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.
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
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
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:
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:
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
use of shillings
use of wireless
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 (
(Picture on the right:
Labov’s study of rhoticity in
All accents were originally rhotic. Non-rhotic accents
began to appear in
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
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
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
The centripetal force is at work here. There is a pull towards what is considered prestigious or ‘correct’.
(Picture on the right:
Peter Trudgill on
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
In one of his studies, he was interested in the glottal
stop. (The IPA symbol is [?]).The glottal stop is used in some
(Picture on the left:
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.)
(On the left: Map of
Labov’s experiment based on the English in
‘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
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
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.
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
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
However, this does not account for some sound changes: for example,
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:
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.
Differences in the human or urban environment, would also result in distinctive lexis:
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:
Science also required the use of new structures.
I poured the chemical into the jar and it exploded [parataxis]
Because I poured the chemical into the jar, it exploded [hypotaxis]
Because the chemical was poured into the jar, it exploded [passivisation]
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.
More examples: colour terms, etc.
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 plea for a ‘moderate’ version of linguistic determinism
Reasons for a moderate version
Language is like:
The new model
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
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).
CSE as a creole
Change can be related to:
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’.