What are the causes of linguistic change?

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Language change is the phenomenon where phonetics, morphological, semantic, and syntactic and other features of language vary over time. The effect of language change over time is known as Diachronic Change. The two linguistic disciplines in particular language concern themselves with studying language change. (Altintas, K. et al 2007)

Language change is both obvious and rather mysterious. The English of the late 14th C for example is so different to modern English that without special training is difficult to understand the opening lives to the Romance of the Rose cited above. Not only would these sentences have a foreign sound, but words and structure such as Sweveninges, Lesynges and false nabene are unfamiliar.

The existence of such differences between early and late variants of the same language raises questions as to how and why languages changes overtime. Historical linguistic is concerned with both description and explanation of language change. Language changes in all aspect of grammar, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics.

Historical Linguistics began in the late 18th C, when Western European scholars began to notice that some modern European languages shared similar linguistic characteristics with Ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Latin and Greek. These similarities led Linguistics to believe that most of today’s European languages and those Ancient languages must have evolved from a single ancestor or mother language called Proto-indo European. Although these languages come from common ancestor which is Proto-Indo-European and spread to form different languages over the world.

Thus, the language changes are the effects by the followings reasons:

Analogy and Reanalysis by O’Grady et al, (1997) said that Cognitive factors also play a role in change in all components of grammar. Two sources of change having a Cognitive basis are Analogy and Reanalysis. Analogy reflects the preference of speakers for regular patterns over Irregular ones. It typically involves the extension or generalization of a regularity on the basis the inference that it elements are alike in the same respects. They should be alike in others as well. Both phonological and semantic characteristics can serve as a basis for analogy. For example on the basis of its phonological similarity with such verbs as a sting / stung and swing /swung in the same dialects bring has developed a forms such as good by analogy with regular past tense forms like played. As we can see analogy plays a very important role in morphological change.

Reanalysis is particularly common in morphological change. Morphological reanalysis often involves an attempt to attribute a compound or root affix structure to a word that formerly was not broken down into components morphemes. A classic example in English is the word humbugger which originally referred to a type of meet party deriving its name from the city of Hamburg in Germany. This word has been reanalyzed as consisting of two components ham + burger. The later morpheme has since appeared in many new forms including fish burger, chicken burger, egg burger and even as a free morpheme burger. Note that the resulting analysis must not necessarily be correct.

Syntactical change; Syntactic change (word order) like other components of the grammar, syntax is also subjected to change over time. Syntactic changes can involve modifications to phrase structure rule or transformations. For example word order. All languages make a distinction between the subject and direct object. This contrast is typically represented through case marking or word order. Since Old English had an extensive system of case marking, it is not surprising that its word order was same what more than that of modern English. The most common word order is unembeded clauses was Subject+ Verb + Object (SVO). (O’Grady et al, 1997)

S       V        O

Example: Old English: he geseach pone mann

Middle English: He saw the man.

However, when the clause began with an element such as pa “thorn” or ne “not” the verb occurred in second position and precede the subject.

V      S       O

Example: Old English :  pa sende se crying pone disc

Middle English:  then sent the king the dish

Modern English: Then the king sent the dish

Although this word order is still founded in modern English, its use is very limited and subject to special restriction unlike the situation is Old English.

Language Contact according to O’Grady et al,(1997)Language contact which occurs when speakers of one language frequent interact with the speaker of another language or dialect causes a linguistic change as consequence, extensive borrowing can occur particularly where there is significant numbers bilinguals or multilingual. Although borrowing can affect all components of the grammar, the lexicon is typically most affected. English for example had borrowed many French words such as parent, cousin, animal, soup, color, major, cuisine, gateau and blasé. In North America many American words including Canada, Moccasin, totem, tomahawk, Chinook and moose also has been added to English lexicon. Among the effects that borrowing can have in sound system are introduction of new phonemes or allophones and changes in their distribution example some English speakers pronounce the name of classical composer, back with the final the final velar fricative (y) found in Germany pronunciation. As their significant number of borrows from another language, the borrowed foreign segmentation eventually become a new phoneme. In Early middle English period the London dialect had [7] but not [V] in word initial position. The [V] was letter introduce as a result of contact with other dialect of English and with French, in which it did occur word initially as found in modern English pairs such as file and vile.

