Change affects all parts of language: Phonology, morphology, semantics, orthography.
Change can come from within or from contact: Mechanisms of drift, borrowing, pidgins, creoles.
Change can be welcomed or resisted: Multilingualism, diglossia, nationalism, endangered languages.
Understanding change allows us to: 1) Discover relationships between languages; 2) reconstruct ancient languages; and 3) address issues of language, dialect, and identity..
Sometimes changes in language stick and sometimes they do not.
One example of a language sticking is by coining new terms:
Spam (Spiced hAM luncheon meat).
How about refudiate (repudiate and refute of Sarah Palin fame)?
Another common way is meaning-shift:
Bogus changed from meaning ‘false’ to meaning ‘cool’.
At one time up-tight meant ‘cool’, now it means ‘tense about correctness’.
Terrific once meant ‘full of terror’ now it is ‘superlatively good’.
A third way language changes is by social pressure; often in response to an attempt to set oneself apart as unique.
Prestige: Shifting to (r) in NY after WWII (Labov).
Novelty: bits, bytes, e-mail, mp3, imho, ‘sup.
Identity: locals vs tourists - vowels in Cape Cod.
Contact: need to communicate for trade. In the Solomons, the pidgin word for money is “seleni”; it is derived from the British word “shilling”. Also, the word for woman is “mere” from Mary (religious reference).
How (and Why) Languages Change 2
How languages change
In general, linguists talk of two ways that languages change: external change and internal change.
External change refers to changes due to language contact and borrowing between speakers of different languages.
Internal change refers to the modification of language by the native speakers, over time.
Words are the most easily borrowed items between languages.
Some languages tend to resist borrowing.
English tends to the opposite, and lots of borrowing goes on. For instance, tomato, potato, coyote, pajama, robot, safari, beisbol are all borrowed.
These borrowed words are called loanwords.
Over time these loanwords spread throughout the larger community (a process called conventionalization) and are then “owned” by the community.
Rouge, garage, au jus came from French to English.
Hot dog and computer added to French from English.
Common ways external change works:
The way the word is pronounced can either be a careful sounding of the original, or it can be filtered through the native sound system. One example of this is garage: American [ʒ] borrowed from French (the soft g in garage), but British English retained [dʒ].
Another way of word borrowing is to change the meaning of the borrowed words. For example, au jus in French means ‘with gravy’ but in American English it now means gravy so we say ‘with au jus’.
How (and Why) Languages Change 3
External change (continued)
Common ways external change works:
Yet another way is to change the way that plurals are made of the words borrowed,
The KiSwahili singular is safari (and so is the plural) or alternatively, zifsafari.
Borrowed spellings: borrowed from Latin; Old English spelling was .
Sounds also change over time, but this is even a slower process than word change internally.
Assimilation (from Wikipedia): Linguistic process by which a sound becomes similar to an adjacent sound such as illegal, immoral, irresponsible.
Dissimilation (from Wikipedia): Phenomenon whereby similar consonant sounds in a word have a tendency to become different over time, so as to ease pronunciation): Febyuary, English vowel shift OR from [a:] to [o] stone went from sta:n to ston.
Elision: Omission of one or more sounds, vowel, consonant or syllable [ [cloðz] to [kloz]
Metathesis (from Wikipedia): A sound change that alters the order of phonemes in a word: æsk to æks.
The Impact of Language Change 1
Misperceptions about language change
One misperception is that languages spoken by a small number people, in relative isolation will change more slowly.
Another misperception is that written languages will change more slowly, or that the change will be in the spoken language much more so.
From language to dialect
A language split into two or more varieties is called a dialect. Remember, they are mutually intelligible.
The changes that lead to different dialects can be fairly unpredictable, depending on where groups end up and the internal and external influences Examples:
American English is filled with American Indian words, but not British English. American English retained the word ‘period’ but British English changed to ‘full-stop’
George Bernard Shaw quote: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”
Clarence Darrow quote: Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to? “
Dave Kellett quote: “The English language was carefully, carefully cobbled together by three blind dudes and a German dictionary.”
Doug Larson quote; “If the English language made any sense, a catastrophe would be an apostrophe with fur.”
The Impact of Language Change 2
From dialect to language
British English and American English are referred to as related dialects: dialects where one can trace their common origins.
