Language Change


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  • Created by: Kami
  • Created on: 08-06-12 06:17

Changes in Context

Why does language change over time? 

  • new things are invented and words are needed to describe them
  • changes in attitude (influence from media/politicians)
  • travel is broadened, trade or the invasion of other countries

Early Modern English: 15th-17th Centuries (continual process of change, English discarded older forms of word order and word endings and added Latin words for new concepts and ideas) 

Late Modern English: 18th Century-Present (the age of standardised English)

The Norman conquest and the Germanic tribes (over 1000 years ago) had a strong influence. We have a lexically rich language e.g. we can 'ask' but we can also 'question'. Britain has not invaded for a long time but the language of warfare still has an impact.

The 18th and 19th Century saw many scientific advances. neologisms were needed to give names to these. Latin and Greek carried academic prestige so was often the language of choice 'biology' 'centigrade'

Globalisation in the late 20th C further developed English into a world language, mostly due to the impact of technology and American English. 

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Contextual Change contd

Change in attitude result in language alterations. older texts show clear opinions towards certain social groups. the acceptability of some language use is questioned today as we are politically correct (words or phrases used to replace those that are deemed offensive)

The Media: telephones, print, television, internet

Have influenced language = more colloquial, less formal register, speech-like
new lexis often invented by media to describe modern society/persuading the public to a certain point of view.
Journalese = hyperbolic, abbreviated.

Pre-standardisation y/i were used interchangeably. 

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Lexical Change

How are new words brought into the English lexicon?

  • borrowing from other languages
  • morphology (adapting existing words) 
  • the creation of completely new words - the least common

Overt Prestige status gained from using an official and standard form of language - the most prestigious accent and dialects in English are SE and RP
Covert Prestige  is one that is perceived by the dominant group as being inferior but compels its speakers to use it to show membership in an exclusive community
Eponym the name of a person after something is named 'braille' 'sandwich'
Proprietary Names the name given by one company becomes the commonly used name for a product 'tampax' 'hoover' 'walkman'
Acronym a word made from the initial letters of a phrase (said as a word) 'ASAP'
Initialism word made from initial letters (said individually) 'CD' 
Clipping a new word produced by shortening an existing one 'edit'
Blend two words fused to make a new one 'smoke' + 'fog' = smog
Obsolete no longer has any use

KEY LEXICAL CHANGES - C18th (science, medicine, latin, greek, attitudes to class) C19th (new inventions, industrialisation, british empire, travel, medicine, latin) C20th (IT, globalisation, world wars, american eng, consumerism, youth socioloects, political correctness)

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Semantic Change

Gradually old meanings for words become forgotten, usually in response to a new context for the word. 

Semantic drift a process of linguistic change over a period of time
Amelioration a word takes on a more positive meaning
Pejoration a word takes on a negative meaning
Narrowing a word becomes more specific in its meaning e.g. meat - any food/flesh
Broadening a word keeps original meaning but acquires others
Archaism an old word or phrase no longer in use
Synchronic Change actions at the same time (dialect, gender, mode, class, genre)
Diachronic Change change through time (invasions, education, technology)

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Changes in Orthography

Caxton's introduction of the printing press in C15th England had a huge influence on standardisation. More people had access to the written word therefore rules were introduced. 

In the C21st technology has altered orthography. Spelling, like language constantly changes despite standardisation.

Key spelling changes:
18th Century - The elongated S carried on into late modern english (til 1800 as it didn't have a phonological function the phoneme didn't need a different grapheme, is was also easier to print a short 's') it was used initially (at the beginning) and medially (in the middle) but the short 's' was always used at the end. Spelling became more regular although often idiosyncratic (changed from individual to individual) this was due to the publication of dictionaries.

19th Century - More consistent and standardised spelling evolved. this was due to the availability and increased number of dictionary's produced. a more literate society was being created and schooling was starting to be offered to all children

20th/21st Century - Spelling is now standardised due to educational practice, also the involvement of the government (compulsory schooling). however more recently non-standard forms are becoming increasingly used due to IT, text and instant messaging. 

Before late modern English spelling had been determined by individual choice. 

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Changing Punctuation

Punctuation has also gone through a changing process. expansion occurred as writing became more important, but this has simplified again.
Caxton used (.) (:) and (/) the latter was replaced by a comma during the 1500's

During Late Modern England
- commas were more liberally used to link long, extended clauses
- colons and semicolons were used to separate clauses 
- speech marks were beginning to be used
- capital letters were used similarly to how they are today (however in early modern England capitals were used by writers to capitalise any noun they considered important)

21st Century
- we use punctuation differently when using discreet forms of communication. for example when texting, punctuation is sometimes used in non-standard and multiple form (!!!!!) to mark prosodic features. it is rarely used in contractions (unless auto-corrected/smart phones) and capitalisation is kept to a minimum (although again usually at the start of a sentence due to auto correct)

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Grammatical Change

Standardisation was a key event in changing grammar. although some practices haven't made it to modern day.

