Why do languages change?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Benvindo, Nov 9, 2007.

  1. Benvindo Senior Member

    Brazil, Portuguese
    For me, the most intriguing question related to languages in general is: after all, how, and why, do languages change in the course of time, and become different from place to place? Example: it is known that words that had a *p in PIE (Proto-Indo-European) changed into words with an f in Proto-Germanic, thus separating all Germanic languages from the rest of IE languages, and that’s why English today has foot, while French has pied, Portuguese . If PIE *p changed to PG f, it must have started to change somewhere, at some moment, by someone. Just why? Was that person aware that he or she had started a change at this point? Was his or her way of speaking considered wrong at the time? Had he or she heard someone change a *p into an f (or its predecessor) before, and did it by imitation? Was he or she subsequently imitated by other people, and if so, what was the cause of this - prestige, power, was that person particularly charismatic?
    What chiefly interests me is not identifying which particular phonetic change laws apply to a given set of circumstances, but understanding why these laws arise at some moment in a language, and how they work. These questions may not have an objective answer after all, but I think they help us know a little more of the processes (cognitive, psychological) underlying changes in language.

    Since I’m not a linguist, many of these questions may appear trivial to experts (for which I apologize). For me, anyway, this is a great opportunity to hear what people have to say about this subject, which I find very interesting. Thank you.
  2. uchi.m

    uchi.m Banned

    Redeeming limbo
    Brazil, Portuguese
    I am not an expert on the field, but one possible cause of language split is nomadism.

    When two groups with languages differing, say, phonetically, come into contact, one or even both of them may need to adapt their pronounciation to let themselves be understood by the counterpart. Eventually this new group of people will render both original languages into some hybrid form, which may be so different from the original languages that it could be considered to be a third language.
  3. zpoludnia swiata Senior Member

    chile english, spanish, german
    A simple answer is that languages change because their speakers-users change. The way you use or speak your language changes during your lifetime. People change therefore languages change.
  4. Lingvisten Senior Member

    I'm neither an expert on this field, but it seems to me, that languages develope toward more simplicity, both fonetical and grammatical. As already said, when people/tribes part, their languages will of course develope apart from each other. These changes might be coincidental, but will all point toward a more simple language. the changes might be parrallel in the two languages, or they might be different; one language might develope faster, the other may be more conservative, and so on. This is my idea of how language developes, and is not based on any academic research. :)
    I hope someone, who worked with this proffesionally, can help to inlighten us.
  5. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I think that language changes because we are tinkerers by nature. We don't just acquire a language; we also like to perfect it, polish it up. We go through life modifying, or misinterpreting, or simply toying with language in small ways. And people's use of language is subject to opposing impulses: on one hand, we seek precision and consistency, but on the other hand sometimes a little ambiguity can be socially convenient, or simply creative and fun.

    Most changes we make to language are very short-lived and localized, but some start new trends that eventually become popular.
  6. Macnas Member

    English and Russian, United States
    This is an extremely complex topic, actually. You could write books on this.

    There are many factors influencing phonetic changes in language. Two of the most important ones, in my opinion, are imperfect transmission of language and laziness.

    A single language is a huge concept, that clearly takes a lot of brainpower and time to master. For that very reason, it is impossible for a language to be transmitted from parent to child perfectly. Changes appear, and the child often fills in gaps in their knowledge however they can. Such changes slowly spread along generational lines, being reinforced by contact with others. This is one of the reasons analogy is such a powerful force in language change. This process is accelerated when people have limited communications with one another, such as in the past before people could easily travel long distances.

    Laziness is another factor. Of course, it's a little more complicated than that. People slur. In most common usage you don't precisely articulate every single sound. In certain environments sounds tend to be particularly weak, and therefore are most likely to change. The example you gave of PIE *p > PGerm *f is an example of the process of lenition, where a sound weakens by one "level". There is a hierarchy of sounds (the sonority hierarchy) that describes the relative strength of different types of sounds. Sounds such as /p t k/ (voiceless plosives) are among the strongest sounds, followed by voiced plosives (such as /b d g/) and then voiceless fricatives (such as /f s x/). There is a tendency for consonants to gradually move down this hierarchy, from stronger sounds toward weaker ones.

    Of course, lenition is just one of many processes that act on the sounds of a particular language.

    Every process, however, can be countered. We don't have languages that consist entirely of vowels (the "weakest" sounds on the sonority hierarchy) because 1) that would be hard to pronounce, and 2) there are processes that reintroduce sounds that are higher on the sonority hierarchy. For example, consider the word "strength", which ends in an ng (a voiced velar nasal plosive) followed by th (an oral voiceless interdental fricative). Even if you know nothing of the phonetic nomenclature I just gave, if you look at the technical names you can see that the two sounds share nothing in common (one's voiceless, the other's voiced; one's velar, the other's interdental, etc). To make this easier to pronounce, almost all English speakers insert a /k/ sound in between the two sounds, so that it's pronounced more like "strengkth". /k/ is at the top of the sonority hierarchy, but it has been inserted as an intermediary sound, as it is voiceless (like th), velar (like ng), oral (like th), and a plosive (like ng).

    The process of language change is thus an infinite loop. There is no "perfect" state.
  7. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    I think all we can say is that it is in the nature of language to change.

    There was clearly a period when language developed when it must have gone from simple to complex, but (at least so far as any language whose history is recorded is concerned) no language has ever changed so as to become less complex; all that happens is that the areas of complexity change. If you compare a language at one moment in time with an earlier form and "grade" each area for complexity you will find that it is simple/complex in the same number of areas. The same thing happens if you compare two completely different languages. Language change is a bit like a kaleidoscope - the pattern changes, but you always see the same number of coloured beads.
  8. jfm Member

    One of the most important factors involved in language change is derived from a language's function as a social identity marker.

    All members of social and/or ethnic groups use various ways of marking group membership. It can be specific ways of dressing, behaving, talking, whatever. Compare the dress codes of symphony orchestras and hip-hop groups, or street gangs vs business men.

