i love english language

words which show language change

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on November 9, 2011

‘up of ‘offee and ‘oo’ies 

 The’ elders of Idleford’ is a fairytale used by Guy Deutscher to describe the decaying of language. Firstly the ‘k’ was changed to ‘ch’ as the tongue only had to be raised half of the way it had been before. Then to make easier the ‘ch’ was made ‘h’ as the tongue did not have to touch the roof of the mouth at all. Finally an Idleford elder suggested removing this sound altogether. The fairytale was trying to show that “correct” pronunciation disappears due to laziness; however Deutscher believes that language changes due to the desire to be more efficient when speaking and make your point more quickly. An example of this is ‘ot instead of ‘hot’.


This is a word used by Guy Deutscher to illustrate his theory of “ease of articulation” – that sounds which are easier to articulate will replace those that are harder to say – this is an instance of the language becoming more efficient – which is a key factor in change according to Deutscher. “Heart” started as ‘kerd’ ‘k’ changed to ‘h’ ‘hert’ and then finally reached “heart”. This is an example which follows from the ‘elders of Idleford’ story about how we gradually change our language for ease and efficiency of speech. The sound ‘h’ is easier to say than ‘k’, because when we say ‘h’ we do not have to really move our mouth, or move our tongue at all, whereas the sound ‘k’ requires us to use our tongue and the whole of our mouth to a larger degree, therefore people will choose an ‘h’ sound over others due to how much faster it is to say.


‘Don’t know’ became ‘dunno’- Guy Deutscher states that ‘if one is to believe the authorities, (language) always changes for the worst.’ However this is only quoting the writer of the ‘Dictionary of the English Language’- Samuel Johnson – who wrote the first Englsih dictionary in 1755. The author uses examples throughout the article to demonstrate how language has adapted to become more efficient. Deutscher shows how the beginning of word is easy to lose because people want to save time when they are speaking, and this is done through the dropping of letters or syllables, especially from the start of words because they are of course come to first by the speaker, so are dropped to make a word shorter and allow the speaker to make their point more quickly.


This word originated from ‘hlaf-weard’ meaning loaf-warden or bread keeper. ‘hlaf-wead’ was shortened to ‘hlaford’ to remove a syllable, then ‘laferd’ until finally the word ‘lord’ which we use now, with just one syllable came about. Here Deutscher is using examples to show how the middle of words can also be gouged out, it is not just letters/syllables at the start or the end of a word that can easily be lost. This process of simplifying the pronunciation of words – thus making the language more efficient or more economical – is one of the three key drivers of language change according to Deutscher – the three being economy, analogy & expressiveness.


…pronounced ‘disturb’d’- This used to be said ‘disturbed’, with the ‘e’ pronounced like the’ e’ in ‘bread’ but the speaker tends to run out of steam by the end of a word, and believes that the listener generally knows what word they are saying, therefore ends of words are easy to lose because they are simply left off at the end, whilst the word being said is usually still clear to the listener. This is another clear case of economy driving language change for Guy Deutscher – a radical prescriptivist in that he does think language can change for the worse or the better – in his case for the better, as opposed to a conservative or traditional prescriptivist such as Lynn Truss who considers most change as a change for the worse.


Reduction in English of syllables in endings of words is something which has been going on for a long time. For example, there used to be two syllables used for plural endings, now there is just one. An example of this is with the second person ‘you her-est’, which has now just become ‘you hear’. This is likely to have happened because it felt too broad previously, and it is easier to say the latter more quickly. For Guy Deutscher – a radical prescriptivist – this would be evidence of the English language becoming more economical, and thus improving as opposed to falling apart like a crumbling castle as in Jean Aitchison’s parody of the prescriptivist position.


This is an example of broadening. This word is used so often today that the true meaning is less significant. It loses the force of its original meaning and therefore loses its power. The same happens with intensifiers such as ‘super-’ and ‘extra-’ which are placed in front of adjectives to give them more impact. This is an example of the semantic change in order to make utterances sound more intense, however after a while they lose their emphasis as they are overused in a non literal sense.  This is also seen with words such as ‘disaster’ – This is due to a wish to enhance expressiveness and give extra emphasis. Although many prescriptivists believe that language was once perfect and is now beginning to decay, it is in fact not a new thing. It is shown in the French language where new intensifiers were created to mean ‘no’ with more intensity. Guy Deutscher’s theory suggests that semantics of words change because people want to make utterances more intense to add emphasis to words which originally had little. According to Deutscher the English Language is getting better as opposed to worse in this instance. Expressiveness is one of the key drivers of change according to Deutscher: in the constant drive to improve the effectiveness of our expressions people use metaphorical constructions for great impact, which explains the movement of a word such as “brilliant” from meaning brightly shining, to being just one of a raft of words meaning very good that we have today, all because of an effort by one person initially to come up with a more effective word for very good in the past and opting for an original metaphor.

