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Changing Voices

Language change (cont.)

All languages change over time, and vary from place to place. They may change as a result of social or political pressures, such as invasion, colonisation and immigration. New vocabulary is required for the latest inventions, such as transport, domestic appliances and industrial equipment, or for sporting, entertainment and leisure pursuits. But a language can also change by less obvious means.

Influenced by others

Language also changes very subtly whenever speakers come into contact with each other. No two individuals speak identically: people from different geographical places clearly speak differently, but even within the same small community there are variations according to a speaker’s age, gender, ethnicity and social and educational background. Through our interactions with these different speakers, we encounter new words, expressions and pronunciations and integrate them into our own speech. Even if your family has lived in the same area for generations, you can probably identify a number of differences between the language you use and the way your grandparents speak. Every successive generation makes its own small contribution to language change and when sufficient time has elapsed the impact of these changes becomes more obvious.

Attitudes to language change

“some method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our language for ever (...) it is better a language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing”

Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, wrote these words in 1712. They express a sentiment we still hear today — the idea that language should be fixed forever, frozen in time, and protected from the ravages of fashion and social trends. Language change is almost always perceived as a negative thing. During the eighteenth century, Swift and many other influential figures felt the English language was in a state of serious decline and that a national institution, such as existed in France and Italy, should be created to establish rules and prevent further decay. Even today we hear people complaining about a supposed lack of ‘standards’ in spoken and written English. New words and expressions, innovative pronunciations and changes in grammar are derided, and are often considered inferior. Yet because of its adaptability and durability, English has evolved into an incredibly versatile and modern language, retaining a recognisable link to its past.

Change can be a good thing

Most contemporary linguistic commentators accept that change in language, like change in society, is an unavoidable process — occasionally regrettable, but more often a means of refreshing and reinvigorating a language, providing alternatives that allow extremely subtle differences of expression. Certainly the academies established in France and Italy have had little success in preventing change in French or Italian, and perhaps the gradual shift in opinion of our most famous lexicographer, Dr Johnson, is instructive. A contemporary of Swift, Dr Johnson, wrote in 1747 of his desire to produce a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed and its purity preserved, but on completing the project ten years later he acknowledges in his introduction that:

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify.

Johnson clearly realised that any attempt to fix the language was futile. Like it or not, language is always changing and English will continue to do so in many creative and — to some perhaps — frustrating ways.

 Lexical Change

“ we couldn’t listen to the latest tunes because we hadn’t a wireless

From the word wireless, we would probably assume this statement was made by an older person, as radio is now the more common term. Lexical change refers to a change in the meaning or use of a word, or a generational shift in preference for one word or phrase over another. Lexical change is probably the most frequent type of language change and certainly the easiest to observe. For instance, we can make confident assertions about the age of a speaker who uses the word courting to mean “going out with”, or one who uses the adjective fit to describe someone they find attractive.

New vocabulary or changes in fashionable usage spread rapidly and evenly across the country due to our sophisticated communication links. Intriguingly, in the case of wireless, the word has experienced something of a revival. If you hear the word wireless used by a younger speaker, they are almost certainly using it as an adjective rather than a noun and referring to wireless technology, from WAP phones to blackberries and laptops. This illustrates perfectly how words can virtually disappear or gradually shift in meaning and usage

Changes big and small

Phonological change — changes in pronunciation can come in a variety of forms. Some changes merely affect the way a single word is pronounced: older speakers across the UK tend to stress the first syllable in the word controversy, for instance, while younger speakers increasingly place the main stress on the second syllable, controversy. In other cases, the pronunciation of a particular vowel sound or consonant sound changes gradually across successive generations and thus has an impact on a large group of words. A change in pronunciation might initially take place only in one particular geographic location and remain local. Or it may over time spread nationally and thus affect all varieties of English.

