Reasons for Language Change


The notion of change

How did language become so diverse? There seems to be a tendency for language to split up, and it is worthwhile examining the reasons for this. Is language change a good thing or a bad thing?


Many automatically assume that change must necessarily bad. Take this letter written to David Crystal, an expert on the English language, at the time when he hosted a BBC radio programme on the English language and invited comments from listeners.

Dear Sirs
I would appreciate your view about why so many eminent authorities of English, who must know better, should gravitate so abjectly to the regrettable tendency that if enough idiots say something wrong it becomes right; instead of endeavouring to educate these same idiots into some appreciation of the beauty found by using the many shades of meaning in our very versatile language.…


I find it interesting that the writer prefers non-core lexical items (eminent authorities rather than experts; gravitate rather than be sympathetic to, abjectly rather than in such a humiliating way; and so on. On the other hand, he/she uses ‘idiots’: a lexical item suggesting strong value judgement. And there is a strong assumption that there is a clear right and wrong; and that change is ugly.


Or take the following article, taken from The Times, a London broadsheet.

            It’s just not on. The sloppy language of Britain’s most articulate 18-year-olds has taken a hammering from one of Britain’s biggest A-level examination boards … Take the A-level history student whose analysis of Martin Luther’s excommunication by the Catholic church was direct, to say the least. ‘Luther came in for a lot of stick,’ the candidate wrote. Or the pupil who summed up the radical theology of John Calvin, the 16th century Protestant reformer, with the words: ‘Calvin’s ideas were over the top’

            It is a worrying trend towards colloquialism that A-level examiners from their London examining boards say is increasing. They also complain of poor spelling, grammar and handwriting … (26 December 1993)


The article imitates the colloquial language that is being complained about in the first sentence. Do you think over-colloquial language is a problem in the context of exams?


Finally, have a look at this extract from Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.


‘I am summoned to see the headmistress at morning break on Monday,’ said Miss Brodie. ‘I have no doubt Miss Mackay wishes to question my methods of instruction … The word “education” comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust’ (p. 37)


You will recall the terms root and stem in our discussion of morphology. Miss Brodie has given morphological and etymological analyses of education and intrusion. But then she proceeds to assume that the original Latin meanings are the correct meanings of the words in English. (This is sometimes known as the etymological fallacy.) Do you agree that the original meaning or the etymological meaning of a word is its correct meaning?


So, is change to be welcomed or not? If you accept the change = degeneration, you might then say:

  • if meanings change, how can we be sure of what anybody means?’
  • ‘I took all this trouble learning the language properly; why should these people get away with not putting in the same effort that I have put?’
  • it’s so ugly!’


The negative view was certainly prevalent among linguists (philologists) in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Here are a couple of quotations.


A language may become greatly altered by the excessive prevalence of the wearing out processes, abandoning much which in other languages is retained and valued. It is necessary that we take notice of the disorganizing and destructive workings of this tendency … (W D Whitney 1904: 75)


That phonetic evolution is a disturbing force is now obvious. Wherever it does not create alternations, it helps to loosen the grammatical bonds between words; the total number of forms is uselessly increased, the linguistic mechanism is obscured and complicated to the extent that the irregularities born of phonetic change win out over the forms grouped under general patterns … (Ferdinand de Saussure 1949: 161)


However, if we accept that change = adaptation (evolution), we might then say:

  • If people who live in the world have to constantly learn information about the world (what new trade blocs have been formed? who’s taken over as prime minister?), we also have to constantly ‘update’ our information about language. So, through this process, we know that we cannot use gay to mean carefree and happy as people did thirty years ago.
  • The first charge of imprecision we’ll probably need to take a little more seriously. I suspect that most of the time, there is really very little ambiguity because the context and the surrounding text usually makes the meaning clear.


