Language Theories of Change

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Functional Theory

Language changes according to the needs of its users. Changes in technology/industry make need for new words.

  • Words become obsolete (archaism)
  • New words enter the language. New inventions need to be called something (iPod, MP3, USB)

Slang also makes change, making new words, using them and tossing them as soon as the general public gets a hold of them. This is due to striving for personal/group expression, as well as social identity.

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Lexical Gaps

Assumed paths that language can take in the future, usually based on previous linguistic patterns.

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S-Curve Model - Chen (1968 and 1972)

Change will be taken up at a certain rate - at first the effects would be minimal but the change will accelerate as time goes on, until it eventually levels off. Like an S-shaped graph.(

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Wave Model - Bailey (1973)

This describes the impact of geographical location on language change. The closer you are to the source the more the change affects you.

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Random Fluctuation Theory - Charles Hockett (1958)

This theory states that language change is all due to its instability, as well as because of random errors and events that just happen. 

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Substratum Theory

Language changes primarily through contact with other languages (borrowing)

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Potential, Diffusion, Implementation and Codificat


Internal weakness exists in the language, such as messy paterns that need fixing or external pressure forces change and variation.


Change made to language starts to spread through various speech communities.


Variant of language begins to be used in the appropriate contexts


Variant of language becomes officially accepted and entered into the dictionary

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