    In linguistic terms, this is most obvious in the choice of words and phrases. All groups (social, ethnic) use expressions that are peculiar to that particular group. It could be specific ways of labelling things. It could be in-jokes, nick-names, peculiar pronunciations, etc., etc.

    By using certain ways of talking, we are simultaneously signalling our group belonging. Simply put, teenagers talk like teenagers, lawyers talk like lawyers, truck drivers talk like truck drivers, etc.

    These things are not accidental. All of of us do this, and we do it with varying degrees of choice and conciousness. In short, we imitate the behaviour of our peers. Some individuals imitate the behaviour of other groups because they wish to belong to that other group, e.g. a 40-year old balding man who starts dressing and talking like an 18-year old hip-hop artist.

    Peer pressure and group conformity are very strong factors in forming human behaviour, incl. our ways of talking.

    However, it's also important for individuals to be distinctive, particularly in order to make ourselves visible for potential mates. Individuals may choose to behave (talk, dress, walk, move about) idiosyncratically or they may do so involuntarily. Talking may be affected by having no teeth, having a lisp, an inability or difficulty to control vocal chords, etc.

    In addition, during our so-called formative years (up to young adulthood?), we often imitate not only the beahviour of our group/peers, but also often some idealized individual (either real of fictional), e.g. Clint "Make my day!" Eastwood, Han Solo, P Diddy, whoever. Some of these "idealized" individuals may have behavioural traits (lisps, certain voice qualities, etc.) that mark them out and which we may conciously/unconciously imitate.

    In the olden days, the effects of imitating had limited distributions. Nowadays, with TV, mass-distributed media and the internet this has clearly changed. Young girls in Sweden and Hungary dress like Britney Spears.

  9. demalaga Member

    España castellano
    What is undoubtable is that languages change, with different speed, but never remain unchanged for many centuries.But this also happens with all cultural aspects in human life like for example with clothes.There are some forces that makes fashions, beliefs and habits to evolve.
    But why this happens is a question of philosophical nature, since you cannot make experiments with society.
    I just want to point out two possibles causes that can cause change, and no doubt there must be more.In some contexts there is an interest in beeing understood by everyone, when you want to sell your good in a market where different people meet, perhaps speaking not the same language.In this context probably you will try to simplifly your language and even contribute to create creole languages.ON the contrary, the jargons appear when you want to be understood just by the persons in your group, bot by everybody.So in the prisons appear a lot of slang expressions, with the aim of not beeing understood by the guards or the police.
  10. Unrealevil Member

    They change for many reasons, not that I pretend to know more than a few, but the way I see it, the basis of a change is similar to the anglicization of the world right now and for the past century or so. Languages are used less and less as native speakers use English more and more. It's slowly integrated into the culture because they have to interact big time with English-speaking nations... until there's no one speaking Irish the native language anymore except some from our treibh who hang around the pub and now there's no reason for anyone to teach it. Modern-day anglicization is dramatic and the change can be pointed out without thought. But if you're looking into ancient languages, or the origins of a split in one not long ago, you have to take many more things into account. The further back you go, the less established nations are, and therefore, the less established a language is. And if a language is not associated with or kept up by any standard entitiy, it's subject to change that we would not be able to easily notice when researching.
  11. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Hi Benvindo, all,

    Just some remarks...

    It's quite an obvious question, for which there is no simple answer, or maybe no answer at all. But that is certainly not the same as a 'trivial' question, as you wrote :)!

    I agree with some of the posters so far (a combination of immigration, prestige, people consciously and unconsciously changing language constantly, trying to get an equilibrium between 'more simple' - 'more complex', but not necessarily all these factors for all languages for all sound changes.

    One minor note about simple/complex: I think, and please correct me if I'm wrong, that Chinese is a good example of 'more simple/more complex', even if the terms 'simple/complex' actually don't mean a lot in linguistics.
    Chinese is strongly believed to have had inflection, which got lost. It is also strongly believed that Chinese 'originally' (whatever that means) didn't have tones. Has Chinese become more simple or more complex?
    Apparantly none of this to the speakers of Chinese throughout the ages.

    Nevertheless, what I find a very dubious angle is the following:
    Which would imply that we (homo sapiens sapiens as a species), have been lazy for the last 100,000 years.
    This is: IF homo sapiens sapiens was the first speaking 'homo species' and IF language would be that old. I don't want to discuss this, but I think you know what I mean.

    This would also mean that speakers of High German have been very 'lazy' what e.g. Germ. *p is concerned (which remained in English), but that speakers of English have been 'too lazy' to pronounce /kn/ 'properly', which remained in German (knight/Knecht). Selective laziness as a driving factor in language change? The idea doesn't attract me very much.

    The hypothesis that sound change/language change is to be attributed to "imperfect transmission" is also very poorly supported. I'm also a bit bothered by considering a sound change as the result of a 'mistake'. Even if so, then hardly any children's 'mistakes' have been picked up by a language community.
    What research seems to suggest, though, is that when a change has already been introduced in a speech community, it's extended further by young speakers. But that is something different: it even means the transmission was not imperfect at all!

    I do agree, though, with Macnas' words that "there is no "perfect" state".



    PS: I forgot the details (even the name of the author), but one of the funniest explanations on the so-called Germanic consonant change (which you briefly and partially mentioned) concerned... the temperature.
    People shifted from PIE *d > PGmc *t because of the cold weather. 'Linguistics' can be fun!!!
  12. Petter Member

    Norway - Norwegian
    I think this is a central point. If society stand still, so will language.
    From the beginning, language has always been in a state of flux.

