Friday, 30 December 2011


Language change is the phenomenon whereby phonetic, morphological semantic, syntactic and other features of language vary overtime. The effect of language overtime is known as diachronic change. Harris (2011)

Generally, language change is the situation in which a language varies in its linguistic levels of analysis taking in new forms and dropping or modifying some of the old ones.

All natural languages are subject to change overtime though the changes are not easily noticed. Change is of no doubt a slow but a sure process. As Vaillet & Stewart (2001) put it that

All languages change through time, but how they change and what kinds of changes we can expect are not obvious. By comparing different languages, different dialects of the same languages or different historical changes of a particular language we can discover the history of languages and also language groups or families. We can make hypothesis about the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of a language long dead.
Languages change in all aspects of grammar, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics/lexicon.

Why do languages change? Is a question on which the historical linguists have worked for the last two centuries. Although there is no single factor that may be put forward to account for linguistic change, the following have been treated as the causes of linguistic change

Causes of linguistic change

Language contact is one of the factors that cause language change. This is the situation in which groups of speakers of different languages come into contact with one another. This may result to the two languages influencing each other’s vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.

If the speakers in the contact situation consider themselves to be equally prestigious their respective language are said to be in adstratal relationship.

If one language is dominant in terms of prestige it is called superstratum language, while the language which is less dominant is called substratum.

Vaileth and Stawert (2001), O’grady et al (1997) for example English and the Native American languages. English is the superstratum while Native American languages are substratum languages because of an imbalance in power and prestige. The French influence on English after 1066 is superstratum influence. Many French words entered English and caused lexical change in the English lexicon.

Geographical division also causes language change. As people move from one geographical area to another their language may lose some of its original aspects and adopt new or slightly new linguistic features and thus assumes remarkable changes from the original communication.

A particularly good example that illustrates this phenomenon is how American English is gaining some linguistic features which dichotomize it from its counterpart British English. Stewart and Vaillet (2001) put it this way.

As groups of people spread out through Europe, they lost communication with each other so that the language of each group went its own way, underwent its own changes and thus came to differ from the others.

Borrowing is another good source of language change. This is the process by which one language adopts the words and phrases of another language. Ibid. (2001:491). No any natural language is independent of borrowing. Borrowing many come as a compulsory means available to name new inventions and products from the language in which they originate. Kiswahili for example has borrowed many words from:
English as mayor (meya), judge (jaji), and shirt (shati), school subjects like chemistry, biology and so forth.

• Kiswahili has also borrowed from Bantu languages words like ng’atuka, bunge, kigoda just to mention but a few.
• French words also flowed into English during the Norman Conquest and made the language to change significantly. For example French words coming into English brought with them the phoneme distinction such as the contrast between /f/ and /v/ as in feel and veal. The change is still available in the language today.

Analogy/analogical change/regularization also contributes to language change. This is a type of historical change in a grammar that involves the influence of one form or group of forms on another causing one group of forms to become more like the other. Ibid (2001:490), and Mark (2009).

This mostly results to morphological change as that which happened to the past tense of the verb climb whose past tense was clomb and the verb help whose past tense was holp. But because many English verbs form the past tense by using the general and the regular morpheme –ed, clomb and holp have given way for climbed and helped respectively as the regular past tense for climb and help.

The mechanism of analogical change also operates in the formation of plural of English nouns by simply adding –s morpheme to a singular noun. So a child or a foreigner may say foots instead of feet. We may explain the situation as follows:
Boat is to boats as back is to backs
cliff is to cliffs as root is to roots
book is to books as foot is to ‘X’ (which is obviously foots)
The continued use of this overgeneralization of rules may eventually result to language change.

Re-analysis is another good source of morphological change. This involves an attempt to attribute a compound word or a root +affix structure to a word that was originally not broken down into its component morphemes. Reanalysis is particularly common in morphological change. O’grady et al (1997) give a classic example to illustrate this.

The word hamburger which originally referred to a type of meat partly deriving its name from the city of Hamburg in Germany, has been re-analyzed as consisting of two components ham+burger. The latter morpheme has since appeared in many new forms including fishburger, chickenburger, veggieburger and even as free morpheme burger.

