Move back one step  Move forward one step 
Larger font Smaller font Default font

The nature of language change

Motivation for change

Any treatment of linguistics must address the question of language change. The way languages change offers insights into the nature of language itself and the possible answers to why languages change tell us about the way language is used in society, about how it is acquired by individuals and may reveal to us something about its internal organisation.

However, students should grasp from the beginning that there is no simple explanation for why languages change. This is an area in which there is much speculation and little proof; the area is an interesting and fruitful one but there are few if any direct answers. For this reason historical linguistics has traditionally been concerned with how languages evolve and not why they do so in one particular direction and not in another. To begin this section now it would seem appropriate to start with a number of statements about what we know of language change. Each of these elements of language change requires discussion which will be offered presently.

1) All languages change There is no such thing as a language which is not changing. The rate of change may vary considerably due to both internal and external factors. English for example has changed enormously since Old English, due on the one hand, to internal factors, the seeds of which may well have been set even before the language came to England in the 5th century, and on the other hand due to political and social developments in the late Old and Middle English period with the Scandinavian and Norman invasions. German on the other hand has retained its complex morphological system with little simplification over the centuries.

2) All languages change continuously This may be stating the obvious but it should be borne in mind.

3) Language change is largely regular This states that, while one cannot predict in what direction a language will change, one can recognise regularities in the type of change which languages undergo.

CONSCIOUSNESS OF CHANGE Language change can affect any level. The extent to which speakers are aware of it depends on the level. As might be expected, change which involves a closed class of segments is not as conscious for speakers as change which takes place within an open class. The prime example for the latter type of change is lexical change. Indeed when lay speakers mention change it is nearly always the use of new words or phrases which they disapprove of.

ATTITUDE TO CHANGE From time immemorial lay speakers have regarded language change as language decay. There are probably two main reasons for this. One is a general yearning for immutability which humans show. The other is the association of language change by one group with a social group the former disapproves of, for instance grown-ups vis à vis teenagers or the middle classes vis à vis the working classes.

The desire to stop language change has led to the notion of correct and incorrect language. Correct usage is what higher groups in society regard as acceptable and it is often thought that it is – or at least should be – immutable. Incorrect usage, by contrast, is regarded as fluid, without any rules and not socially acceptable.

For an objective examination of language change such views are entirely spurious. They have more to do with people who use language and our attitudes towards them than with language itself which is of course completely neutral.

LANGUAGE CHANGE AS AN EPIPHENOMENON It is important to note that change is not a goal of speakers of a language. Rather it is what is called an ‘epiphenomenon’. By this is meant that re-arrangement in language occurs for internal or external reasons — or a combination of both — but the change is not intended by the speakers. A comparison with a traffic jam might help to illustrate the point: if every car brakes to avoid hitting the one in front of it the result is a traffic jam, but the jam is not the goal of any driver, it arises as a consequence of the braking and the compression of the traffic which results from stopping and starting.

Motivation for change

INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL MOTIVATION Language change can basically be assigned to one of two types: either the change is caused by a structural requirement of the language — this is internally motivated change — or it does not in which case one speaks of externally motivated change.

Internally motivated change usually leads to balance in the system, the removal of marked elements, the analogical spread of regular forms or the like. As language consists of various modules on various levels, a change in one quarter may lead to an imbalance in another and provoke a further change.

With the current kind of change the available structure of the language plays an important role. For instance English has maintained a distinction in voice among interdental fricatives as seen in teeth /ti:θ/ and teethe /ti:ð/ although the functional load is very slight.

Other instances of this type of change would be what is called ‘analogy’. This term has a number of meanings; the one intended here can be paraphrased as ‘regularisation of unusual paradigms’. The simplest example comes from strong and weak verbs. In English the weak verb pattern (with a /d/ or /t/ as suffix in the past) is the most common. The reason for this is probably that it leaves the stem unaltered and involves only one type of ending, so that it is the form favoured in first language acquisition and which has spread at the expense of the strong verbs (with change in stem vowel) as these involve stem alteration and a large number of unpredictable forms in the past. Hence they are acquisitionally more difficult than weak verbs.

Regularisation can occur within a verb paradigm. A good example of this is English lose vs. German verlieren. In the latter case the /r/ has been generalised (compare Verlust which still has the /s/) whereas in English the /s/ (later /z/) has become dominant (compare forlorn as in a forlorn hope which still shows the /r/ which alternated with /s/ originally).