Key Features
Negation to construct negatives in 18th century you wouldn't use the dummy auxiliary 'do' e.g. 'i know not'
Pronouns 'one a little' shows a pronoun that we would now deem archaic
Prepositions seem odd 'at london' instead of 'in london'
Contractions were lacking, too informal 'i am'

most sentences were compound or complex and had many embedded clauses. this was influenced by Latin, it was a fashionable way to make discourse more elaborate and display one's learning.

Modern grammar change has been affected by speech practices -
irregular verbs 'wrote' instead of 'written' - pronouns 'whom' is disappearing and being replaced with 'who'

18th century formal, complex sentences, embedded clauses WHY? standardisation, formal society, emphasis on convention, writing was deemed separate to speech
19th century formalisation still evident, sentences less complicated WHY? continuing standardisation, changes in class attitudes, beginning of universal education
20th/21st century simpler syntax, simple sentences, non-standard spelling. texting/emailing. WHY? american english, technology, social equality, oral language affects written style, informality. growth of entertainment industry.

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Graphological Changes

The ability to lay out a text has changed with technology. printed fonts have developed and mass production has replaced the laborious process of handwritten texts. Graphic design has developed through late modern english. Graphic symbols now have a semantic function.

!8th Century texts included the use of italics for stress. today we have great graphological freedom. advertisers use this to influence us. smileys and emoticons are used to connote our feelings. internet texts have also changed the way texts are read. texts are no longer linear in form, we focus on areas of text that visually appeal to us. 

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Changes in Speech

Late modern english reinforces the importance of the spoken mode. as the development of recording technology is fairly recent, many accents of the past have to be worked out by written clues

Omission where sounds disappear from words 'hanging' is 'anging' or 'hangin'
Assimilation the pronunciation of one phoneme is affected by an adjacent one 'dont you' becomes 'dohnchu' 
Ease of articulation - often spoken words are made easier to say. we also abbreviate words
Social prestige people move around more, less regional variation, more RP
Estuary english mix of London accent and RP. seen as it's possible successor. conforms to SE but has a distinct phonology. including glottal stops and 'l' vocalisation
Glottal stops 'foo'ball' 'ga'wick' missing middle letter as such
L vocalisation where a 'w' replaces the 'L' sound 'footbaw' 
Dialect Levelling where distinctions between accents and dialects are becoming less apparent
Divergence when a persons speech pattern becomes more individualised and less like the other person in a conversation.

Freeborn summarises into three views how people often judge regional accents:
The incorrectness view all accents are incorrect compared to SE and RP
The ugliness view some accents just don't sound nice, linked to negative social connotations (poor areas)
The impreciseness view some accents are described as 'lazy' like estuary english, where sounds are often omitted or changed

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Standardisation is essential so speakers and writers of a language can communicate. standardisation places focus on one particular dialect giving it prestige and national identity.

 Printing allowed spelling and punctuation to evolve. in Englands case it gave southern dialects supremacy in the creation of standard english. peoples desire to stabilise and fix the language became stronger and resulted in grammar books and dictionaries. 

Standardisation was supported by technological advances. however it is very much caught up in values such as prescriptivism and what is considered 'correct' and 'poor' english usage.

Standardisation is a challenge as due to the nature of language, it is always evolving and changing because people use it differently. the movement started during the renaissance.

Johnson's Dictionary offered definitions of about 40.000 words, it was not the first but was the most ambitious. The 19th century built on the standardisation process and mass education and literacy reinforced this 'ideal' standard. 

Prescriptivism an attitude that language has an ideal standard that should be maintained. judgemental.
Descriptivism an attitude to language that seeks to describe it without making value judgements
Codification recording a word officially

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Language and Technology/Gender

Key Features of Technology:

Logogram - 'going 2 town'
Merged words - 'seeya' 'hiya'
Vowel Omission - 'tlk ltr'
Non-Standard Punctuation 
Phonetic Spelling - 'wot' 'sed' 
Spritten English - a combination of spoken and written modes
Ellipsis - omission of words 'on way home'
Clipping - 'goin' 'bout'
Borrowings from spoken lang - fillers, repairs, false starts, interruptions (particularly IM)
Initialism - 'omg' (said as seperate letters)
Acronym - 'lol' (said as a whole word)

Key Features of Gender:

Diminutive suffix - added to the end of the word to show something smaller/lesser than the normal word e.g. kitchenETTE, duckLING
Marked Terms - a word altered to fit a female 'manageress' 'waitress'
Empty Adjectives - hollow descriptive words used by women, suggested by some theorists 


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A colloquialism that comes into common usage. often associated with young people.

It's sense of covert prestige is ever changing. as soon as something becomes standard it loses it's power.

The function of slang:

  • inclusion into a social group - strengthened bonds
  • identity, status
  • word play, creativity, humour 
  • monosyllabic, speed and ease of use
  • adjectives usually of extreme approval/disapproval

Tony Thorne - "slang is a badge of identity" 

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