I've noticed that loanwords often take on more specific meanings in the target language than in the source language. To give two very common examples, sake just means alcohol in Japanese and salsa just means sauce in Spanish, but those words refer to very specific types of alcohol and sauce in English.

What's this called and is there any research / recommended reading on this type of scope change for loanwords?


1 Answer 1


It's mostly commonly called semantic restriction, but semantic narrowing and semantic specialization are also in widespread use in the linguistic literature.

  • 6
    Do you mind adding a reference just for completeness? I mean, some book that treats about the subject would be perfect. But a whole book isn't necessary, even a single chapter that talks about it is acceptable. :)
    – Alenanno
    Dec 7, 2011 at 14:07
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    This is a basic concept in semantics - you could use any undergraduate semantics text book, or even possibly the semantics chapter of a generalist text book. It depends on the model you're working in. I'm pretty sure such definitions are in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics By Peter Hugoe Matthews.
    – LaurenG
    Dec 7, 2011 at 20:25
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    My favorite English examples of semantic narrowing (specialization) are: girl (young person=>young female person), meat (food=>flesh food), wife (woman=>spouse), and deer (animal=>cervine animal). I remember reading some interesting works by Stephen Ullmann on this when I was in college.
    – Alex B.
    Dec 8, 2011 at 20:08
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    Also, Traugott and Dasher (2001) ebooks.cambridge.org/ebook.jsf?bid=CBO9780511486500 is a good recent reference on semantic change. They mention Horn's 1984 classification of narrowing into two types, Q- and R-based narrowing (cf. rectangle vs. undertaker).
    – Alex B.
    Dec 8, 2011 at 20:22
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    But neither this answer nor any of the comments deals specifically with loanwords. I believe there are two particular processes here: 1) the word is adopted with a particular cultural item and remains restricted to that item; and 2) the word is in competition with a native term for the more general sense, so there is no reason for it to spread its meaning wider.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 12, 2011 at 16:54

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