5 Things That Cause Languages to Change

In the short term, linguistic changes can feel annoying.

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After all, what a linguistic looking at the long-term picture might perceive as changes can look to people living through them simply as errors. If you were writing an essay, you wouldn’t start sentences with prepositions, refer to authors whose books you’re referencing by their first names, use “gonna” or “ain’t” or describe an academic’s theory as “awesome”. But these things might all be normal for essay writers in a generation or two. The essays you write today would seem similarly error-laden if you had to submit them fifty years ago, when “fantastic” primarily meant implausible or otherworldly, “hello” was still used as an expression of surprise as well as a greeting, and middle-class children were discouraged by their parents from using an expression as slangy as “hi”.
Language also changes at a different rate at different times. Someone living in England in 50 AD wouldn’t be able to understand an Anglo-Saxon from 550 AD, but that Anglo-Saxon probably would be able to have a conversation with their descendant from 1050 AD. In turn, that person from 1050 would find their descendant in 1550 completely incomprehensible. But chances are that someone in 2050 would still be able to understand someone from 1550. After all, we’re still able to follow most of Thomas Cranmer’s “A defence of the true and catholike doctrine of the sacrament of the body and bloud of our sauiour Christ”, which was published in 1550, even if some of the spelling is a little tricky.
In both of the periods of significant change in the examples above – 50 AD to 550 AD, and 1050 AD to 1550 AD, language changed as a result of migration and conquest: the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the early Middle Ages (which supplanted the native language altogether), and the Norman conquest in 1066 (which made English the language of the underclass). But language doesn’t change solely as a result of violent political turmoil. In this article, we take a look at some of the other things that make us change the way we speak and write.

1. Semantic bleaching

It was “unbelievable”…even if it was only spaghetti bolognese.

Semantic bleaching isn’t a particularly significant cause of linguistic change, but it is a fun one – and one that’s usually noticeable even when it’s happening. Have you ever heard anyone complaining about how everything gets described in hyperbolic terms these days? Your day is “great”, the film was “amazing”, your dinner is “delicious”, your weekend was “awesome”. You might wonder what’s wrong with having an OK day, going to see an entertaining film, eating a tasty dinner and having a good weekend. Yet didn’t that last sentence sound bland? If someone told you their day had been OK and their weekend was good, might you not wonder if they were actually feeling a bit down, and trying to hide it?
The reason for that is semantic bleaching: the process whereby, over time, words lose their force and become less specific and weaker in meaning. There are countless examples: if you go back fifty years, words like “awesome”, “fantastic” and “incredible” meant awe-inspiring or beyond belief; now they just mean “very good.” Even “unbelievable” needs to be qualified – perhaps as “literally unbelievable” – so that it’s not understood to mean “a bit surprising”. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, there’s a moment that’s awkward for modern performances when the villain, Don John, is described as “this naughty man”. When Shakespeare was writing, “naughty” meant “evil” – now it’s just “badly behaved”, with childish connotations at that.
Semantic bleaching is also the cause of a difference between US and UK English. US English retains the use of the word “quite” to mean “thoroughly” or “very”, but in the UK, the word has undergone semantic bleaching until it means “a bit”. If someone in the US and someone in the UK are both “quite happy”, the American is a lot happier than the Brit.
What makes semantic bleaching an interesting example of how language changes is that it’s intuitive to see how it happens. In cultures that reward boldness and strength of feeling, no one wants to seem half-hearted, but in reaching for the strongest word to describe each situation, we naturally rob words of their force; if everything is “great”, then being “great” can’t be all that significant, and we look for ever-stronger words. Thankfully, this process has been going on for hundreds of years, so we can be confident we won’t run out of alternative ways to express ourselves.

2. Synchronic variation

Too “lit”-eral for our liking.

Synchronic variation sounds like a complicated term, but it’s actually quite simple. It relates to our ability to understand that a word can have different meanings in different contexts.
A lot of new words are not entirely new, in that they are not fresh combinations of sounds for that particular language; they’re combinations of sounds repurposed to have a different meaning. That might sound bizarre, but it makes more sense with an example, such as the word “lit”. If you were to hear the sentence “it was lit” out of context, you might not be able to guess the meaning. But if you were to hear your grandmother saying it, you might be able to assume that she means “lit” in the sense of “to light”, and she’s probably talking about a fire or a candle. If you were to hear a friend – or maybe a younger sibling – saying that something was “lit”, you’d understand it in the slang sense of “great”; you might guess that they’re talking about a party that they went to.
The two meanings of the word have the same origin; “lit” comes to mean “excellent” via an older slang sense of “drunk”. It’s easy to see how “everyone got lit”, meaning drunk, might have changed to “everyone was lit”, meaning drunk, excited, enjoying themselves, to “the party was lit”, meaning it was great, whether or not any alcohol was consumed. “Lit” meaning “drunk” is probably metaphorical, such as in the sense of people’s faces lighting up. But despite this shared etymology, you have no problems in understanding that in one context, “lit” could mean literally on fire, and in another, it could mean metaphorically on fire.
Confusing as these things might sometimes be for learners of English as a foreign language, in general we have no problem with the idea that a word can have multiple meanings, connected or not. In fact, we deal well enough with this that words can survive with two meanings that are opposites; these are called contronyms. An example is the word “sanction”; it can mean to approve an action, or to oppose a penalty. There are many more such words. Our ability to deal with them gives language flexibility; if a word comes to mean something new, it doesn’t have to battle the old, useful word for its existence – the two words can instead exist side-by-side. And that means that language can change a lot more quickly than might otherwise have been possible.

