Monday, December 24, 2007

The forces behind language change

In my first post, I alluded to the reasons for which languages morph gradually into new structures. Why is Shakespearean English so odd-sounding to us and sometimes difficult to understand? Why is Old English absolutely impossible to understand at all? How did Spanish become Spanish and French become French - two such different sounding languages and yet both "children" of the same mother tongue: Latin? Here's the fascinating reason:

All living languages change - stressed as they are by internal pattern irregularities forever seeking resolution, and in those resolutions becoming destabilized elsewhere in their structure, seeking yet another resolution which then creates further destabilization - and if those forces weren't enough, then there are the outside sociological stresses imposed by a host of forces among which are wars, as well as peaceful contact with speakers of other languages who learn their new second language imperfectly and whose usage often becomes identified with members of their group and then imitated by other speakers of the new language who are outside those groups. Take, for example, what happened in the deep south of the United States.

Children of the dominant white culture were raised by care-givers who were either slaves or descendants of the original African slaves, and whose English reflected rhythm and stresses and grammar of the original African languages which, though long forgotten, had a long-term effect on the speech patterns of those descendants. Their dialects were then passed on to the children for whom they were caring, and many white southerners to this very day speak in the patterns learned in their early childhood from their caregivers.

The mechanism of the earlier language impacting its cadences and grammar on the new language is called the "substratum" effect. Adding to the complexity, there are "registers" of language which create pressures for linguistic evolution. For example, children speak differently than adults. Teen-agers do not speak as their parents do, and after they have grown into adulthood, no longer speak as they did in their teens.

William Labov, a well-known writer whose essays in the 60's were particularly well researched and well presented described how one's social self-image impacted on his/her idiolect. This study has spawned a separate discipline within the field of linguistics, called sociolinguistics.

When I was a boy, the expression "That party was so fun" was not a part of the English language. "Fun" was only a noun back in the 60's and was never modified by the adverb "so." We said "It was such fun, because "such" was used with nouns - never with adjectives. Then came the 70's and 80's and something began to shift in how kids viewed the word "fun." It became acceptable to say "We had a fun time at that party." That was when "fun" suddenly started to become used as an adjective. And so, following the principle of analogy, kids naturally said: "That party was so good," so they could say also, "That party was so fun." The power of analogy is what makes it easy for a three-year-old to learn his/her language. And it was that force that caused "fun" to slowly morph from noun only, to noun or adjective.

In another post, we'll take a look at what goes on in a language that causes the "internal instabilities" that I referred to above. Stay tuned for the next posting.



Aaron R. said...

Another great example of the substratum effect is Modern Hebrew. Like in other Semitic languages, consonant clusters are historically impossible, but that's obviously not the case with the modern language- just look at the /br/ in the common greeting /bruxim habaʔim/. The cause is likely Yiddish/German influence. The Hebrew spoken by Ashkenazi Jews was greatly influenced by the vernacular of the country in which they resided, accounting for the changes in syllable structure and in other aspects of phonology (the neutralization of gutturals and emphatics especially). Since Modern Hebrew is mostly derived from the Ashkenazi dialect, many of those changes are present in Modern Hebrew

El Profe said...

Thank you, Aaron. I think our audience might appreciate it if you would explain three items in your comment:

1. Gutterals
2. Emphatics
3. Neutralization

Aaron R. said...

A guttural is a fairly broad term used to describe many velar, uvular, pharyngeal, epiglottal, and glottal sounds- sounds going from somewhere near the back of the throat. The semitic /ħ/ (voiceless pharnygeal fricative), /ʕ/ (voiced pharyngeal fricative), /x/ (voiceless velar fricative), and /ɣ/ (voiced velar fricative) are usually considered gutturals. /h/ and the glottal stop (also a commmon Semitic phoneme) are as well.

Emphatics in a Semitic (Afro-Asiatic as well) language are consonants with special methods of articulation that contrast with their non-emphatic counterparts. In biblical Hebrew and Arabic, they are pharyngealized, pronounced with the tongue root retracted. In Amharic, they are glottalized, or ejective.

In Modern Hebrew, many of the historic gutturals and emphatics (there is some overlap between them) are neutralized, either not pronounced or pronounced less gutturally so as to merge with other phonemes. /ħ/ merged with /x/, an allophone of /k/. /ʕ/ ceased to be pronounced, the glottal stop (represented by the letter א) is pronounced less often, the pharyngealized (emphatic) /tˤ/, ט, and /sˤ/, צ, lost their emphaticness, as did /q/, ק, which merged with /k/.