Changes in the Language, Gain or Loss?

From The Lecture Series: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Language change is an inevitable phenomenon that happens to all natural languages. It affects all features of the language. Sometimes, these alterations are so extreme that understanding an older variation of a language can be impossible for modern speakers. Such is the case with the English language. Old English, Middle English, and even 17th century English are, to some extent, incomprehensible for the modern English speaker.

Old letters from 1800s, example of elegant handwriting.
Language change is a natural phenomenon. (Image: Roy F Wylam/Shutterstock)

Is the English Language Impoverished?

These changes are constantly happening to our languages, and we can observe some of them in the way people speak. In modern times, we often hear that the distinction between lie and lay, disinterested and uninterested, imply and infer is not observed by many people. So, some people argue that because of these issues, our language is falling into decay.

But is the English language being ruined? Or is it going through a natural process that has happened to all languages all the time? Isn’t it exactly how modern English was born out of Old English? These changes, although strange at first, are accepted as standard language over time.

The important point is that although alterations happen in languages and many features are lost, the speakers are still perfectly capable of communicating. They do not feel that if a certain feature weren’t lost, their language would be richer. These changes are in line with the changes in lifestyle to accommodate the new conditions.

One example of these lost features in English is the words hither, thither, and wither. Hither meant to here. So, if you wanted to tell someone come here, you would say, come hither. Also, you would say someone is there, but you wouldn’t say go over there. Instead, you would say go thither. Also, where is the cat?, but wither are you going? It is a feature that some languages like German still have. The English speakers do not have difficulty with come here or go over there. Neither do they feel that their language is barren to express some ideas.

Learn more about the first family discovered: Indo-European.

The Miller, one of the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
Changes in language over time eliminate some of its features. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

In cases where speakers do feel a loss, they try to add things to compensate for that. For example, the English language does not distinguish between the singular and plural you. It used to, but for some unknown reason, ye, the plural form was lost. Now, people who feel the need to distinguish between the singular and plural forms of you, use forms like yous or you’uns. It is considered ignorant by some people, and they think it has to stop. The point is that in both cases—when people try to get rid of certain features and when they try to add others—they are criticized by some people who want to prescribe the use of language. The new features that they introduce are considered wrong usages of the language.

Interstingly, these people are met with criticism for trying to change the language—even unconsciously—and not having a proper understanding of their mother tongue.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Features that are Gained in a Language

But not all changes lead to losses in the language. In the process of these historical alterations, languages gain features that they didn’t use to have or that other languages lack them. So, the English language might have lost some features like plural you, but it has gained other capabilities that most languages don’t have.

One of these peculiar features is the way ing is used to indicate an ongoing or temporary action. This feature was not available even in Shakespeare’s time. So, a sentence like I’m sitting in this chair right now didn’t exist. A lot of European languages have grammatical structures to convey past, present, and future. But, if you are doing something right now, there are no ways of emphasizing that. In many languages, there are no considerable differences between habitual actions and ones that are happening at the moment. This is why most foreign learners of English have difficulty mastering this structure; they don’t have this distinction.

Opened old book in warm tint
Language change leads to both gains and losses in features. (Image: moysyn/Shutterstock)

So, the changes that happen in the lifetime of a language should be seen as a package. Some things are lost, and some are gained. People from different historical eras are different, both in terms of their lifestyles, concepts, and everyday objects they use, as well as in the languages that they speak. Most of the changes are held back by writing, but speakers of the language manage to shape it the way they want. The language changes in a way that people who are 500 years apart, would be able to understand each other but have different feelings about the language the other party speaks.

Learn more about the historical study of language.

Common Questions about Changes in the Language

Q: How has the English language changed?

The English language, like any other language, has changed over time. It has changed from Old English to Middle English and then to Modern English. These changes happened in grammar, pronunciation, and semantics.

Q: Is the English language deteriorating?

The English language is undergoing change to accommodate the transformations in lifestyles. People continue to process these changes and communicate their ideas perfectly. This process cannot be considered deterioration.

Q: Is language change good or bad?

Language change is natural. Some features are lost, and some are gained. People continue to adapt to these changes over generations.

Q: How does language change happen?

Language change happens when speakers of a language decide to use a feature in the language instead of another one. At first, there is resistance, but if enough people follow that change, it becomes a norm over generations.

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