The Great Semantic Shift

by johannespunkt

Originally written for International Gaslighting Festival, I decided this thing was better than that, and so here you have it.

The Great Semantic Shift

This is a story about the English language, and an account of one of the most extensive upheavals in English semantics over the last 1,000 years. Before I go into it, however, I must inform you of the peculiar etymology of a not uncommon word, and I must also make you familiar with the linguistic term that is Great Shifts. I shall also regale you with druids! If you will just bear with me for a moment, I promise all the tangents will be worth it.

It begins in Ancient Greece, where the word σαρκασμός originated, from the root of σάρξ – flesh. Literally, σαρκασμός meant the rending of flesh from bone. In English today it is called sarcasm, an advanced form of mockery that requires the listener to understand several levels of language use at once, not unlike puns. It is often one of the first things to go in dementia, the ability to know both the meaning of the words said and the intended meaning that lies underneath them. Speakers of English as a second language can have trouble identifying sarcasm even if they are perfectly good at it in their mother tongue. This is mentioned to instill the idea that the understanding of sarcasm is fickle at best.

(If we are curious, we can find other words related to σάρξ in modern day English, such as sarcophagus – ancient Egyptian coffins, literally ‘flesh-eater’, and sarcumic – ‘who fucks flesh’, a Puritan insult.)

Now, semantics – word meanings – shift all the time. There are countless examples, just look at the word literally and all the people bemoaning its use as just another modifier meaning very. It is of course silly to cling to that word as being the only one you can use to mean that something hyperbolic actually happened since we already have synonyms that work, and since words like really and the likes have experienced this semantic shift already. In addition to semantic shifts there are phonetic shifts (e.g. how the k in knock is silent nowadays), graphemic shifts (like the ‘u’ dropping out of colour in American English), and nonsensic shifts, which is when a word seems to change but is actually more inert than other words (”kids these days don’t know what respect means”). I shall use phonetic shifts to illustrate what a Great Shift is:

There was a period in the English language, commonly given as between 1350 and 1700, called The Great Vowel Shift. It was a period of great upheaval and fluctuation in vowel sounds. The reason it is called a Great Shift is that it happened to more or less the entire language, as opposed to being confined to one word, or one region. The Great Semantic Shift was in its final stages when the Great Vowel Shift happened, and some argue that one caused the other – perhaps in order to distance themselves from this atrocious use of language … but I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t told you about the druids yet.

There is an old Irish triad that goes,

”It is death to: mock a poet; love a poet; be a poet.”

The explanation for this is heavily cultural: all the old Celtic poets had the ability to rend flesh from bone by mockery. The druids – who were all poets – were mystical and frightening and to be treated with the greatest respect. Circa 1200, when druids were at the apex of their power, the Great Shift started. They did not know this at the time of course, or they would have done something about it.

Enter the sarcasm. It had travelled, both as a word and as a language pattern, from the ancient Greeks to the Romans – who did not quite get the hang of it, records indicate – to the French, who hoarded it like a secret, and eventually to the Brits, who took to it like pigs to mud. It started off slowly, like all Great Shifts, and started snowballing first a hundred years later. Analogous to what is known as a chain shift in phonetics, it was a highly confusing chain of causality. A chain shift is, in short, a domino effect when sounds associated with words change in order to remain distinguishable. One thing changes, forcing another sound to shift to another acoustic position, much like uncomfortable men at a urinal. This cataclysmic semantic chain shift was started off, as best we can narrow it down, by a single phrase, which is still recognizable today.

or, orthographically,
/yea, right/

The pause is essential.

From that simple phrase, two positively words sarcastically indicating negativity, an overcompensation in sincerity was attempted. It was taken for more sarcasm. One record indicates that a conversation could be carried out entirely in panicked sarcasm: ostensibly two neighbours praising each other in exasperation. This introduced suspicion of sarcasm: a simple remark complimenting someone’s hat could have nasty undertones, or it could be just that. Some brave speakers of English attempted to clarify that they were sincere. This, naturally, sounded just like more sarcasm. The only way to sincerely compliment someone was to insult them sarcastically.

Most linguistic shifts happen in cities first and spread out, this was no exception. So the druids, who lived in the woods, caught on too late. Some time around the middle of the 14th century the sarcasm was so thick that the speakers did not recognize it as sarcasm anymore. The word for bad now meant good; the word for good meant bad. Black was white, pretty was ugly, and vice was versa. The druid-poets had lost their power over the language, for when they said to strip someone’s flesh and boil their eyes, they actually wished someone a pleasant day and a long, healthy life.

Some time during this confusion there was an English king who tried to sign a peace treaty with France, too.


Sources and recommended reading:

Buille, X. 2002. The Lingustic Trade Routes: A study in loan words from merchant sailors in European waters between 1350 and 1400. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Harvey, O. What Else Are The French Hiding? A Serious Question. (As of yet unpublished, but do read it once it is accepted somewhere.)
Hughey, M. and Young, D.J. 1993. From Logos to Illogical: a primer on the Great Semantic Shift. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.
Tizon, R. and Umery, Y. 2011 Say It Like You (Don’t) Mean It: Algorithmic detection of sarcasm in fourteenth century texts. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Velde, G. 2005. Ambrosia, or, Semantic Drift in Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.