How do we cope with the charge of ambiguity? For example, the word presently meant ‘currently’ up until about Shakespeare’s time. However, in British English today, the word usually means ‘shortly’ or ‘soon’. Today, the earlier meaning has been revived. (The earlier sense of the word has been preserved in any case in some British and American dialects.) Appeal to the ‘original’ meaning is unavailing because we don’t know how far back we have to go. In spite of the contrasting meaning, during the times I have encountered the word, there has been no ambiguity as to the meaning of the word. (Think of sentences like: ‘I’m presently in charge of the sales division’ and ‘I’ll attend to that presently’.) It seems to me that imprecision and ambiguity is very often not an issue.


Recent examples of change

Some suggest that language change cannot be observed. But in my own lifetime, I am aware of changes in the language:

o    pronunciation of nephew

o    use of shillings in Singapore

o    use of wireless in Britain


Change and identity

Sometimes change is related to an individual’s or a community’s sense of identity. In other words, some individuals/communities (and therefore their linguistic style) might exercise some sort of attractive pull. They might be considered prestigious or proper or correct or fashionable or hip. The sociolinguists Bob le Page (University of York) and Andrée Tabouret-Keller (University of Strasbourg) talk about acts of identity in their book of the same name.

New York skyline

(Picture on the right: New York: United Nations building in the foreground)


Labov’s study of rhoticity in New York

All accents were originally rhotic.  Non-rhotic accents began to appear in London and Boston in the 18th century. This spread to New York too, as many immigrants were from East Anglia.

In 1917, linguist Edward Sturtevant wrote: ‘A strong western r is a distinct hindrance to a man who is trying to make his way in the East or the South of the United States.’ This seems to indicate that the New York accent was clearly non-rhotic at this time. Change seems to have occurred around the time of World War II, the prestige variety changed to a rhotic one.

Statue of Liberty

Labov had a hunch that this variation was not random. It has been observed by many that shop assistants usually imitate the accent of their customers. So, he chose three Manhattan stores which were distinguishable in terms of their status, and the kinds of customers they attracted: Saks Fifth Avenue (high), Macy’s (mid) and S. Klein (low). He subsequently asked for goods that might be found on the fourth floor, and asked for the answer to be repeated.

The result was that there was a higher percentage of r’s in the Saks; a higher percentage of r’s when shop assistants were asked to repeat their response.


He concluded that social stratification could be observed through language use in New York.

The centripetal force is at work here. There is a pull towards what is considered prestigious or ‘correct’.

Norwich castle

(Picture on the right: Norwich castle)


Peter Trudgill on Norwich English

Sometimes, the change can be temporary. The British linguist Peter Trudgill noticed that his own style of speaking changed when speaking to different informants when he conducted face-to-face interviews with them in Norwich, England.


In one of his studies, he was interested in the glottal stop. (The IPA symbol is [?]).The glottal stop is used in some UK (and some other) accents to replace ‘t’: better or little or a lot of it ["bE?@, @"lQ?@vI?]. Some varieties of RP might have the glottal stop in words like apartment [@"pA;?m@nt].  In some Singaporean pronunciations: pack [pE?] or mat [mE?].


Norwich cathedral

(Picture on the left: Norwich cathedral at night)


Trudgill noticed that he used more glottal stops when talking to people who also used more glottal stops. His explanation was that he was trying to reduce social distance by unconsciously picking up features of their accent.


The accommodation theory states that speakers will converge towards their interlocutor when they wish to reduce social distance, or get on with one another. They will diverge (ie become linguistically less similar) when they wish to emphasise their distinctiveness or increase social distance.


Trudgill also investigated the alternation between the pronunciation of -ing. The standard pronunciation is -ing [iN] whereas earlier, it was -in’ [In]. When he investigated this, internal distinctions were seen. The men seem to be pulling one way, and the women another. Generally, women are more status conscious than men and want to ‘speak better’ whereas men admire masculinity and toughness. (See the diagram below.)