3. Movement of people

Cultural word-swapping is fluid.

As we noted in at the start of this article, movement of people is the most obvious driver of change to the English language. It was brought to this country through the migration of the Anglo-Saxons, altered through exposure to the Vikings, then the Normans. Crudely speaking, after that migration to Britain gave way to migration from Britain in terms of changing the language; as the British Empire grew and grew, the English language gathered vocabulary from invaded territories. In some cases, these were words for things that didn’t exist in the UK, such as “jungle” from the Hindi jangal, or “wombat” from the Dharug wambad. In others, it was a word for something that did exist, such as “bungalow” and “shampoo” (also both from Hindi).
Sometimes the use of a word in English traces the history of Empire to an astonishing degree. The word “wallah”, which is common to several Indian languages and which means the person responsible for a specific thing or business (usually as a suffix – e.g. chai-wallah, the person responsible for the tea), first appears in English-language texts in the 1750s. That’s around the time that the British East India Company began to rule parts of the subcontinent. The word is used increasingly until the First and Second World Wars, when it begins to tail off, dropping down still further from 1947, when India gained independence. This can all be seen in Google’s fascinating ngram viewer; the colonial history of a subcontinent mapped in a single word.
Migration and political differences are also the reason behind many of the differences between American and British English. For instance, take the past tense of “to get” – if you’re British, you might say “got”, and look down on the American “gotten”. But “gotten” is actually the older form; it was in use on both sides of the Atlantic 300 years ago, at which point British people dropped it and Americans preserved it.

4. Simplification

Clearing the clutter from language makes it so much simpler.

Language doesn’t have to feel the hand of history to cause it to change. Sometimes the factors that cause language to change are much more mundane – such as the desire to make things simpler.
One example of this is that we generally prefer things that are easy to say. The word “daughter” comes from the Old English dohtor, in which the ‘h’ sound would have been pronounced – a little like the Dutch dochter. But in English, an “augh’ sound followed by a ‘t’ is tricky to pronounce. In “laughter” it turned into an ‘f’ sound but in ‘daughter’ the ‘gh’ sound vanished altogether, so that we now say “dauter”. In both cases, the spelling is the only thing that remains of the original pronunciation.
We simplify our language in other ways, too. For instance, the word “parboil” used to mean to cook something thoroughly or completely. The word comes from the Latin per (thoroughly) and bullire (to boil), but to an English ear it sounds like “part-boil”. Having a word that sounds like it means one thing but actually means another is complicated; so the meaning eventually changed to match the sound of the word.
And in some cases, the English language has been deliberately changed to make it easier to spell. When Noah Webster produced his famous dictionary, he changed “humour” to “humor” (which caught on only in American English), “musick” to “music” (which caught on everywhere) and “determine” to “determin” (which didn’t catch on anywhere), alongside dozens of other, similar changes intended to improve a complicated language.

5. Prestige

Royal roots raise words to new heights.

So if language tends towards simplification, then why is English still so complicated? One reason – among many – for this is that while we sometimes go for the laziest option in our speech and in our writing, that isn’t always the case. One force acting on all languages, where English has had its fair share, is the human desire to sound like people who we think are our superiors – whether that’s people who are higher up on the social ladder, who are better educated, or who we hold up as role models for whatever other reason.
The most obvious example of this is the prestige accorded to different languages in the Middle Ages, which we have as a hangover in English even today. For a few hundred years after the Norman invasion, to be truly well-educated, you would be able to speak Latin. As a member of the nobility or gentry, you would speak French. And as a commoner, you would speak English. These divisions are crude and weren’t necessarily reflected on an individual basis, but it remains the case that lower-status words in English have Anglo-Saxon roots, higher-status ones have French roots, and academic language is littered with Latin. One example is the words we use to mean “like a king”: there’s the basic “kingly” (from Old English), “royal” (from French) and “regal” (from Latin). Even now, there’s an implied gradient of sophistication depending on your word choice.
The same belief in the superiority of Latin led the spelling and grammar of English being altered to sound more like Latin. Writers of the 16th and 17th centuries added the letter ‘b’ to “doubt” and “debt” to make them resemble their Latin origin, and even more ridiculously, a ‘c’ to “scissors” to resemble the Latin scindere, which – as it turns out – is not actually the root of the word “scissors” at all. But as everyone who’s tried has discovered, once language has changed in a particular way, it’s very hard work to change it back.
Images: friends around campfire; cluttered bookshop; king; two vikings talking

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