Change in history is regarded as externally motivated if there is no obvious internal reason for it. As there are only two possibilities the exclusion of one implies the other. Take for instance the Great Vowel Shift. This is basically a raising of long vowels by one level in the vowel quadrangle and the diphthongisation of the two high vowels /i:/ and /u:/. There was no discernible internal reason why this change should have started as it did in the late Middle English period, so the assumption in that there was external motivation: for some reason a close realisation of long vowels, or a slight diphthongisation of high vowels — whichever came first — became fashionable, caught on in the speech community and so the ball starting rolling and has, for Cockney at least, not come to rest since.

A more recent example might be the development colloquially of synthetic forms, particularly in American English. The phonetic reduction of to is fashionable with many speakers who want to appear easy-going and this leads to a fusion with a preceding verb form as in going to > gonna or want to > wanna. Whether this will ever be accepted in more standard forms of English is a question for which the answer lies in the community of English speakers.

Social reasons can be given for why change appears to be more common in some areas of language. For instance swear words have a high turnover because they lose their force for speakers when they are used and hence the need for new and more forceful terms arises constantly.

THE QUESTION OF PREDICTABILITY It is not possible to predict language change, either internal or external. For instance German has lost the inherited ambidental fricatives from Germanic (contrast Du with thou in English) but English has not. One can say that German got rid of unusual marked segments, but why did not English do the same? English simplified the complex clusters /kn, gn/ at the beginning of words to /n/ (know, gnaw) but German did not.

One can nonetheless offer explanations for why certain changes might have taken place or why marked elements might be retained. Consider the fact that unusual changes can be carried through if the speech community is homogenous or if for some reason they become markers of social class. Icelandic has a distinction between long and short diphthongs which is statistically very rare in the world’s languages. However, the Icelandic speech community is small, closely-knit and aware of its language and the need to preserve it was handed down by previous generations. Nasal vowels are less usual than oral vowels statistically but nasality is often a feature of a class or recognisable groups in a society. This may account for why these vowels developed as phonemes in French, assuming that the better positioned groups in French society of the time favoured definite nasalising of vowels before nasals.


HOW MUCH HOMOPHONY CAN A LANGUAGE HANDLE? The simple answer to this is: quite a lot. Chiefly because language contains a lot of redundancy — information specified more than once — and the context in which something is said usually provides unambiguous clues about what is meant.

Given that language is a set of subsystems, disadvantageous developments in one area can most often be compensated for by some aspect from another area. A simple example of what is meant here is homophony. Hence the homophony which arose in Received Pronunciation due to the loss of syllable-final /r/ did not disturb the system as word-class considerations were sufficient to differentiate the resulting homophones: lead : lead, court : caught. Of course by word-class considerations one means that the homophonous elements cannot occur in the same environment and so are unlikely to be ambiguous in communication.

As long as pragmatic context disambiguates language the speakers would appear not to put restraints on possible language-internal developments. An area which is normally regarded as one where speakers may not be prepared to accept change is that of morphology: think of the development of pronouns of the third person singular in the late Old English/Middle English period. However, even here the limit is not so quickly reached. Consider the following instance from present-day German. The third person singular pronoun is sie, phonetically [zi:] in the standard. The polite form of the pronoun of address (corresponding to vous in French) is Sie, phonetically also [zi:]. Now there are occasions where these forms collide, i.e. where the reference could be to a third female person not present in a conversation or to the person being addressed (assuming that one is using the V-form of address). Here is a real-life situation. A is discussing with B the arrangements for C (female) who is coming to visit both A and B. B wants to ring C later about details but A thinks that a question with regard to this is directed at himself: Wie kann ich [zi:] erreichen? ‘How can I reach her / you (formal) ?’. This is a genuine ambiguity in the pronominal system of German but one which, given a reasonable pragmatic context, does not cause difficulties for speakers or which can at least be resolved by brief clarification. Obviously the number of situations in which this is communicatively ambiguous is not sufficient to motivate speakers towards some alternative which is structurally unambiguous.

HOMOPHONY AND AVOIDING CLASHES Care must be exercised in the area of homophony not to assume that a certain change took place to avoid homophony. Here is an instance of what is meant. The word for ‘barrel for alcoholic drink’ used to have an initial /f-/ (the inherited sound, cf. German Fass) but was replaced by a borrowing from the dialect of Kent which had a voiced initial fricative, hence modern English vat. Before this the word was homophonous with the adjective fat. But it would be a quite unsubstantiated claim to maintain that the Kentish borrowing of the noun took place in order to to avoid homophony with this adjective.

Language change: overview article

The following article presents an overview of types of language change and issues in this field of research. It was written for a general audience and the matters discussed should be self-explanatory. There is a comprehensive set of references at the end of the article to allow readers to follow up any aspects of this broad theme which might catch their interest.

Language Change: overview article – View this PDF file