    As for the question why it changes, I think there are many factors, among them geographical distances, imperfect learning, cultural developments and many others
  13. Flaminius

    Flaminius coclea mod

    capita Iaponiae
    日本語 / japāniski / יפנית

    If a language is learnt and developed as an individual matures in a specific speech community, the life expectancy of each individual language is about 80 years at best. I expect that how one defines a language certainly influences answers to the current discussion, but it always makes me wonder how some languages such as Icelandic could remain relatively identical for 1 000 or longer years despite the fact that they are spliced threads made of shorter ones about 80 years long.
  14. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    English (England)
    As levels of literacy improve we may find that the speed with which language change occurs slows down. The huge impact of multimedia will also keep what is standard as standard. In fact there is some evidence that change can also reverse because of "literacy". Spelling lags behind pronunication because it is by definition more normative. The "t" in "often" has made a huge comeback and this is often assigned to the fact people can now read the fact the word is spelt that way and so pronounce it - whereas our illiterate forefathers would have heard their parents say "offen" and repeated that without even knowing it had once been pronounced "of-ten". The disappearance of particular pronunciations such as "forrid" for "forehead" in favour of "fore-head" can also be put down to this.
  15. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    In my opinion, the greater availability of mass media can be a double edged sword. On one hand, it tends to freeze pronunciation and spelling, and to privilege the standard varieties of the language (which are those preferred by the media, by definition). On the other hand, the media also help the spread of new trends and fads: we're all familiar with innovations like the ubiquitous "like" used as a conversation filler, the Californian valley girl question-like intonation, or Homer Simpson's "Doh!" and its possibly twin sister, the teenage "Duh!"
  16. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    I think I don't understand what you mean here...

    What do you mean by society standing still, and what would be a possible relation with language 'standing still'?
    And, erm, what do you mean by "language has always been in a state of flux" if language can "stand still"?


  17. Macnas Member

    English and Russian, United States
    I think you took me far too literally there. I didn't mean actual laziness. I meant the desire to simplify pronunciation. I thought this would be clear once I started giving some of the examples of lenition and epenthetic sounds, but I guess not.

    /kn/ disappeared in early English because it was no longer an allowable cluster of consonants. Why it was no longer allowable, who knows? But the fact is, it simplified. Of course, what "simplification" means varies greatly. In this particular case, the cluster simplified to a single consonant. It could just as easily have acquired an epenthetic vowel (becoming *kinecht or something) or for that matter could have stayed exactly the same. But once a certain series of sounds become illegal, that cluster is going to resolve itself in some way. I certainly didn't mean to say that the speakers simply become too lazy to pronounce them.

    Another mystery, of course, is how speakers "choose" (clearly it isn't an actual "choice") which method they use to eliminate such clusters.

    Similarly, the lenition of /p/ to /f/ is a sort of weakening. Similarly, the insertion of /k/ into "strength" makes the final cluster easier to pronounce.

    By "imperfect transmission" I mean to say that someone's language is very likely to be different from the language of their parents. Around here, many older adults seem to be firm believers of "these data are" (with plural agreement), while younger adults/children are almost universally "this data is" (with singular agreement, as though with a mass noun). I would consider this an example of an "imperfect transmission", as it has since spread throughout younger generations' speech, has been reinforced by the speech of others, and is now almost universal among younger generations. The exceptions tend to be when parents, teachers, or some other speakers drill into them the "proper" (ie, older) form. When this hasn't been drilled into them, however, the children see no reason to treat "data" as a plural noun, since it certainly doesn't look like a typical plural. It becomes a mass noun because the children never adopted the plural form from their parents, instead going for the seemingly "more regular" form of a mass noun. And once it's ingrained in their minds, it's very hard to change.

    I feel like we're not arguing different things here. What I refer to as "imperfect transmission" is a subcategory of what you call the extension of language by younger speakers. All cases of imperfect transmission fall into the class of extensions, but not all extensions are cases of imperfect transmission (eg, slang).

    Sorry if I didn't come across correctly...
  18. Montaigne Senior Member

    French, France
    I don't think we should discuss "language changes" as a whole.
    And we should separate "changes within" from "changes between" i.e for example the "within" improper transmission or youth codes and the "between" lexical borrowings or phonetical adaptations.
    My country has been "visited" by Celtic tribes, the Sueves,the Alamans,the Goths,the Romans, the Vandales,the Franks, the Danes, the Swedes, and its western part was an english possession for centuries.
    Many places in France have been "international" trade centers.
    Hence a lexical enrichment which transformed our language in terms of words and expressions at least.
    Grammar did evolve too but not that much and at a slower pace.
    Pronunciation was settled by the XVIIe century.
    Now "within" changes have also taken place since a long time but they became more
    visible (audible ?) in the last decades and they are felt worrying most of the time.
    The excuse is, more than often, simplification and social levelling (down).
    But finally even if a language belongs to its locutors, and as it is their identity and treasure it has to be defended against "within" perverse temptations.
  19. demalaga Member

    España castellano
    Which influence will have the mass media in the evolution on languages in the future?I think it is a very interesting question since like oUTSIDER wrote in post number 15 it is a double edged sword.If mass media fall under a strong control of politicians for long periods of time could help create new languages to differenciate two political entities by underlining more and more their differences. But where there's an incontested unity in widespread areas like happens in most of Russia, no doubt the mass media will prevent the language from breaking up in different regionalisms that could end up being different languages.But the evolution of the language could continue.
    In countries like India where there exist many different languages I don't think the mass media in Hindi languages will achieve a unification, but in areas where there's a language with different varieties what happens with Arabic, we don't know to wich extend this could happen.Only the time will tell.
  20. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    I would put it the other way round - people stopped saying /kn/ and therefore it became an unallowable consonant cluster.
  21. Petter Member

    Norway - Norwegian
    Sorry, I'm not so eloquent. What I meant was, that as long as human life is changing, so will language, because the realities which language is describing is changing. So language must adjust to these changes somehow.

    And no I don't think it is possible for living language to "stand still", exactly because society is always evolving. That was what I meant by language, however it first came about, has from the start been in a state of flux.
  22. talmid Senior Member

    121107 0145


    I came across an interesting anecdote about how languages may change when I visited New Zealand (NZ).