At all

This used to be an emphatic intensifier, for example used in the phrase ‘would you like anything whatsoever?’ However it is now losing its emphasis and going through the process of attrition, as it is now just used as an extended question marker which is often used when you are for example being served in restaurants or cafes to be polite. What was once a means, in Guy Deutscher’s theory, for making language more expressive, has now becoming a hollow phrase with almost no meaning. Language naturally moves this way, with words and phrase slowly being “bleached” of their meaning or impact, so we, as language users, have to be constantly be coming up with new and better ways of being expressive: making our meaning strong and effective.


This word started as the phrase ‘nothing whatsoever’ but was over used and so reduced over time, eventually becoming just ‘no’, the negative we use today. This is an example of attrition where words are reduced in order to be easier to say whilst still retaining their old meaning. This destructive force, in Guy Deutscher’s theory, is a natural factor in all language change – which is making our words easier to articulate and so making our language more economical. This can be seen in a language such as Italian over the centuries, where the end of word consonants have been worn away by constant use – through practitioners being more efficient or economical in their use of the word (though prescriptivists would term this laziness) – the result is that most words in Italian now end in vowels.

Wha (t) stupidity? & It’s ho(t)

In Language people often make a minor deviation from the norm which leads to language changing over time, as others imitate, maybe intentionally or not it leads to words being altered. People alter “t” to a glottal stop when it occurs before another word at the end of a sentence. It is a habit usually noticed and often censured. Parents are frequently heard upbringing children with comments such as “Don’(t) say ‘what’ in tha(t) sloppy way” not realizing their own speech shows a fluctuating t also. T-dropping, then, is a change against standard norm which emerges into public view when it occurs in certain environments.

walkin’ & talkin’

In standard British the –ng sound is pronounced, whereas (in Norwich) the pronunciation of “walkin’ ” is frequently heard, as if there was just an –n on the end. This is a remnant of an older style of speech and its widespread usage in the past is shown in rhymes and misspellings. Shakespeare, for example, used “cushing” and “javeling” for “cushion” and “javelin” which were both never pronounced with –ing and indicates that Shakespeare added the –g in because he thought it ought to be there in the spelling. Also, the alternation between local –in and standard British –ing has emerged into speaker’s consciousness and Trudgill found that higher classes used the standard British version and the lower classes stuck with –n. He also found that women wanted think of themselves as speaking the standard prestige form whereas men wanted to use the –n as it gave a desirable ‘rougher’ effect to their speech.

grawss & bawd

Deep rooted division in Belfast between Catholics and Protestants meant that variation in language was not surprising. Protestant men were better off and often employed than Catholic. So pronounced ‘grass’ as ‘grawss’ since that pronunciation marked the speaker as highly integrated members of the superior social network. Whereas the Catholic working class men used the pronunciation of ‘grass’ more. The pronunciation of ‘grass’ spread between the two religious groups through the women that worked at the city centre store. Girls picked up the accents from their customers and spread it to both Protestants and Catholics who were both customers of the store.


Shop assistant phenomenon; travel assistant in Wales varied the number of h’s her speech, depending on how many customers dropped their h’s. Shows how people chatting together imitate one another and pick up aspects of the other’s speech and accommodates it into their own = language change and spread. Aitchison presents the idea that changes move from group to group, sometimes via people who casually come into contact with each other and accommodate their speech to each other in minor ways, resulting in them picking up some of each other’s language and carrying it across when speaking with their other friends.

I knows how…

The use of non-standard verbs alternated randomly with the use of conventional forms in the speech of male and female adolescents described as ‘tough’ children. It was found that girls seemed more aware of the need to conform to Standard English in formal situations than boys. This shows language change as women tend to lean towards the standard prestige pronunciation.


