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Language Changes

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English

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.

This is all due to language change, which 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, Studysmarter'Time for change' letters, pixabay.com

Language Change Meaning and Examples

Language change refers to altering the features of a language over time. 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 and the discarding of old ones.

What are the different types of language change?

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

In what follows, we will explore each of these in more detail!

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, StudysmarterPins and nails, pixabay.com

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.

Language Changes - Key Takeaways

  • Language change refers to when the features of a language are altered over time.
  • 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.

Language Changes

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

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

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

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

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

Final Language Changes Quiz

Question

What year did the English language originate?

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Answer

English first originated in around 5AD.

Show question

Question

Who invaded Britain in 5AD speaking West-Germanic dialects?

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Answer

The Anglo-Saxons brought English as a group of West-Germanic dialects in 5AD.

Show question

Question

What is the earliest form of English that we know today?

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Answer

‘Old English’ is the earliest form of the language that we know today.

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Question

Name a feature of Old English.


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Answer

Features of Old English include the use of grammatical gender, the use of cases, and the use of inflections,

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Question

What language family does English belong to?


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Answer

English belongs to the Indo-European family, more specifically the West-Germanic family.

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Question

When was Middle English spoken?


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Answer

11th-15th century

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Question

Who invaded Britain in 1066 and what language did they speak?


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Answer

The Normans invaded Britain in 1066 speaking Anglo-Norman French. 

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Question

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


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Answer

True

Show question

Question

What innovation did Chaucer introduce to Britain in 1476?


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Answer

The Printing Press

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Question

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


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Answer

Chancery Standard

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Question

What key event occurred during the Early Modern English period?

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Answer

The Great Vowel Shift

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Question

What happened during the Great Vowel Shift?


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Answer

The pronunciation of long vowels shifted ‘upwards’ to a shorter version of the vowel.

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Question

Which poet had a great influence on the English language during the Early Modern English period?


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Answer

Shakespeare had a great influence on English. He was regarded as the greatest writer in the history of English and introduced over 1,700 words to the language.

Show question

Question

The Late Modern English period saw the rise of the _________, as well as the ___________. Fill in the blanks.


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Answer

The Late Modern English period saw the rise of the British Empire, as well as the industrial revolution.

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Question

How did the industrial revolution affect the English language?


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Answer

The industrial revolution was a time of innovation, and new words were needed to name the inventions. English became a common language of science and technology with many scientific publications being written in English. 

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Question

How did colonisation affect the English language?


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Answer

Colonialism and the growth of the British Empire in the 16th century meant that English was adopted in regions across the world. Many countries in these areas have developed their own dialects of English, now called ‘New Englishes’.

Show question

Question

In more recent times, we’ve seen the rising influence of _________ culture and _________ English. Fill in the blanks.


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Answer

In more recent times, we’ve seen the rising influence of American culture and American English. 

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Question

What does language change refer to?

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Answer

When the features of a language are altered over time.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is not a type of language change?


A. Semantic

B. Syntactic
C. Semiotic

Show answer

Answer

C. Semiotic

Show question

Question

What are the different types of language change?

Show answer

Answer

Sound, lexical, semantic, syntactic.

Show question

Question

What does sound change refer to?

Show answer

Answer

Changes in the sound of a language which affects the pronunciation of words.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks:


The great ____ shift is an example of a ____ change.

Show answer

Answer

vowel

sound

Show question

Question

“The great vowel shift consists in a general raising of all long vowels”


Who said this?


Show answer

Answer

Otto Jespersen

Show question

Question

What does lexical change refer to?

Show answer

Answer

Changes in a language’s vocabulary

Show question

Question

What are borrowed words?

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Answer

Words that have been taken from other languages and introduced into another language.

Show question

Question

What are the three languages that have the most influence on the English language?

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Answer

Latin, French, German.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Borrowed words are also known as ____ words.

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Answer

loan

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Question

What does semantic change refer to?

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Answer

Changes in the meanings of words over time

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Question

What does metaphorical extension refer to?

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Answer

 When the meaning of a word is extended to other meanings similar to the original

Show question

Question

What does syntactic change refer to?

Show answer

Answer

Changes in the structure of syntax in a language

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


_____ English is commonly used for _____ communication.

Show answer

Answer

Standard

formal

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Question

Fill in the blank:


When words become older, they are used ____

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Answer

less

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Question

Name two factors that contributed to the standardisation of English.

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Answer

The introduction of the printing press (1476) and the establishment of dictionaries.

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Question

Who invaded Britain in 1066 bringing the French language with them?

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Answer

The Normans

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Question

What period did French and Latin replace English as the language of the upper class and in written text?


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Answer

The Middle English period

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Question

When was the printing press introduced?

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Answer

1476

Show question

Question

How did the printing press help to standardise the English language?


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Answer

Printing helped to standardise the English language by regularising regional variation. This is because Caxton had to choose one form (the Chancery standard) of English to use in his printing which would be distributed in his books. The availability of books also meant that more people could learn to read and write according to the more fixed standards of English.

Show question

Question

What was the name of the first dictionary published in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey?


Show answer

Answer

Table Alphabeticall

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Question

How did dictionaries help to standardise the English language?


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Answer

Dictionaries helped to stabilise the spelling of words, the meaning of words, and grammatical rules.

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Question

How many French words did English acquire during the Middle English period?


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Answer

English gained up to 10,000 new words due to Norman influence.

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Question

The English language has many inconsistencies in spelling. True or false?


Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What does the term ‘Standard English’ refer to?


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Answer

The term ‘Standardised English’ or ‘Standard English’ refers to the form of English that is widely recognised and accepted as 'correct'. It follows regularised grammar rules and is often used in formal or polite situations.

Show question

Question

Standard English is a variety of English. True or false?


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Answer

True

Show question

Question

Standard English is the same in every country. True or false?


Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

What are the four areas of standardisation?

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Answer

Phonology, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.

Show question

Question

What are the positives of standardised English?

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Answer

The stability and consistency of the standard mean that English is teachable and that it can be used for international communication.

Show question

Question

The standards of the English language are officially enforced. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False- The standards are not officially enforced however there are ‘gatekeepers’ of the English language who maintain the standard e.g. the Cambridge University Press.

Show question

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