i love english language

Jean Aitcheson’s Language Change: Progress or Decay


…The Frayed Edges of Language


Roman Jakobson – Russian Linguist – 1949 – “Continual language change is natural and inevitable, and is due to a combination of psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic factors.”


The Three Possibilities in Language Change


  1. A slow decay – predominant 19th century view


                                                               i.      the ‘damp spoon’ syndrome

                                                             ii.      the ‘crumbling castle’ view

                                                            iii.      the ‘infectious disease’ assumption


  1. Slowly evolving to a more efficient state


  1. Languages can neither progress nor decay



External Sociolinguistic Factors



         foreign influence

         social need


Internal Psycholinguistic Factors


“On the one hand, there are external sociolinguistic factors – that is, social factors outside the language system. On the other hand, there are internal psycholinguistic ones – that is, linguistic and psychological factors which reside in the structure of the language and the minds of the speakers.”



Leonard Bloomfield – the father of American Linguistics – 1933


“…the process of linguistic change has never been directly observed – we shall see that such observation, with our present facilities, is inconceivable.”


Jean Aitcheson – Language Change: progress or decay 1991


“Since diachronic linguists based their studies of language change on watertight grammars, it is not surprising that they failed to identify changes in progress, which are signalled by the frayed edges of languages. These frayed edges must be examined, not snipped away and tidied up.”


damp spoons, crumbling castles and infectious diseases


Jean Aitcheson – The Language Web – The Power & Problem of Words


  1. “…the damp spoon syndrome…”      i.e. language change is due to laziness


“The only truly lazy speech is drunken speech, where alcohol affects coordination, and English is not getting like drunken speech.”


“…there is a trade off between smooth, fast speech, and slow careful jerky speech. Faster speech involves more words per minute, and cannot be classed as ‘laziness’”



  1. “…the crumbling castle view…”       i.e. language is crumbling and needs to be preserved


“…implies that the language of English was gradually and lovingly assembled until it reached a point of maximum splendour at some unspecified time in the past. Yet no year can be found when language achieved some peak of perfection, like a vintage wine.”


…but the increasing loss of old (irregular) past tense forms…


…to geld … gelt… gelded


…to gird … girt…girded


…more recently…


…to bare …bore …beared


… new users of old forms…


…shoot up… shot up… shooted up


            …and new forms…


…to bland out …blanded out

…and the neatening up of noun plurals


…oxen, housen and shoen …are now oxen, houses and shoes



  1. “…the infectious disease assumption…”


“The wholesale spread of corruption may surely be ascribed to mere infection, to the careless, unthinking assimilation of the floating germs which envelop us.”

Douglas Bush – Writer – 1972


“…the disease metaphor falls down… people pick up changes because they want to.”


“…changes are not random. They take hold only if the language is predisposed to move in a particular direction. Social contact can trigger a change only if it was already likely to happen… anomalies tend to get smoothed out…”


Factors affecting pronunciation change


  1. Frequency


… frequently used words get affected quite early


e.g. loss of schwa in more frequently used words…


A cursory glance at the newspaper suggests that adultery is on the increase in this century. If you think slavery has been abolished, go and look at the factory at the end of our road. Every mother will tell you that nursery schools are a mixed blessing.


  1. Linguistic Susceptibility



…”hambag” or “handbag”?


            “…once a change of this type has occurred, hearers often judge the older, outmoded form to be pedantic and less ‘streamlined’”


Substratum Theory


…that when immigrants come to a new area, or when an indigenous population learns the language of newly arrived conquerors, they learn their adopted language imperfectly… handing on these slight imperfections to their children and to other people in their social circle, and eventually alter the language


…carrying over features of their original language into their adopted one.


…but there is a tendency to overcorrect e.g. second generation Italian or Jewish immigrants in New York exaggerating difference in vowel sounds which the first generation didn’t pronounce.                                  



Substratum Vs Borrowing


… a case of imperfect learners impressing their own syntax and pronunciation on a language or of immigrants picking up useful bits of information?