This common noun is an example of how language develops because of social change. The word originally referred to a type of food but through the introduction of the internet and emails it is now used to mean junk mail. (This is also an example of semantic shift over time). Ray Harlow explains that languages that do develop to become widespread and popular do so because of social change. Changes in technology, law, politics and science mean new words are needed to meet the needs of the changing society.


This dynamic verb has been blended by Lewis Carroll using the already existing words “chuckle” and “snort”. This is an example of language developing from within.  This supports Jean Aitchison’s view and contradicts the “crumbling castle” belief that the English language is decaying because this is an example of development since Carroll gave us a new word to describe something. Ray Harlow explains that a way in which the vocabulary and structures of a language can develop is through developing “from within”. Harlow defines this as a language “using its own existing resources”.

to edit

This dynamic verb is an example of how words are formed through the process of ‘back formation’ – another example of how the English language has developed from within according Ray Harlow. The concrete ‘editor’ came previously before and therefore this shows how the English vocabulary is increasing over time to meet language demands.


This is an example of a German compound which has been formed using the two nouns, “Kinder” (children) and “wagon” (cart/trolley). In English, we have some compounded words like “laptop” which is an example of development from within and also a word that has been created because of developments in society. Ray Harlow argues that people should not say a language “isn’t good enough” just because it does not fulfil a wide range of functions. He says that some languages are only thought to be better than others because they have developed differently.


The concrete noun “Mosquito” has been borrowed from the Spanish language. A lot of words in English have been borrowed from other languages. This is because the English language either did not have a word for something or the borrowed word was preferred over an already existing word.  Ray Harlow says that English would have never become a language that fulfils a wide range of functions if it wasn’t for borrowing. He also says, “All languages do this some to extent, though English is perhaps the language which has the highest level of ‘borrowed’ vocabulary.”

 “ism” and “ize” suffixes

These suffixes are taken from the Greek language and are another example of how English borrows structures from other languages. This also supports Noah Webster’s belief that “had the English never been acquainted with Greek or Latin they would never have thought of one half the distinctions and rules which make up our English grammar.” Ray Harlow explains that a language’s vocabulary can develop through a process called “borrowing” and that English has borrowed from several different languages especially from Latin and Greek.




Ray Harlow suggests that languages which are more flexible tend to be the ones that develop the quickest and so become the most popular. An example of how English is a flexible language is that it is becoming more regular. People are accepting new forms of words in order to make the language more regular. For example, the past participle “learnt” exists alongside the newer past participle “learned”. Many English past participles are now adopting the “ed” ending. In the future we may start seeing past participles such as “taught” becoming “teached”.


Harlow argues that English is a language that can fulfil a wide range of functions since we have many words to meet the needs of technological and scientific advances.  This can be because many new discoveries are made in either America or Britain – both English speaking nations. For example the acronym “AIDS” stands for “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome” and this word is used by many  other languages to describe the disease since they do not have a word for it.


Through the introduction of ‘text speak’, new words have been formed in English language. The acronym “LOL” is an initialism for ‘laugh out loud’ and supports the infectious disease parody. This acronym is widening in use, first used only in writing via the Internet but more frequently it is now becoming a common word in everyday speech. Other languages are also following this pattern, for example the French equivalent ‘MDR’ (Mort de rire – died of laughing). Ray Harlow says languages develop to fulfil a wide range of functions but this example shows how words can develop to fulfil different functions.


People may think a language is “not good enough”, according to Ray Harlow, other than not being able to fulfil a wide range of functions, because people may think it is not attractive. He uses the Roman dialect as an example which some people used to think was “savage and wretched” because this reflected the behaviour of the Roman soldiers. Harlow concludes that a language cannot be “not good enough” because languages are always changing, as are opinions about languages. What Jean Aitchison parodies as the “damp spoon syndrome” of certain prescriptivist opinions, that words such as “innit” are seen as inherently bad – but no word or phrase or usage can be, in and of itself, bad. Irrational rejudice accounts for all of such opinions – there is no basis in fact, no evidence, for such an opinion.

le week-end

This is a French word which they have borrowed through the popular use of it in the English language, instead of using ‘au fin de semaine’. This can be also said for the word ‘shopping’ which is present in everyday French speech. This can support Harlow’s view that languages that borrow from other languages are the ones that are likely to stay being the most popular and widely used. However, the French also have “l’Acadèmie Française” which is supposed to preserve the French language. If the French continue to stop borrowing words, the language may well become less popular because it will not be developing with changes in society.


