language change

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

language change
Ferdinand de Saussure (Course in General Linguistics, 1915/1959). (Getty Images)


Language change is the phenomenon by which permanent alterations are made in the features and the use of a language over time.

All natural languages change, and language change affects all areas of language use. Types of language change include sound changes, lexical changes, semantic changes, and syntactic changes.

The branch of linguistics that is expressly concerned with changes in a language (or in languages) over time is historical linguistics (also known as diachronic linguistics).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "For centuries people have speculated about the causes of language change. The problem is not one of thinking up possible causes, but of deciding which to take seriously. . . .

    "Even when we have eliminated the 'lunatic fringe' theories, we are left with an enormous number of possible causes to take into consideration. Part of the problem is that there are several different causative factors at work, not only in language as a whole, but also in any one change. . . .

    "We can begin by dividing proposed causes of change into two broad categories. On the one hand, there are external sociolinguistic factors--that is, social factors outside the language system. On the other hand, there are internal psycholinguistic ones--that is, linguistic and psychological factors which reside in the structure of the language and the minds of the speakers."
    (Jean Aitchison, Language Change: Progress or Decay? 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  • Words on the Way Out
    "Amidst and amongst are all rather formal, almost affected, now, and are more usually encountered in high-brow writing, less usually in speech. This suggests that these forms are on the way out. They will probably bite the dust, just as betwixt and erst have done . . .."
    (Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011)
  • Anthropological Perspective on Language Change
    "There are many factors influencing the rate at which language changes, including the attitudes of the speakers toward borrowing and change. When most members of a speech community value novelty, for example, their language will change more quickly. When most members of a speech community value stability, then their language will change more slowly. When a particular pronunciation or word or grammatical form or turn of phrase is regarded as more desirable, or marks its users as more important or powerful, then it will be adopted and imitated more rapidly than otherwise. . . .

    "The important thing to remember about change is that, as long as people are using a language, that language will undergo some change."
    (Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer, The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, 2nd ed. Wadsworth, 2009)
  • Prescriptivist Perspective on Language Change
    "I see no absolute Necessity why any Language would be perpetually changing."
    (Jonathan Swift, Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue, 1712)
  • Sporadic and Systematic Changes in Language
    "Changes in language may be systematic or sporadic. The addition of a vocabulary item to name a new product, for example, is a sporadic change that has little impact on the rest of the lexicon. Even some phonological changes are sporadic. For instance, many speakers of English pronounce the word catch to rhyme with wretch rather than hatch. . . .

    "Systematic changes, as the term suggests, affect an entire system or subsystem of the language. . . . A conditioned systematic change is brought about by context or environment, whether linguistic or extralinguistic. For many speakers of English, the short e vowel (as in bet) has, in some words, been replaced by a short i vowel (as in bit), For these speakers, pin and pen, him and hem are homophones (words pronounced the same). This change is conditioned because it occurs only in the context of a following m or n; pig and peg, hill and hell, middle and meddle are not pronounced alike for these speakers."
    (C.M. Millward, A Biography of the English Language, 2nd ed. Harcourt Brace, 1996)
  • The Wave Model of Language Change
    "[T]he distribution of regional language features may be viewed as the result of language change through geographical space over time. A change is initiated at one locale at a given point in time and spreads outward from that point in progressive stages so that earlier changes reach the outlying areas later. This model of language change is referred to as the wave model . . .."
    (Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, American English: Dialects and Variation. Blackwell, 1998)
  • Geoffrey Chaucer on Changes in the "Forme of Speeche"
    "Ye knowe ek that in forme of speeche is chaunge
    Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
    That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge
    Us thinketh hem, and yet thei spake hem so,
    And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
    Ek for to wynnen love in sondry ages,
    In sondry londes, sondry ben usages."
    ["You know also that in (the) form of speech (there) is change
    Within a thousand years, and words then
    That had value, now wonderfully curious and strange
    (To) us they seem, and yet they spoke them so,
    And succeeded as well in love as men now do;
    Also to win love in sundry ages,
    In sundry lands, (there) are many usages."]
    (Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, late 14th century. Translation by Roger Lass in "Phonology and Morphology." A History of the English Language, edited by Richard M. Hogg and David Denison. Cambridge University Press, 2008)