Language change

Language change is variation over time in a language's features. It is studied in several subfields of linguistics: historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, and evolutionary linguistics. Some commentators use the label corruption to suggest that language change constitutes a degradation in the quality of a language, especially when the change originates from human error or is a prescriptively discouraged usage.[1] Modern linguistics typically does not support this concept, since from a scientific point of view such innovations cannot be judged in terms of good or bad.[2][3] John Lyons notes that "any standard of evaluation applied to language-change must be based upon a recognition of the various functions a language 'is called upon' to fulfil in the society which uses it".[4]


  • Economy: Speakers tend to make their utterances as efficient and effective as possible to reach communicative goals. Purposeful speaking therefore involves a trade-off of costs and benefits.
  • Analogy: reducing word forms by likening different forms of the word to the root.
  • Language contact: borrowing of words and constructions from other languages.[5]
  • Geographic separation: when people move away from each other, their language will diverge, at least for the vocabulary, due to different experiences.[6]
  • Cultural environment: Groups of speakers will reflect new places, situations, and objects in their language, whether they encounter different people there or not.
  • Migration/Movement: Speakers will change and create languages, such as pidgins and creoles.[5]
  • Imperfect learning: According to one view, children regularly learn the adult forms imperfectly, and the changed forms then turn into a new standard. Alternatively, imperfect learning occurs regularly in one part of society, such as an immigrant group, where the minority language forms a substratum, and the changed forms can ultimately influence majority usage.[6]
  • Social prestige: Language may not only change towards a prestigious accent, but also away from one with negative prestige,[6] as in the case of rhoticity of Received Pronunciation.[7] Such movements can go back and forward.[8]

According to Guy Deutscher, the tricky question is "Why are changes not brought up short and stopped in their tracks? At first sight, there seem to be all the reasons in the world why society should never let the changes through." He sees the reason for tolerating change in the fact that we already are used to "synchronic variation", to the extent that we are hardly aware of it. For example, when we hear the word "wicked", we automatically interpret it as either "evil" or "wonderful", depending on whether it is uttered by an elderly lady or a teenager. Deutscher speculates that "[i]n a hundred years' time, when the original meaning of 'wicked' has all but been forgotten, people may wonder how it was ever possible for a word meaning 'evil' to change its sense to 'wonderful' so quickly."[9]


All languages change continually,[10] and do so in many and varied ways.

Marcel Cohen details various types of language change under the overall headings of the external evolution[11] and internal evolution of languages.[12]

Lexical changes

The study of lexical changes forms the diachronic portion of the science of onomasiology.

The ongoing influx of new words into the English language (for example) helps make it a rich field for investigation into language change, despite the difficulty of defining precisely and accurately the vocabulary available to speakers of English. Throughout its history English has not only borrowed words from other languages but has re-combined and recycled them to create new meanings, whilst losing some old words.

Dictionary-writers try to keep track of the changes in languages by recording (and, ideally, dating) the appearance in a language of new words, or of new usages for existing words. By the same token, they may tag some words eventually as "archaic" or "obsolete".

In the English language, there occurred a shift from common words (e.g. house) towards the use of rarer words (e.g. building), but on a marginal level. Within over 300 years, the relative frequency of words in samples of English and American newspapers decreased only about three units within a possible theoretical range of 208 units that is 1-2%.[13]

Phonetic and phonological changes

The concept of sound change covers both phonetic and phonological developments.

The sociolinguist William Labov recorded the change in pronunciation in a relatively short period in the American resort of Martha's Vineyard and showed how this resulted from social tensions and processes.[14] Even in the relatively short time that broadcast media have recorded their work, one can observe the difference between the pronunciation of the newsreaders of the 1940s and the 1950s and the pronunciation of today. The greater acceptance and fashionability of regional accents in media may also reflect a more democratic, less formal society — compare the widespread adoption of language policies.

The mapping and recording of small-scale phonological changes poses difficulties, especially as the practical technology of sound recording dates only from the 19th century. Written texts provide the main (indirect) evidence of how language sounds have changed over the centuries. But note Ferdinand de Saussure's work on postulating the existence and disappearance of laryngeals in Proto-Indo-European as an example of other methods of detecting/reconstructing sound-changes within historical linguistics. Poetic devices such as rhyme and rhythm may provide clues to previous phonological habits.