There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend. Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3 (1594) & “for they say every body is in love once in their lives, and I shall have been let off easily.” Austen, Emma, (1815) – The use of “their” in the singular though it is technically incorrect has been in existence a long time supporting James Milroy’s argument that there was no ‘Golden Age’ of language use. This contradicts the ‘Crumbling Castle’ analogy that language is in decline as it provides evidence that language has been used “incorrectly” for a long time though it could be argued that it demonstrates the ‘Infectious Disease’ analogy as people through the generations have copied the mistakes people before them have made.

to boldly go

Splitting infinitives, such as “to be” or “to go” by putting any word between the “to” of the infinitive and the verb of the infinitive, has been a bug bear of many prescriptivists becasue it is “simply wrong”. However: “Root pity in thy heart, that when it grows; Thy pity may deserve to pitied be” Shakespeare, Sonnet 142. And some writers get it comiccaly wrong: “Writers should learn to not split infinitives”. Henry Alford, in his ‘Plea for the Queen’s English’ in 1864, addressed this issue bringing it first to the attention of the public. Examples of split infinitives can be found in many examples of work, the earliest in the 13th Century and it wasn’t until the 1800s then again in the 1960/70s that people began to dispute it. This suggests that there was never a ‘Golden Age’, supporting Milroy’s argument. The construction appeared because people frequently place adverbs before finite verbs and therefore if the adverb should immediately precede the finite verb, we feel that it should immediately precede also the infinitive. This supports the ‘Damp Spoon’ syndrome idea that people are getting lazy about language use though as there is no solid grammatical evidence behind why we shouldn’t split infinitives (no one blamed Latin when the issue first cropped up in the 18th and 19th century) can it really be called wrong?


James Milroy argues the point that there was no ‘Golden Age’ of language use, therefore it cannot be in decline as there was never a time where it was being used “perfectly”. He points out that language was only standardised in 1755 and as, during the 19th  and 20th  Century, 40% of brides and bridegrooms couldn’t write their own name, the ‘Golden Age’ must have been between 1944 (when secondary education was made compulsory) and 1965 (complaints regarding the decline in language have been heard) though this seems unlikely. So when it comes to ending sentences with prepositions – e.g. What are you talking about ___i? It is said that the preposition “about” is stranded. – where is this golden age? There are numerous examples of respected authors using this feature – e.g. “The waves, and dens of beasts cou’d not receive / the bodies that those souls were frighted from.” by Ben Jonson’s Catiline (1611). Ending a sentence with a preposition was seen by linguists as wrong as it is wrong in Latin grammar which prescriptivists attempted to apply to the English language. We can blame an 18th-century English clergyman named Robert Lowth for this one. He wrote the first grammar book saying a preposition (a positioning word, like at, by, for, into, off, on, out, over, to, under, up, with) shouldn’t go at the end of a sentence because it can’t in Latin – the langugae he saw as the best of languages.

don’t know nothing

Use of double negatives is to cancel each other out in Standard English, this rule being recorded by Robert Lowth in 1762, yet many languages use this to emphasise the negativity of the statement. Yet in 1591 Shakespeare used a double negative to emphasise negativity – “I never was nor never will be” Shakespeare, Richard III – which suggests that language may be improving, going against the ‘Crumbling Castle’view. James Milroy argues that “the complaints about declining standards of speaking are not normally about the child’s ability to speak English but about the variety of English that he or she speaks.” So when children use double negatives they are seen as using the wrong vatiry of Englsih – i.e. Standard English – as opposed to being in any other sense “wrong”.


This comes from the Latin aggravate meaning ‘to make heavier’, it was originally borrowed into English to mean ‘to make serious’ and now means irritate. Links to Peter Trudgill’s argument that meanings of words changing wouldn’t make English any harder to speak. Peter Trudgill argues that it wouldn’t be easier to speak English if it didn’t change – language change is a good thing that is occurring all the time. The notion  that all words should go back to their original ‘correct’ meaning, is ridiculous, their correct meaning being what the first ever meaning of the word was, in most cases people do not know what the first ‘correct’ meaning of any word was.


