take as deep root in Serbian as it did in English because we have our native word with the same meaning “društven”. So the meaning of the word “socijalan” has been strongly influenced by the phrases such as “socijalni rad” (social work) “socijalna politika” (social politics), and because these fields are usually concerned with helping disadvantaged people in society, the very term “socijalni” came to mean “related to poor or disadvantaged groups”, “related to poverty”, or even simply “poor”, as in slang term “socijala” (describing films or literature dealing with poverty) or a more formal phrase “socilajni slučaj” (literally: social case – describes anyone in need of support from social workers, for any reason). So what is problem here? The original meaning of the word “socijalan” got burried under those new meanings, and this can have, well social consequences. How? Even though poverty is an extremely important issue, there are numerous other social issues and problems that are not directly related to poverty or disadvantaged groups, and which also need to be addressed and dealt with, such as alienation, overworking, presence of stereotypes and prejudices, discrimination, conformism, consumerism and many more. We can forget about those issues if the only association that comes to mind to the term “socijalan” is poverty.

Even more drastic example is the term “komunalni” (communal). It has a similar Latin origin and similar meaning as the word “social”, but in Serbian, it eventually came to mean “related to garbage or collection of garbage”. That’s because in former Yugoslav countries, the companies that collect and process garbage are called “Javno komunalno preduzeće” (Public communal company). While their job is also extremely important and now even  more so, having in mind the consequences of pollution and environmental degradation, it is not the only issue that has to be dealt on communal level (in sense – local level, such as municipality or small region), and if the garbage wasn’t the first association of the word “komunalni”, maybe we would be more willing to get more actively involved in life of our local communities and solving their problems.


One thought on “Some Interesting Semantic Shifts in Adjectives

  1. Hi Zlatko,
    I would prefer skilled work. I know Showers of Blessings.
    I met you at Jason Cushman’s Meet and Greet. Maybe you can check out my blog if you need a blogging tip or two. That’s what I write about. I also have Meet and Greets like Jason.


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