Articulatory simplification is also another good source of linguistic change. Speakers find some difficulties in articulating some words and therefore tend to struggle in order to ease/simplify articulation of the words which appear more difficult to pronounce. In most cases they opt for two mechanisms:

a. Deleting a consonant in a consonant cluster.
As in the word fifths pronounced /fIfϴs/ to /fIfs/
b. Inserting a vowel within a consonant cluster
As in the word athlete /ӕϴli:t/ to /ӕϴəli:t/

Harris (2011) says “speakers tend to make their utterances as efficient and effective as possible to reach communication goals. Purposeful speaking therefore involves a trade-off of costs and benefits. The principle of least efforts: speakers especially use economy in their articulation, which tends to result in phonetic reduction of speech forms. This involves vowel reduction, cluster reduction, lenition and elision. After some time a change may be widely accepted (it becomes a regular sound change) and may end up treated as standard.
For example going to [goʊ Intʊ] gonna[gʌnǝ]. This is example of both vowel reduction [ʊ] — [ǝ] and elision [nt] [n], [oʊ.I] [ʌ]

Spelling pronunciation causes linguistic change. In most cases English words have no one to one correspondence between spelling and pronunciation. Linguists like O’grady et al (1997) recognize the spelling pronunciation as one of the sources of linguistic change in English and other languages. Spelling pronunciation may reintroduce the pronunciation that was altered through sound change. Consider the following three cases.

i. Often- it was originally pronounced with the [t]. In English this voiceless stop was subsequently lost resulting in the pronunciation [ɒfǝn]. However since the letter ‘t’ was retained in spelling [t] has been reintroduced into many speakers pronunciation of the word.

ii. Assume and consume although in earlier English such words were pronounced with [s], sound change resulted in the pronunciation with [ʃ] (as in assure). But since the spellings were retained as the case of often, sound change has occurred. i.e. some people can be heard using the [s] instead of the [ʃ]
iii. The initial silent [h]spelling pronunciation may sometimes be triggered by social factors. This affected the following words of French origin: human, herb, humble, humour, and hotel. These words used to start with a vowel sound and had an initial silent ‘h’ as they still do in French. O’grady et al (1997). But today in English we pronounce them with the ‘h’ sound because dropping “ones aitches” as in [aʊs] for house is generally negatively evaluated.

The other cause of linguistic change is assimilation. This is the process by which a sound becomes more like a nearby sound in terms of some features. Stewart & Vaillet (2001). In assimilation the sounds which are adjacent to each other and especially sharing the place/manner of articulation can influence the changes.

Such assimilation is used for the effect of increasing the efficiency of articulation through a simplification articulatory movement. This can take place in four main types. Place or manner of articulation, palatalization/affrication, nasalization and umlaut. Let us examine an example of assimilation in the place and manner of articulation.

• In Old Spanish semda Modern Spanish senda {path}
[d] has assimilated [m] to [n] which shares the place of articulation with [d]-alveolar
• Early Latin inpossibilis Later Latin impossibilis
[p] has assimilated [n] to [m] which shares the place of articulation with [p] bilabial.
• In voice/manner of articulation
• Old English Later Old English
slӕpde slӕpte –{slept}
Stefn stemn -{stem- of a tree}
The voiceless [p] has assimilated the voiced [d] to voiceless [t]
The voiced nasal [n] has assimilated the voiceless fricative [f] to voiced bilabial [m]

Dissimilation is also accounted for as a cause for language change. This is the process in which one segment is made less like another segment in its environment. It occurs typically when it would be difficult to articulate or perceive two similar sounds in close proximity. O’grady et al (1997) or in other words dissimilation is the process by which two nearby sounds become less alike with respect to some features. Stewart and Vaillet (2001:493).
The word ‘anma’ in Late Latin for example was modified to ‘alma’ in Spanish thereby avoiding the consecutive nasal sounds.

In Greek –in manner of articulation –affricative becomes a stop when preceded by a fricative /s/.
In [asϴenis] -{sick,weak} can be pronounced as [astenis] as [sxima]-‘schema’ can be pronounced as [skima][skimǝ] [x] is a voiceless velar fricative
Dissimilation can also affect the distant {non-adjacent} segments. For example the Latin word arbor (tree) became arbol in Spanish and alboro in Italian thereby avoiding two instances of [r] in neighbouring syllables.

Language change may also be caused by Epenthesis/insertion. This is a phonological process by which a segment not present in the phonemic (underlying) form is added in the phonetic form. It involves the insertion of a consonant or vowel into a particular environment. {For example, the insertion of a vowel into a consonant cluster in the word athlete [ӕϴlit]---[ӕϴǝlit]}. In English we have voiceless stops insertion.

Examine the following Old English Examples of Epenthesis.
Earlier form later form
• Ganra gandra = ‘gander’
• Simle simble = ‘always’
• ӕmtig ӕmptig = ‘empty’
 The epenthetic [b], [d] and [p] have the place of articulation of the preceding nasal, but agree with the following segment in terms of voice.
In other cases vowel epenthesis serves to break up a sequence of sounds which would otherwise be difficult to pronounce or even inconsistent with the phonotactic patterns of the language. For example in the history of Spanish word initial [sk] clusters were avoided by inserting a vowel.