From skei meaning ‘cut’ which came from down into Latin as the verb ‘to know’ via a meaning such as ‘be able to distinguish one thing from another. Two forms gave Latin verbs ‘nescire’ to be ignorant of.  Adjective nesius ‘ignorant’ into old French nice ‘silly’, borrowed into medieval English as ‘foolish, sly’ then over centuries ‘modest’ ‘delicate’ ‘considerate’ ‘pleasant’ ‘agreeable’ but really the original meaning was ‘not cutting’ Links to Peter Trudgill’s argument that changing meanings is a good thing to fit with current needs.

implied & inferred

‘Implied’ means that something she said hinted or gave clues to, without saying it outright. ‘Inferred’ means that the behaviour or speech was so that she was able to deduce from it. These all link to Peter Trudgill’s argument English wouldn’t be made harder if meanings change because context makes it clear which meaning is used. Both of these are used interchangeably and there is never any confusion, soon one will drop out of usage as we are beginning to use them both for both meanings even though we know their original ‘correct’ meaning.

lend & borrow

Both have slightly different ‘correct’ meanings but as it is such a fine line many people do not know the difference. Again people are beginning to use whichever they chose in the situation they are saying it in, people still see in some situations using the wrong lexis as grammatically incorrect as in, ‘can I lend your bike?’. But this usage of both words for the same meaning is not making it more confusing, only people who think they are of a higher class feel the need to correct on the difference of lend and borrow. These all link to Peter Trudgill’s argument English wouldn’t be made harder if meanings change because context makes it clear which meaning is used.


Used to mean ‘an abrupt, exclamatory utterance’ but in modern days it has sexual meaning of ‘the act or process of ejaculating, especially the discharge of the male reproductive organs’. The old meaning is rarely used now as newer meaning has overtaken it. Peter Trudgill’s argument language change Is a good thing to fit needs of current times is put into question here; we seem to have come across an instance where our language is being robbed of meanings, such that as soon as a word acquires a sexual connotation it is effectively “stolen” and it is lost for ever. To some extent we are all prescriptivists.




Why does no one say “I’m gonna bed”?  In this instance “going to” has retained independent meaning – that of going physically to someplace and therefore has a stronger resistance to any kind of change – such as contraction. However, “Going to”, as in “I’m going to kill you.” where “going” is not the lexical verb and so has no semantic content, just a grammatical function (denoting future tense) has lost independent content and so is more exposed to lexical change, as it used more often, in more predictable circumstances and with far less stress, and no independent meaning, it has the inherent potential for change and so it is susceptible to the use of shortcuts in pronunciation. What’s more, the risk of misunderstandings decreased in “I’m gonna stay at home”, so there is no barrier to change. This is also the case with “gotta”, “gimmie”, “let’s”, “don’t”, “o’clock”, “alright”. This neatly illustrates Jean Aitchison’s Potential, Diffusion, Implementation, Codification model, where some words and phrases simply have a potential to change (or a weakness).

back of

This is an example of what some people would call an invasion of Americanisms, where a phrase or word in the English Language is frequently replaced by the American form of the meaning. Here the preposition “behind” is being replaced with “back of” which is an American term. However, prepositions originate ultimately from normal nouns and verbs like “back” or “go”, and this shows that language is referring back to what makes the most sense in terms of the simplest language. Guy Deutscher would refer to this process as the “Creation through Destruction” cycle, where existing words are constantly recycled, given fresh new meanings and then other words take their place.


“Ufan” is the old word for “above” is a clear example of Guy Deutscher’s creation through destruction cycle. Ufan” meant “on up” which was then blended to “be-ufan” meaning “by on up”. This was then clipped to form “bufan”. This was then given the preposition “an” to form “an-bufan” literally meaning “on by on up”. The cycle continued until “above.” Not only does this movemnt in language over a long period show how words are constantly changing to become either more economical or more effective or more analogous with other words, but that every word is subject to change, and the change we see around us today is just the same process slowed down.

hoc die

In Latin, “Hoc Die” meaning “On this day” was blended to form “Hodie” which had the meaning “Today”. The French use of this noun was shortened or ‘eroded’ to “hui”. Yet “Hui” did not hold enough emphasis for a word, and so it was extended to “au jour d’hui” meaning “on the day of this day”. Au jour d’hui was then compounded to make “aujourd’hui”, the commonly used term today. Yet this has also been compacted so much that its emphasis as a word is not considered enough by many people, who have started to use the formation “au jour d’aujourd’hui” which has the literal meaning “on the day of on the day of this day”. In the forces of creation, Guy Deutscher proposes that what some people call decay in language is actually part of a continual process which regenerates language over and over again as words are changed to make them more convenient for people to use.