…four characteristics of borrowing…                                                  

         detachable elements

         tendency to change elements

         superficial correspondences

         minimal adjustment of borrowing language



Is language change confined to the period of language acquisition?


            …children as the originators of language change?


Eric Lenneberg – 1960s – the “critical period”, from 2years to early adolescence… “coincides with the biological phenomenon of lateralisation (the specialisation of language to one side of the brain) after which language was fixed and immutable, just as a chaffinch’s song was unchangeable.”


            …however, subsequent proof that lateralisation was already established at birth, thus removing any biological need for the critical period


            …also, the idea of a “cut off point” for beginning language learning in clinical cases turned out to be a mirage


            …with serious brain damage there is no critical point at which it can affect language learning


            …Down’s Syndrome does slow down speech acquisition but doesn’t stop progress at 14 or at any other age


            “Genie”… whose language didn’t develop properly from a starting point of age 14 was not firm evidence of a “critical age” theory… there were other factors



“…it is clear that people can and do alter their speech quite considerably in their adult life, as is seen from the case of people who emigrate, or who move to a socially prestigious area, and adjust both their accent and their sentence structures to those of their neighbours.”


“Children iron out irregularities in language, and produce sentences such as: Toby comed today. We goed home. Polly catched it. This type of regularisation is also characteristic of change throughout the history of a language. It seemed natural to some people to suggest that the historical changes were initiated by children, and occurs when a child’s oversimplified form survives into adulthood and becomes adopted by the speech community as a linguistic norm.”


“The belief that children initiate language change was a hopeless guess made by linguists to whom the whole process of change was mysterious. In fact, similarities between child language and language change are largely illusory. Children are unlikely to initiate change, since change is spread by social groups, and babies do not have sufficient group influence to persuade other people to imitate them.”





·        “Changes are not, for the most part, comparable to meteorites falling from the sky. They usually originate from elements already in the language which get borrowed and exaggerated, just as changes in fashion in fashion in clothes are usually borrowings and adaptations from, say the apparel of Moroccan peasants, rather than inventions in a vacuum.”

·        “There is a grain of truth in the popular notion that changes are catching, like a disease, since people tend to conform to the speech habits of those around them.”

·        “Conscious changes are usually in the direction of speech forms with overt prestige, such as standard British English. These often originate from the upper working class or the lower middle class, particularly women from these classes. Subconscious changes are often movements away from overt prestige forms, and often begin with working class men, whose speech and habits are associated with toughness and virility, and so have covert prestige.”

·        “Changes move from group to group possibly via people who come casually into contact. In conversation, they are likely to ‘accommodate’ their speech to each other in minor ways, and then eventually pick up some of each other’s accent, and so carry it across when speaking to their friends.”

·        “When a subconscious change which has been going on for some time reaches the level of social awareness, or when an old well-established feature is observed to clash with a newer standard form, there is sometimes a tug of war between the old and the new which may go on for decades, or even centuries.”

·        “Changes do not occur unless they have some type of prestige. They are markers of group membership, and people outside the group want, consciously or subconsciously, to belong.”











Random Fluctuation


“An extreme view held by a minority of linguists is that language change is an entirely random and fortuitous affair, and that fashions in language are as unpredictable as fashions in clothes.”


  • Hockett’s theory of random deviation 1958 –  “a slow drifting about of expectation distributions”


  • Paul Postal 1968 –  “…general tendency of human cultural products to undergo ‘non-functional’ stylistic change.”


  • However…


    1. Language “never disintegrates into the confusion implied by random fluctuation theories”
    2. “similar changes tend to recur in quite unconnected languages”
    3. there are “hidden and inbuilt constraints concerning which elements can change in a language… identifiable ‘weak spots’ in a language structure where change will be likely to strike.”


“…the majority of linguists regard fashion changes simply as a triggering factor, something which may set off a tendency whose deeper cause lies hidden beneath the surface.”