 Phonological Change

All languages change over time and vary according to place and social setting. We can observe phonological change — a change in pronunciation patterns — by comparing spoken English at different points in time. The phonetician, John Wells, introduced in his book, Accents of English (1982), the concept of using a single word to refer to the pronunciation of a particular group of English words. He calls these word-groups lexical sets and uses a key word, such as BATH to identify them. Over the last two hundred years, the pronunciation of words in the BATH set — words such as bath, grass, laugh and dance — has changed in some parts of the country. This gradual shift in pronunciation demonstrates perfectly a number of aspects of phonological change. In monitoring an ongoing change — one that has not yet been adopted by all speakers — we can track, over time, how that change moves gradually through the language itself, across geographical

Grammatical Change

“ we couldn’t listen to the latest tunes because we hadn’t a wireless

For some people, the construction we hadn’t a wireless might sound unusual. Younger speakers in many parts of the UK are nowadays far more likely to say we hadn’t got a radio or we didn’t have a radio. This is an example of grammatical change — a subtle process and not always obvious to listeners. Because grammatical change appears to spread more slowly than lexical change, older, more conservative forms of speech might sometimes remain present in some regional dialects, but not in others. The use of the second person pronouns thou, thee, thy and thine, for instance, sound old-fashioned to most of us, but are still heard in parts of northern England — although even there they are becoming increasingly associated with older speakers.

full verb to have

“if you wanted to go to college or you wanted to go to university you couldn’t if you hadn’t the money”

This speaker uses the word have with the negative particle, not, but without the support of the auxiliary verb, do. For most verbs in English, questions and negative constructions are formed with so-called do-support (do you play football? I don’t play football), although the verb ‘to be’ is an exception (are you rich? I'm not rich). Until relatively recently, the verb ‘to have’ was likewise an exception to the rule - constructions such as have you any money and I haven’t any money were the normal, unmarked form and indeed they remain the preferred alternative for many speakers in northern England and Scotland. In other parts of the UK, however, speakers nowadays seem to prefer the compound verbal construction have you got any money and I haven’t got any money. In addition to this construction with got, many younger speakers, particularly in southern England, now seem to favour alternative versions with do-support (do you have any money and I don’t have any money) bringing have into line with other verbs..

so not

“I mean the dress sense in this lot is whacky down here and I’m so not used to it, cause in Romford we all used to, like, people my age used to follow a certain dress code: it all used to be, like, designer”

The use of so here as an emphatic intensifier is a very recent innovation, and is unlikely to occur naturally in the speech of anyone over a certain age. It first drew attention in positive statements such as that’s so last year, but is now just as commonly used with the negative particle, not, as in the statement that’s so not cool. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this latter construction first appeared in print in 1997, although it has almost certainly been around in spoken English for much longer and probably originated in the USA. For older speakers it is roughly the equivalent of I’m just not used to it or I’m not really used to it, but the newer construction I’m so not used to it uttered with additional stress on the word so lends an extra degree of emphasis to a statement.

historic present

“and, uh, when we gets to the camp — it was a beautiful, one of the best camps I’d ever been to at Pontins — I was upstairs, fur, furthest chalet away and I says to, uh, Dorothy, I says, ‘No, Dorothy, I can’t walk down here every day and every night.”

This speaker uses an interesting verbal construction, the historic present, to describe an event in the past. The additional <s> on we gets and I says indicates quite clearly this is not a ‘normal’ present tense and the event obviously happened some time ago, as elsewhere she uses simple past tense constructions (it was a beautiful day and I was upstairs). The historic present is quite common among older speakers: the immediacy of a pseudo-present tense tends to enliven the act of telling a story or relating a series of connected events in the past. It remains relatively widespread in north England and Scotland, but is less heard among younger speakers elsewhere.

historic perfect

“got my torch, got down on my hands and knees, shone the torch into the gap and as soon as it’s seen the torch it’s come rushing out”

This speaker uses a relatively new verbal construction to relate an event in the past. The present perfect tense (I’ve seen that film and she’s gone to Italy) expresses a number of meanings in English, but generally refers to something that happened at an unspecified time in the past. In initially using the simple past tense (got my torch and shone the torch) this speaker establishes he is referring to a specific occasion in the past and describing an action that is both complete and happened only once. He then switches at the end of the statement, however, to the present perfect tense (it’s seen the torch and it’s come rushing out) thereby signaling to the listener that this is the more interesting and engaging part of his story.

The use of this type of construction, the historic perfect, appears to be on the increase among younger speakers across the UK. It is used to enliven the act of telling a story or to relate a series of connected events in the past. For instance, it is commonly used in sporting circles to describe an individual piece of play in a match. When asked to describe a goal, footballers and commentators frequently use statements such as he’s beaten the full back, he’s pulled the ball back and I’ve nodded it in, where previous generations might have expected a simple past tense - he beat the full back, he pulled the ball back and I nodded it in.

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