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English is a rich and colorful language that is constantly in flux. The English language has evolved over time, the way all languages do. As members of a society grow and develop, so too must the tools they use to communicate with each other. As Coulmas points out, ‘languages are often said to reflect the social realities of their speech communities’ (1989, p. 2). Since social realities are constantly shifting, the language that reflects them must adapt as well. This is particularly true of English. One reason for this is that there are so many variations of the language itself. In addition, it is such a widely spoken language, and it is spoken by people in all parts of the world. ‘Non-native speakers of English now outnumber native speakers 3 to1’, according to a recent Newsweek report (Power, 2006, par. 4). In addition, non-native speakers of English not only learn the language, they change it: ‘the new English-speakers aren’t just passively absorbing the language they’re shaping it’ (Power, 2006, par. 5).
Changes in Grammar and Vocabulary
Even among native speakers of English, the language constantly evolves. ‘Language itself provides the seeds of change, and social circumstances provide fertile ground for their growth and spread’ (Wolfram,2005, par. 3). We can see this in the grammar and syntax of the language, as well as in the vocabulary. Grammar, for example, has changed gradually over the years. A recent example of this is the need to reflect a new awareness of gender equality. In contemporary usage, instead of always using the male pronoun, speakers and writers employ a variety of ways to acknowledge the equality between the genders. At times, he or she is used. As an alternative,many times people will simply use the plural forms, since they refer to both males and females.
Vocabulary changes because new things are constantly invented, and we need ways to name them, and to communicate about them. When new inventions,or new concepts, become part of our lives, we need to have words for them. For example, with the invention of the Internet, new words had to be coined so that people would have a way of discussing it. And since the influence of the Internet continues to grow, new words are continually invented, or borrowed, to categorize the many concepts that have become pertinent to our lives. ‘Innovation in language is necessary because there is a constant need to name novel objects, processes, and relations, asserts Coulmas (1989, p. 15). The options available to a speech community when it needs a new word for a new idea or invention are limited, however. Coulmas breaks it down as follows: ‘When a speech community wants to express a concept for which there is no word in its language it can either borrow one from another language or coin a new one; it can, in other words, borrow the form and the meaning or the meaning only'(1989, p. 15).
English Language from a Linguistic Perspective
Linguists explain that language, by its very definition, must change and develop overtime in order to meet the needs of an increasingly complex society. Language is seen by linguistic experts as a fluid and constantly evolving tool, one that must adapt in order to continue to meet the needs of the individuals who use it. Occasionally, a language may suffer a period of stagnation, or it may even go through a period of deterioration. Coulmas discusses this, and explains that languages tend to have a basic resiliency that allows them to get past these periods and continue to develop: ‘In the course of history, languages have been known to adapt successfully, thus recovering their full communicative potential after a period of retardation or degeneration’ (Coulmas, 1989, p. 4).
Aitchison explains that human language is a communication system used by humans, but that it is hardly the only system that exists. Other life forms communicate, too,although their medium is not words. The methods these other life forms use to communicate shift over time to accommodate changes in the needs of those who use it. Human language is no different. ‘Human language is not unique among animal communication systems in its tendency to alter itself continually’asserts Aitchison (2001, p. 95). However, she swiftly points out that it is only recently in the twentieth century that linguists have come to develop plausible theories about the ways in which language changes, and the reasons those changes occur (Aitchison, 2001, p. 95).
One of the pioneers of linguistic research is Labov, whose years of research in the field have provided a basic framework for later investigation by other linguists. Labov’s studies on language and language change have been hugely influential. His basic premise is that ‘one cannot understand the development of a language change apart from the social life of the community in which it occurs’ (Labov, 1972, p. 3). This means that the study of language alone is insufficient; the language must be studied within the larger framework of the culture it reflects. The conditions of that culture, historically, socially,economically all play a role in the evolution of that culture’s language.
In keeping with Labov’s theory, Aitchison suggests that language developments happen as a direct consequence of events that occur with in a cultural setting. According to Aitchison, ‘a social trigger is needed to ignite a change’ (2001, p. 98). She then goes on to explain that these changes do not happen at random, but that there are deeper causes at work. She separates these causes as being either “natural tendencies” or “therapeutic changes’ (p. 98). Natural tendencies, she explains, are part of a normal and expected linguistic process. An example of this is the tendency for members of a speech community to drop the final consonants of their words. This has happened in other languages, and it is now happening in English as well(Aitchison, 2001, p. 99). Therapeutic changes, on the other hand, are forged by speakers of the language for purposes that may not be initially evident. An example of this is politeness, and the desire to avoid confrontation. Humans learn to create constructions that will be less likely to stir up unpleasant interactions (Aitchison, 2001, p. 100).
‘Some changes have overt prestige: speakers regard certain pronunciations as “classy”, and they want to talk that way themselves’ (Aitchison, 2001, p. 96). Speakers of a language consciously and unconsciously become aware of certain levels of speech within their language.In order to advance socially, then, some people adopt the words that are spoken by individuals they perceive to be on a higher social level. In so doing, they believe that they will improve their own status. This may work to greater or lesser degrees. However, this can also result in other consequences, such as’ hyper correction’ ‘Hyper correction’, Aitchison explains, ‘tends to occur in fairly formal styles, when people are trying to speak in a careful way,especially if they are insecure, and want to impress those around’ (Aitchison,2001, p. 96).
Once a language is no longer capable of growth and change, it dies out. Languages that are no longer used, then, are no longer growing. Languages like Ancient Greek and Latin are examples of this. They are alive only in the sense that they area key to past civilizations, but they are no longer used as a means of verbal communication. One linguist writes, ‘change is one of the inevitable facts in the life of any language. The only language not in a perpetual state of flux isa dead language’ (Wolfram, 2005, par. 3).
English, clearly,is alive and thriving, and it continues to change in ways that were never thought possible. As Power notes, ‘all languages are works in progress. ButEnglish’s globalization, unprecedented in the history of languages, will revolutionize it in ways we can only begin to imagine’ (2006, par. 6).
As this paper has demonstrated, English is a rich language that is spoken all over the world, by natives and non-natives alike. As such, it is in a constant state of evolution. As members of a speech community grow and develop, their language must grow and adapt along with them. Social realities constantly shift, and language clearly reflects that shift, through grammar and syntax as well as through the vocabulary itself. Linguists describe and explain these changes in a number of ways; the discipline of linguistics, much like language itself, is continually evolving and developing as new researchers and new theories come along. English is unique in its ubiquity and in its ability to adapt and reinvent itself, and will certainly continue to change and thrive in years to come.
Aitchison, Jean.2001. Language Change. Pps. 95-104 in The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics, ed. Cobley, Paul. London: Routledge.
Cobley, Paul, ed.2001. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics. London: Routledge.
Coulmas, Florian.1989. Language Adaptation. Pps. 1-25 in Language Adaptation, ed. Coulmas, Florian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Labov, William. 1972. Socioloinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of
Power, Carla.2006. Not the Queen’s English. Newsweek International Edition.
Accessedon February 14, 2006, from
Wolfram, Walt. 2005.The Truth About Change. Accessed February 14, 2006, from
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