    I cannot vouch for its accuracy, but as I understood the account:

    The first seafarer-settlers of NZ originated from somewhere beyond the region of the Marquesas Islands & apparently,whilst those speaking the language of the original starting-out point spoke very similar dialects, there was more than one emigratory voyage.

    The first wave of immigrants found in NZ plant life which they had not previously encountered & named the various species in the way which they found appropriate.

    The later second & later wave of migrants again found the very same plant life to which they were equally unaccustomed but, having had no contact with the first wave of immigrants, this second group also gave names to the new plants, but the names which this second group gave to the plants differed from those names which the first migrants provided for themselves.

    Hence-one plant achieves two differing names!

    So, provided that my understanding of the account is correct, here is one example of why & how languages may change.

    If any of our Forum colleagues are New Zealanders, I hope that they may be able to corroborate this account.

    It's an interesting subject!

    Best wishes
  23. Asgaard Member

    usa, english
    Hi all,
    I would like to add one more thing to "why do languages change". It wasn't mentioned so far and I believe it is one very essential cause. It is the speech "disorders".
    One major speech disorder is Rhotacism. (please visit wikipedia for more info on Rhotacism - very interesting...)

    "Be vewwy quiet… I'm hunting wabbits"

  24. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish

    This is obviously not true. All the Scandinavian languages, except Icelandic ( and maybe Faroese), are considerably less complex than they were 1000 years ago. For some reason Icelandic kept its extremely complex structure. Other Germanic languages are obviously much less complex than the ancient Germanic languages. Even though High German is still pretty complex it is still simpler than the ancient languages.

    To take Danish as one example, what was lost over the times was among other things the conjugations of the verbs that transports the information about the subject, 1., 2, 3. person, plur. or sing, subjunctive, the case suffixes which always tell you e.g. if the word is subject, object, or indirect object and also can give information conc. directions, when used with a wide variety of prepositions. What is left are 2 genders - in some dialects still all three, but in others only one, and a structure where the syntax is often the only thing that tells you which word is what in a sentence. However, there verbs still have passive modus. Then again, that feature was lost in High German.
    Icelandic still has active, passive and mediopassive.

    Netherlands may even be less complex than Danish. I'll leave English out because I don't want to restart the recent discussions ...

    I have wondered myself, why the greater part of Scandinavian languages changed in that direction - and Icelandic not. I have some pretty controversial theories on that, but I'd like to hear first what others have to say.
  25. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Do you mean morphologically less complex? Loss of inflection etc.?


  26. Hakro

    Hakro Senior Member

    Helsinki, Finland
    Finnish - Finland
    As jfm said in #8, imitating is the way to learn to speak and it's also a reason why languages change.

    Children imitate their parents. Adult people imitate the nobility, and the nobility imitates the royalty.

    I believe that many languages have changed according to the words and pronunciation of a king. Anyway, I've seen how the Finnish people have adopted the expressions of our presidents and other celebrieties - right or wrong - and I've seen it happen in other countries as well.

    Today, all the people imitate the media. But already centuries ago, written text had an affection to the pronunciation, at least in Finnish, believe it or not.
  27. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    I think it is a question that what you do not have in your own language you perceive as a complexity. If you speak a language that is towards the analytical end of the analysis/synthesis spectrum you will consider all the noun cases and verb endings of a synthetic language to be a complication. On the other hand a native speaker of a synthetic language may find an analytical language to be imprecise because a lot is left to context and that is as much a complication as cases and verb endings.

    In Russian you need to make a decision as to which of six cases you are going to use for a noun. When you speak English you are relieved of that, but you still have to make three decisions that a Russian does not need to make, namely, whether to use the definite article, indefinite article or no article at all and the rules for that are quite complicated, but do not seem so to a native English speaker.

    Languages make up for complexity in some areas by simplicity in others. What must be expressed in one language may be left unsaid in another. Languages cannot be too complex or they could not be passed on to children. They cannot be too simple or they will fail as an adequate means of communication.

    A visitor from outer space would find all human languages equally difficult - or if you prefer, equally easy.
  28. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    Yes. Among other things. Actually less complex in all aspects of the language - except maybe orthography.

    It seems to me that the same things happened to what developed from ancient Germanic dialects to what we know today as Netherlands. (I just started learning NL and am surprised that it by the first glance seems even simpler than Danish)
  29. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    What do you mean relieved! Features in a lanugage like 4 or six cases do add to the complexity of a language and do enhance the possibility of putting more and exact information into a sentence where I in a less complex language like Danish (as compared with German - as an example) would have to leave out information, use combined prepositions, add another sub-sentence or whatever.

    Being confined to be less exact in what I can say or write is no relief - how could it be?

    Besides, "complexity" is not a subjective thing - it is something you can analyze and compare.
  30. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    That's a huge misconception. The syntactic complexity of analytic languages completely overshadows their morphological simplicity. As an adult second language learner, you'll easily master the entire morphology of, say, Russian in one tenth of the time that will take you to figure out the English articles well enough to be able to get them right even only 80-90% of the time. The prepositions and many other syntactic issues are only a bit easier. I'm sure that the syntax of other relatively analytic Germanic languages is no different in this regard. (Of course, once you master the Russian morphology, you'll realize that it's not the really difficult part of that language either.)

    And what makes you think that the rules for the use of prepositions and formation of sub-sentences in Danish are any less complicated than the rules for the formation and use of 4 or 6 (or 10, 15, 20...) cases in any other language?

    How exactly?
  31. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish

    How about a few decades of speaking and writing Danish and High German - as well as translating this pair of languages in both directions? At least that is what makes me think I know the virtues of both systems pretty well.

    Besides I did not say the rules of forming sub-sentences are less complicated - I say they complicate thing when you already have one sub-sentence and actually need a second one or a whole lot of additional words to pack the info into the sentences that are covered in High German by using the possibilities that the grammar offers you. Often you decide to leave out information in order not to end up with some construction where the reader is bound to loose touch. That is when you translate German into Danish. In the other direction you hardly ever have that problem.