How did “will” which meant want to/desire come to be sued as a future auxiliary and have no semantic content itself in some clauses? The marriage promise “I will” used to have the literal meaning “I want to” love, honour, cherish etc. Yet if you say you want to then you normally will do, and so “will” ended up as a future auxiliary. Where there was a need for a word function in a language – in this case for a small and neat future auxiliary, which could efficiently denote future time without adding anything else to the sentence, the language came up with a solution. Languages are essentially changing, living things.


Originally used to describe materials such as rubber, but can now be used instead of ‘difficult’ or to describe a person and to describe the abstract concept of ideas. e.g. tough legislation. Tough could be described as a clichéd metaphor, as the original meaning is still in use and its new use has been used often enough for it to lose its original impact. This exemplifies Guy Deutscher’s belief that metaphors expand our expressive range, as now there are more words for the word “difficult”. Deutscher argues that metaphors are a necessary tool used to express difficult concepts. They appear frequently in everyday language: to explain concepts such as spatial relations or possession metaphors are necessary, causing a blur between metaphorical and literal meaning, leading to what he calls as a “reef of dead metaphors” which make up our language.


The word ‘curb’ was originally used to describe a piece of metal attached to a horses bridal and placed in the horse mouth to help to control its movement. However, now, this meaning has been almost completely replaced with its metaphorical meaning of controlling something, usually intangible, abstract concepts rather than a tangible horse. eg in ‘Curb your Enthusiasm’.  This is a dead metaphor, as the original meaning is almost completely lost and demonstrates the fact that, adapting the use of words through metaphors is useful in expressing difficult concepts, such as “controlling” and abstract concepts such as “enthusiasm”. Dead metaphors lose their original meaning and are used more in an abstract sense, as there are often few alternatives – Guy Deutscher argues that language needs dead metaphors to keep pace with itself.


From Old English thyrlian, meaning pierce. The current sense of thrill must have started as a metaphor with some shock value; I’m thrilled to bits literally meaning I’m pierced to bits, being a graphic equivalent of today’s you’re killing me or smashing. This semantic shift shows that changing the meaning of the word can expand our expressive range and provide more words to choose from as there were previously fewer alternative words to express being excited by something. Guy Deutscher’s theory on language change is very much concerned with metaphors which are a major driver for change in that they enable the speakers of the language to be more expressive, just as the language itself is becoming stale and ineffective from overuse. Metaphors are often thought to be an ornamental figure of poetic arts, creating evocative images, like “I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because your tread on my dreams.”  Yet they can be found, dead or alive, in even the plainest words of everyday language. They are an essential tool of thought, allowing us to think of abstract concepts in simpler terms, and are the only way we have of dealing with abstraction. Abstract ideas using metaphors originate from a concrete object or concept that we are familiar with. The only way we have of expanding our expressive range to encompass abstract concepts is to draw on concrete terms.


Initially meant “remove cover from” It was still used in the 17th century in this physical sense. ‘If the house be discovered by tempest, the tenant must in convenient time repaire it.’ This is another dead metaphor as few people use it to describe the action of removing a cover from something. The move away from its original, literal meaning has meant that there is an alternative to the word “find” which has a slightly different meaning as ”find” is used less frequently with abstract concepts compared to “discover”, again making the language better at expressing many different concepts. Guy Deutscher, as a “radical prescriptivist” argues that through such a process our language is getting better, we are getting better at expressing ourselves: expressiveness is a key driver for language change.


Originally meant plank. It is now used for things like ‘board of governors’ or ‘chairman of the board’ meaning a group of people with important or official roles.  It not as dead as the other metaphors as it’s still used in this sense today e.g. diving board.  As both meaning of the word are still used, it shows that a semantic shift from a literal meaning to metaphorical meaning does not cause confusion, as some would argue about most instances of language change. Guy Deutscher argues that “The mind cannot just manufacture words for abstract concepts out of thin air- all it can do is adapt what is already available.” – hence adapting the ingredients it already has – using existing words in a metaphorical sense, which can exist alongside the literal meaning, or, as in some cases, be wholly superseded by it, as with “barmy”, which originally meant full of barm, barm being froth or yeast. This would have created quite a strong image of somebody being seriously mentally ill but this impact has been lost due to how frequently it has been used. Also today many people use ‘mental’ to describe slightly bizarre events and so the word’s original meaning of being to do with the brain is likely to be less frequently used. This metaphor expresses an abstract concept regarding sanity or now just vaguely odd events, without using medical language and so can be used often by many.