Related languages are also derived from a common origin, but more distantly, in that they are produced from related dialects.
For either these dialects or languages may not want to understand each other.
Example: Ukrainian and Russian.
Examples of language change
Languages change structurally, socially, and ideologically
Further, there can be stages in a language, such as Old English, Middle English, and modern English.
Perhaps the most famous Old English text is Beowulf.
The most famous of Middle English works are those of Shakespeare.
English Great Vowel Shift (GVS)
The way that vowels were pronounced began changing in the 1400s during the shift from Old to Middle English) and continued to change into the 1700s.
See the chart on the next page for more specifics and Table 9.1 (this is an illustration of the Great Vowel Shift).
This pagecan be used to see and hear the changes (which happened is a series of steps).
The Impact of Language Change 3
Language change and language families
Languages descended from common ancestors.
A family of languages is a set of languages thought to have descended (developed) from a common ancestor. These language families are also refer to them as genetically related languages (not the biological sense).
Are considered ‘families’ with mother languages and daughter languages.
Daughter languages are derived mother languages.
Family trees of languages.
show branches and sub-branches; Each branch, then, can be traced back.
English is a member of the Indo-European family of languages.
Also called Proto-IndoEuropean or PIE)
So how did IndoEuropean sound?: Listen here.
Are considered sole survivors of ancient families.
Examples include Nahali (India) and Basque languages, Navajo is a “near isolate”.
Some became isolates as they are in the process of going extinct.
Are considered unique, and are difficult to classify.
Historical linguistics studies the long-term variation of speech by studying protolanguages and daughter languages.
Anthropologists are interested in historical linguistics because cultural features sometimes correlate with the distribution of language families.
The Impact of Language Change 4
Language as mostly static
Historical linguistics was the primary approach prior to the 20th century in linguistics.
There was often the view that certain languages (Greek and Latin) were superior to others (English or French).
There was little interest in the dynamic changes in languages until the 19th century.
This shift represents a powerful understanding of the relationship between language and culture.
The scientific look at language change
The biblical explanation for language diversity was the story of the Tower of Babel.
The idea that languages had common words was not unknown.
These similarities were explained by the borrowing of words and not as a result of linguistic descent.
The Romance languages were recognized as similar to Latin, but again this was seen as mostly due to borrowing.
A scientific explanation was first introduced in the late-1700s by Sir William Jones.
Jones was sent to Calcutta, India in the role of a colonial judge for the British East India Company. He was also trained as a linguist.
He was to be a supervisor of the Hindu courts. But, how could he supervise if one did not read Sankrit?
Jones learned this language. As a result of his studies he was the first linguist to suggest the concept of ‘common descent’: That languages are related to each other via ancestral language.
Want more information? Listen to this podcast: The history of English: Episode 2: The Indo-European discovery,
The Impact of Language Change 5
Language change and language families
Reconstructing protolanguages (mother languages).
How to find the original sound? By using the daughter languages to reconstruct the mother language(s).
If languages split apart related languages will be similar to one another.
Irish ‘do’ Welsh ‘dau’ Greek ‘duo’ Latin ‘duo’.
Italian ‘due’ Spanish ‘dos’ French ‘deux’ German ‘zwei’.
Dutch ‘twee’ Swedish ‘tva’ Danish ‘to’ Old English ‘twa’.
Polish ‘dwie’ Russian ‘dva’ Bengal ‘dvi’ Persian ‘do’.
Lithuanian ‘du’ Albanian ‘dy’…..
Conclusion: [d], [t], [dv] [tv], and [dz] all descended from same sound.
Here is a table comparing numbers.
Here is a table comparing a set of words.
Indo-European is the focus of much work as it is a written language and the cognates that can be documented:
EnglishGermanFrench flesh Fleisch chair/viand (flesh & Fleisch are cognates)
beef Rindfleisch boeuf (beef borrowed from French)
calf Kalbe veau (calf & Kalbe are cognates)
veal Kalbfleisch veau (veal borrowed from French)
swine Schwein porc (swine & Schwein are cognates)
pork Schweinefleisch porc (pork borrowed from the French)
The Impact of Language Change 6
Language change and language families (continued)
One method is use what is called phonetic plausibility strategy (use what is most plausible based on what is known about the way languages change):
Includes use of palatalization as common change (moving the articulation closer to the palate)
Assimilation: moving the sound closer to that of a neighboring sound
A classic example of this is evidenced by Grimm’s Law (the sound shifts that occurred as Proto-IndoEuropean (PIE) moved into Proto-Germanic).
