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LANGUAGE CHANGE The modification of forms of LANGUAGE over a period of time and/or physical distance. Such change may affect any parts of a LANGUAGE (PRONUNCIATION, ORTHOGRAPHY, GRAMMAR, VOCABULARY) and is taking place all the time. It may be abrupt (a change in spelling in a HOUSE STYLE) or gradual (a slight change in the pronunciation of a VOWEL). During the past nine centuries, English has undergone more dramatic changes than any other major European language. As a result, OLD ENGLISH or ANGLO-SAXON is not accessible to the modern English speaker in the way that Medieval Icelandic is to the modern Icelander. When people do notice change, their reactions are often negative (for example, the use of disinterested to mean uninterested), and conscious attempts are made to resist it. These are usually not successful in the long term. Deliberate attempts are sometimes made, however, by social pressure groups or by governments to change aspects of a language or its use.

Sound change

Changes in pronunciation were a primary interest of 19c comparative philologists who studied the historical relationships among groups of languages such as the Indo-European LANGUAGE FAMILY, which includes ENGLISH, FRENCH, GERMAN, GREEK, LATIN, and SANSKRIT. The establishment of regular correspondences among sets of sounds enabled them to reconstruct genetic relationships and the shifts responsible for the present differentiation of languages and DIALECTS: for example, a sound change which shifted /p/ to /f/ in some of the INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES accounts for some major differences between the GERMANIC LANGUAGES and ROMANCE LANGUAGES. Compare the initial spoken consonant in Latin pater and Spanish padre with English father and German Vater. Many of these changes take a long time to complete and may never cover the entire range of a ‘language’. Thus, one series of changes, the GREAT VOWEL SHIFT, is responsible for the present-day pronunciations of English house, mouse, but has never affected SCOTS, in which the pronunciations are hoose, moose, as was true of all English before the shift occurred.

Grammatical change

Major changes in SYNTAX and MORPHOLOGY have affected English over many centuries to the extent that speakers of MODERN ENGLISH are not able to understand Old English without training. The structure of Old English was more like Latin in that words had various inflectional endings to indicate their grammatical function. This situation has been much simplified: for example, the form of the definite article the, now invariant, once varied according to case, number, and gender, as in se mona (the moon: masculine, nominative, singular), seo sunne (the sun: feminine, nominative, singular), and þæt tungol (the star: neuter, nominative, singular). Word order in Old English was more flexible because grammatical relations were made clear by the endings: Se hund seah þone wifmann (The dog saw the woman) could also be expressed as þone wifmann seah se hund, because the inflected forms of the definite article make it clear that ‘woman’ is the direct object in both cases. In Modern English, however, grammatical relations are indicated largely by word order, so that The dog saw the woman and The woman saw the dog (compare Old English Se wifmann seah þone hund) mean two different things. Modern English has also lost its system of classifying nouns into three grammatical genders, as still occurs in German.

Lexical change

Such change is caused by both internal and external factors. Internal change can mean the adaptation of both the meanings and forms of existing words and phrases through such factors as assimilation, elision, and reduction, as with the conversion of Saint Audries in Saint Audries lace into tawdry (cheap and ill-made, originally referring to the quality of the lace sold at St Audrey's Fair in Ely, England). External change includes the BORROWING of WORDS, which may be occasional and minimal (as with LOANWORDS taken into English from Turkish) or frequent and massive (as with the flow into English of French, Latin, and Greek words). All such acquisition results in the introduction of new vocabulary and sometimes new word structures and patterns of WORD-FORMATION.


People often react negatively to change and regard it as due to ignorance, laziness, or sloppiness. This can be seen in the letters written to newspapers complaining that the contemporary uses of words like disinterested, hopefully, and regime are ‘incorrect’. The spread of language change is basically a social phenomenon, as can be seen from recent sociolinguistic studies, which have shown that changes associated with prestige groups often have a greater chance of being adopted than others. Forms which from the point of view of one variety appear conservative may continue without comment in another, such as the use of gotten rather than got in You've gotten more than you need, which is conventional in Scots and in AmE, but is not now used in the English of England. Older forms may also survive in working-class NON-STANDARD speech (hoose in urban working-class Scots) and in informal styles (workin instead of working in many varieties), though sometimes older forms become restricted to formal or specialized contexts, as with the religious use of brethren. See ETYMOLOGY, PROGRESS AND DECAY IN LANGUAGE, SEMANTIC CHANGE.

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