Language Change Theories

Pack of revision cards containing all of the theorists taken from the Language Change module of AQA English Language A-Level


Samuel Johnson

Wrote the first dictionary (1755)

Recorded a number of words alongside definitions. 

First attempt at language standardisation, however lacked any consistant spelling. 

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Inkhorn Controversy

Resulted from growing pride in English and 'the mother tongue' during the 16th-17th centuries.

Inkhorn terms (loan words) were considered by some to be pretentious and artificial, believing these would 'corrupt' the English Language.

However, others argued they enabled creativity and many writers embraced this.

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Johnathan Swift

First notable attempt to 'fix' the English Language, in the second half of the 17th century (published 1712).

Mainly focused on: - vagueness in language,
                           - shortened words,
                           - unnecessary contractions,
                           - unnecessary polysyllablism (reduced clarity),
                           - words 'invented by some pretty fellow' (unknown etymologies or semanically shifted)

Had little impact on language use, until Johnson's dictionary. However, Johnson recognised how no account of language could ever be complete as language changed and developed. 

This was an attempt to impliment change from above - a conscious attempt by those in authority to control and impose 'correct' forms of language. 

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Caxton made the first attempt to regularise the spelling of the English Language, to allow the system to mean his texts could be accessible to anyone, irrespective of accent. 

However, he was irregular with his own spelling (using both 'boke' and 'booke'). 

Flemish typesetters were unfamiliar with certain letters which weren't present on their typewriters, meaning some letters - like the thorn and yogh - were replaced with other letters.

Phonetic change over time also made standardisation of spelling difficult (see 'the great vowel shift').  

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The Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift occured from the mid-14th to the mid-18th century.

A gradual changing of vowel pronunciation where the articulator's production of long vowel changed. This led to a widening gap between phoneme and grapheme correspondence. 

It occured at different rates in different regions. 


ME: "sit" --> PD: "seat" (lengthned vowel)
ME: "teem" --> PD: "time" (long vowel becomes diphthong)

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Noah Webster

Initiated spelling reforms in America (1832), with the principle to 'purify [language] from...palpable errors and reduce the number of its anomalies'.

He was concerned by the growing divide beteen spoken and written forms of language and revised the dictionary to address some of these. 


-  -our endings --> -or endings
-  -ise endings --> -ize endings
-  -use of 'c' --> use of 's' (defenc/se)
-  removal of digraphs: 'ae' --> 'e' (anaemia)
-  simplification of consonant clusters: plough --> plow

The apparent logical basis of the American system has made it attractive, leading to fears that British English will become redundant. 

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Robert Lowth

Published the 'Short Introduction to English Grammar' (1762), believing understanding of English grammar would benefit that of Latin. 

Highly prescriptivist, and based rules on the rules of Latin and logic.

- 'thou' should no longer be used
- differentiation between 'will' (a promise/threat) and 'shall' (to fortell)
- differentiation between 'who', 'which', and 'that'
- regularisation between 'who' and 'whom' 
- preopsitions should be before the noun to which they are applied
- the infinitive verb should not be split 
- multiple negation and multiple comparison is illogical

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Milroy and Milroy

Said that standardisation of language is an ongoing process (1985) 

Proposed a four-stage process of standardisation: 

1. Selection: a language variety is selected, which is usually prestigious 

2. Codification: reduction of internal variability, establishment of norms for lexis, grammar, spelling

3. Elaboration: selected language is developed for variety of purposes, may include expansion of linguistic resources

4. Implementation: selected language is given currency by making texts available using it, encouraging users to become proud and loyal 

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Jean Aitchison

Proposed a set of metaphors to explain different attitudes to language change (2013) 

Damp Spoon Syndrome 
           Suggests language change is the result of laziness and carelessness - like leaving a damn spoon in the sugar bowl. BUT this is common view that's been suggested for many years. For example, the glottal stop is seen as lazy, but never used at the start of a word. Therefore sound cannot just be random laziness. 

Crumbling Castle
           Suggests English language is a beautiful old building which is valiable and needs to be preserved. language has been carefully created to reach the pinnacle - and this should be protected. HOWEVER no indication of when exactly this 'golden age' was. Sugests rigid system is better than a flexible one, but flexible is needed to manage social change.  

Infectious Disease 
           Language change is 'caught' from those around us. Social contact is the driving force. BUT not fair to suggest that we are powerless to resist such forms. It is a choice.