Steps in reconstructing protolanguage using the majority rules strategy (if no phonetically plausible reason, go with frequency):
Step 1: Identify cognates (as opposed to borrowings) in the languages. Cognates will have similar meanings & sounds:
e.g., German ‘zwei’ and English ‘two’; German ‘zehn’ and English ‘ten’
e.g., Maori ‘tapu’, Hawaiian ‘kapu’, Samoan ‘tapu’ and Fijian ‘tabu’.
Step 2. Develop a table of correspondence sets (sets of sounds that appear to correspond to each other).
Step 3: Use the correspondence sets to reconstruct the ancestral phonemes (proto-phonemes).
Step 4: Chart the ancestral sounds
Consonants:*p & *t
Vowels: *u & *a
The Impact of Language Change 7
Reconstructed languages can give clues to archaeologists about the cultures and environments of the past.
For instance, Proto-Indo-European had words for many types of trees and for bear, fox and wolf, but not for monkey and elephant.
Altogether the words suggest they lived in a temperate environment and that they had domesticated animals.
Famous attempt at cultural reconstruction is the Nostratic Hypothesis.
Two researchers, Illic-Svityc and Dolgopolsky state that several families can be grouped together to make a macrofamily (or phyla): Nostratic (film clip starts about 22:15).
Using the comparative method.
Concentrating on ‘conservative’ words (archaisms) or what others call the core vocabulary
Also uses mass comparison (creating large lists of words from a large number of languages).
Argued that they could reconstruct the culture, as well as the proto-language.
Criticisms: 1) See patterns that are purely due to chance; and 2) recent work, using grammatical comparisons, negates many of the proposed similarities.
Languages in Contact 1
External changes can be quite rapid, as seen in population contacts between groups with very different languages.
A hybrid of the original languages is created called a pidgin (a language that develops out of the contact of two unrelated languages).
Often consists of the vocabulary (lexicon) of one language (the visitors or colonists) and the grammar of the other.
Defining pidgins and creoles
Pidgins, then, are developed in contact situations for the purpose of trading/colonization. Pidgins typically evolve out of contact languages, creoles evolve out of pidgin.
Pidgins are incomplete languages with highly simplified grammar and reduced lexicon; creoles expand these.
Pidgins have a limited range of uses, creoles a wide range. Pidgins rarely last beyond a generation or two.
Two general types of pidgins:
Restricted pidgins are the result of marginal contacts.
Extended pidgins are characterized by nativization (more words come from the local context).
The African pidgins that resulted from the European slave trade ended up on the plantations of the New World.
As such they were the foundation for full versions of languages.
While English is an official language in 52 countries, Mandarin is the most commonly spoken first language in the world.
Commercials promoting bilingualism:
Cat and fish.
German coast guard
Do you speak English?
Stable (long-term) vs transitional (short-term) bilingualism?
Stable bilingualism is seen in situations such as one where the second language is an official language (i.e., Canada) or where several languages are spoken in the country.
Often seen when strong efforts are made to retain these languages.
Ideology and Choice 2
Bilingualism & diglossia (continued)
Stable (long-term) vs transitional (short-term) bilingualism? (continued)
Transitional bilingualism is evidence by the 3 generation rule: The first generation of immigrants holds their birth language, the second learns the new language and may speak the parental language at home, by the third generation the new language is their birth language.
Transitional bilingualism contributes to language death as fewer and fewer native speakers remain.
Diglossia: using two varieties of one language
‘High’ and ‘low’ varieties
Formality of situation determines choice
German & Swiss German
Classical & Colloquial Arabic
Marked & ‘Standard’ varieties of English?
Codeswitching is seen in situations where stable bilingualism occurs.
This term is used to define the use of more than one language (or dialect) within a single social situation
Often the switch can be within a single sentence.
Pejorative language practice, used by non-speakers of a language that uses elements of the language to create stereotypes.
They access hidden stereotypes, are aggressive and mocking.