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The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
Antonio Gramsci, Prison notebooks
This chapter describes how linguists realized they needed to study ongoing changes. In the early part of the twentieth century, language change was assumed to happen too slowly to be observable. In their grammars, linguists had unwittingly omitted the variations which indicated that changes were under way. The American linguist William Labov was the key figure in this twentieth-century linguistic breakthrough. He made a preliminary ingenious attempt to study current changes in a now-famous department store survey in New York. Later, he proceeded to other New York changes. He found he could reliably predict the percentage of the features he was investigating in the speech of different ethnic groups, sexes, ages and socio-economic classes, in different speech styles. In his later work, he has refined his early techniques and produced a solid methodological framework for future researchers. His later work in Philadelphia again proved groundbreaking. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, Jim and Leslie Milroy explored speech varieties in different social networks. These seminal studies, on each side of the Atlantic, kick-started work on ongoing changes, which are now a standard part of language change investigations.
David Everett, ‘Lines written for a school declamation’
This chapter considers the linguistic progress of a sound change, where it starts, and how it makes its way through the language. Frequently used words often (but not inevitably) get affected early. But these words need also to be linguistically susceptible. Typically, the change follows an S-curve (slow-quick-quick-slow) pattern. It starts slowly, then speeds up; eventually it gradually fades away. But as the change happens, individual speakers tend to vary in their treatment of words: on one day, a speaker may use the new form, on another day the old. Neatness may happen in the long run, but not in the course of the change.
Language change spreads in two ways: outwardly through a community, and inwardly through a language. Let us now consider this inner linguistic burrowing. Like a seed, any change is likely to have small beginnings. But if it puts down firm roots, it can develop into a massive growth which affects the whole landscape. This spreading process is the topic of this and the next chapter. This chapter will deal with sound change, and the following with syntactic change.
Abbreviations are the wheels of language, the wings of Mercury. And though we might be dragged along without them, it would be with much difficulty, very heavily and tediously…Words have been called winged…but compared with the speed of thought, they have not the smallest claim to that title…What wonder, then, that the invention of all ages should have been…to add such wings to their conversation as might enable it, if possible, to keep pace in some measure with their minds.
John Horne Tooke, The diversions of Purley (1786)
This chapter discusses reductions and abbreviations, known in more modern terms as grammaticalization and text messaging. The former used to be described as a previously autonomous word becoming an affix, as in spoon-full → spoonful. But this is oversimple. Grammaticalization covers the whole of language, taking in semantic attrition, grammatical reduction, and phonetic reduction, as well as some idioms. Meanwhile, phonetic cropping has long been in use for a few well-known sequences, such as PTO ‘please turn over’, RIP ‘rest in peace’. Recently such abbreviations have escalated in number, due to the use of text messaging in emails and on mobile phones.
You know, if one person, just one person, does it, they may think he's really sick…And if two people do it…they may think they're both faggots…And if three people do it!…They may think it's an organization!…And can you imagine fifty people a day? I said fifty people a day…Friends, they may think it's a movement, and that's what it is.
Arlo Guthrie, Alice's restaurant
This chapter explains how language changes spread from person to person, a once mysterious process. As elsewhere, William Labov was the key innovator. His research papers on New York [r] and Martha's Vineyard diphthongs are considered linguistic ‘classics’, essential reading for anyone studying language change. He found that insertion of [r] in words such as bear, beard was considered a prestige feature, an item which speakers felt should be there in good speech. The lower middle class and upper working class had many more r-sounds in their careful speech than in their casual conversation. This over-insertion of [r] was a sure sign that a partially conscious change was in progress. Speakers were less aware of the ongoing change in Martha's Vineyard diphthongs. Subconsciously, those who wanted to remain on the island had been trying to sound more like some respected old fishermen, who represented traditional values: the change was less established in those who were planning to move away. These findings highlight the importance of social issues in the spread of change. In his most recent work, Labov has promoted the label ‘the curvilinear hypothesis’, which is a description of a diagram which shows changes radiating from speakers in the middle of the social scale.
This book has been written for people who are interested in language change, and enjoy reading about it. It is NOT written primarily for people who want to be tested on the topic in essays or exams. However, I have been told that some people have requested possible questions which might help them to see how much of the book they have remembered. So here, chapter by chapter, are some suggestions.
Why in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were people so worried about language change?
Explain what is meant by the word ‘grammar’.
What is the difference between a prescriptive and a descriptive grammar?
Suggest at least three types of clue which might help linguists to reconstruct the pronunciation of speakers in past centuries.
Outline two basic assumptions of comparative historical linguistics.
Name two other types of reconstruction, and explain what they involve.
I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigree of nations.
Samuel Johnson, Tour to the Hebrides (1773)
This chapter considers ways in which languages may disappear. In some cases, forms are imported from a related, socially dominant language in the region, so that effectively the original language ceases to be used by its original speakers. This I have labelled language suicide. In other cases, languages at the lower end of the social scale cease to be used, because there is simply no obvious use for them, as the dominant language takes over. This I have labelled language murder.
In the nineteenth century, scholars frequently talked about languages as if they were organic entities, like plants, which went through a predictable life cycle of birth, infancy, maturation, then gradual decay and death. In 1827, the German scholar Franz Bopp claimed that ‘Languages are to be considered organic natural bodies, which are formed according to fixed laws, develop as possessing an inner principle of life, and gradually die out because they do not understand themselves any longer, and therefore cast off or mutilate their members or forms.’
