Friday, 21 May 2010

Why Language Changes

Well, no one knows for sure. But what we do know is that changes rarely happen overnight. People do not wake up one morning and decide to use the word ‘beef’ instead of ‘ox meat’ (but they might wake up and coin a new word!). Generally, language changes are gradual, particularly changes in the phonological (sound) and syntactic (grammar) systems.

Of course, certain changes may occur instantaneously for any one speaker. When a new word is acquired the process is not gradual, although full appreciation for all of its possible uses may come slowly and with trial and error. I can remember liking the new word esoteric, but I can equally remember being laughed at when I first used it (I got its meaning wrong). Now I use it correctly – which isn’t very often!

And when you incorporate a new rule into your grammar, it is either in or not in your grammar. It may at first be an optional rule, so that sometimes you use it and sometimes you don’t – maybe this is to do with the context. But the rule is either there and available for use or it is not.

What is gradual is the spread of change over an entire speech community.

A basic cause of change is the way children acquire language. No one teaches a child the basic rules of grammar – each child constructs his or her personal grammar alone, generalizing rules from the linguistic input received from parents, teachers and other sources. We know that a child’s language develops in stages until it approximates that of adult grammar.

But a child’s lexicon and grammar can never be exactly like that of the adult he or she comes into contact with because of the varied linguistic input received. So, certain rules may be simplified or overgeneralized, and vocabularies may show small differences that accumulate over several generations.

The older generation may be using certain rules optionally. For example, at certain times they might say ‘It’s I’ and at other times ‘It’s me’. The form society sees as the less formal style tends usually to be used with children and friends, whose linguistic requirements are invariably less formal. So the next generation may use only the ‘me’ form of the pronoun in this construction – if this happens, the grammar will have changed. Of course, there will always be pressure to retain an older form, particularly if it is a more formal or ‘standard’ grammatical construction. The eighteenth century especially took language particularly seriously and wanted to codify its rules, hence the proliferation of dictionaries that tried to fix both spelling and meaning (and so, to a lesser extent, pronunciation); grammar books also abounded and these aimed to fix word order (syntax) and word form (morphology) as Standard English.

The reasons for some changes are relatively easy to understand. Before televi¬sion there was no such word as television. It soon became a common lexical item. Borrowed words, too, generally serve a useful purpose and their entry into the language is not mysterious.

Other changes are more difficult to explain. The ‘Great Vowel Shift’ in English is one such case. We have some plausible explanations for some of the phonological changes in languages. Some of these changes are due to physiological mechanisms to do with the shape of the mouth and ‘organs of speech’. Some sounds and combinations of sounds are ‘easier to pronounce’ than others (perhaps for different peoples this is especially so – I found the French accent easy, but many do not. I later found that my great-grandmother was French). One example is the change from hoofs to hooves; the –fs phonemic pair is now harder for many people to articulate than the –ves phonemic pair and so the easier pronunciation has caught on.

Another example is that vowels are frequently ‘nasalized’ before nasal consonants because it is difficult to change the shape of the mouth sufficiently quickly – for example ‘on’, ‘in’ ‘am’. When one sound affects another, the process is called assimilation; in this case, the preceding vowel assimilates to the nasality of the following nasal consonant. Once the vowel is nasalized, the contrast that the nasal consonant provided can be equally well provided by the nasalized vowel alone, and the redundant consonant may be deleted. The contrast between oral and nasal vowels that exists in many languages of the world today results from just such a historical sound change.

An example of how such assimilative processes can change a language is in the word key, the /k/ is articulated forward in the mouth in anticipation of the high front ‘palatal’ vowel /i/. In cot, the /k/ is pronounced farther back in anticipation of the low back vowel /a/. The /k/ in key is said to be slightly ‘palatalized.’

Such assimilative processes gave rise to an important theory about how languages change. It is called the theory of least effort. According to this theory, sound changes are primarily due to an economy of effort. This suggests not so much that we prefer the lazy option but, perhaps, that we try to fit the most language into the shortest time. So we tend to assimilate one sound to another, to drop out un¬stressed syllables, slur syllables together, and so on. Try saying ‘Ten Pence’ or ‘Seven Pence’. Do you say tempunce or sevempunce? Most people do – at least in informal conversation. Equally ‘three pence’ becomes ‘thruppence’, and so on. You can probably think of other examples easily yourself.

Another reason for change is thought to be caused by economy of memory. This results in a reduction of the number of exceptional or irregular morphemes (those parts of a word that change its meaning, e.g. the morpheme –ed, which creates the past tense form of most verbs). This kind of change has been called internal borrowing which mans we ‘borrow’ from one part of the grammar and apply the rule more generally. It is also called analogic change.

For instance, the original plural of cow was kine, and the plural of eye was eyne. So by analogy with plurals such as foe/foes and dog/dogs we probably started to say cows and eyes – and these gradually caught on. Similarly, by analogy to reap/reaped, seem/seemed, and ignite/ignited – children and some adults are presently saying sweeped the floor, rather than swept. Also, I dreamed last night (instead of dreamt), and She lighted the bonfire (instead of lit).

The same kind of analogic change is made clear by our regularization of exceptional plural forms, which is a kind of morphological change. We have bor¬rowed words like datum/data, agendum/agenda, curriculum/curricula, memorandum/memoranda, medium/media and criterion/criteria, to name just a few. The irregular plurals of these nouns have been replaced by regular plurals among many speakers: agendas, curriculums, memorandums, criterias. In some cases the borrowed original plural forms were consid¬ered to be the singular (as in agenda and criteria) and the new plural is therefore a ‘plural-plural.’ Also, many speakers now regard data and media as nouns that do not have plural forms, like information. All these changes lessen the number of irregular forms that must be remembered.

The theory of least effort does seem to account for some language change; but it cannot account for others. Simplification and regularization of gram¬mar occurs, but so does elaboration or complication. So we are not just getting lazy! Old English rules of syntax became more complex, imposing a stricter word order on the language, at the same time that case endings (inflexions were being dropped or simplified. A tendency toward simplification is counteracted by the need to limit potential ambiguity so, in this case, syntax tended to become more complex. Much of language change is a balance between elaboration and complication.

It has been said that some changes are created by children while they learn the language. Although the exact reasons for language change are still elusive, it is clear that the imperfect learning of adult dialects by children is a contributing factor. Similarly, a social preference for a particular regional dialect seems to lead to change in the adult world. The use of the stretched a in grass, path and bath, and the quite recent adoption of the Cockney ‘glottal stop’ rather than the phoneme ‘t’ in words such as ‘bottle’ and ‘butter’ is an example of dialectal change (in this case the growing preference for the accent of the Thames Estuary – called “Estuary English”. Whether such change is a fashion or permanent remains to be seen. Certainly many American dialects words and pronunciations have entered English permanently.

Interestingly – Estuary English is itself strongly related to Cockney – but it avoids many parts of Cockney – which seem to be considered less desirable. It is very interesting to consider this picking and choosing – many “Estuary English” speakers seem to be using Estuary English to sound more ‘streetwise’ or more ‘ordinary’ (rumours are that Mr. Blair once started to use it). Yet, clearly, it is important not to sound too ordinary!

Many factors clearly are responsible for language change:

• simplification of grammars
• elaboration of grammars to maintain intelligibility
• borrowing
• lexical additions
• dialectal change

Perhaps language changes for the same reason that all things change: it is simply the nature of things to change. An ancient Greek teacher called Heraclitus once said: ‘All is flux. Nothing stays still. Nothing endures except change.’

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