Functional View of language change


            …that language alters as the needs of its users alter.        


…at the level of vocabulary


…words which aren’t needed drop out

…coining new words

…politically correct terms

…slang terms


conversions …e.g. “do a buy” or “upped his score” … social need accelerating a tendency, not instigating the change


double negatives for emphasis… social need accelerating a tendency


polite forms of expression


“…sociolinguistic causes of language change… exploit a weak point or potential imbalance in the system which might have been left unexploited. This exploitation may create further weak points in the system.”


“…sociolinguistic causes are ‘superficial’ and other types are ‘deep’”…?

Inherent Causes / Internal Psycholinguistic Factors


Ease of Effect Theories (Ease of Articulation)


  1. Omission/Dropping off consonants… glottal stops [?] replacing [t], [k] & [p]


…“not just sloppiness, but due to the general and inevitable weakness of articulation of sounds at the ends of words.”


…[t], [k] & [p]…plosives (or stops)


                                                               i.            Place obstruction

                                                             ii.            Build up compressed air

                                                            iii.            Explosion


…the explosion being frequently omitted at the end of words and so are difficult to hear, which in turn accelerates the loss of the final consonant.


            …”hadst” and “gavest” become “had” and “gave”


            … how have the sounds of the words “tomb” & “lamb” changed?



  1. Linking sounds together


    1. AssimilationI want you to warn Peter… becomes… I want you to warm Peter …at normal conversational speed there is unlikely to be any difference between the two


    1. OmissionGeorge bang(ed) the drum hard as he march(ed) through the town. … at normal conversational speed the final sounds are likely to be omitted when occurring in the middle of a sentence.


“…when assimilation and omission occur within words instead of between them, the effect is likely to be longer lasting – though the spelling can often prevent people from realising that a change has occurred.”



            e.g. …simplification of consonant sequences


handbag to hambag

handkerchief to hankerchief

                        sandwich to samwich


…consider how the sounds are formed by the mouth


            …a spelling or a pronunciation aberration?


…consider the [t] sound in whistle, thistle, castle, fasten, hasten


“…there is some evidence that an alternating consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel sequence is the most natural one for the human vocal organs, and a few linguists have tried to argue that all languages are subconsciously striving towards this natural state.”



Other phonetic tendencies which are present in all languages…


[ml] & [mr] are likely to change to [mbl] & [mbr] due to the difficulty in coordinating the necessary articulatory movements


                        …fam(i)ly… to…fambly

                        …braem(e)l… to… bramble

                        …amrotia …to… ambrosia


…similarly [p] tends to creep in between [m] & [t]… dreamt, [t] between [n] &[s]… fancy, prince, tinsel



“dark l” / “velar l” as opposed to the “ordinary l” as in lip… e.g. pill, bottle, film, milk… become bottu, fium, miuk


O’Connor 1973 – “Language does what it ahs to do for efficiency and gets away with what it can.”


…is language being efficient or are instance of simplification of consonant sequences and of linking sounds together an example of laziness?




The Great Vowel Shift


15th & 16th Centuries









8 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on March 13, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    Useful stuff, but poor referencing in places/poor explanations of definitions.
    Amusing that for someone who loves English Language, their grammar is weak, and it’s Aitchison, not Aitcheson. 🙂

  2. Andy said, on April 12, 2010 at 11:14 am

    hmmm yes

  3. David said, on November 23, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    Curious how much more useful I found this website, than ‘Anonymous” petty nit-picking.
    Thank you for a lot of hard work here.

  4. Toby Gannon said, on February 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Its sweeeet leeeeiirk!

  5. Toby Gannon said, on February 9, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Canneet get better than Aitchy! El Classicio!

  6. P Diddy (Paul Donnelly said, on February 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    haha lethal site like, love the grammar, love the lexis, just love aitchison!!!

  7. michael grugan said, on March 16, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    i struggle to think sometimes and even i could process this information! yipee!

  8. asha said, on November 25, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    good stuff…nice work buddy

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