Progress is the mother of problems

Language Change
Progress is the mother of problems.
G. K. Chesterton
One of the remarkable characteristics of language is the fact that it can be
transmitted so effectively from one generation to another over centuries. There
are words whose meaning and pronunciation (as far as we can tell) have changed
very little over two or maybe three thousand years. They have been preserved, not
especially because they have been written down, though that provides some of our
knowledge of their existence over the past thousand years or so. They have survived
because each generation of children learns the language of the community in which
they are growing up. Despite the individual nature of language learning, children
grow up to speak in a way that identifies them as members of a speech community,
sharing its norms. This can be seen most clearly in the survival of dialect forms
(see chapter 13) that are not part of the standard language. The fact that forms
which are not normally written down should survive with such persistence over
long periods of time is evidence of the successful transmission of community
norms. In fact, many dialect forms are conservative or relic forms; it is the standard
language that has changed, for combined with stability there is also the possibility
of change.
It is not surprising that languages should change. The ways in which we live,
the things we use, and the kind of activities we get involved in all change, and we
must be able to communicate about them. In a society in which there were few
innovations over a long period of time, there would be less necessity for language
to change but even then there might be some changes. For most societies linguistic
change is endemic, and any aspect of language can change.
There is one factor at work in the use of language that is sometimes cited as
an explanation of changes in pronunciation. This is the principle of least effort or
sometimes the laziness principle. Since most human beings are sensible creatures,
they do not believe in making more effort than necessary. Designers of public parks
are often frustrated by this side of human nature. The landscape architect sometimes
likes to design paths that wind gracefully through the park but it often happens
that people create their own paths by choosing the most direct route, often cutting
across corners. Human beings do this also when they speak. Speech sounds may
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:13:35.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
Language Change 129
be produced in different parts of the mouth and many of them involve the use of
the tongue. Sometimes different parts of the tongue are involved in the production
of two consecutive sounds. For ease of articulation, we often take the equivalent
of the shortcuts taken by those crossing the park.
For example, we often just leave out a sound. This is what happens with the
contracted forms I’m for I am, he’s for he is, doesn’t for does not, and so on. This
process can also occur within words. For example, in words such as restless, coastguard,
and exactly the [t] is generally not heard and it would sound odd if articulated
clearly. Some years ago there was a popular song, Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow,”
that included as part of a kind of choral commentary the words quite rightly
in which the [t] sounds were very clearly articulated, presumably in order to create
this strange effect.
We also make sounds more similar to each other. If we contract the auxiliary
in John is driving to John’s driving the s is pronounced [z] as in [iz], but if we
contract the auxiliary in Jack is driving to Jack’s driving the ‘s is pronounced [s].
This is because [n] is a voiced sound like [z], but [k] is a voiceless sound like [s].
The process of changing the voiced sound [z] to the voiceless sound [s] after the
voiceless consonant [k] is known as assimilation.
Assimilation is a very common process in speech. We do not normally notice
this because we are usually more interested in what is being said rather than the
smaller phonetic details but, if you listen carefully, you may hear that when someone
says This year the first word may rhyme with fish rather than with miss. This
is because the speaker is anticipating the first sound of year and thus produces the
[s] sound further back in the mouth. Similarly, the phrase ten minutes may sound
more like tem minutes as the speaker anticipates the [m] at the beginning of minutes.
The word handkerchief is usually pronounced as if it were spelled hangkerchief.
The explanation lies in the tendency in English for nasal consonants to be pronounced
in the same place as an immediately following stop consonant: camp,
hand, and bank (where the n represents the ng sound [ŋ] at the end of bang, not
the [n] of ban). With the loss of the [d] between the [d] and [k] in normal speech,
the [n] is articulated immediately before the [k] and thus is assimilated to [ŋ].
There are many examples of assimilation in the history of languages. Latin
septem “seven” and octo “eight” become sette and otto in Italian. Middle English
mylne (borrowed from Latin molina) has become modern English mill. (The word
kiln, which retained the n in spelling, has regained it also in speech for many
people, though some people retain the pronunciation identical to kill.) There is a
form of assimilation known as palatalization that particularly affects the [k] and
[g] sounds. In Early Old English the letter c represented the sound [k] but before
and after a high front vowel this [k] changed into [cˇ] (that is, the sound at the
beginning of choose). So Old English cinn became chin and ci:dan became chide.
