Language change

Language change

Language change is the manner in which the phonetic, morphological, semantic, syntactic, and other features of a language are modified over time. All languages are continually changing. At any given moment the English language, for example, has a huge variety within itself, and this variety is known as synchronic variation. From these different forms comes the effect on language over time known as diachronic change. Two linguistic disciplines concern themselves with studying language change: historical linguistics and sociolinguistics. Historical linguists examine how a language was spoken in the past and seek to determine how present languages derive from it and are related to one another. Sociolinguists are interested in 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 their communicative goals. Speaking involves therefore a planning of costs and benefits.

2. Analogy

3. Language contact

4. The medium of communication

Types of language change

All languages are constantly changing. The causes are many and varied.

Lexical changes

The constant influx of new words in the English language would make it an obvious choice of investigation into language change, although it is difficult to define 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. The study of lexical changes is the task of onomasiology.

Dictionary writers try to keep track of the change in language by recording the appearance in the language of new words, or new usages for old words.

Phonetic and phonological changes

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 was the result of social tensions and processes. [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.] Even in the relatively short time that broadcast media have been available, 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 the media may also reflect a more democratic, less formal society.

Small-scale phonological changes are difficult to map and record, especially as the technology of sound recording only goes back a hundred years or so. So the only evidence we have of how language has changed over the centuries is written evidence of what human languages have sounded like.

pelling changes

The modern obsession with spelling is a fairly recent trend in the West Fact|date=July 2008. Differences in spelling are very often the most immediately obvious thing about a text from a previous century. In the pre-print era, when literacy was much less common, there was no fixed system 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: texts from the fifteenth through to the seventeenth centuries show many internal inconsistencies, with the same word often being spelled differently within the same text. Famously, Shakespeare spelled his own name in many different ways. Additionally, they were tempted to choose from the various spellings based on typographical criterion, e.g. to get 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.

Unfortunately modern spellings were not the result of a single consistent system; rather, they show evidence of previous pronunciations which had changed over time. For example, the spelling of words such as "night" would have represented the original pronunciation, the "gh" representing a sound similar to that found in the Scottish "loch". Other examples include the 'k' in 'knee' and 'knight' that were previously pronounced and the 'ch' in 'chicken' and 'cheese', which was once pronounced as 'k'.

It could be said that English spelling is stuck in the 15th Century, when William Caxton chose the East Midland dialect i.e. London (Wessex) variety of English for his first print in 1476. He had to discriminate against many duplicate words used in other areas of England (such as the East Anglia, Northumberland and Mercia). For example, the Southern word 'eyren' was unintelligible with the Northern equivalent, 'egges' (modern 'eggs').

emantic changes

The appearance of a new word is only the beginning of its existence. Once it becomes 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 means a criminal individual in modern English. This is an example of a word that has undergone pejoration, which means that a negative meaning has come to be attached to it. Conversely, other words have undergone amelioration, where a positive meaning comes to be understood. Thus, the word 'wicked' (generally meaning 'evil') now means 'brilliant' in slang or in a colloquial context.

Other semantic change includes 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 'all dogs', and now it means a particular type. Examples of words that have been broadened semantically include 'dog' (which once meant a particular breed).

yntactic change

To the extent that a language is vocabulary cast into the mould of a particular syntax and that the basic structure of the sentence is held together by functional items, with the lexical items filling in the blanks, syntactic change is no doubt what modifies most deeply 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. [Henri Wittmann (1983). "Les réactions en chaîne en morphologie diachronique." "Actes du Colloque de la Société internationale de linguistique fonctionnelle" 10.285-92. [] ] The view that creole languages are 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.

ociolinguistics 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.” [Coates, 1992: 169]

Language change has been induced by a number of factors over the centuries. In modern times language change is for example being brought about by technology. The internet and mobile technology have altered language with the use of instant messaging and texting from mobile phones.

ee also

* Historical linguistics
* Sociolinguistics
* William Caxton
* Oxford English Dictionary



*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?] Visit the British Library website to listen to changing accents and dialects from across the UK

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