Sound Change by Inglish P (2005) Sound Change is an alteration in the phonetics of a sound as a result of phonological process is introduced into a language where it did not formally occur it result into sound change. The acceptance of sound change in community begin from word to word or word -class to word- class and from one speaker to the next until all possible words and speakers are affected. A particular pronunciation and allomorphs that has no effect on the phonemic system of a language for example [r] has gone many changes. Phonemic changes affect only pronunciation of words. All the word with [r] still has the same phonological distribution. It is not the case that one dialect has developed a phonemic contrast between different r’s. The dialect has the same phonemes but with different phonemic realizations. Phonetic changes do not affect the phonemic system at all but rather add or delete an allophone of a phoneme, or substitute me allophone for another.

Semantic change, although the changes in word meaning in all languages words rarely jump from one meaning to unrelated one. Typically the change is step by step and involves one of the following phenomena;

Semantic broadening which refers to the process in which the meaning of a word becomes more general or more inclusive than its historically earlier meaning.

Examples of broadening:

     Word      Old meaning New meaning
       Bird           Small fowl Any feathered vertebrate with a beak
      Barn    Place to store barley Any agricultural building
     Aunt    Father’s sisters Father or mother’s sister

Semantic narrowing refers to the process in which the meaning of a word becomes less general or less inclusive than its historically earlier meaning.


               Word           Old meaning          New meaning
Hound Any dog A hunting bread
Meat Any type of food Flesh of an animal
Fowl Any bird A domesticated bird
Disease Any unfavorable state An illness

Amelioration- the meaning of a word becomes more positive or favorable.


      Word    Old meaning      New meaning
      Pretty     Tricky, shy, cunning      attractive
      Knight      Body  A man of honorable literary rank

Pejoration – the meaning of a word becomes negative or unfavorable


        Word    Old meaning      New meaning
       Silly     Happy / prosperous Foolish
       Wench     Girl Wanton woman / prostitute

Addition of lexical items; Addition is frequently the result of technological innovations or contact with other culture. Such developments result in lexical gaps which can be filled by adding new words to the lexicon. New words are added either through the word formation processes available to the language or through borrowing. Word formation the most important word formation processes are compounding and derivation although other types including conversion, blending, back formation, clipping and acronyms can play a significant role.

Compounding and derivations have always been available to English speakers for the creation of new words. In fact much of the compounding and derivations in Old English seem very familiar just as speakers of modern English can use compounding and derivations to create new words (for example the N+N compound- airport.) So could old English speakers create new words such as poetic N+N compound hwalmeg, literary whale + path to mean “sea”.

Borrowing, language contact over time can result in important source of new words, borrowing. Depending in the cultural relationship holding between languages, three types of influence of one language on the other are traditionally identified; substratum, ad stratum and super stratum. Substratum is the influence of the less political and culturally dominant language to the more dominant language for example the period of colonialism when English language borrowed words safari, panga from Swahili language. Ad stratum is the mutual influence of the two equally dominant languages on each other. While super stratum influence a political or culturally dominant language to own another language which is less political or culturally dominant in the area. For example the influence of the Norman French on English language during the Middle English period, also Kiswahili borrowed from English. Examples of English words borrowed from French are blasé, soiree and garage. (O’Grady et al, 1997)

According to Stewart (2001) Language change is caused by Geographical division. As groups of people spread out through Europe, they lost communication with others so that the language of each group went its own way, underwent its own changes thus come to differ from others. Also according to August for example the Proto-Indo-European is believed to a mother language of some European languages such as Germanic language, Slavic, Baltic, Iranian, Indic, Greek , Celtic and Italic language.

Borrowing is taking a word or phrase from one language into another from one variety of language into another. The item is taken such as arpeggio from Italian into English and schlock from Viddish into American English.  Borrowing is a major aspect of language change but the term itself is a misnomer; it presumes repayment, where as there is no quid pro quo between languages. The item borrowed is not returned because it never left the source language and in any case changes in the transfer. English has borrowed more from French, Latin and Greek , significantly from Italian, Spanish, German, Danish and Dutch. Transfer may have an influence on such basic aspects of language as its pronunciation, spelling, syntax and semantics affected. The local system is usually overwhelms the acquisition, thus when numbers of items with aspired voiced stops come into English spelled with /h/ the consonant system remained unchanged bhang being pronounced like bang, dhow like dow, and ghat like gat. In borrowing nouns make up the highest proportion of transfers followed by adjectives. Verbs are few with even fewer adverbs and grammatical words like pronouns. For example English has borrowed the following words from BANTU languages including: Congo, Swahili, Tswana, Xhosa, Zulu (boma, bwana, chimpanzee, Impala, Impala, Indaba, mamba, Marimba, Tsetse and Zambia)

Linguistic heterogeneity, this was proposed by sociolinguist where by sociolinguist like Jennifer Coates (1993),  explain that linguistic change can be said to have taken place when a new a linguistic form used by sub-group within a speech community is adopted by other members of that community and accepted throughout the speech community as norm.

