How to keep up with Language Change

March 9, 2012 by totalityservices

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Languages change so quickly that it’s a wonder how people of the same language understand each other, mind you talking to younger people of the same generation is often like trying to communicate with a foreign language speaker. Here are some of our tips on why language change is inevitable and how to keep up!

All languages slowly change in all their aspects, from grammar to vocabulary, to pronunciation and spelling. Language evolution is not really so surprising at all to us nowadays. In a world that is full of changes, and where everything is impermanent, it would be almost strange if language alone remained static; thus, there is no reason why languages should escape and be exempt from these seemingly universal changes.

But, why does a language change?

Actually, all living languages change. The speed of this change may differ, thus some languages change very slowly, while others change much more rapidly. There are a few main reasons why languages change all the time; one very significant reason is the exposure or influence of other languages. The massive growth of technology and globalization has probably accelerated this aspect of language change.

This phenomenon can even be observed within different dialects of the same language. – In the UK, for example, raising your pitch at the end of normal sentences (not questions), can been traced very neatly to the start of Neighbours, a very popular Australian TV series in the late 80s.

Another cause of language change is a changing cultural or social environment. Thus, a technologically advanced world, such as ours forces languages to evolve and develop ways of describing new mechanisms or concepts that simply didn’t exist before. An extreme example of this was the very deliberate ‘Revival of Hebrew’ from the middle of the 19th century onwards. The significant problem of adapting an essentially biblical language to modern times was partly overcome with a very deliberate effort to write scientific books in Hebrew.

‘Economy’, in the sense of principle of least effort, is considered another powerful driver of language change. This principle is particularly important in articulation, where this is often called sloppy at first (particularly by older, more conservative speakers), such as when ‘going to’ is reduced to ‘gonna’. Gradually, some of these changes find their way into more formal areas of the language.

In what ways does language change?

There are three main aspects of language change: in the vocabulary, in the meaning of words, and in pronunciation. Vocabulary is the area where we most often notice language changes, because changes can happen very quickly here as numerous words are borrowed from foreign languages, words are -shortened,- or sometimes-combined. Because of the global dominance of American pop culture, for example, many modern languages are quickly assimilating vast numbers of English words, often to the distress of more traditional guardians of those languages.

Changes in meaning can take surprising directions over time. Take the word ‘gay’ that used to simply mean ‘merry’ or ‘happy’, then took on sexual connotations via (ironically) such expressions as ‘gay man’ meaning ‘womaniser’, to finally denote a (male) homosexual.

Changes in pronunciation are more difficult to observe, because they tend to be quite slow, and the absence of auditory recordings before the middle of the 19th century make these changes more difficult to track back directly. Still, even listening to BBC news presenters from, say, the 1950s, it is clear that many changes have occurred since then, since those recordings now invariably sound stiff and stilted.

In general, language changes are a long-term pattern; native speakers adopt new words, sentence structures, pronunciations, and gradually transmit them to the whole community and on the next generation, but it takes a while for a significant language change to occur.

But, how can people keep up with rapid language changes? Can dictionaries hope to keep up with language changes? And, if so, how?

It is not very surprising that even the latest and best dictionaries cannot keep pace with language change. Language changes so quickly that sometimes it is hard to keep up. Today, you’re likely to come across many examples of euphemisms and acronyms where new terms are coined to hide unpleasant ideas.

Native speakers but perhaps even more so, non-native speakers, have difficulties in dealing with rapid language changes, thus, it would be helpful for them to keep an eye on some important publications, such as columns in newspapers and magazines, or internet. Listening to the audience reactions in television and radio, can help people to understand and keep up with the evolution of languages.

Through the help of media, people are becoming more aware and updated to the language changes happening both to their native tongue and other foreign languages. Learning such information from the media is perhaps easier than getting information from dictionaries. Non-native speakers (and native speakers living away from their language community) are at a disadvantage here, because they have less exposure to these changing patterns.

Is a language change a symbol of progress, decline or even death of a language?

The area of language change often gives rise to very emotionally charged discussions, with members of the elder generation frequently bemoaning the declining standards of a language. However, language changes are essentially neutral, and can be associated with either the development or death of a language.

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