Language Changes

Have you ever wondered how and why has the English language changed and developed over time? The language we use to communicate today is different from the language used in the past. This will continue in the future; hundreds of years from now, people may not understand the language we use today. 

Language Changes Language Changes

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    Language change is constantly happening, even if we may not be aware of it. This article will explore the meaning of language change in the English language. We will also look at the different ways a language can change, considering the causes of these changes and their effects on us.

    Language Changes, time for change, StudySmarterFig. 1 - One of the beautiful things about languages is that they constantly change and evolve.

    Language change meaning

    Language change refers to the process by which a language evolves over time, resulting in differences in its pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and usage from one generation to the next. These changes are often gradual and usually permanent.

    However, this is not always the case. The rate at which changes occur depends on the different values of people who use certain languages.

    For example, if speakers of a specific language prefer the steadiness and tradition of their language, the changes will be more gradual.

    However, if they are more willing to embrace originality and unfamiliarity, the changes will be faster. An example of language change is the creation of new words (neologism) and the discarding of old ones.

    Examples of language change

    Language change is as versatile as languages themselves are. Language change is a complex process that can involve multiple factors. Examples include:

    • Social
    • Cultural
    • Historical

    There are also many linguistic factors that can affect changes to the language, such as register, pronunciation, and grammar.

    Types of language change

    Different types of language change can also include sound, lexical, semantic, and syntactic changes.

    Sound changes

    This refers to the changes in the sound of a language that affect the pronunciation of words. Specifically, this relates to any changes in the phonological or phonetic structure of the language.

    An example of sound changes in the English language would be the modification of vowel sounds that happened during the evolution from Middle English to Early Modern English (around the time of Shakespeare).

    This change was known as the ‘Great Vowel Shift’, a term coined by Linguist Otto Jespersen. According to Jespersen, “The great vowel shift consists in a general raising of all long vowels” (A Modern English Grammar, 1909). Phonetically, this refers to long monophthongs. For example, words in Middle English contained longer vowel sounds than they do now:


    Pronunciation in Middle English Pronunciation now
    təʊ (toe)tuː (to)
    wiːf (weef)waɪf (wife)
    muːs (moos)maʊs (mouse)
    beɪn (bain)biːn (been)
    hɪə (here)hɜː (her)
    biːt (beat)baɪt (bite)
    meɪt (mate)miːt (meet)
    bəʊt (boat)buːt (boot)

    Another example: Romance languages (such as Spanish, French, Italian, etc.) underwent significant changes in sound as they were developing from Latin.

    Lexical changes

    This refers to the changes in a language’s vocabulary, which concerns the words in a language.

    An example of lexical changes in the English language is borrowed words (also known as loan words). These are words that have been taken from other languages and are now part of the English lexicon. English has borrowed words from many different languages, but Latin, French, and German are the three languages with the most influence on English. Some words are borrowed entirely from the original language, while others have been changed to form new words.

    Examples of words borrowed from Latin:

    • Lexicon

    • Apparatus

    • Formula

    • Component

    • Democratic (from Late Latin ‘democraticus’)

    • Enthusiasm (from Late Latin ‘enthusiasmus’)

    • Imaginary (from Latin ‘imaginarius’)

    • Sophisticated (from Latin ‘sophisticatus’)

    Examples of words borrowed from French:

    • Ballet

    • Machine

    • Novel

    • Magnificent

    • Allowance (from Old French ‘alouance’)

    • Energy (from Middle French ‘énergie’)

    • Irony (from Middle French ‘ironie’)

    • Utensil (from Old French ‘utensile’)

    Examples of words borrowed from German:

    • Angst

    • Rucksack

    • Blitz

    • Hamster

    • Noodle (from German ‘Nudel’)

    • Abseil (from German ‘abseilen’)

    • Delicatessen (from German ‘Delikatessen’)

    • Pretzel (from German ‘Brezel’)

    As for more modern words that are used more in daily life...

    During the British Empire, many Hindi words were borrowed from India and introduced into the English language. Some of those include:

    • Pyjamas

    • Bungalow

    • Shampoo

    • Jungle

    • Yoga

    Semantic changes

    This refers to changes in the meanings of words over time.