Latin schola [sk-] Spanish escuela [esk--]
Scriber [sk-] Spanish escribir [esk]
These changes may result to language change in the words affected by this rule.

The other cause of language change is Metathesis. This involves the change in the relative positioning of segments. It is also defined as the switching of the order of the two sounds each taking the place of the other. O’grady et al (1997) and Stewart & Vaillet (2001). Some sounds have their current shapes as a result of metathesis that took place sometimes in the history of the language that affected the morphemic arrangement/order.

wӕps ------wӕsp = ‘wasp’
ϸridda ------ ϸirdda = ‘third’
brid ----------- bird = bird
disintregation – disintegration
whipser -------- whisper

Linguistic change is also caused by weakening/deletion. Deletion rule eliminates a sound. Such rules apply more frequently to unstressed syllables and in casual speech. Both vowels and consonants are susceptible to outright deletion as well as to various weakening process. Vowel deletion may involve a word-final (apocope) or a word internal (cyncope) O’grady et al (1997). A vowel in an unstressed syllable is particularly susceptible to deletion, especially when a nearby neighbouring syllable is stressed.

Examples in modern English words: vegetable, interest and family which are usually pronounced [veʤtǝbl] [Intrest] and [fӕmli] ibid.
Vowel reduction and deletion in English also affected these words in Middle English and in Early Modern English, the changes still evident today.
OE MdE Early MoE
Stanas [a] stones [ǝ] stones [Ø]
Nama [a] name [ǝ] name [Ø]
Talu [u] tale [ǝ] tale [Ø]

Another cause for language change is the addition of affixes. In English for example, During Middle English, many French words containing the suffix –ment were coined into English language. Eventually –ment established itself as a productive suffix in English and was used with bases that were French in origin (like acknowledgement, merriment).

Also the suffix -able forming adjectives from verbs followed similar patterns as in lovable, readable, etc. ibid. Now although these words with this ending were initially borrowed into English as whole units (words) eventually the suffix became productive and was used with new bases. Today we have many words which are not French in origin taking these suffixes. This caused language change significantly.
A contrast reason with the above is also responsible –loss of affixes. It is also possible that the affixes can be lost from the grammar of the language just as they can be added. When this happens then language change is obvious. {sometimes affixes may fall into disuse for no apparent reason} it is agreed that most of OE derivational affixes including –bӕre and –bora are no longer used.

N + bӕre = (A) lustbӕre -- pleasant, agreeable, from lust. Pleasure.
N + bora = (N) mundbora -- protector(from mund, protection)
Loss of lexical items also results to language change. Just as words can be added into a language’s lexicon, so can they be lost. This loss frequently occurs as a result of change of society, particularly in cases where the object or the notion a word refers to has become obsolete. Ibid. So when these words are dropped from a language they result to language change. Consider these English words which were lost through cultural change.

dolgbot =’compensation for wounding
eafor =‘tenant obligation to the king to convey goods’
ϸeox = ‘hunting spear’
swefn = ‘dream’
The loss of these words resulted to language change as these objects assumed new names.
Lastly, we shall pay attention to the issue of innovations and discoveries as a factor for language change. New inventions always necessitate the society in question to look for new words to name new products. Also inventions like Printing Press in 1476 and Great Vowel Shift {GVS} in 15thc-18thc brought in English language the changes that are still evident today. The printing press introduced the spelling ‘gh’ as in ghost from German, also these sounds underwent changes to what they are today.
ɛ___e:__i:___eI __aI
ɔ:___o:__u:__ou__ǝʊ .Katamba (2006)

So linguistically speaking, no any natural language may avoid changes as long as the speech community that uses it keeps changing. It has been observed that in most cases the areas of lexicon and pronunciation are more likely to be affected by these changes as compared to other levels of linguistic analysis. English for example has maintained the SVO word order since Old English but has experienced drastic changes in the areas of lexicon/vocabulary and pronunciation.

More vocabularies have entered the language mostly through borrowing, and some have extended, narrowed, or shifted, their meaning. Some words have got negative meanings (pejoration) while others positive meaning (elevation/amelioration)

O’Grady et al (1997) Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction: London: St. Martin’s Press
Stewart and Vaillet. (2001) Language Files: Materials for An Introduction to Language and Linguistics: Columbus: Ohio State University Press
Katamba,F & J. Stonham (2006) Morphology.2nd Ed. New York:Palgrave MacMillan
Mark (2009) Causes of language change in http://www.coursework .info visited on 1st Dec 2011.

Harris B. (2011) Language changes in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia last modified on 11 October 2011 at 21:08.

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