The words book and beech are from the same root, but the c in Old English be:c
was palatalized under the influence of the preceding front vowel. A slightly different
kind of palatalization took place in Parisian French but not in Norman
French, which explains why we have the word cat while in French it is chat, and
the difference between cattle (from Norman French) and chattel (from Parisian
French), which survives in the English legal expression goods and chattels.
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:13:35.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
130 The Social Art
Of course, there has to be a limit to the Principle of Least Effort. If there were
not, then speech would be a series of mumbled indistinct vowels. But communication
through speech does not depend solely on what the speaker does. The hearer
has to be able to decode the signal and for this reason a minimal number of distinct
sounds is necessary.
While it is often possible to trace back the changes that have taken place in a
language, it is much harder to explain the particular direction the change has taken.
For example, we know that Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French have all developed
out of the language spoken by the Romans, commonly known as Vulgar
Latin (to distinguish it from Classical Latin in which most of the surviving written
works were composed). In each language the form of Vulgar Latin words has
changed but not in the same way:
dicto detto dicho dito dit “said”
facto fatto hecho feito fait “done”
pleno pieno lleno cheio plein “full”
pluvere piovere llover chover pleuvoir “to rain”
novo nuovo nuevo novo neuf “nine”
foco fuoco fuego fogo feu “fire”
oculo occhio ojo olho oeil “eye”
palea paglia paja palha paille “straw”
capra capra cabra cabra che`vre “goat”
caballo cavallo caballo cavalo cheval “horse”
Although the spellings will not tell you how these words are pronounced unless
you know the rules for interpreting them, it can be seen that although in each
language there are consistent changes from the Vulgar Latin forms, the changes
vary from language to language. Explanations for these differences are complex
and include social conditions such as the language spoken by the indigenous inhabitants
or by later invaders.
Many traces of sound changes are preserved in English orthography. For example,
the words meat and meet are now homophones; that is, they are pronounced
exactly the same but are spelled differently, reflecting a difference in pronunciation
that disappeared more than three hundred years ago. At one time meat was pronounced
like met (with the vowel made longer) and meet was pronounced like
Modern English mate (which was at that time pronounced more like mat with the
vowel lengthened). Some time between the death of Chaucer in 1400 and Shakespeare’s
lifetime the vowel system underwent an extensive series of changes, which
is known as the Great Vowel Shift. Roughly speaking, what happened was that the
long vowels were produced with the tongue higher in the mouth so that a low
vowel became a mid vowel and a mid vowel became a high vowel. Thus what was
earlier pronounced [mæ:t] (like mat with a long vowel) became [me:t] (like mate),
and meet took on its present-day pronunciation, as did meat. A word such as mite
with the highest vowel could not go any higher so its vowel became a diphthong
beginning with a low vowel, somewhat like its present-day pronunciation. Similar
changes took place with vowels articulated in the back of the mouth. The changes
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:13:35.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
Language Change 131
affected only the long vowels and this process resulted in pairs of related words
having a different vowel as in the following words:
opaque opacity
serene serenity
divine divinity
cone conic
school scholar
abound abundance
The stressed vowels in the words in the left column are all long vowels that were
affected by the Great Vowel Shift; the corresponding stressed vowels in the words
in the second column are all short and remained unaffected, thereby retaining their
original sound. By using the same letter to represent what have become two distinct
sounds, the spelling shows quite clearly the relationship between pairs of words
such as divine/divinity. If the words were spelled phonetically the relationship
would be less immediately obvious. The different ways in which the letters are
pronounced seem to cause native speakers little trouble. (When I give my students
nonsense words such as falene/falenity, they have no difficulty in pronouncing them
“correctly,” that is, like serene/serenity.)
Another example of an older pronunciation that has left its trace in spelling is
the gh in words such as night, bright, and light. At one time these letters represented
a sound like the final sound in Scottish loch or in the German composer’s name
Bach. This sound still occurs in Scottish dialects, and Scots people will often
produce the sentence It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht the nicht as an example of
a tongue twister for English people to repeat. The words bricht, licht, and nicht are
said with the short vowel [i] (as in bit). When the gh [x] sound was lost, the vowel
was lengthened so that, for example, right was pronounced the same as write and
rite, and all changed as part of the Great Vowel Shift. Words such as write, wrap,
knight, and knot illustrate another change that has taken place in the language. At
one time the initial consonants w- and k- were pronounced but toward the end of
the Middle English period the system of initial consonant clusters in English was
simplified and these initial consonants ceased to be pronounced. This is an example
of how sound changes can affect totally unrelated sounds.
