Language change is the manner in which the phonetic, morphological, semantic,
syntactic, and other features of a language are modified over time. All languages are
continually changing. At any given moment the English language, for example, has a
huge variety within itself, and this variety is known as synchronic variation. From these
different forms comes the effect on language over time known as diachronic change.
Two linguistic disciplines concern themselves with studying language change: historical
linguistics and sociolinguistics. Historical linguists examine how a language was spoken
in the past and seek to determine how present languages derive from it and are related
to one another. Sociolinguists are interested in the origins of language changes and want
to explain how society and changes in society influence language. (from: Wikipedia)
Question 1: Can you think of examples of language change(s) in English?
Question 2: Can you think of reasons why a langue may change over time?
Synchronic variation consists of the range of accents and dialects, sociolects and
idiolects that happen to be in use within one language. Regional variation has long been
documented, as has social variation such as Black English in the USA, and Upper-middle
class pronunciation in England.
Dialect: A variant of a langue which has different syntax, morphology and / or
lexis. For example, in Mancunian English the word ―barm cake‖ means ―bread roll‖ and is
not widely understood outside Greater Manchester. Grammar is another aspect in which
dialects may differ. In Standard English, a speaker would say: ―I was standing at the bus
stop‖. In many Northern English dialects this is often rendered as: ―I was stood at the
Accent: Purely the way in which the language is pronounced. Someone can
speak Standard English, but have a North-Western accent for example.
Sociolect: A language spoken by one particular social group. In most Western
countries, young people have a distinct vocabulary. In English some examples are: ―Well
cool‖, ―snide‖ etc. In North Manchester, children of Pakistani origin refer to each other as
―TP‖ which is short for ―typical Paki‖, as this is used only by speakers of this ethnic
group, it is an example of sociolect.
Idiolect: Language features that are typical to one unique speaker. You could
say that Homer’s ―doh‖ in The Simpsons is an example of idiolect. Other famous
examples include Jamie Oliver with his ―pukka‖ for example. Many a family has a word
or phrase that is only used in that family and would not make sense in a wider language
Literary Language: In some cultures there are distinct ―dialects‖ in use to
separate speaking and writing. For example, in ancient India, the people in the North
spoke Pakrit, but wrote their literature in Pali – a ―dialect‖ used only for writing.
Similarly, Tibetan has a literary language and a spoken, normal day-to-day language.
However, in the case of Tibetan, the literary language is in effect an older form of
Tibetan. Something similar happened with Latin in Europe. Latin was widely spoken in
the Roman Empire (although for the majority of the Western Roman Empire – well into
the 3rd century) Greek was the international language. Latin was adopted by the Catholic
Church and then by scholars / scientists / writers and was used widely as a literary
language, well into the 17th century. For example, Andrew Marvell a 17th century poet,
wrote many poems in Latin as well as in the vernacular English. This form of Latin was
based on the classical Roman canon and as such was a highly stylized, literary language,
probably very different from the Latin spoken by legionnaires in AD300.
Question 3: Do you have an idiolect example from your own experience?
Question 4: Why do you think literary languages developed early on in human
Diachronic variation takes place over time. All languages change, just like all
languages have dialects, accents, sociolects etc. In fact, it is probably better to think of a
language not so much as a monolithic thing, but rather as a heterogenous compilation
consisting of a range of closely related dialects and sociolects. Where to draw the line
between a dialect and a new separate language is linguistically quite challenging, and in
reality it is often a political, economical and social decision to decide to call a dialect a
1. Lexical / Semantic: changes in words and their meanings, e.g. words that become
obsolete such as the verb ―to perambulate‖ or the phrase ―to have intercourse
with‖ which has changed dramatically in meaning over the last 100 years.
Originally, the word ―meat‖ referred to food, then it came to refer only to one
type of food. This explains why mince meat does not have any meat in it at all.
2. Spellings change – in the last 200 years many European countries have
attempted to standardise their spelling. The most famous example is probably
modern German, which insisted in dropping letters such as ―β‖ and substitute
them with ―ss‖.