I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic and you have to stock it with such functions as you choose . . . It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.
A. Conan Doyle, A study in scarlet (1888)
This chapter outlines how human language maintains its patterns. Language has an inbuilt self-regulating capacity which restores and maintains a patterned equilibrium. The most obvious examples of patterns are in the sound system, where sounds are often organized in pairs. Word endings tend to neaten themselves up in the morphology. Syntax also tends to keep itself neat, though this is sometimes via misanalysis,when difficult-to-interpret patterns are smoothed away. Finally, it shows how language can invent uses, and patterned rules, for apparently useless bits and pieces.
Many people believe, like Sherlock Holmes, that the human brain has a finite capacity. Recent work on memory, however, suggests that such a view is mistaken. A healthy person’s memory is indefinitely extendable provided that the information it contains is well organized, and not just a jumbled heap of random items.
‘I want a clean cup,’ interrupted the Hatter: ‘Let's all move one place on.’
He moved on as he spoke, and the Dormouse followed him; the March Hare moved into the Dormouse's place, and Alice rather unwillingly took the place of the March Hare. The Hatter was the only one who got any advantage from the change: and Alice was a good deal worse off, as the March Hare had just upset the milk-jug into his plate.
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (1865)
Language changes rarely happen in isolation, and sometimes sequences of linked changes occur in a kind of chain, especially sound changes. But the relationship between the changes is often disputed. Are the sounds pushing or pulling one another? This chapter discusses the controversy. It also briefly mentions the unsolved question of whether such changes affect the syntax also.
Sometimes changes affect languages in a relatively minor way. Natural tendencies, exaggerated by social factors, cause disruptions, then the language restores the equilibrium again. The situation is reminiscent of day-to-day house cleaning or simple weeding in a garden, when minor problems are quickly eradicated.
There was no light nonsense about Miss Blimber…She was dry and sandy with working in the graves of deceased languages. None of your live languages for Miss Blimber. They must be dead – stone dead – and then Miss Blimber dug them up like a Ghoul.
Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (1847–8)
This chapter looks at ways of collecting evidence for studying language change. How old pronunciations are reconstructed is explained. Then other methods of finding out about the linguistic past are described. Comparative historical linguistics builds up a picture of a ‘proto-language’, the parent language from which a group of related languages are descended. Internal reconstruction deduces facts about the previous history of one language by looking at irregularities in structure which have been brought about by change. Typological reconstruction is based on the insight that languages can be divided into a number of different types, and knowledge of the characteristics of these types enables gaps in the evidence to be filled. Population typology explores constructions which diffuse across different language types via contact. Computerized text corpora can now provide reliable evidence for all these historical methods. (A corpus – plural corpora – is a body of spoken and/or written language for linguistic study.)
With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly.
William Shakespeare, Othello
Syntactic change typically creeps into a language via optional stylistic variants. Particular lexical items provide a toehold. The change tends to become widely used via ambiguous structures. One or some of these get increasingly preferred, and in the long run the dispreferred options fade away through disuse. Mostly, speakers are unaware that such changes are taking place. Overall, all changes, whether phonetic/phonological, morphological, or syntactic, take place gradually, and also spread gradually. There is always fluctuation between the old and the new. Then the changes tend to move onward and outward, becoming the norm among one group of speakers before moving on to the next.
To a superficial observer, alterations in syntax attack without warning. Like a hidden spider’s web, they lie in wait and stealthily catch on to pieces of language, which are suddenly entrapped in inescapable silken threads.
Phaedrus…had noticed again and again…that what might seem to be the hardest part of scientific work, thinking of the hypotheses, was invariably the easiest…As he was testing hypothesis number one by experimental method a flood of other hypotheses would come to mind…At first he found it amusing. He coined a law intended to have the humour of a Parkinson's law that ‘The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.’ It pleased him never to run out of hypotheses…It was only months after he had coined the law that he began to have some doubts about the benefits of it…If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested.
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
This is the first of four chapters on the causes of language change. This chapter begins by discounting the oldish idea that changes are purely random. It then discusses the infiltration of foreign elements and borrowing, and, finally, explores the notion of linguistic ‘need’.
How and why do languages change? Where does the evidence of language change come from? How do languages begin and end? This introduction to language change explores these and other questions, considering changes through time. The central theme of this book is whether language change is a symptom of progress or decay. This book will show you why it is neither, and that understanding the factors surrounding how language change occurs is essential to understanding why it happens. This updated edition remains non-technical and accessible to readers with no previous knowledge of linguistics.
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, A dialogue between Strephon and Daphne
This chapter notes that language change is inevitable, yet points out that there is a puzzling, long-standing custom of moaning about it. The complaint tradition is outlined and some reasons for it are pointed out, such as an admiration for Latin, and a long-lasting, but unjustified preference for written language forms over spoken. But finding that some complaints are groundless does not answer the central question: is our language progressing, decaying, or standing still? This is the topic of the whole book. The chapter then discusses the meaning of the word grammar, distinguishing between old-style prescriptive grammars which tried to lay down outdated ‘rules’, and modern descriptive grammars which describe actual usage. The main components of a modern grammar are outlined. Finally, the chapter explains the organization of the book, listing the main sections, and the outline content of each.