    1. An example of semantic change is the use of the metaphorical extension. This refers to extending the meaning of a word to other meanings similar to the original. For example, the word ‘head’ originally refers to a body part of a human/animal. However, this meaning has extended to include objects, such as the head of a pin, screw or nail (as their tops resemble heads).

    Language Changes, pins and nails, StudySmarterFig. 2 - As language evolves, different words can be used for different purposes and contexts.

    Syntactic changes

    This refers to changes in the structure of syntax in a language. Syntax refers to the ways words come together to form sentences, clauses and phrases.

    Syntactic change can be shown through changing verb tenses. For example, the verb ‘go’:

    The verb ‘go’ comes from the Old English ‘gān’. The past tense of ‘gān’ was ’ēode’. However, with the introduction of ‘go’, the past tense was not ‘goed’. Instead, the verb ‘went’ was used, which was the past tense of ‘to wend’. This meant that ‘go’ and ‘wend’ shared the same past tense, so ‘wend’ developed another past tense - ‘wended’. This left ‘went’ as the past tense of ‘go’, which has been the same to this day.

    Effects of language change in English

    Language affects how we perceive the world and reflects the changes we experience in our lives. As changes are constantly happening through our language, this enables us to view the world differently and adapt our ability to communicate with others.

    Causes of language change

    There are many reasons why the English language evolves and develops over time. Some of these causes include the following:

    Migration and trade

    As a result of people moving countries and trading with others, we have interacted with others who speak different languages. This influences our language - we borrow words or sounds from other languages to communicate. After being exposed to different languages, some children become bilingual (able to speak two languages) or learn another language later in life.

    The borrowing of words between different countries highlights the multilingual exchanges made worldwide and the connections between different cultures.

    For example, due to British colonialism, many words were borrowed from South Asia and introduced into the English language. These include cot, dungarees, bangle, shawl, verandah.

    Due to the global influence of the English language, other languages have borrowed words from English. For example, in Portuguese, you can hear: delivery, babysitter, time, show, drink, bike. Also, some English words change. For example, the following words were taken from English and changed into new Portuguese forms:

    • Sandwich ---> Sanduíche
    • Hamburger ---> Hambúrguer
    • Flirt ---> Flerte
    • Tennis ---> Tênis
    • Football ---> Futebol

    Language learning

    The language we learn changes as passed from one generation to another. For example, the language our parents used when they were younger is different from the language teenagers speak today. As we acquire language, we develop our vocabulary, influenced by older generations communicating with us (e.g. parents, grandparents).

    The language learning process is different for everyone, so there will be variations in how we replicate what we hear from them. This leads to changes in the language from older to newer generations.

    Technology

    With the invention of technology comes the subsequent development of new words to describe inventions that previously did not exist. For example, the invention of the internet made way for the new language used in online contexts - such as 'email' or 'emoticon'.

    Frequency of use

    When words become older, they will likely be used less. Just like fashion, some things go out of style! Instead, old words are dropped, and new words are created to keep up with the evolution of new ideas and things.

    For example, new words are added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and old words are dropped every year.

    Similarly, language can change if there is a difference in standard. For example, 'Standard English' is one of the most recognised English varieties commonly used for formal communication.

    In conclusion, language change is a dynamic and ongoing process that reflects the ongoing adaptation of languages to the changing needs of language speakers.

    Language Changes - Key Takeaways

    • Language change refers to the process by which a language evolves over time, resulting in differences in its pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and usage from one generation to the next.
    • Different types of language change include sound, lexical, semantic, syntactic.
    • Language affects how we perceive the world and reflects the changes we experience in our lives.
    • The causes of language change include migration/trade, language learning, technology, frequency of use.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Language Changes

    How is language changing?

    Language is always evolving in different ways. For example, there are changes in phonetic, lexical, semantic and syntactic elements of a language.

    What are the types of language change?

    The types of language change are sound, lexical, semantic, and syntactic changes.

    What do we mean by language change?

    Language change refers to altering the features of a language over time.

    What are the reasons for language change?

    Some of the reasons for language change include:

    1. migration and trade
    2. learning a language
    3. new technology and inventions
    4. frequency of use

    What is an example of language change?

    An example of language change is the borrowing of words from other languages, which are then introduced into another language.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was Middle English spoken?

    Word order became more important in the Middle English period. True or false?

    What standard did Caxton use when he introduced the printing press?

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