3. Morphology – endings in particular are prone to changes. Also, some irregular
words such as nouns with irregular plurals might become regular over time. In
English, the verb ―to dream‖ used to be irregular, however a regular form is now
acceptable for use in the past tense e.g. ―I have dreamed‖.
4. Syntax – obviously syntactical changes mean that something crucial about the
language is changed. These changes take place over a long time, for example as
in Old English to Middle English. OE had a much more irregular syntactical
structure (the verb phrase for example could appear in several places in the
sentence), but ME is more like Modern English with a designated place for the
Question 5: Can you think of reasons why these changes may occur over time?
There are multiple reasons why languages change in particular ways. For example, the
change in English syntax mentioned above occurred because of language contact. The
change from Old English to Middle English is explained by the Norman Conquest of
England. Similarly, the opposite also applies. If a language is split into separate
communities, then the two groups will develop their language differently, resulting in
ultimately two different, if related, languages. This explains how INDO-EUROPEAN
developed into nearly all the languages spoken in Europe and the Indian subcontinent
A more recent example is that of Scottish and Irish Gaelic. Contact between Gaelic
speakers in Northern / Western Scotland and Ireland was easy up until the 18th century,
and Gaelic was the same language on both islands. However, after England defeated the
supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, English influence in Scottish affairs (and
colonial control mechanisms such as the Highland Clearances) made sure that Gaelic
Ireland and Scotland were cut off from each other. Similarly, the Irish potato famine
killed off may Gaelic speakers (or forced many of them to flee to the USA etc.), which
meant that the Scottish and Irish Gaelic became separated and started to develop in
different ways. They are widely regarded as separate languages, although they are
mutually understandable to native speakers.
In Gaelic a pronunciation change was taking place in the 17th and 18th centuries. Gaelic
is a language with high inflection (it takes case forms). Most case forms cause
morphological changes to the beginning of words, so it makes sense that in changing
pronunciations, the beginnings of words are a likely place for changes to take place. The
change was to add an ―h‖ after the opening consonant, which changes the pronunciation
into a fricative sound, which is less energy-consuming to pronounce than a stop or a
labial consonant for example. This change was halted in Irish, where only certain
consonants have it, but has affected all initial consonants in Scottish Gaelic. For
example, the verb ―to be‖ is ―tá‖ in Irish, but ―thà‖ in Scottish Gaelic. Interestingly,
Scottish Gaelic has also adopted the accent grave (the accent in à), whereas Irish writes
the same vowel sound with an accent acute (the accent in á) – which makes it very
simple to distinguish Irish from Scottish Gaelic in writing. Both these changes took place
after Scotland and Ireland had their language contact abruptly ended due to English
Language contact: Pidgins and Creoles
A pidgin language is always learnt as a second language and is a simplified form of one
basic (socially superior) language and one other. A pidgin language often develops
between two communities with no shared language, but who are having to deal with
each other. ―Deal‖ is the operative word here, as most pidgins started between groups of
In some cases, a pidgin language is taken up by a community and becomes a native
language for parts of or the entire population. When this happens, it is called a creole
language. By the very nature of the subject, the creoleness of a particular creole
usually is a matter of dispute. The parent tongues may themselves be creoles or pidgins
that have disappeared before they could be documented.
For these reasons, the issue of which language is the parent of a creole — that is,
whether a language should be classified as a "Portuguese creole" or "English creole", etc.
— often has no definitive answer, and can become the topic of long-lasting controversies,
where social prejudices and political considerations may interfere with scientific
discussion (as was the case with deciding on what is a dialect and what is a new
Currently, linguists estimate that just over 6,000 languages are spoken in the world
today. More than half of these languages are threatened with extinction in the course of
this century. The most common reason for this kind of language change is globalisation:
people moving to cities for work, moving away from their minority linguistic community
and their language. There is often a sense among minority language speakers that it is
better to speak one of the more widely used languages. It is this kind of self-censorship
that was partly responsible for the dying out of Manx and Cornish for example. Mass
media and internet / tele-communications make access and exposure to global
languages more likely, too. However, there seems to be a trend in the world of the
internet for more and more content to be produced in ―new‖ languages (Chinese, Hindi,
Spanish etc.) slowly replacing English as the language of the web.