Spelling changes

Standardisation of spelling originated relatively recently. Differences in spelling often catch the eye of a reader of a text from a previous century. The pre-print era had fewer literate people: languages lacked fixed systems of orthography, and the handwritten manuscripts that survive often show words spelled according to regional pronunciation and to personal preference.

Semantic changes

Semantic changes are shifts in the meanings of existing words. Basic types of semantic change include:

  • pejoration, in which a term's connotations become more negative
  • amelioration, in which a term's connotations become more positive
  • broadening, in which a term acquires additional potential uses
  • narrowing, in which a term's potential uses are restricted

After a word enters a language, its meaning can change as through a shift in the valence of its connotations. As an example, when "villain" entered English it meant 'peasant' or 'farmhand', but acquired the connotation 'low-born' or 'scoundrel', and today only the negative use survives. Thus 'villain' has undergone pejoration. Conversely, the word "wicked" is undergoing amelioration in colloquial contexts, shifting from its original sense of 'evil', to the much more positive one as of 2009 of 'brilliant'.

Words' meanings may also change in terms of the breadth of their semantic domain. Narrowing a word limits its alternative meanings, whereas broadening associates new meanings with it. For example, "hound" (Old English hund) once referred to any dog, whereas in modern English it denotes only a particular type of canid. On the other hand, the word "dog" has been broadened from its Old English root 'dogge', the name of a particular breed, to become the general term for all canines.[15]

Syntactic change

Syntactic change is the evolution of the syntactic structure of a natural language.

Over time, syntactic change is the greatest modifier of a particular language. Massive changes – attributable either to creolization or to relexification – may occur both in syntax and in vocabulary. Syntactic change can also be purely language-internal, whether independent within the syntactic component or the eventual result of phonological or morphological change.


The sociolinguist Jennifer Coates, following William Labov, describes linguistic change as occurring in the context of linguistic heterogeneity. She explains that "[l]inguistic change can be said to have taken place when a new linguistic form, used by some sub-group within a speech community, is adopted by other members of that community and accepted as the norm."[16]

Can and Patton (2010) provide a quantitative analysis of twentieth century Turkish literature using forty novels of forty authors. Using weighted least squares regression and a sliding window approach, they show that, as time passes, words, in terms of both tokens (in text) and types (in vocabulary), have become longer. They indicate that the increase in word lengths with time can be attributed to the government-initiated language "reform" of the 20th century. This reform aimed at replacing foreign words used in Turkish, especially Arabic- and Persian-based words (since they were in majority when the reform was initiated in early 1930s), with newly coined pure Turkish neologisms created by adding suffixes to Turkish word stems (Lewis, 1999).

Can and Patton (2010), based on their observations of the change of a specific word use (more specifically in newer works the preference of ama over fakat, both borrowed from Arabic and meaning 'but', and their inverse usage correlation is statistically significant), also speculate that the word length increase can influence the common word choice preferences of authors.

Kadochnikov (2016) analyzes the political and economic logic behind the development of the Russian language. Ever since the emergence of the unified Russian state in XV-XVI centuries the government played key role in standardizing the Russian language and developing its prescriptive norms with the fundamental goal of ensuring that it can be effciently used as a practical tool in all sorts of legal, judicial, adimistrative and economic affairs throughout the country.[17]


Altintas, Can, and Patton (2007) introduce a systematic approach to language change quantification by studying unconsciously-used language features in time-separated parallel translations. For this purpose, they use objective style markers such as vocabulary richness and lengths of words, word stems and suffixes, and employ statistical methods to measure their changes over time.

Language shift and social status

Languages perceived to be "higher status" stabilise or spread at the expense of other languages perceived by their own speakers to be "lower-status".