From Greek, for flesh tearing, and is related to sarcophagus, meaning flesh eating. It is now an indispensible word where the original literal meaning is not used. This change fits with Guy Deutscher’s view that metaphors help expand a language’s capacity for expression. Though we could have made up a word (neologism) to label this concept, it is far easier for a language and its users to adapt pre-existing ingredients. Semantic change would seem, therefore, to be far more common than lexical change, as well as being harder to measure, as sometimes meanings can change almost imperceptibly. Over time the connotations of some words shift slightly, either broadening or narrowing, or even taking on whole new, and sometimes, metaphorical meanings, such as “head”, the original meaning of which is still used but now it is also used to describe a person in charge or ‘at the top’  like a Head teacher.  This metaphorical meaning expresses effectively the abstract concept of being in charge of something.


The auxiliary verb ‘have’ is one of the most common words in English, yet it is still a very abstract notion. What do you actually do when you ‘have’ something? If a word for describing ‘having’ something did not exist what would you do, and how would you express the idea?  ‘Have’ would be described by Guy Deutscher as a dead metaphor: it ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European root ‘kap’ which mean seize. The original meaning survives in the Latin root ‘cap’ which we still use today in words like capture, captive, capable and even catches. So our language has changed to give us a word for an abstract concept, in this case “possession”, it has subsequently been stripped of all of its old meaning, leaving us a very useful word which is essential as both a lexical verb and an auxiliary verb. Guy Deutscher:  “ …the flow of metaphors towards abstraction is beginning to reveal how life and death in language are entwined. Whereas in poetry metaphors turn into empty clichés once they die of over-use, in everyday language dead metaphors are the alluvium from which grammatical structures emerge. Like a reef, which grows from layer upon layer of dead coral skeletons, new structures in language can rise from the layers of dead metaphors deposited by the flow towards abstraction.’”






William Labov looked at change in language and how different social factors affected language change, ranging from age to social class to gender. He found language change was either conscious of unconscious, unconscious being when people change their language without noticing, and conscious being when people realise they are changing the way they speak, and actively encourage it.  From his research he came up with the ideas of overt and covert prestige. An overt prestige dialect is generally one that is widely recognized as being used by a culturally dominant group and Labov noted cases where people would use this dialect in order to gain social prestige. A covert prestige dialect, on the other hand, is one that is generally perceived by the dominant culture group as being inferior but which compels its speakers to use it to show membership in an exclusive community.

flo-aw (floor)

William Labov studied the dialects of New York City. He noticed that the post-vocalic ‘r’ was considered the prestige dialect which he observed because the use of the ‘r’ varied with level of formality and social class: in the three stores that he visited, ranging from lower, middle to upper class in price and fashion scale, when prompted to say “fourth floor” when asked for directions, the upper class shop assistants pronounced it their most in casual speech (i.e. when asked first time) and then said it in the same way in careful speech (i.e. when asked to repeat.). Of the four classes tested – Lower Class, Working Class, Lower Middle Class & Upper Middle Class, the lower middle class were the most susceptible to the overt prestige of the ‘r’ as they differed most in its usage between the casual speech of being asked the first time and the more careful speech style when asked to repeat

Moose (mouse)

In his study in Martha’s Vineyard, William Labov focused on realisations of the diphthongs [aw] and as in mouse. On Martha’s Vineyard the locals were changing their vowel sounds from 30 years ago. He interviewed a number of speakers drawn from different ages and ethnic groups on the island, and noted that among the younger (31-45 years) speakers a movement seemed to be taking place away from the pronunciations associated with the standard New England norms, and towards a pronunciation associated with conservative and characteristically Vineyard speakers – the Chilmark fishermen (i.e. from [au] to [əu]). The heaviest users of this type of pronunciation were young men who actively sought to identify themselves as Vineyarders, rejected the values of the mainland, and resented the encroachment of wealthy summer visitors on the traditional island way of life. Thus, these speakers seem to be exploiting the resources of the non-standard accent. When Labov interviewed the inhabitants, there seemed to be no conscious awareness that the rest of the island seemed to be imitating this vowel change from the fishermen. They subconsciously changed their vowel – so moose being a covert prestige pronunciation of mouse.