    And what syntax is concerned - there is hardly any possibility of packing info into sophisticated ways of using the sytax in Danish which you cannot do in German as well. You just don't always have to, because you have other "tools" that don't exist any more in modern Danish. They got lost on the way ...
  32. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    I don't mean "feels relief" but "spared".

    In Thai nouns are invariable for case and number and have no gender and so compared to German is, in that respect, less complex. However, in certain situations nouns have to be accompanied by a classifier. You have to know when to use a classifier and what classifier to use; that is a complication which German does not have. So, Thai makes up for simplicity in one area by having complexity in another

    It isn't, but that was not what I was saying. What I am saying is that some languages require some things to be done or specified that others do not.

    What I am trying to get at is that a given feature of a language may be perceived as a complexity if you do not have it in your own language. When a German comes to learn Russian, although he will have to learn the different forms of nouns, he will not be thrown by the very idea of case. On the other hand, he may find the notion of aspect tricky and the absence of articles odd.

    But to get back to the idea that language change may involve simplification. Comparing Latin with modern French, it is tempting to say that French is simpler. If we take nouns, French has certainly abandoned case, but on the other hand has introduced a requirement that the definiteness of a noun is specified and the absence of case has lead to word order being all important.
  33. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish

    I'll make it quite simple and analytical:

    If two languages are basically the same, but one has evolved in a way so that all subjunctives have been done away with - without any substitute to take their places - the other one still has them, then one is less complex than the other one. There is no way I'll lead long discussions on that point, because that is pure logic.

    One language will be faster to learn because you only have half as many conjugation tables to learn - a relief indeed - but you don't have the possibillties that a subjunctive offers, either. Also pure logic.

    So if you compare a 800-1000 year old version with Danish with modern day Danish that is what you have, not only in terms of subjunctives. That is simply a fact - something you can go have a closer look at.

    What puzzles me about this discussion is the fact that somebody can express the theory that no language has ever evolved to a simpler, less complex stage, and this theory is not disputed by anyone. Nobody asks for any arguments to support this cathegoric theory.
    Once someone says that there are examples of the opposite the reaction is different. Why is that so?

    Is it simply an emotional thing - that it is difficult to cope with the fact that mankind does not always develop to the better, and thus, the most important cultural feature of man - language - must also always develop to the better without any interruptions in the upward gradient?

    It is true that languages tend to develop in accordance with the needs of its speakers. That is indeed a good theory to start with. But tell me why a potato and sheep farmer who sits knitting socks in the evening does not need the same type of language than his colleague who lives next to some volcano in the North Atlantic? They started out with basically the same language. One language has maintained a high complexity the other one has shed off a lot of it.

    If you doubt this is so there is a simple way to find out. Start learning the basics of both. And then see how long it takes before you can speak a few grammatically correct sentences in sequence. I have no doubt that your feeling of succes will set in a lot earlier in Danish/Swedish than in Icelandic. (I would place High German on a level between these two "extremes). I cannot believe that anyone who has the slightest idea of these languages will dispute that.
  34. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    I confess I did once pick up a copy of Teach Yourself Icelandic and came to the conclusion that learning Icelandic was an interesting intellectual exercise that I would put off indefinitely.

    I can, however, only repeat that all languages are equally complex. I think it comes down to the point at which the complexity is encountered when learning a language. You are not going to get very far with, for example, Latin, if you do not learn how to decline nouns and conjugate verbs - lesson 1 is amo, amas, amat and mensa mensa mensam. But against that, once you have learned the declensions and conjugations there are not many irregular nouns and verbs - there are far more irregular verbs in French than Latin. Some languages appear deceptively simple when you start to learn them; a classic case is Malay about which it is said that it takes ten weeks to learn to speak it well and ten years to learn to speak it properly.

    Here are three things I half persuaded myself when learning languages at school:

    1. That the French cannot possibly remember the gender of every noun.

    Truth: they do! When I was fourteen I spent a month with a French family and the eleven-year-old daughter was constantly correcting my errors of gender.

    2. That the Spanish do not bother with the subjunctive.

    Truth: they do! Pick up any packet of frozen food and the instructions will contain at least two or three subjunctives. It crops up in casual conversation and children use it where it is required.

    3. That the Russians do not bother with cases.

    The truth: they do! I remember being mildly depressed when listening to recordings of children; all the right cases used.

    Extrapolating from this limited personal evidence I conclude that something is not a complication if children can master it! What children are not so good at is coping with complex subordination and that in any event tends to be a feature of writing, rather than speech.

    I have only investigated a handful of the world's thousands of languages and some of the conclusions I have reached are:

    1. Numerous noun cases tends to lead to a corresponding lack of prepositions.

    2. Lack of noun cases or any other markers involves strict word order.

    3. The more complex paradigms are the more regular they are.

    4. The more synthetic a language is the more it will tend to lack idioms.

    On the one hand complexity is subjective - it depends on what language you know. Czech will hold few terrors for a Pole or Italian for a Spaniard, but a Pole learning Italian or a Spaniard learning Czech will be scratching their heads in puzzlement. I also think there is a tendency for people not to perceive languages they start learning early as difficult; this is because they learn them slowly and over a long period or may be "surrounded" by them. This explains why so many non-native English speakers consider English to be "easy".

    On the other hand complexity is objective and can (sort of) be measured in that you can compare, say, the verbal system of one language with another and declare one language to be simpler because it has fewer forms.
  35. demalaga Member

    España castellano
    In analitic languages Provided you understand the meaning you dont need so many morphological complexities, but you must give enough clues to make the meaning clear.In Spanish you need to put an article before the subject, so its like a marker of nominative."el niño come patatas" or "un niño come patatas"This usually happens in English but not allways,"music relaxes me".This is due to the fact that in english subject goes allways at the beginning.But articles can go with direct objects and other words."los niños comen las patatas".Here there is no possible confusion sice potatos canot eat, just be eaten.Compare this with "Juan mató a Pedro" versus "a Pedro lo mató Juan" two sentences with the same meaning. Here "a" is more than a preposition a marker of the accusative case.
    In the end, all languges must be usefull to convey all possible meanings we need to communicate.That makes them all rather complex.
  36. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)

    This thread is on why languages change, not on how they change.
    Neither is the main topic the complexity (or what is perceived as such) of a language.
    I thought the title was pretty well chosen (and hence obvious).

