A context-based semantic shift in Igbo

  • Martha Chidimma Egenti
  • Chinazam Faith Okeke
Keywords: Semantic shift, Frame semantics, Positive Negativity, Semantic change, Linguistic context, Lexical item


This study focuses on the context-based semantic change in Igbo. Certain lexical items in Igbo change and/or shift in meaning as a result of their frequent use in a new context. Primary data were purposively collected through elicitation from native speakers of Anam and Obosi dialects of Igbo, spoken in Anambra East and Idemili North local government in Anambra State respectively. Secondary data were collected from Igbo movies, where instances of meaning shifts were used in free-flowing speech. Adopting the Frame semantics approach, this paper observes that words can take on different meanings from earlier meanings as a result of use in a different context. For example, the word amōsū means 'witchcraft' but when used in a context such as O tàrà amōsū n 'akwūkwo. 'S/he ate witchcraft in books', it refers to intelligence. The literal sense is not activated, but a new sense is activated instead. Secondly, meaning shift sometimes brings about a word dropping its earlier sense completely, depending on the frequencies of its use by the speakers in various contexts. In English for example, the word 'silly' has shifted its original meaning of 'happy, blissful, lucky or blessed', to meaning in modern English of 'stupid' or 'reckless' due to constant use in a different context. Meaning shifts can be neutral or it can shift from positive to negative meaning or vice versa. This paper shows that the figurative and frequent uses of words in various contexts by the native speakers are key factors in semantic shift in Igbo. Besides, semantic shift is a key activity to understanding and documenting a language.


Journal Identifiers

print ISSN: 2346-7126