Language Changes: How They Happen So Quickly

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE STORY OF HUMAN LANGUAGE

By John McWhorter, PhD, Colombia University

Language changes pretty quickly. More often than not, it looks like a prolonged process that doesn’t take place within a single lifetime. And it is not painfully slow either, as some of us might like to think.

The picture shows the bottom half of a page (n 493 recto) in slightly modified Syriac script (Estrangelo) and Christian Sogdian language. This is a translation from identified Syriac original.
Languages change quite quickly, especially if they are not yet formalized in writing. (Image: Unknown author / Public domain)

Language Changes Quickly

Imagine the period of time taken to move from the ancient works of old English to the present-day edition of The New York Times. Think about the time that has lapsed between then and now. Language changes as time moves along. Sound changes cannot be avoided. Sounds have the tendency of leaping quickly across generations, and some sounds simply fall away.

To illustrate, when a consonant t is placed between two vowels, it may become d or even th and ultimately there may be nothing between these two vowels. So ada changes to ata and then to atha which then becomes a-a. Such things do happen to languages. Even the grammar of languages can change over time.

Now coming to grammar, we can see how the French word pas, meaning step, ended up meaning not. This means from something concrete that could be seen it went on to become a grammatical thing that would simply direct the traffic in the sentence. These types of language changes happen all the time.

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

Stone with cuneiform script on it.
Spoken language precedes the first known written language by tens of thousands of years. (Image: Yjenith / Public domain)

Language evolves faster than we may think. A linguist’s conception of what a natural language is may differ from others. A linguist’s idea of a natural language would be a language that is a spoken by a small group of people, maybe 300 or 400, a language that may never be written down.

Until recently, most human beings lived like that, in little clusters or groups with little or no contact with other groups. It has happened only very recently that nations and empires have started speaking one common language in large areas. The languages we are biologically programmed is this type of indigenous language. This type of language, a natural language, changes pretty fast.

Learn more about when humans first acquired language.

The Story of Australian Languages

Before Europeans came to Australia, there were around 300 languages, depending on the way you count them. And each one of them was different from the other and from any other European language.

One of these languages, spoken in Northern Australia, is called Ngan’gityemerri. Some European linguists studied this language in 1930. They found that in one sentence, there was a word for the ‘track’, dudu, and a word for ‘poke’, dam. When put in a sentence about a creature, it meant: he poked along, tracking it along here to where it made its camp. And the sentence went like: dudu dam dam dudu, kinji dinj park. Its literal translation is track poke, poke track, here he sat at camp. They can be put in any order.

When this language was again looked at in 1990, some new slang and slightly different sounds were not the only differences. The verbs worked in a completely new way. The language changes were quite stark. Earlier in 1930, dam dudu or dudu dam could be used either way. Either of them could be prefixed or suffixed to the other. But in 1990 it was said like damdudu, dududam. It had become one word. So when you said damdudu, it meant ‘poke track’. The dam was prefixed to dudu. So what were two separate words became one word and the sentence meant ‘you tracked in a poking fashion’.

Ngan’gityemerri was on its way to being one of those languages where they pack a whole lot more into what they think of as a word than we are used to in English. Like when one says dududam damdudu meaning ‘pokingly tracked’, they intend to cram lots and lots of concept into one package. And this direction has been taken by Ngan’gityemerri within a period of just 60 years. So we can see how fast the language changes.

The Slow Change of English

On the other hand, English has changed very slowly since the Middle Ages. If we could speak with Shakespeare, we would not be able to speak to him in the same way as in the movie Shakespeare in Love. Because he probably talked in a way that would be funny to us. But, Shakespeare had an informal side also. So we can’t think of him talking like he was a stone carving. Shakespeare probably walked around in an imperfect posture; he liked liquor, and occasionally he burped. But we can still say that he would have talked to us in a funny way. However, we would have been able to chat with him. Therefore, the plays that he has written can be understood by us.

Learn more about how the meaning of a word changes over time.

Title page from the second edition of the English dictionary in 1755.
Once English started to become standardized in a written form, then changes became much slower.(Image:Samuel Johnson / Public domain)

But if Shakespeare had met an English speaker from 500 years before his time, he would not have been able to comprehend anything said to him. He would not have been able to talk comfortably with an Old English speaker. However, 500 years after him, not much has changed in English.

This is because, with the writing and the standardization of the language and widespread literacy, the language is able to hold that variation of it that is written from changing as quickly as it should. Again, the reason for this is that the written form is recognized as the language.

Since it is written on a page, it is seen as having some substance. And when literacy is widespread, the language written on a page has the ability to affect the way people speak it. Though nobody talks like a book in casual conversations, in societies with very high literacy rates, people get considerably affected by the language written on the page.

Common Questions About Language Changes

Q: How does language change with time?

Language keeps changing across space and different social groups. Language changes from generation to generation. New sounds and words change quickly across generations.

Q: How quickly has Engllish changed in the last 1000 years?

English changed very quickly in the first 500 years, so much so that Shakespeare would not have been able to understand Old English speakers. But since that time, English has changed rather slowly.

Q: What has caused English to change only slowly over the years after Shakespeare?

In the years after Shakespeare, English became more and more affected by the fact that it was being written down, in addition to the increasing literacy, which made the written version appear more standard. Thus, English has changed slowly over the years after Shakespeare.

Keep Reading
Semantic Changes: The Proto-Indo-European Language Family
Animal Communication Is Not the Same As Human Language
Language Death: Why Languages Die and How to Save Them