It is also necessary to remember that dialect variation is not a recent phenomenon.
During the Old English period there were at least four major dialect areas:
Wessex in the south and west, Kent in the southeast, Mercia in the midlands, and
Northumbria in the north. Some modern words provide evidence of this variation.
There was an Old English vowel y, which was a front rounded vowel (that is,
pronounced with the tip of the tongue high in the front of the mouth and the lips
rounded) like the French vowel in tu. In Middle English this vowel lost its liprounding,
but the form that it took varied in the different dialects and this variation
accounts for certain modern forms. From Kentish we have knell (from the Old
English cnyllan) and merry (from myrge) and from West Saxon we have blush
(from blyscan), cudgel (from cycgel), and much (from mycel), but the majority of
forms come from the Midland dialects, hill (from hyll), sin (from synn), wish (from
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:13:35.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
132 The Social Art
wyscan), and so on. However, it is perhaps not surprising that modern English has
retained the western form shut (from the Old English scytan) rather than the expected
Midland form, which would have been homophonous with another wellknown
four-letter word.
Morphology can also change. The greatest morphological changes in English
took place during the Middle English period. Old English was a highly inflected
language, somewhat similar to present day German. Articles, adjectives, and nouns
had suffixes that changed with case and number; verbs had suffixes to indicate
person and number as well as tense. Present-day English has essentially only the
-s suffix to indicate plurality, possession, or third-person singular present (see chapter
6) and the-ed suffix to indicate past tense remaining from the earlier complex
system. Moreover, the use of the suffixes has become more regular. There were
several suffixes to indicate plurality and possession in Old English, but now the
same system applies to all nouns (with a very small number of exceptions). This
process of regularization is known as analogy and is similar to what young children
do in what is called overregularization (see chapter 6). The process of analogy can
be seen in the differences in the past tense of the verb dive. Those who think of it
as being in the same class as like and type use dived for the past tense, whereas
those who think of it as being in the same class as drive and ride use dove as the
past. It is not a matter of which is historically correct but which is the form used
in your community. Whichever it is, the other will seem odd and perhaps even
The greatest changes are in vocabulary. As the need arises, new words are
created or borrowed from another language. For a variety of historical reasons,
words have been borrowed into English from many diverse languages. Some examples
of this will be given in the next chapter as will examples of the ways in
which words have changed their meaning.
There are also social forces that affect the ways in which people speak. In a
socially stratified society with the possibility of social mobility, it is natural that
those who strive to move to a higher level should take on as many as they can of
the superficial signs of belonging to the class to which they aspire. These are, for
example, appearance, residence, life-style, and manners, including language. It has
been shown in a number of empirical studies that upwardly mobile speakers often
try to speak like those whose status they wish to achieve. There are two ways in
which this process can introduce linguistic change. First, the higher class, wishing
to maintain the distance from the social climbers, may change its form of speech
to stay ahead. Second, upwardly mobile adults may overshoot the target with the
result that their speech becomes “more correct” than that of the group they wish
to emulate.
This phenomenon of hypercorrection can most easily be illustrated by an example
that has nothing to do with linguistic change. Many people, having been
told that it is incorrect to use the object form of the first-person pronoun in cases
such as It’s me or Bigger than me, try to avoid using me under any circumstances
and produce utterances such as He gave it to John and I or Between you and I,
which are hypercorrect (that is, wrong). All kinds of hypercorrection come from
feelings of insecurity and are most likely to be found among those on the middle
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:13:35.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
Language Change 133
rungs of the social ladder. Those at the top and those at the bottom are usually less
anxious about their form of speech.
Linguistic insecurity comes from the role that language plays as a badge of
identity. Languages and dialects (both regional and social) have a unifying and a
separatist function. They help to divide the world into “us” who speak alike and
“them” who speak differently. It is this attitude that helps to explain the resistance
to change in regional dialects. It is not a coincidence that conservative forms are
found in areas where the people have a strong sense of local identity. In Scotland,
for example, the Great Vowel Shift did not have the same effect and Scottish dialect
speakers still say moose for mouse and doon for down, pronunciations that may be
similar to those used two thousand years ago. The survival of the velar fricative
[x] in words such as nicht for night is another example. It hardly needs to be
emphasized that the Scots have a very keen sense of national identity.
The effects of linguistic change in the English language will be examined in
the next chapter, and in chapter 27 we shall look at its prehistory.
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:13:35.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.

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