Language change – how to understand it

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Language change – definition

language change The term ‘language change’ refers to the evolution of language.

redbtn All languages are in a continuous process of evolution [as are all living phenomena].


redbtn Language change occurs in all of the following areas:

/æ/ as in Harry has become more open in RP
‘gay’ meant happy, now it [also] means homosexual
word-order has replaced inflection in importance


redbtn An awareness and a knowledge of language change is essential for students of language.

redbtn It is a significant topic for linguists, who take a descriptive attitude and accept that change is inevitable. [Value judgements are considered inappropriate.]

redbtn However, prescriptive attitudes to language change are quite common. These can be observed in ‘letters to the editor’ complaining about [what is seen as] ‘a serious decline in the quality of the English Language’.

redbtn Change and evolution affects all living languages, without exception.

redbtn The study of language change falls into two categories – diachronic and synchronic.

redbtn Diachronic study focuses on change which has taken place over the whole duration of a language’s existence.

redbtn Synchronic study focuses on change which is taking place currently.

redbtn Diachronic study has to employ a variety of techniques, because for most of the period of study, sound records do not exist.

redbtn Some of the techniques used for assessing language change in the past are as follows:

  • classifying families of languages
  • study of manuscripts dating back to 500AD in English
  • study of ancient poems in which the rhyme no longer applies
  • representation of animal sounds

redbtn Synchronic study is technically easier because of the availability of recordings of spoken English.

redbtn One example of a current phonological change is the recent rise in intonation at the end of utterances in English. This is particularly prevalent among teenagers.

redbtn There are two main speculative explanations offered for this recent change:

  • unconscious emulation of the language of Australian TV soaps
  • desire for approbation similar to the tag question – “you know?”

redbtn There are two basic attitudes to language change – descriptive and proscriptive.

redbtn A descriptive attitude is one which accepts the inevitability of change in language. It concentrates on describing the way in which language is evolving like any other living phenomenon.

redbtn For instance, if ‘disinterested’ is being used to mean ‘uninterested’ by a sufficiently large number of speakers, this is charted as a feature of development rather than a cause for outrage.

redbtn Language is seen in this descriptive context as a self-perpetuating and highly functional system. This system adopts and discards terms to suit the communication needs of the people using it.

redbtn A descriptive approach to language change is one in which the rules of language are seen as patterns which emerge naturally and historically, and particularly the structural patterns which are crucial to the viability of the language in question.

redbtn For example, a descriptive rule of English is that of word order. A representative English sentence follows the sequence Subject–Verb–Object.

redbtn This particular rule is specially significant for its role in the development and change of the English language. This is because over the centuries word order has taken the place of inflections, and comprehensibility depends on it.

redbtn For example, the utterance ‘The dog bit the man’ comprises the same content as ‘The man bit the dog’ but the meaning is totally altered by the reversal of the position of the two nouns ‘man’ and ‘dog’.

redbtn A prescriptive attitude to language change is one which supports the desire to impose linguistic rules rather than to observe developing patterns.

redbtn Prescriptiveness is shown in attempts to fix or mend the language, which is thought to be in constant danger of erosion or demise. This deterioration is usually perceived as the result of contamination from foreign influx, or from lazy use by some of its native speakers.

redbtn Prescriptive rules are those superficial prohibitions which speak more of etiquette and prestige than of linguistic functionality.

redbtn An example of such a rule is that which forbids the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence – as in ‘Who did you go with?’

redbtn Winston Churchill’s well known utterance ‘Up with this I will not put’ demonstrates the ridiculous result of following such a rule.

redbtn This and many other prescriptive rules originally belonged to Latin. They were spuriously imposed on English during the eighteenth century when Latin was thought to be a perfect language and therefore a suitable blueprint for English grammar.

redbtn Many of the irregularities of English grammar have their origins in this imposition of Latin. However, linguists take the descriptive view that although this influence was artificial and forced, it was just one of the means by which English has evolved.

redbtn The foreign influences creating language change in English occurred chronologically as follows:

  • Native Celts invaded by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.
  • Celts driven out, along with the Celtic language.
  • Angles, Saxons, and Jutes settle in England (Angle-land).
  • They use Anglo-Saxon of various dialects.
  • Scandinavians invade and settle alongside Anglo-Saxons.
  • Their languages eventually merge.
  • Norman conquests and French settlement create diglossia.
  • English and French co-exist for separate functions.

redbtn Language changes according to the changing needs of its users. It adapts to fulfil any linguistic function demanded of it. In this respect it can be seen as a highly efficient system.