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Donald Mackinnon

Devised another model of attitudes towards change (1996) 

Suggested language can be: 

- pleasant or ugly
- correct or incorrect
- socially acceptable or socially unacceptable 
- morally acceptable or morally unacceptable 
- appropriate or inappropriate in context
- useful or useless to a user

This is expecially useful in exploring attitudes to language over time, as perceptions of correctness and acceptability are likely to change with social shifts - for example racial and sexual slurs have rapidly become unacceptable in modern society.

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Charles Hockett

Suggested a model of how language changes and spreads

Errors occur in language and these are passed on to other errors. 

Commonly found in technology and online communication. Some errors have been adopted as acceptable culture. 

eg 'pwned' as a misspelling of 'owned' has now become common in online gaming communities to suggest domination or humiliation of a rival ("you've been pwned")

However, much change is not driven purely by random chance. If it was, language would quickly descend into chaos. Instead, language change tends to be relatively controlled and organised in its process. 

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S-Curve Model

Aitchison proposed the S-Curve Model of language diffusion (2013)

Said that language trands start small, affecting a few people and words. There's fluctuation between use of old an new. New forms gradually overwhelm the old ones. When the innovation reaches a level, it spreads rapidly in a short space of time. It is then likely to slow down as its usage becomes wider.

1. the speread of language change begins slowly. 
2. the change feature begins to take off 
3. the rate of change spreads quickly 
4. the rate of change slows down and begins to stabilise

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Substratum Theory

Suggests that new speakers learn language imperfectly, and pass these imperfections to subsequent generations. 

Acquisition abnormalities are mostly evident in phonology and syntax, but lexis tends to be standard. 

This is separate to borrowing/loan words beas it is not restricted to the vocabulary, and the linguistic differences are not selected purely based on an absence in the English language, or because of a particular benefit it can have. 

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Strevens' Map

P Strevens (1980) proposed the world map of English as one of the first attempts to movdel the spread of English around the world. 
It illustrated not only the dominance of English but also the separation of British and American Englishes and how these have further diversified for international usage.  

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Kachru's Three Circles

Proposed one of the most influential models of World English

Devised in 1992 before the rise of the internet. Circles do not address diversity of Englishes within the circles, or the proficiency of the users in the outer and expanding circles. 'Inner' and 'outer' also make value judgements about which is better. 

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ELF: Jennifer Jenkins (2006)

English as a LIngua Franca (ELF) refers to English being used as a common language amongst speakers from different linguistic backgrounds

Proposed 5 key characteristics of ELF: 

- used by speakers of different languages to communicate 
- an alternative to EFL, not a replacement
- may include innovations which characterise local varieties of English as well as standard
- lingustic accommodation and code-switching are useful strategies, depending on context
- users may have high- or low- profciency in English, the language of proficient ELF users tends to be used for description for potential codification

ELF follows a difference model, where English is used as a common communicative language, but variations occur that reflect local languages 

Key examples of ELF include
- omission of in/definite articles
- overly explicit language (how long time, black colour)
- redundant prepositions (after, in, to, on, with)

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English as a Foreign Language refers to the study of English by people who do not have English as their first language (L1)

It is part of th study of modern foreign languages and learners mau wish to blend in with native English speakers, meaning they should have an all-purpose understanding in many different contexts.

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Schneider's Dynamic Model

Proposed as a model of post-colonial English (2006) 

Foundation:  English is brought to a new territory, leading to an emerging bilingualism 
 - colonial expansion and trade resulted in the initial spread of English worldwide. In the early stages, bilingualism is slow to spread, with some lexical borrowings to aid simple communications
Exonormative Stabilisation: an elite bilingualism spreads, led by the politically dominant country
 - the politically dominant country determines linguistic behaviour and English is established as the language of law, administration, and education.
Nativism: bilingual speakers forge a new variety of English as ties with settlers' country of origin weaken. 
- as settlers establish themselves in their new environment, inter-ethnic contact increases and a new variety of English develops. Conservative speakers may resent such innovation but others begin to adopt some local forms. 
Endonormative Stablisation: after independence and inspired by the need for nation building and a new linguistic norm is established and codified. 
- the new linguistic and local norms are developed and accepted in society. They are reflected in literature, illustrating their associated prestige
Differentiation: may sollow as internal social group identities gaining importance and thus reflected in the growth of dialectical difference
- group specific (ethnic, regional, social) varieties emerge leading to internal diversity

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Robert Phillipson

Examined attitudes to World Englishes an ELF (1992) 

Argued that the spread of English as a global language disadvantages other languages, causing them to lose prestige or die out

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