Labov on Martha’s Vineyard

Map of Martha's Vineyard

(On the left: Map of Martha’s Vineyard. Tisbury and Oak Bluffs are in Down-Island; Gay Head is in Up-Island)


Labov’s experiment based on the English in Martha’s Vineyard, an island about three miles off the east coast of mainland USA. The island had a permanent local population of 6,000 but about 40,000 or so visitors or ‘summer people’ who come to the island every year, especially in the summer. The locals mainly live in ‘Up-Island’, the western part of the island – rural and undeveloped

summer people’ have property in ‘Down-Island’, the north-eastern part of the island – well developed. He was interested in the sound of the diphthongs [eI] and [aU] (as in foul and fine), mainly the former. Some of the local folk had diphthongs that started off as schwas, ie [@I] and [@U]. (You might want to think of this in relation to our discussion about the Great Vowel Shift.)


(Picture below: Rugged landscape in Martha’s Vineyard and an interesting sign)


'No nude bathing': Martha's VineyardLabov devised questions that elicited words containing the diphthongs, and he took note of which pronunciation was produced.  He tabulated his scores against the different age groups and found the local diphthongs prominent in the 31–45 age group, but least in the over 75 age group.  The local diphthongs were also more prominent in Up-Island than Down-Island. The diphthong was particularly prominent in a group of fishermen in Up-Island. The movement seems to be away from the norm, and not towards the norm as in New York speech. 


Hence this seems to be centrifugal, with emphasis on ‘we are different’, rather than ‘we are like you’. The locals disapproved of the summer people, and approved of the old fishermen.  The former epitomised indolent, consumerist values; whereas the latter epitomised good old Yankee virtues: independence, skill, physical strength, and courage. Interestingly, the movement is not only away from one ‘centre’, but also towards another ‘centre’. There is the push away from one, working together with a pull towards another one. This can be represented diagrammatically as below.

Diagram: centripetal/centrifugal force



A mega sand sculpure

Stabilisation: a natural change

It is also possible to look at the internal system of a language and discover internal forces at work. We can think of this in terms of

  • stabilisation
  • regularisation
  • simplification
  • the ‘principle of least effort’

It is often useful to think of this by means of an analogy. 

For example, if you build a sand castle on the beach, we expect the castle to be disappear when the tide comes in. ‘Nature’ seems to smoothen out the irregular landscape. The peaks are flattened and the dips are filled in. A word that is difficult to pronounce such as Old English hlafordum underwent simplification and deletion to lord.

Example: plural system

  • In PDE, the general rule for forming plurals seems to be: ‘add -s or -es to form a plural’. In OE:
    • cwencwene (queens),
    • scipscipu (ships),
    • hundhundas (dogs),
    • sunusuna (sons),
    • eaga-eagan (eyes), and
    • word–word (words).
  • The system is complicated; therefore we can describe this as an unstable feature
  • By Shakespeare’s time (around 1600), the choice was reduced mainly to between -(e)s and -(e)n, as in eyen (eyes), shooen (shoes) and housen (houses).
  • There is a continued tendency to regularise irregularities, for example, the foreign plural systems used in English being replaced by the normal English plural system: formulas v. formulae; appendixes v. appendicesdata and datas (seldom datum); agenda and agendas (seldom agendum); graffiti and graffitis (seldom graffito) – spaghetti is plural in Italian, but singular in English.
  • Today then we are still left with ‘irregular’ plurals, some of which descended from Old English – generally everyday words: man–men; child–children; sheep–sheep; goose–geese. The irregular plural of brother (brethren) is becoming increasingly rare, even in religious contexts; the regular brothers is now preferred.  The other irregular plurals are from other languages, particularly Latin and Greek (phenomenon–phenomena; analysis–analyses).


However, this does not account for some sound changes: for example,

  • in the shift in some British accents towards using the glottal stop [?] instead of [th] in matter does not involve less effort;
  • the shift of New York /aI/  from [aI] to [Q;I]  in words like might involves lengthening and a more complex diphthong.


Language and thought (reality)

We can also think of a reason for language change that is related to the way language and thought are related. Let us start with a rather tentative and commonsensical model:

  • sees new thing arrow-R experience it arrow-R name it
  • made-up word or an old word used in a related or new way; a combination of several old words; a word borrowed from another language?

arrow-R  language reflects new physical, environmental, social or cultural situations. 