redbtn The essential character of language as a universal human system does not change, but the intrinsic mechanisms within it allow individual languages to respond to the triggers for change.

redbtn Some triggers which have resulted in changes in English language:

  • politicalforeign invasion by Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Scandinavians, French in the
    period AD 500—1400
  • socialforeign influences from Latin, French, American, Australian, Indian, Afro-Carribean
  • culturalexposure of one language group to another via television, radio, and films
  • geographicalproximity between different language groups, such as Black and Asian immigrants
  • technologicalrapid advances in information technology and genetic engineering
  • moralrecent developments in anti-racism and environmentalism

redbtn Grammar, because it is the structure of a language, is very slow to change compared with vocabulary which can be seen as fairly superficial and ephemeral.

redbtn Two significant grammatical changes have occurred during the history of the English language – the loss of inflections, and the transition of verbs and nouns from ‘strong’ to ‘weak’.

redbtn The loss of inflections. English, up to and during the Anglo-Saxon period, had word-endings which indicated the function of individual words in any utterance.

redbtn Word order has replaced the inflections in English in indicating the function of the components of an utterance.

redbtn For example, in the utterance “Faeder ure swa eart in heofenum” [Our Father who art in heaven] the words ‘father’ [subject] ‘our’ [adjective] ‘art’ [verb, present tense] and ‘heaven’ [adverb] all have endings which indicate their grammatical function.

redbtn As the modern English version demonstrates, these inflections are no longer in existence. The only remaining inflection in English is the possessive ‘s’ in a phrase such as ‘Jennifer’s Diary’.

redbtn The transition from ‘strong’ to ‘weak’. During the Anglo-Saxon period, most English verbs were ‘strong ‘ which means that the word changed radically when expressed in the past tense.

redbtn The technical definition of a strong verb is ‘one which changes its stem vowel in the preterite.’

redbtn Currently, English has a few remaining strong verbs: ‘ride’ which becomes ‘rode’ in the past; ‘strive’ which becomes ‘strove’; ‘come’ which becomes ‘came’; and ‘lie’ which becomes ‘lay’.

redbtn The majority of English verbs are classified as ‘weak’. Weak in this context is a purely grammatical term and it relates to the fact that most verbs can be expressed in the past tense by the addition of a dental ending – the final sound in ‘slept’, ‘jumped’ or ‘mended’.

redbtn It seems that eventually all verbs will follow the same trend and that all strong verbs will become weak.

redbtn Strong nouns are those which do not become plural by the addition of the sound ‘s’ or ‘es’ in the plural. The plurals of nouns such as ‘mouse’ ‘sheep’ ‘narcissus’ and ‘ox’ are ‘mice’, ‘sheep’, ‘narcissi’, and ‘oxen’. These are all examples of the few remaining strong nouns in English. Speculation has it that these items will eventually follow the trend in which strong becomes weak.

redbtn Lexical change. Vocabulary changes much more rapidly than does the grammar of any language.

redbtn Grammatical changes have occurred during the course of centuries, whereas a new word phrase or lexical form may enter the language during a matter of only weeks.

redbtn This is because of the relatively superficial significance of lexis compared with the radical function of grammar in a language. Grammar is the basic working system or structure, and as such must remain constant for the perpetuation of the language.

redbtn Some of the mechanisms for lexical change are as follows:

  • coinagemaking up new terms, such as ‘wordprocessor’ and ‘skateboard’
  • ameliorationa word acquires a new positive meaning, as for instance ‘naughty’ used to mean ‘wicked’ but now means ‘mischievous’
  • pejorationa word acquires a new negative meaning, as for instance ‘wicked’ is now used as a slang term to mean ‘exciting’ whereas it used to mean ‘cruel’
  • borrowingtaking a word from another language, as for instance ‘restaurant’ [French] ‘patio’ [Spanish] ‘verandah’ [Indian]
  • eliminationterms being discarded from regular use, as for instance ‘tithing’ [giving a tenth of your earnings to the church]

redbtn Language efficiency. Language as a system is very efficient at adapting to new circumstances and incorporating new phenomena.

redbtn For instance, information technology has recently developed very rapidly. The English language has generated many terms by which to describe the new phenomena. Terms such as ‘floppy disk’, ‘on-line’, ‘Internet’, and ’email’ did not exist thirty years ago.

redbtn In the world of politics, the term ‘doughnutting’ is used to describe the practice of MPs crowding together for the benefit of the TV camera. This is a new term for a new phenomenon.

redbtn The term ‘road rage’ is now used to express violence and aggression among drivers. In this case however it is not the phenomenon which is new, but social attitudes towards it. This in itself has been the trigger for linguistic innovation.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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