Great Accomplishments in Linguistics

All languages change over time. There can be many different reasons for this. The English language is no different to any other. Why has it changed over the decades? Usually because of people! In fact, some might argue that one of the biggest accomplishments of mankind is developing language!

Some of the main influences on the evolution of languages include the following:

  • The movement of people across countries and continents. For example, migration and, in previous centuries, colonization. An example of this is how English speakers today would probably be comfortable using the Spanish word “loco” to describe someone who is “crazy”.
  • Speakers of one language coming into contact with those who speak a different one: no two individuals speak identically; people from different geographical places clearly speak differently and even within the same community there are variations according to a speaker’s age, gender, ethnicity and social and educational background. The word “courting”, for example, has become “dating”.
  • The new vocabulary required for inventions like transport, domestic appliances and industrial equipment, or for sporting, entertainment, cultural and leisure reasons. For example, the original late 19th-century term “wireless” has become “radio”.

Due to these influences, a language always embraces new words, expressions and pronunciations as people come across new words and phrases in their day-to-day lives and integrate them into their own speech. 

What changes has the English language seen?

As the English language has changed, it’s been easy to pick out words that fall into common usage.

The increase in popularity of internet slang has seen phrases such as “LOL” (Laugh Out Loud), “YOLO” (You Only Live Once) and “bae” (an abbreviated form of babe or baby) become firmly embedded in the English language over the past ten years.

Every decade sees new slang terms like these appearing in the English language in every region where it’s spoken.

And while some words or abbreviations come from internet or text conversations, others may appear as entirely new words, a new meaning for an existing word, or a word that becomes more generalized than its former meaning, brought about by any one of the reasons above.

Decades ago, “blimey” was a new expression of surprise, but more recently “woah” has replaced it.

Sentence structure is another change to English language. Just a few decades ago, it would have been normal to ask “Have you a moment?” Now, you would probably say “Do you have a sec?” Similarly, “How do you do?” has now become “How’s it going?” Not only have the sentences been abbreviated so they’re shorter, new words have been introduced to everyday questions.

Connected to this is the replacement of certain words with other, more-modern versions of them. It’s pretty noticeable that words like “shall” and “ought” are on the way out. “Will”, “should” and “can” are doing just fine, however.

Other changes can be more subtle: a number of verbs can take a complement with another verb in either the “-ing” form or the “to” form, for example “they liked painting/to paint”, “we tried leaving/to leave”, “he didn’t bother calling/to call”. Both of these constructions are still used. They have been used for a long time, but there has been a steady shift over the years from the “to” to the “-ing” complement.

There are many other changes to the English language. Have you noticed? Have these changes affected your teaching or learning methods?

Most contemporary linguistic commentators accept that change in language, like change in society, is perfectly inevitable. Some think that is regrettable. And others recognize it as a reinvigoration of a language, bringing alternatives that allow subtle differences of expression.

In a recent report, the linguist, writer and lecturer David Crystal considered whether “text speak” is undermining the English language. His response to the naysayers who claim it is damaging the English language is to point out that abbreviations have been around for a very long time.

While some, such as the ones we discussed above, are new, others, like the use of “u” for “you” and the number 8 as a syllable in “later”, have been around for a century or more.

Further to this, research shows that there is in fact a correlation between the ability to use abbreviations and the ability to spell all words—in order to abbreviate, you have to know which letters to abbreviate, of course.

What do you think about the way English is changing? Will you study that during your linguistics program? Let us know!

Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies. In TEDxRainier Patricia Kuhl shares surprising findings about how babies learn one language over others: listening to humans around them and "taking statistics" of the sounds they need to know.

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