    Everybody is invited to start new threads, but I have to ask everybody to stay focussed on the topic.


    Moderator EHL
  37. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    Exactly - why?

    That is the question I'd like to bring up again - and again by the comparison Icelandic - Danish - High German. They all had a very similar stage less than 1000 years ago. And they changed at totally different speeds - why?

    That of course means that we have to realize that they actually changed in at a totally different pace ...

    One covers the werbs with basically infinitive, present, past tense - 1.-3./sing./plur unchanged. A few aux. verbs. Active and passive

    One has the whole system that we know it other languages: Endless conjugations to learn, active, passive, mediopassive, subjunctives etc. etc.

    What happened? Why?
  38. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    It's easy to think of Icelandic and Faroese as more static than Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, because the former kept their declensions, while the latter have lost them.

    And it's not too difficult to imagine an explanation, at least in this case: the Icelandis and the Faroese were more isolated from the rest of the world than the Scandinavians.

    But are we looking at the whole picture? For instance, while the nominal morphology of Icelandic may be more conservative than that of the continental Germanic languages, my impression is that Icelandic's phonology has gone through significant changes. Many long vowels seem to have become diphthongs, which I don't think is common in other Germanic languages, except for English...
  39. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    I think that is making it too easy - just because they were isolated doen't necessarily mean that this is the reason. There are lots of languages that were even less isolated than any of the Scandinavian languages, that maintained a high level of - I say it again, complexity. That is why I do not believ it any more that this should be the reason.

    People - also historians - often made the error of thinking of islands always as being isolated. As ships were the most efficient means of transportation that man-kind had for milleniums water was really not such an important barrier as land was. Somebody living in the woods was often more isolated as thos living on islands.
  40. Asgaard Member

    usa, english
    Hi ,

    If you would like to see what the experts have to say about "why do languages change", google "In Search of the First Language" a PBS documentary whose transcript is available online.

    ...." sound changes were in the hands of the people who were the most important local people".... - WILLIAM LABOV

  41. menme New Member

    Bedburg, Germany
    ex-pat American, English native speaker
    I'm a complete layman, but I believe the media and the ubiquity of English are changing languages today. I can hear phonetical adaptation (?) in Germans using English loan words: the short "a" in "happy" makes it "heppy" and "tough" becomes the German reality show "Taff" (actually written this way, since the orthography of tough would just stagger German minds). Wherever a people come into contact with another language, surely there will be sounds that don't exist in their own language and will be replaced by a phoneme they can pronounce. Given time you have your change. It isn't laziness (hey, I can't say the flat "a" so I'll change it). The Germans I talk to often can't hear the difference between "flash" and "flesh".
  42. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Yes, why indeed?
    there's definitely no simple answer to that question, and there won't be - ever (that's my opinion, of course - no scientific axiom ;-)
    however, some reasons have been established by linguists, and I might add, none of them (I'd say) is undisputed (meaning: there's never one single reason, there always are more - it's not as easy as that):
    beforehand: I would like to differentiate between simple 'forces' of change (meaning: factors involved in language change) and 'reasons' for change (meaning: the factors = forces responsible for change taking place at all):

    - simplification: yes, it plays its role, simplification in the grammatical sense, but it is not so easy that one could say simplification goes towards isolating languages (such as English and Persian), simplification can also lead towards inflection, meaning linguists all over the world haggle over which would be the most 'simplistic' structure, and if you ask for my opinion, then simplification ist just a force but hardly the reason (the latter it may be in certain conditions, but this is not the rule, e. g. English with mixed population of Anglo-Saxons and Normans: in this case, one might (!) argue that simplification was more a reason for change rather than only a force)

    - sociological and economical reasons: our social context changes (formerly tribal, newly industrial society: a huge difference which will result in language changes, no matter how hard you try to retain the 'old' language: social divisions form which didn't exist previously, you need to use new terms for new things in the real world, you mix with other peoples from other regions, etc): this, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons for language change, but of course I am a sociolinguist and supposed to say something like that ;-) (my opinion would surely be challenged by structuralists and followers of the school of generative grammar: they most likely would accept that these factors are a force of change but might challenge for me saying they're the main reason)

    - political reasons: yes, of course there was (and is) language planning, and of course it did affect the change of languages hugely, in one very popular case a dead language even was revived, successfully so (I'll let you guess ;-) and I don't mean Celtic Irish as one might dispute it's successfull revival); but again, this (for me) is only a force of change and not the main reason, because as I see the world, language politics is only an institutionalised form of sociological and economical change and as such part of the former point, although different from it

    - language contacts: might be subsumed under sociological & economical reasons, surely they're important for language change, no one would dispute that, but again I would say it's only a force - not (necessarily) the reason, there are examples in history where two coexisting languages hardly did interfere one another until (until!) there was sociological change

    - child speech: again, incorrect or incomplete language acquisition of language through children really is not the reason for change - on the one hand, language acquisition is not fully accomplished at the age of 15 (far from it!), on the other hand, children only talk differently from their parents when grown up if (and only if!) there was sociological/economical change, in my opinion (again, wouldn't go undisputed, I should add); sometimes, the parents themselves are responsible for children speaking differently because they'd prefer their children speeking a higher valued accent and so try to speak to them only in this accent, or alternatively send them to a school where they hope they'll learn an accent of the (higher) middle classes, as is the case in England and America (I think).
    So again, this would more fit into sociological & economical reasons - as there are lots of examples where (in unchanging - or better: very stable sociological conditions) language change did not occur (Islandic being a good example ...)