Different language for different realities.

Examples in lexis include different lexical items for the physical landscape.

  • bluff, creek, gulch, rapids and swamp in North America;
  • coomb (cwm), fen, heath and moor in Britain; and
  • bush, paddock and outback in Australia.

Differences in the human or urban environment, would also result in distinctive lexis:

  • dhobi (washerman), dhoti (loin-cloth), lathi (long, heavy stick), sahib (sir, master), tiffin (luncheon) and charpoy (light bedstead) in South Asia or the Indian subcontinent; and
  • shophouses, void decks, five-foot-way, the MRT, HDB flats in Singapore.
  • Some South Asian lexis familiar to Singaporeans (dhobi, tiffin and charpoy), some ‘internationalised’ as people become familiar with South Asian culture (dhoti).


Another example of a new reality is the new reality of science? Doing science hasn’t been something that was done in the past. Indeed, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ (L P Hartly, The Go-Between). Presumably the future is like a foreign country. With the rise of science and empiricism, a new set of vocabulary and a new style of grammar were required. When science first began to be ‘done’, lexical expansion was necessary. This happened:

  • By borrowing words from Latin (the traditional language for doing science) — altitude (15 c.), stria (16 c.)
  • By borrowing words from Arabic — azimuth (14 c.), alcohol (17 c.), algebra (16 c.)
  • Borrow words from Greek — diagonal (16 c.), hypotenuse (16 c.)
  • By refashioning existing word — mean in maths (16 c.), gravity (= weightiness) to gravity (=force, in physics; 17 c.)
  • By using someone’s name — pasteurise (19 c.), Boyle’s law (19 c., although interesting the scientist lived in the 17th century)


Science also required the use of new structures.

I poured the chemical into the jar and it exploded [parataxis]

arrow-R  Because I poured the chemical into the jar, it exploded [hypotaxis]

arrow-R  Because the chemical was poured into the jar, it exploded [passivisation]

arrow-R  The contact of the chemical and glass resulted in an explosion [nominalisation]

Re-evaluating the diagram

However, some people suggest that the model that we used in the diagram above is too naïve, for two reasons:

(a) the ‘thing’ can be less straightforward than it seems; and

(b) perhaps the directionality of the arrows is also less straightforward.

Example: shapes

  • there is one kind of ‘thing’ here — geometrical shapes;
  • there are two kinds of ‘things’ — rectangles and circles;
  • there are four kinds of ‘things’ — squares, rectangles, circles and oval shapes.

More examples: colour terms, etc.

  • In Zuni, there is one word for both orange and yellow in English.
  • The Welsh word glas covers the same range as the English green, blue and grey.
  • Malay has two words kami and kita for English we. Kami is the ‘exclusive’ we (ie not including the hearer) and kita is the ‘inclusive’ we
  • Cantonese has two words yeh-yeh and kung-kung for English grandfather. Yeh-yeh is the paternal grandfather whereas kung-kung is the maternal grandfather.
  • The English word privacy cannot be easily translated into many other languages. Perhaps English recognises ‘privacy’ as a ‘thing’, but not other languages?


Another model

Each language or dialect ‘traps’ us into a particular view of things, and communication between speakers of different languages and dialects cannot be totally complete, as each language and dialect divides up experience differently.

Whorfism (Linguistic determinism)

  • A Zuni speaker might just ‘see’ one ‘thing’, whereas an English speaker two ‘things’ — precisely because of the languages that they speak.
  • A Welsh speaker might just ‘see’ one ‘thing’, whereas an English speaker three ‘things’ — precisely because of the languages that they speak.
  • This is known as linguistic determinism, or the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or simply Whorfism.

A plea for a ‘moderate’ version of linguistic determinism

Hudson: Most people accept a moderate version of the hypothesis, and suggest that it is possible to think thoughts that cannot be easily verbalised in one’s own language. However, different languages predispose their speakers to different thoughts. . . . It seems clear that the extreme hypothesis is wrong.