Economy changes in language may be caused by economy where by speakers tends to make their utterances as efficient and effective as possible to reach communicative goals. Purposeful speaking therefore involves a trade- off of costs and benefit. Labov, W (1994) .The principle of least effort; Speakers especially use economy in their articulation which tends to reduce in phonetic reduction of speech forms. See vowel reduction, cluster reduction, lenition and elision. After some time changes may become widely accepted (it becomes a regular sound change) and may end up treated as standard language.

Example:  going to [ goʊ mtʊ ] → gonna  [ gɅnə ]

Vowel reduction [ ʊ ] →[  ə ]

Elision [ nt ] →[n ] . [  oʊɪ ] →[ Ʌ ]

Sequential change; the most type of sequential change is assimilation which has effect of increasing the efficiency of articulation through a simplification articulator movements. We will focus on four main types of the catalogue. One is partial assimilation involving place or manner of articulation is a common change which over time can result in total assimilation. In Spanish and Latin point of articulation of assimilated to the following consonant.

Table: Assimilation (place of articulation in Spanish and Latin)

Old Spanish Semda Modern Spanish Senda
Early latin Inpossibilis Later latin Impossibilis

Also the first words of old English examples show assimilation and the second shows the assimilation of nasality.

Early old English Later old English Modern English
Slǣpde Slǣpte    Slept
Stefn Stemn    Stem

Another type of assimilation is palatalization effect that front vowel and palatal glide [ j ] typically have on velar, alveolar and dental making their place of articulation more palatal. If you compare pronunciation of keep as opposed to cot, you will notice that the pronunciation of [k ] in the former is much more palatal than in the latter due to influence of [ I ]. Palatazation is often the first step in affrication example a change in which palatalized stops become affricates either [ts] or [ts] if the origin stop was voiceless or [d2] or[ d3] if the original stop was voiced.

Example palatalization / affrication included by front vowel and [j]

t                             ts               d                      d2

k                          ts                 g                      d3

Example from roman language

Latin centum  [k]                                old French  cent[ts]  ‘one hundred’

Latin centum  [k] Italian                   ciento[ts] ‘one hundred’

Latin medius [d] Italian                      mezzo [d2] ‘half’

Nasalization refers to nasalizing effect that a nasal consonant can have on adjacent vowel. These changes occur in both French and Portuguese, with the subsequent loss of the nasal consonant. That is pronunciation of vowel in our example underwent additional change in height and tenses in French.

Example of nasalization in Portuguese and French

Latin Portuguese French
bon- Bo [bo] Bon [ bᴐ] good
un- Um [ū] Un [œ] one

Also umlaut they affect the vowel or sometimes a glide in one syllable can have on the vowel of another syllable, usually a preceding one. Umlaut played an important role in old English, as it still does in modern Germany and it source of irregular plurals such as goose /geese and mouse / mice in modern English. Leaving the umlauted vowel as the marker of plural form, subsequent changes included the derounding of the umlauted vowel [y] and [ Ө ] yielding   [ i ] and [e] respectively by middle English and great vowel shift as described below.

Umlaut in English

Pre OE 1                     pre OE 2                      Early OE                     Subsequent change

[gōs]                            [gōs]                            [gō]                           [gu:s]          “goose”

[gōsi]                        [ɡ   si]                          [ɡ  s]                        [gi:s]            “geese”

[mūs]                        [mūs]                           [mūs]                       [maʊs]          “mose”

[mūsi]                       [mȳsi]                          [mȳs]                       [maɪs]            “mice”

Therefore, linguistic change is important in any language and may be manifested in different levels like morphologically, sound (phonologically), syntactically as well as the semantics. There is no any language which ca not undergoes changes where to the larger extent they are mainly caused by heavy borrowing from other languages.

Done by.

1. MMELO, Philipo.
2. NYAIRO, Fanuel, J.
3. MABADA, Jane
4. MAGOGO, Daniel. T.
5. MIZENGO, Scholastica
6. MPELGWA, Aron
7. MLIGO, Aulerian
8. PHILBERT, Liberatus
9. NG’ANDU, Enica
10. ATUPELYE, Richard
11. GREYSON, Naomi
12. OMARI, Rajabu
13. MSEMWA, Yolanda

The university of Dodoma.


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