Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 10.5: Language Change


chapter 10.5: language change

Just as there are many ways to define or study language itself, there are many ways to study language change. The difference between these ways lies in choosing which elements to highlight rather than one way being correct and the others being incorrect. For example, one approach to the study of language change is to concentrate on the different uses of language within society: who uses the language; what social forces or institutions are in place to keep language from changing, or to accelerate the change of language; which groups in society control the standardization of specific uses of language. You might consider today the standardized educational system in the U.S., which teaches certain “grammatical rules” across the entire nation, regardless of whether these “rules” are followed by the students, their families, or even the teachers themselves. Another approach, following the neogrammarians, we might study only the sounds of the language and how the pronunciation of English has changed throughout the centuries. Or, we could also focus on the other cultures that English speakers have come into contact with and whose languages have influenced English. Think of all the Spanish words that are used currently in the English of the southwestern United States and ask yourself if Shakespeare or Jane Austen would have known the meaning of any of them. We will try to adopt a mixed approach in this course, studying both the internal changes that the language has undergone and the external forces that have had an impact as well.

How Languages Change

The details of language change are what this course will be about, so here in the first week I will only mention a few basic points you should understand. First, the best way to understand changes in language is to think of them in terms of the three systems we discussed in the previous sections: phonology, grammar and lexicon. For example, sounds can change. sometimes a group of speakers will slowly change the way a particular sound is pronounced, perhaps over several generations, so that it eventually becomes an entirely new sound. Sometimes two sounds merge together, or one sound splits into two different ones. If you have ever heard someone speaking with a different regional accent, such as Southern American English, or Bronx English, or Californian English, not to mention British or Australian, then you have seen the effects of sounds changing.

Grammar also changes. If we think of morphology alone, we can see that modern English has very few inflectional endings, like the s-plural or the ‘s-possessive. In the past we had many more, as you will see later in the semester. The loss of these inflectional endings is a major example of the grammatical change English has undergone over the centuries. Syntax has also changed, as you aware if you have ever struggled with the word order of a Shakespeare play. Even the syntax of a simple sentence like “You know not what you do,” from the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, would sound odd and artificial if spoken by anyone today, although it is still clearly understandable to us.

Finally, words change. Some groups of speakers begin to prefer one word, like “soda” or “couch,” while another group tends to prefer “pop” or “sofa.” Over time, the unused words can entirely drop from the speech of a group of people. In other cases, words can acquire new meanings and lose their old meanings. Entirely new words can appear in the language, especially due to technology or borrowing from other languages.

It might seem unnecessary to point out that language change is natural, but there are many people who assume that changes in language are somehow detrimental, or that the language is becoming less “pure” or more “corrupted” than it was in the past. This is a very common notion among the public in general, and I am sure many of you have come across arguments that the use of some word or phrase or spelling is somehow wrong and should be stopped. But there is no such thing as a pure language or even a corrupted language. All natural languages are continually changing, both from external pressures based on the society in which we live and on internal processes of the language itself. A language that has ceased to change is a dead language.

Why Languages Change

Once we accept that language change is an integral and necessary part of language, the most common question asked is why. This is a very difficult question to answer. Sometimes there is no satisfactory reason that we can give. For example, we might ask why speakers in the south of England in the 13th century started to pronounce the “a” sound in some words like an “o” sound instead, or why speakers in the 16th and 17th century started to use the word “do” in questions and negative sentences, so that utterances like “Have you a pen?” and “I saw him not” became “Do you have a pen?” and “I did not see him”? We can trace the rise and spread of these changes and others like them, but it is very hard to explain the starting impetus behind the change. Many proposals for why certain changes occur have been made in the past, from racial and ethnic differences to the climate in which the language was spoken. Most of these have long since been discarded. One cause that is still put forward, known as “ease of articulation,” suggests that we make changes in how we produce sounds because it is physically easier to produce the sound in the new way. This may in fact be a reason for why some sounds change, and we will discuss it in more detail later in the semester, but it certainly can’t be the whole story. Others have suggested that we change the way we speak in order to imitate other speakers who hold more elite positions. This is no doubt true, though it hardly explains why the elite speakers spoke differently in the first place. Yet another suggestion is that when we learn to speak as children, we learn imperfectly, and thus we grow up speaking slightly differently than our parents. As these changes accumulate over time, the entire language itself changes.

Internal and External History of the Language

In his discussion of langue and parole, Saussure specifies that “My definition of language presupposed the exclusion of everything that is outside its organism or system–in a word, of everything known as “external linguistics.” He continues with a definition of external linguistics:

First and foremost come all the points where linguistics borders on ethnology, all the relations that link the history of a language and the history of a race or civilization…. Second come the relations between language and political history. Great historical events like the Roman conquest have an incalculable influence on a host of linguistic facts. Colonization, which is only one form that conquest may take, brings about changes in an idiom by transporting it into different surroundings…. Here we come to a third point: the relations between language and all sorts of institutions (the Church, the school, etc.) All these institutions in turn are closely tied to the literary development of a language, a general phenomenon that is all the more inseparable from political history…. Finally, everything that relates to the geographical spreading of languages and dialectal splitting belongs to external linguistics” (Course in General Linguistics, pp. 20-21).

Saussure then explains internal linguistics with one of his most famous passages, a comparison between language and chess:

Language is a system that has its own arrangement. Comparison with chess will bring out the point. In chess, what is external can be separated relatively easily from what is internal. The fact that the game passed from Persia to Europe is external; against that, everything having to do with its system and rules is internal. If I use ivory chessmen instead of wooden ones, the change has no effect on the system, but if I decrease or increase the number of chessmen, this change has a profound effect on the “grammar” of the game. One must always distinguish between what is internal and what is external. In each instance one can determine the nature of the phenomenon by applying this rule: everything that changes the system in any way is internal (Course in General Linguistics, pp. 22-23).

To study language change we must make use of both the internal and external history of a language, especially where they begin to blend together as causes for change. An external event like the invasion of the Norman French in 1066 may have caused the replacement of English words with French (compare the use of ivory vs wooden chessmen), but it also led to the introduction of several new sounds into the English phoneme system. Other external events, the invasions of the Germanic tribes into Britain, of the Vikings into England, the colonization of America by the English, the immigration of Spanish speakers into the US, technological developments such as the invention of the printing press and the computer, the growth of institutions such as universities, all have played a major role in the external history of English.