Growth and Change in the English Language
English is a rich and colorful language that is constantly in flux. TheEnglish language has evolved over time, the way all languages do. As members ofa society grow and develop, so too must the tools they use to communicate witheach other. As Coulmas points out, 'languages are often said to reflect thesocial realities of their speech communities' (1989, p. 2). Since socialrealities are constantly shifting, the language that reflects them must adaptas well. This is particularly true of English. One reason for this is thatthere are so many variations of the language itself. In addition, it is such a widelyspoken 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). Inaddition, non-native speakers of English not only learn the language, theychange it: 'the new English-speakers aren't just passively absorbing thelanguagethey're shaping it' (Power, 2006, par. 5).
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Changes in Grammar and Vocabulary
Even among native speakers of English, the language constantlyevolves. 'Language itself provides the seeds of change, and socialcircumstances provide fertile ground for their growth and spread' (Wolfram,2005, par. 3). We can see this in the grammar and syntax of the language, aswell as in the vocabulary. Grammar, for example, has changed gradually over theyears. A recent example of this is the need to reflect a new awareness ofgender equality. In contemporary usage, instead of always using the malepronoun, speakers and writers employ a variety of ways to acknowledge theequality 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 bothmales and females.
Vocabulary changes because new things are constantly invented, andwe 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. Forexample, with the invention of the Internet, new words had to be coined so thatpeople would have a way of discussing it. And since the influence of theInternet continues to grow, new words are continually invented, or borrowed, tocategorize the many concepts that have become pertinent to our lives. 'Innovationin language is necessary because there is a constant need to name novelobjects, processes, and relations, asserts Coulmas (1989, p. 15). The optionsavailable to a speech community when it needs a new word for a new idea orinvention are limited, however. Coulmas breaks it down as follows: 'When aspeech community wants to express a concept for which there is no word in itslanguage it can either borrow one from another language or coin a new one; itcan, in other words, borrow the form and the meaning or the meaning only'(1989, p. 15).
English Language from a Linguistic Perspective
Linguistsexplain that language, by its very definition, must change and develop overtime in order to meet the needs of an increasingly complex society. Language isseen by linguistic experts as a fluid and constantly evolving tool, one thatmust adapt in order to continue to meet the needs of the individuals who useit. Occasionally, a language may suffer a period of stagnation, or it may evengo through a period of deterioration. Coulmas discusses this, and explains thatlanguages tend to have a basic resiliency that allows them to get past theseperiods and continue to develop: 'In the course of history, languages have beenknown to adapt successfully, thus recovering their full communicative potentialafter a period of retardation or degeneration' (Coulmas, 1989, p. 4).
Aitchisonexplains that human language is a communication system used by humans, but thatit 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 tocommunicate shift over time to accommodate changes in the needs of those whouse it. Human language is no different. 'Human language is not unique amonganimal communication systems in its tendency to alter itself continually'asserts Aitchison (2001, p. 95). However, she swiftly points out that it isonly recentlyin the twentieth centurythat linguists have come to developplausible theories about the ways in which language changes, and the reasonsthose changes occur (Aitchison, 2001, p. 95).
One of the pioneers of linguistic research is Labov, whose years ofresearch in the field have provided a basic framework for later investigationby other linguists. Labov's studies on language and language change have beenhugely influential. His basic premise is that 'one cannot understand thedevelopment of a language change apart from the social life of the community inwhich it occurs' (Labov, 1972, p. 3). This means that the study of languagealone is insufficient; the language must be studied within the larger frameworkof the culture it reflects. The conditions of that culture, historically, socially,economicallyall play a role in the evolution of that culture's language.
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In keeping with Labov's theory, Aitchison suggests that languagedevelopments happen as a direct consequence of events that occur with in acultural setting. According to Aitchison, 'a social trigger is needed to ignitea change' (2001, p. 98). She then goes on to explain that these changes do nothappen at random, but that there are deeper causes at work. She separates thesecauses as being either "natural tendencies" or "therapeuticchanges' (p. 98). Natural tendencies, she explains, are part of a normal andexpected linguistic process. An example of this is the tendency for members ofa speech community to drop the final consonants of their words. This hashappened in other languages, and it is now happening in English as well(Aitchison, 2001, p. 99). Therapeutic changes, on the other hand, are forged byspeakers of the language for purposes that may not be initially evident. Anexample of this is politeness, and the desire to avoid confrontation. Humanslearn to create constructions that will be less likely to stir up unpleasantinteractions (Aitchison, 2001, p. 100).
'Some changes have overt prestige: speakers regard certainpronunciations as "classy", and they want to talk that waythemselves' (Aitchison, 2001, p. 96). Speakers of a languageconsciously andunconsciouslybecome aware of certain levels of speech within their language.In order to advance socially, then, some people adopt the words that are spokenby individuals they perceive to be on a higher social level. In so doing, theybelieve that they will improve their own status. This may work to greater orlesser degrees. However, this can also result in other consequences, such as'hypercorrection' 'Hypercorrection', Aitchison explains, 'tends to occur infairly 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 alanguage is no longer capable of growth and change, it dies out. Languages thatare no longer used, then, are no longer growing. Languages like Ancient Greekand 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 verbalcommunication. One linguist writes, 'change is one of the inevitable facts inthe 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 neverthought possible. As Power notes, 'all languages are works in progress. ButEnglish's globalization, unprecedented in the history of languages, willrevolutionize it in ways we can only begin to imagine' (2006, par. 6).
As this paper has demonstrated, English is a rich language that isspoken all over the world, by natives and non-natives alike. As such, it is ina constant state of evolution. As members of a speech community grow anddevelop, their language must grow and adapt along with them. Social realitiesconstantly shift, and language clearly reflects that shift, through grammar andsyntax as well as through the vocabulary itself. Linguists describe and explainthese changes in a number of ways; the discipline of linguistics, much likelanguage itself, is continually evolving and developing as new researchers andnew theories come along. English is unique in its ubiquity and in its abilityto adapt and reinvent itself, and will certainly continue to change and thrivein years to come.
Aitchison, Jean.2001. Language Change. Pps. 95-104 in The Routledge Companion to Semioticsand 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.
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Wolfram, Walt. 2005.The Truth About Change. Accessed February 14, 2006, from