Language change: Wikis


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Language change is the phenomenon whereby phonetic, morphological, semantic, syntactic, and other features of language vary over time. All languages change continually. At any given moment the English language, for example, has a huge variety within itself: descriptive linguists call this variety synchronic variation. From these different forms comes the effect on language over time known as diachronic change. Two linguistic disciplines in particular concern themselves with studying language change: historical linguistics and sociolinguistics. Historical linguists examine how people in the past used language and seek to determine how subsequent languages derive from previous ones and relate to one another. Sociolinguists study the origins of language changes and want to explain how society and changes in society influence language.


Causes of language change

  1. economy: Speakers tend to make their utterances as efficient and effective as possible to reach communicative goals. Purposeful speaking therefore involves a trade-off of costs and benefits.
  2. analogy
  3. language contact
  4. the medium of communication
  5. cultural environment: Groups of speakers will reflect new places, situations, and objects in their language, whether they encounter different people there or not

Types of language change

All languages change constantly, and do so in many and varied ways. Each generation notes how other generations "talk funny".


Lexical changes

The study of lexical changes forms the diachronic portion of the science of onomasiology.

The ongoing influx of new words in the English language (for example) helps make it a rich field for investigation into language change, despite the difficulty of defining precisely and accurately the vocabulary available to speakers of English. Throughout its history English has not only borrowed words extravagantly from other languages but has re-combined and recycled them to create new meanings, whilst losing some old words.

Dictionary-writers try to keep track of the changes in languages by recording (and, ideally, dating) the appearance in a language of new words, or of new usages for existing words. By the same token, they may tag some words as "archaic" or "obsolete".

Phonetic and phonological changes

The concept of sound change covers both phonetic and phonological developments.

The sociolinguist William Labov famously recorded the change in pronunciation in a relatively short period in the American resort of Martha’s Vineyard and showed how this resulted from social tensions and processes.[1] Even in the relatively short time that broadcast media have recorded their work, we can observe the difference between the "marked" pronunciation of the newsreaders of the 1940s and the 1950s and the more neutral, "unmarked" pronunciation of today. The greater acceptance and fashionability of regional accents in media may also reflect a more democratic, less formal society — compare the widespread adoption of language policies.

The mapping and recording of small-scale phonological changes poses difficulties, especially as the practical technology of sound recording dates only from the 19th century. So the main evidence we have of how language has changed over the centuries is written evidence of what human languages have sounded like. But note Ferdinand de Saussure's work on postulating the existence and disappearance of laryngeals in Proto-Indo-European as an example of other methods of detecting/reconstructing sound-changes within historical linguistics.

Spelling changes

The modern obsession with spelling in the West originated in relatively recent times. Differences in spelling often catch the eye of a reader of a text from a previous century. In the pre-print era, when literacy was much less common, languages lacked a fixed system of orthography, and in the handwritten manuscripts that survive, words are spelt according to regional pronunciation and personal preference.

The development of the printing press, however, presented printers with dilemmas of standardisation: texts from the fifteenth through to the seventeenth centuries show many internal inconsistencies, with the same word often spelled differently within the same text. Writers contributed to the variety: famously, Shakespeare spelled his own name in many different ways. Additionally, typesetters sometimes selected various spellings based on typographical criteria, such as aiming for uniform line-lengths when assembling type pieces on a composing stick. It being easier to make one of the lines of type longer than to make the other lines shorter, word lengths tended to standardize on the longer spellings.

Modern English spellings do not result from a single consistent system; rather, they show evidence of previous pronunciations which changed over time. For example, the spelling of words such as "night" would have suggested an older pronunciation, the "gh" representing a sound similar to that conveyed by "ch" in the Scottish pronunciation of loch. Other examples include the 'k'-sound once pronounced in words like "knee" or "knight", and the 'ch' in 'chicken' and 'cheese', which was once pronounced as 'k'.

One could regard many of the conventions of English spelling as stuck in the 15th century: William Caxton chose the East Midland dialect (specifically the London variety) of English for his first printed English-language work in 1476. He had to discriminate against many synonyms used in other areas of England (such as the East Anglia, Northumberland and Mercia). For example, the Southern word 'eyren' was mutually unintelligible with the Northern equivalent, 'egges' (modern 'eggs').

Semantic changes

The appearance of a new word marks only the beginning of its existence. Once generally adopted as part of the language, the meanings and applications it has for speakers can shift dramatically, to the point of causing misunderstandings. For example, "villain" once meant a peasant, or farmhand, but has come to mean a criminal individual in modern English. This exemplifies a word that has undergone pejoration, which means that a negative association has become attached to it. Conversely, other words have undergone amelioration, where a positive meaning comes to be understood. Thus, the word 'wicked' (generally meaning 'evil'), as of 2009 means 'brilliant' in slang or in a colloquial context.

Other ways of semantic change include narrowing and broadening. Narrowing a word semantically limits its alternative meanings. For example the word "girl" once meant 'a young child' and "hound" (Old English hund) referred to any dog, whereas as of 2009 it demotes a particular type of canid. Examples of words that have been broadened semantically include 'dog' (which once meant a particular breed).

Syntactic change

If one regards a language as vocabulary cast into the mould of a particular syntax (with functional items maintaining the basic structure of a sentence and with the lexical items filling in the blanks), syntactic change no doubt plays the greatest role in modifying the physiognomy of a particular language. Syntactic change affects grammar in its morphological and syntactic aspects and is seen as gradual, the product of chain reactions and subject to cyclic drift.[2] The view of creole languages as the product of catastrophism is heavily disputed. Altintas, Can, and Patton (2007) introduce a systematic approach to language change quantification by studying unconsciously-used language features in time-separated parallel translations. For this purpose, they use objective style markers such as vocabulary richness and lengths of words, word stems and suffixes, and employ statistical methods to measure their changes over time.

Sociolinguistics and language change

The sociolinguist Jennifer Coates, following William Labov, describes linguistic change as occurring in the context of linguistic heterogeneity. She explains that “[l]inguistic change can be said to have taken place when a new linguistic form, used by some sub-group within a speech community, is adopted by other members of that community and accepted as the norm.”[3]

See also


  1. ^ William Labov, 1963. "The social motivation of a sound change." Word 19.273-309. The 1963 study is widely recognized as a seminal work in the foundation of sociolinguistics.
  2. ^ Henri Wittmann (1983). "Les réactions en chaîne en morphologie diachronique". Actes du Colloque de la Société internationale de linguistique fonctionnelle 10.285-92.
  3. ^ Coates, 1992: 169


  • Altintas, K., Can, F., Patton, J. M., "Language change quantification using time-separated parallel translations." Literary & Linguistic Computing. Vol. 22, No. 4 (November 2007), pp. 375–393.
  • Coates, J. (1992), Women, Men and Language, Second Edition, Essex.
  • Labov, William (1994, 2001), Principles of Linguistic Change (vol.I Internal Factors, 1994; vol.II Social Factors, 2001), Blackwell.
  • Wardhaugh, R. (1986), An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Oxford/ New York.
  • Wittmann, H. (1983), "Les réactions en chaîne en morphologie diachronique". Actes du Colloque de la Société internationale de linguistique fonctionnelle 10.285–92.

External links

  • Sounds Familiar? The British Library website provides audio examples of changing accents and dialects from across the UK.


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