bu-ah (butter)

This pronunciation, which is typical of the Cockney and Estuary English dialects was traditionally associated with the lower classes and there is now a growing tendency all over Britain to make the glottal stop rather than the ‘t’ sound within words like butter. This signifies a case of covert prestige where the “inferior” dialect has been adopted by more people including the dominant class who would have originally spoken in RP. This could also reflect an instance of what Jean Aitchison mockingly referred to as ‘Damp Spoon’ i.e. it could support the prescriptivist view that language is deteriorating due to our laziness in pronunciation. However it in fact takes more muscular tension to omit the /t/ than to say it so the idea that it is down to laziness does not fit. It also contradicts the idea that this change has spread like an infectious disease because covert prestige means that people change the way they speak because they want to fit in. As Jean Aitcheson says- ‘The disease metaphor falls down. People pick up changes because they want to. They want to fit in with certain social groups.’

bew (bell)

The ‘l’ in words like “bell” becomes a vowel sound (“bew”) – The spread from South-Eastern regions around London, i.e. from Essex and cockney-speaking areas, to other regions in the UK of this example of l-vocalization shows how a working-class dialect can spread into other communities of a different traditional dialect and perhaps a different class. It could be that TV programmes like Eastenders and Only Fools and Horses have popularized such dialect so that it becomes overt prestige to use it because you are fitting in with what is fashionable.  What is interesting is that people who in previous generations would have spoken Received Pronunciation or perhaps near-RP (standard British English) have instead opted for this more “regional sounding” accent.  This Estuary English isn’t radical because of its spread; it’s radical because of the type of people who speak it:  middle-class young people, celebrities, and white collar professionals. This signifies a case of covert prestige where the “inferior” dialect has been adopted by more people including the dominant class who would have originally spoken in RP. This is a subconscious change.

nefew (nephew)

Most of us nowadays tend to use a <f> sound in this word. The <v> is the traditional pronunciation for speakers of all accents, but is rarely heard among younger speakers nowadays. It is unclear why this change has occurred, but it is probably because of the spelling. Over the past 100 years or so, access to education has increased and thus more of us are aware of the written appearance of the word. A similar process has happened with the word if. This would be an example of how education is actually increasing the rate of language change in some instances, and not, as some prescriptivist would have it, especially those sarcastically labelled by Jean Aitchison as having the “damp spoon view”, as a result of stupidity and laziness, as well as maybe simple bad manners.

onvelope (envelope)

This is an example of language change possibly influenced by spelling include ate, and envelope: younger speakers tend to rhyme “ate” with gate rather than with get and in the word “envelope” the initial vowel tends nowadays to rhyme more often with den rather than with don. This kind of language change does not point to the influence of covert or overt prestige. That is, unless speakers changed their speech in this way because of hypercorrect pronunciation when they realised that it was spelt the same as e.g. philosophy and phone, then this would be a case of mistaken overt prestige. Aside from that, this example contradicts the prescriptivist view of people like Lynn Truss that English is a ‘crumbling castle’ because dialect changes like this show the increasing regularisation of English; it is perhaps becoming more logical.


fink (think)


Th-fronting refers to the pronunciation of the English “th” as “f” or “v”. When th-fronting is applied, /θ/ becomes /f/ (for example, three is pronounced as free) and /ð/ becomes /v/ (for example, bathe is pronounced as bave). Th-fronting – the use of the labiodental fricatives [f] and [v] for the dental fricatives [θ] and [ð] – is a well known feature of Cockney and was noted by Peter Trudgill as spreading through non-standard accents in England. Although th-fronting is found occasionally in the middle and upper (middle) class English accents as well, there is still a marked social difference between working and middle class speakers. This is because the phoneme /f/ in words like ‘think’ and ‘thumb’ is non-standard English and considered inferior to traditional RP therefore the upper and much of the middle classes are reluctant to pronounce it in this way and instead look to obtain overt prestige. Also, many prescriptivists would point to the spelling of the word as evidence of the “correct” pronunciation – however, as is well known, spelling is no guide to pronunciation, as G B Shaw argued with his famous example: “ghoti”.






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