    - language as social identity is of course a very important factor but again could be subsumed under sociological conditions: this is what sociolinguistics really is about ;-) - and this is not only about national and ethnic identity but about peer groups too

    So, basically, in my opinion (with all the facettes which are to them), there are two main positions:

    - language change is due to simplification in the generative grammar sense
    - language change is due to sociological and economical change, this being the sociolinguistic position

    Of course, this dispute under linguists is NOT about denying that sociological change does not play it's part or, on the other hand, simplification in the generative sense would not be important - the dispute is one about establishing priorities - about what's most important, what's the reason behind change, what is the main force; and most likely this dispute never will be resolved (otherwise, what would be a linguists job if there weren't any riddles to solve any more :).

    And the important thing to remember and to keep in mind, concerning language change, always will be: there is more than .
  43. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Simplification as a force of change is quite well documented and not disputed under linguists - the question is only which role it plays, meaning if simplification were the one thing which drives speakers change their language. Meaning: is simplification the reason for change (rather than element of change).

    Simplification, for example, very frequently happens with conjugation of verbs or declension of substantives. But if children simplify conjugation or declension (and everyone exposed to childs talk knows that this will happen frequently) then they will be corrected by parents and teachers - implicitly through their example or explicitely, too. This too happens (did happen) in cultures without scripts: children will learn the correct use of their language eventually.
    Such examples might be German wrong *gehte instead of correct ging: the former would be 'easier' grammatically as formed regularly, the latter is an irregularity.

    Nevertheless, the change of ging into gehte would not take place unless there's a change of attitude towards language which might have several reasons: for example, migration of people with a foreign mother tongue which do not acquire the language correctly. Or a foreign rule of a group speaking another language - for the latter, Norman rule in England is an excellent example; most of English declination and conjugation got lost during the Norman rule: before we had a recognisable Germanic language called Anglo-Saxon, afterwards we had an English language which really neither was Germanic any more, nor did it develop into a Romanic language.

    So, change to simplicity is really well documented. Thing is, in my opinion this only is responsible for minor changes, except if exterior reasons (be they sociological, political or economical) allow them to have a greater impact on a language.

    This, of course, is my personal point of view.

    As for how more 'difficult' structures ever could evolve, if change were to go towards simplicity always, this question would have to be answered by someone of the Generative Grammar wing. :D
    Reason this is difficult to explain is that 'simplicity' isn't such a simple principle as most people would think. Simplicity too can be an inflecting system - it simplifies addressing of distinct persons if talking in a group, whereas in a language like English you will have to follow other rules to achieve the same thing, and oftentimes you will need context to know at all which pearson is meant in an English text, or if this person is a 'she' or a 'he'. Simplicity, in my point of view, never could be described in a pure structural way - the cultural context should be taken into account, too.

    And then, of course, there are some ways to get diversity through simplification, also very well documented, here an example from Austrian dialects:
    - the relative pronoun 'den' is not inflexed in German
    - in Austrian dialects the personal pronoun 2nd person might be merged with the relative pronoun, and this (of course) still wouldn't be inflexion but just a merger
    - however, the other persons too tend to get merged more and more with 'den', and one might even postulate that inflexion already exists, examples (the letters after the hyphen indicating the short form of personal pronoun; in square brackets I indicate the form the personal pronoun has usually, there's a difference not represented here in script in the quality of vowels, too):
    1st : der, den-i maan (= the one (person) that I mean)
    2nd [du]: der, den-st maanst (= the one that YOU mean)
    3rd [er]: der, den-a maant (= the one HE means)
    3rd [sie]: der, den-s maant (= the one SHE means)
    1st pl. [mia]: der, dem-ma maanan (= the one WE mean; den>dem is just assimilation and has nothing whatsoever to do with a change of forms)
    2nd pl. : der, den-ts maants (= the one THEY mean)
    3rd pl. [se]: der, den-s maanan (= the one THEY mean)
    As you see, both forms in the 2nd person would support the theory of a new inflexion system developing, whereas the others very easily could be described as simple mergers, too.

    Things like this one might be a starting point for a change towards more simplicity insofar as it would be easier to address persons correctly and unambigously. However, this is (yet) not the case as you cannot use the same inflexion with all relative pronouns (or can one? I'm asking myself now ... I have to confess, I'm not quite sure).

    However, this is - i fear - drifting off into off topic already. So I'll stop here to see if the moderators will have any objections ...

    Cheers, Herman
  44. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    Obviously I do not deny that if in a given language nouns lose their inflections that that is a simplification of the way that language treats nouns. However, the loss of inflection will be replaced by a new rule of syntax e.g. that the subject of a sentence must precede the object. Over all, the amount of complexity is the same. There is in fact a theory that language change is cyclical, rather than linear: isolating > agglutinating > fusional > isolating and so on. No one stage is more complex or "advanced" than any other, so language does not evolve in any Darwinian sense.

    The reason that inflections may be lost is because they are not stressed. A typical French verb shows this:

    2.tu aimes
    3.il aime
    4.nous aimons
    5.vous aimez
    6.ils aiment

    In spoken French, 1,2,3 and 6 are all pronounced the same.

    The Latin form of this verb is:


    In Latin, the stress generally fell on the penultimate syllable, so that in 1,2,3 and 6 the stem would be stressed, whilst in 4 and 5 the ending would be stressed. In the early stages of French this stress pattern continued and that explains why the endings for 4 and 5 are retained, though they have been shortened.

    Also, in French subject pronouns became compulsory. Since the subject was expressed by the pronoun, the ending became unnecessary.

    The lack of stress and the compulsory use of subject pronouns both contributed to the loss of inflexion.

    In fact, in French, some of the subject pronouns cannot exist except in the presence of a verb so there is an argument that subject pronouns in French should be regarded as clitics, which is a sort of halfway house between a separate word and an inflexion. It is only the convention of writing that requires us to write tu aimes rather then tuaimes (and indeed aimons rather than aim ons).