Historical examples are the early Welsh and Lutheran Bible translations, leading to the liturgical languages Welsh and High German thriving today, unlike other Celtic or German variants.[18]

For prehistory, Forster and Renfrew (2011)[19] argue that in some cases there is a correlation of language change with intrusive male Y chromosomes but not with female mtDNA. They then speculate that technological innovation (transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture, or from stone to metal tools) or military prowess (as in the abduction of British women by Vikings to Iceland) causes immigration of at least some males, and perceived status change. Then, in mixed-language marriages with these males, prehistoric women would often have chosen to transmit the "higher-status" spouse's language to their children, yielding the language/Y-chromosome correlation seen today.

See also


  1. Lyons, John (1 June 1968). Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. p. 42. ISBN 978-0-521-09510-5. The traditional grammarian tended to assume [...] that it was his task, as a grammarian, to 'preserve' this form of language from 'corruption'.
  2. Joan Bybee (2015). Language Change. Cambridge University Press. pp. 10–11. ISBN 9781107020160.
  3. Lyle Campbell (2004). Historical Linguistics: An Introduction. MIT Press. pp. 3–4. ISBN 9780262532679.
  4. John Lyons (1 June 1968). Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. pp. 42–44. ISBN 978-0-521-09510-5.
  5. "The teaching of pidgin and Creole studies - LLAS Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies". Retrieved 25 September 2016.
  6. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (1997, p. 335)
  7. Ben (7 October 2012). "Was Received Pronunciation Ever Rhotic?". Retrieved 25 September 2016.
  8. "The fall of the r-less class - Macmillan". Retrieved 25 September 2016.
  9. The Unfolding of Language, 2005, chapter 2, esp. pp. 63, 69 and 71
  10. Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius (1510). "23: Of the tongue of Angels, and of their speaking amongst themselves, and with us". De Occulta Philosophia [Occult Philosophy] (published 1651). [...] all tongues have, and do undergo various mutations, and corruptions [...].
  11. Cohen, Marcel (1975) [1970]. Language: its structure and evolution. Translated by Leonard Muller. London: Souvenir Press (Educational & Academic). pp. 74–98. ISBN 978-0-285-64779-4. [...] the shifting movements of languages in light of whatever knowledge is available of the history of humanity.
  12. Cohen, Marcel (1975) [1970]. Language: its structure and evolution. Translated by Leonard Muller. London: Souvenir Press (Educational & Academic). pp. 98–141. ISBN 978-0-285-64779-4. Internal evolution [...] is the passing from one system to another. [...] Internal evolution proceeds progressively, by modification and substitution of details. It is the sum of these details which, at the end of a certain period of time, constitutes a total change.
  13. Form, Sven (2018-01-30). "Reaching Wuthering Heights with Brave New Words: The Influence of Originality of Words on the Success of Outstanding Best-Sellers". The Journal of Creative Behavior. doi:10.1002/jocb.230.
  14. Labov, William (1963). "The social motivation of a sound change". Word. 19 (3): 273–309. doi:10.1080/00437956.1963.11659799.
  15. Crowley, Terry; Bowern, Claire (2010). An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 200–201. ISBN 978-0195365542.
  16. Coates, 1992: 169
  17. Kadochnikov, Denis (2016). Languages, Regional Conflicts and Economic Development: Russia. In: Ginsburgh, V., Weber, S. (Eds.). The Palgrave Handbook of Economics and Language. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 538–580.
  18. Barker, Christopher (1588). The Bible in Welsh. London.
  19. Forster P, Renfrew C; Renfrew (2011). "Mother tongue and Y chromosomes". Science. 333 (6048): 1390–1391. Bibcode:2011Sci...333.1390F. doi:10.1126/science.1205331. PMID 21903800.


  • Coates, Jennifer (1993). Women, men, and language: a sociolinguistic account of gender differences in language. Studies in language and linguistics (2 ed.). Longman. p. 228. ISBN 978-0-582-07492-7. Retrieved 2010-03-30.
  • Labov, William (1994, 2001), Principles of Linguistic Change (vol.I Internal Factors, 1994; vol.II Social Factors, 2001), Blackwell.
  • Lewis, G. (1999). The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
  • Wardhaugh, R. (1986), An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Oxford/ New York.

Further reading

  • Sounds Familiar? The British Library website provides audio examples of changing accents and dialects from across the UK.
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