Reasons for a moderate version

  • Studies also suggest that speakers can also imagine or think of things that have not been encoded by their own languages or dialects. We can imagine things and experience which we cannot label. We can think about experiences that are in some sense ‘ineffable’ or ‘indescribable’, although this does mean that it is rather more difficult to think about them. This suggests therefore that it is possible to escape from the ‘prison house’ of language.
  • But our native language encourages us to think in a particular way.


Three metaphors

Language is like:

  • a receptacle
  • a prison
  • a pair of blinkers


Two quotations:

  • ‘He gave men speech, and speech created thought, which is the measure of the universe’ (P B Shelley, the 19th-century poet, Prometheus Unbound, Act 2 sc. 4, l. 72)
  • ‘Expression is the dress of thought’ (Alexander Pope, the 18-century poet, Essay on Criticism Part 2, l. 318)


The new model

  • How then is this a reason for language change?
  • If we accept that languages and dialects ‘reflect’ in some way the perspectives (‘thoughts’) of the speakers, then we must accept that if their perspectives change, the language or dialect has to change concomitantly.
  • Similarly, if a language is adopted by ‘non-traditional’ speakers who have different cultural perspectives, then the language must adapt itself to these new perspectives as well.

Language contact and pidginisation (creolisation)

A pidgin (eg Bazaar Malay in 60s) is a temporary language that arises out different linguistic communities needing to communicate. (The process of creating a pidgin is called pidginisation.) A pidgin that is learnt as a mother tongue (eg Baba Malay in 60s) is called a ‘creole’. (The process of creating a creole is called creolisation.) Sometimes, these creoles become languages in their own right. New languages or new varieties of languages can therefore arise out of these situations of language contact.


English as a creole?

For a long time, Old English had contact with Norse and Danish (from Scandinavia). For a long time too, there was contact with Norman French, and then central or Parisian French, and also with Latin. Some argue that this led to a process of pidginisation of English. English — standard English — can therefore be considered a ‘bastard’ language. Some people argue that English is so acceptable internationally because it is so very accepting when it comes to new words, so accommodating when it comes to being influenced by other languages.


Example: Latin influence

It could be argued that the hypotactic structure – result of contact between English and Latin? Up until a couple of centuries ago, most Western scholars could be expected to be fairly fluent in Latin because there were so many learned and scholarly writings in Latin. Their knowledge of Latin could be said to have influenced their English writing style and some writers are known to have deliberately cultivated a Latinate style — including writers like John Milton (Paradise Lost, Paradise Regain’d).


Latin today?

  • Many of our common abbreviations in today’s English come from Latin: eg = exempli gratia [for the sake of example]; ie = id est [that is]; etc. = et cetera [and others]; a.m. = ante meridiem [before noon]; p.m. = post meridiem [after noon].
  • Our symbol for ‘and’ (the ampersand) is basically a decorative way of writing et, Latin for ‘and’.  (For more information, go to


CSE as a creole

Language planning

  • Crystal: Language planning is a term used in sociolinguistics to refer to a systematic attempt to solve the communication problems of a community by studying the various languages or dialects it uses and developing a realistic policy concerning their selection and use; often referred to as language engineering.
  • prestigious or powerful body, like to government, to take control and dictate that a particular variety should be chosen as the standard, and then standardised, and popularised through codification in dictionaries, grammars and other texts.
  • need to accelerate the process which would otherwise take a long time.
  • Governments have had a deliberate hand in planning Swahili in Tanzania, Mandarin in China, Bahasa Indonesia, and Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea. Standardisation in English is however only partly deliberate.



Change can be related to:

  • attraction/repulsion (identity)
  • regularisation
  • world views and realities
  • language contact
  • language planning/engineering


When you’re ready to take the quiz based on this topic, go to the LumiNUS page and click on ‘Quiz’ on the left, and then on ‘Reasons for change’.


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