Friday, 21 May 2010

Language Change Guide

Flowchart demonstrating language change


As society change, so does language. We are living in a world that has become technical (language and technology). Are we becoming lazier with language? Lifestyles have changed and the pace of life is quicker; we expect instant communication (text messaging, e-mails). Features language change include controversy, resistance and social values.

Changes in accent and dialect

  • William Labov study (Martha’s vineyard)
  • Urban accents (Estuary English)
  • Prestige (BBC English, RP)
  • 15th Century – The Great Vowel Shift
    Tochter – dochter – daughter
    Nacht – night – nite?
    Leisure – ‘zh’ pronunciation, also applies to measure, pleasure and treasure
    Swan and man; obey and tea (word that used to rhyme and few centuries ago but not today.
    Interest, every, factory, nursery, cursory, desultory – ‘uh’ sound (ə = schwa)


  1. Outlaw – he was an outlaw (noun); outlawed (verb)
  2. Record – that was a good re'cord (noun); I was going to record a song (verb)
  3. Rebel – he was a rebel (noun); he rebelled (verb)
Emphasis on vowel if the word is a noun.
Emphasis on vowel if the word is a verb.

Grammatical Multifunctioning

Using a word in more than one grammatical function.

Noun to verb

  1. Garage – put the car in the garage; I will garage the car
  2. Party – that was a good party; let’s party

This is becoming more common with prepositions, for example, I’ve been outed as a homosexual or to down a pint. This is multifunctional but very recent. Preposition to verb is a big move in language change.

Attitudes to language change

  • Standard English – right and wrong (National Curriculum, for example). Should it remain constant or should it change? People start making judgements about language change.
  • Prescriptive – laying down rules which are very exact, for example, compu’er (the ‘t’ must be added). In other words, what English language SHOULD be like.
  • Descriptive – language change is inevitable, for example, Sainsbury’s (some add the apostrophe, others do not). In other words, what English language IS like.
  • Golden Age - when did people, speak the same, write in the same handwriting and spell coherently?
  • It is almost impossible to stop language changing (evolution)
  • What is proper English? Issues of race, class, gender and location.
Issue ‘Good’ English ‘Bad’ English
Race White people’s language Other ethnic backgrounds
Class Middle and upper classes Working class
Gender Male language is dominant Female language is deviant
Location South East England – RP, BBC English Any other accent/dialect

The beginnings of global English

  • Significant period in English: Middle English – Early Modern English (15th, 16 and 17th centuries).
  • There should not have been any reason for language change because people never travelled far (within three miles) and only talked about predictable things (weather, money, work, family, food etc).
  • Over the past thousand years, language change was very slow, until invaders visited the country.
  • The Renaissance – rediscovery of learning occurred during the 15th century. More people were educated and breaking away form the repressive authority from the church, which controlled learning. People were travelling frequently, more medical discoveries and freedom of thought.
  • Many borrowings from Latin, Greek (languages of education and thought), French (language of luxury and style) and Italian (language of the arts – growth of theatre encouraged new words). Words became naturalised in English language. This is still very consistent in the 21st century.
  • Shakespeare invented over 3000 words such as lovely, skim milk and mountaineer. He mainly extended words or put two words together.
  • 16th and 17th centuries were the age of travel. There were borrowings from Spanish and Portuguese languages (words tended to end with vowel sounds such as banana, tobacco and canoe) and settlement from America, which was already settled by the Spanish. Many cigarette companies are named after American towns, for example, Marlboro (a town in West Virginia).
  • English was looked down upon and then became as good as Latin when expressing love, due to Shakespeare’s work. It is beginning to become a global language.
  • Lexis was borrowed from explorations, nowadays the main influence is media and technology.
  • 1610 – The Authorised Version of the Bible was published for the masses. Full of phrases such as eat sour grapes, the skin of my teeth and the salt of the earth.
  • The main five world languages originate from Indo-European languages, but have evolved sounds which cannot be understood in English language, for example, China, Japan and India.

Review of language change

The earliest known languages spoken I the British Isles were Celtic, whose descendants survive today in the form of Welsh, Scots and Irish Gaelic and Cornish.

First the Romans (55BC onwards) and then the Anglo-Saxons (up to AD1000) helped shape what became known as English.

Until the emergence of an accepted form of Standard English from the fifteenth century, different dialects were spoken. This important development was partly due to technological (the invention of the printing press) and social factors. The power and prestige of those who spoke the East Midlands dialect ensured that this was the dialect that became accepted as ‘correct’ English.

The pre-eminence enjoyed by English in the world today is a result of political and economic factors – first, the extension of the British Empire, and in the twentieth century, the power of the USA.

Observable changes in accent can take place over a relatively short period of time, and are closely related to questions of social class and identity.

Linguistic change is constant and inevitable, but can also be the subject of complaint and controversy.

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