    I suggested in another thread that if French were a language spoken by a tribe lost in a jungle and there were no other surviving Romance languages or records of Latin, a linguist discovering it would describe some aspects of it in a way that would make it appear more complex than we perceive it to be today, or rather, since I am arguing that no one language is more complex than another, that it was complex in different ways.
  45. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Actually, it's far from certain that the Norman rule in England had any significant influence on the loss of Old English inflections. Such theories are dubious at best. One can easily find numerous examples where synthetic languages stubbornly retained their complicated morphologies through much longer periods of far more severe and heavy-handed foreign domination (for example, just about any Slavic or Baltic language). One can also find examples of languages that passed through morphological simplifications comparable to English without any remarkable foreign influences (for example, the Scandinavian languages). Besides, if I'm not mistaken, there is strong evidence that the erosion of Old English inflections was already long underway when the Normans came.

    Otherwise, very interesting post! :)
  46. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    Why should the retention of complicated morphologies be regarded as stubborn?
  47. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    This, of course, is true.
    As for simplicity, or complexity: English most certainly is far from being a 'simple' language; it's just that most English speakers are very tolerant if spoken to in uncorrect or heavily accented English, as long as they do understand the basic meaning. This, and the fact of the overwhelming presence of English in our (Western) lives gives us nothing more but the impression that the nowadays isolating English language would be oh so simple.

    Point is, there is not only a force to simplify language, but another one to diversify, too - in English, diversification almost demands expanding the lexicon, whereas in heavily inflecting languages quite a lot can be done with morphology.
    I repeat, or rather, for the first time declare clearly that I am not a follower of the theory that change always will follow the way to more simplicity, and that change of languages should be explained through simplicity; rather, I'm of the opposite persuasion, meaning language change should be explained sociological.

    I am a sociolinguist, okay? Hope you don't think less of me after this explicit coming-out. :D

    No, it isn't, but we know that Anglosaxon was much more 'Germanic' before the Norman invasion, and as at the beginning of the Normal rule French and Latin did replace Anglosaxon for a while we don't have an awful lot of written Anglosaxon texts from this (for the change about to happen) critical period.
    And we know for sure that, after Anglosaxon slowly began to reemerge as written language, it was significantly changed, loss of inflection not being the only influence but heavy borrowing from French (and Latin) too. In linguistics, we deal with probabilities rather than certainties, and in this case, there really is a strong probability that the Norman rule was the main factor for change.

    Nevertheless, there were great changes in the Slavic languages after their life changed from the more tribal social structure to feudalism and especially after their territory became fragmented in the process.

    Besides the usual kinds of changes (simplification of paradigms of conjugation and declension, phonetical assimilations and so on), there were huge simplifications concerning tempus (with Bulgarian still retaining most of it - while omitting most of the Slavic inflection - whereas Western and Northern Slavic has abandoned imperfect and aorist, while in Slovenian only the Resia valley dialects in Friuli, Italy retain rests of imperfect and in Croatian & Serbian imperfect alive at least in some regions as spoken form, I think, but aorist only written, if I'm right: you would know more about that one.)

    There certainly were great changes in Slavonic languages since the Medieval age (so during a few hundred years), while grammar and morphology between Indoeuropean roots (might have been around 3.000 B.C. or even earlier - we do not know for sure, and most likely never will) and Common Slavic (of, say, 500-800 A.D.) remained mainly intact.

    [EDIT: seems I did refer this quote to Huleassar by mistake, but I can't find the original post any more - I'll let it stand as usually quoted anyway in order to retain the logic of the answer]

    I am no specialist for Old English, so I can neither dispute nor confirm this. I can only say that I think that changes would have taken place anyway - even if William the Conqueror never would have conquered. But I think they would have been more like in Scandinavian languages, or German for that matter. German certainly is no isolating language (not yet ;-), whereas English most certainly is (only very little inflection left).

    Back to ... what does this add to the question of language change?

    Nothing, really, because although we know that change happens, and although we can confirm this with our daily experience and numerous examples from the past, we still only can put probabilities as to why they change.

    In my opinion, as stressed out already several times, language change happens mainly because of socio-economical (and thus political) change - in my opinion this is what is triggering language change.
    And in my opinion, the argument of change being forced upon it's speakers by following simplicity rules would not describe correctly (or fully) what is happening when languages actually do change.

    But proof I cannot offer.
  48. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    It was actually more complicated than that. :) Old English used in writing at the time right before the Norman Conquest was pretty archaic even for its own time. It kept various inflections that had already disappeared from the spoken language, kind of like written French does with verbs nowadays (this is well attested from some extant pre-Conquest writings in the vernacular, for example the mid-11th century Kirkdale sundial). When a serious Middle English literary tradition started emerging, the contrast with OE was amplified by this fact, because ME was written in (more or less) the vernacular of the time. Thus, while the loss of OE inflections was relatively rapid, it doesn't really coincide with the Norman rule so nicely as one might think from your above paragraph. There is no hard evidence that the years after 1066 were any more critical for the English language change than the century or two before that.

    In fact, from what I've read on the topic, it seems to me like there is somewhat (thought not much) more support for the idea that the loss of OE inflections was caused by the contact with Old Norse during the Viking invasions, rather than French during the Norman rule.
  49. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    I think the theory goes something like this:

    OE and ON had a degree of mutual intelligibilty, but not to the extent that speakers would necessarily know what case a noun was in or what form a verb took. They therefore took to simplification on the assumption that the endings served little purpose. This lead to a levelling out and something approaching a mixed language.

    That may have been a factor. I do not think that there is any one simple explanation for language change. It just seems to be a characteristic of language that it changes.

    There are two opposing theories. In their extreme forms one says that change happens spontaneously in a community and the other that it happens only once at a particular time and place. Both seem unlikely, but if they are both unlikely, is any position between the two tenable?
  50. avok

    avok Banned

    Everything changes...why languages should be an exception?

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