Monday, November 12, 2012

Linguistics: Language Change

Language Change

(This post has some slight prerequisites; an idea of phone vs. phoneme is helpful, and the very idea of phoneme is necessary. A very basic introduction to these ideas can be found in this post.)

All linguists agree that languages change over time. There are any number of books on language change - both ones explaining the basics and ones getting into more theoretical concerns. The questions that may interest linguists regarding language change comprises various things like what kinds of changes are likely to happen, how they happen, how they interact with grammar, with universals of human language, with first language acquisition, with phonology, sociolinguistics, and so on.

There has been some development in the approach and the theories of language change over time, and such advances and theories will be mentioned at relevant places.

I have previously written some posts at a forum on these things. These may go a bit more into detail than necessary for the current topic, and I do not provide sources. It seems many of the same examples of language change, like particular changes in English, are mentioned in many books.

An obsolete view of historical linguistics

Back in the 19th century, until the rise of the neogrammarians, language history was viewed, simplistically in this manner, this closely paralleling Campbell's summary: 
Many languages are primitive, and spoken by dumb primitive tribes. As a tribe grows increasingly civilized, its language too evolves into a more advanced thing. After this apex is reached, laziness sets in and the language decays. The neogrammarians realized we need to assume that language works the same everywhere - sound change and analogy are not restricted to a period of decay, and the same forces acting on a language will have similar effects.. [2, p. 334]

Types of historical change

Languages change in several ways over time. The main ways in which languages change are changing the sounds of words, changing the actual sounds of the language, changing the meanings of words, and grammar change. Change at much higher 'levels' of language than that (such as pragmatics - how we tend to express that which we want to express) has not, as far as I can tell, been very efficiently described as the formalism for describing things at those levels is not well-enough developed currently. (Well, that can probably be discussed as well)

Sound Change 

As explained earlier, a spoken language has phonemes. These phonemes consist of phones. Over time, a phoneme or even a phone can fall out of use - the fricative /h/ sometimes meets this destiny entirely throughout a language, sometimes . This would mean any instance of the sound h (but not necessarily the letter h, as it could conceivable represent other sounds simultaneously) would fall silent. In a language with a conservative orthography, words could still - in writing - be distinguished by the presence of an h, but if that loss has happened, had and ad would not be distinguished in speech

More often, sounds change in some given context triggered by some other sound in its context. (Or by some other fact about its context, such as the sound occurring next to a word boundary or a syllable boundary or after the primary stress or anything like that.) 

Oftentimes, it seems sound changes just reassign a sound in a word to another, similar sound. This may merge words that previously have been distinct.

In a literate society, a mark of such a change after it has happened could be an increase in confusion between those two words, that is, say their and there would occur in contexts each where the other one is expected. We notice a similar thing with regard to some English words that are spelled differently but pronounced identically. For instance, they're vs. there vs. their, than vs. then, . . .

Sometimes, sound change leads to a new sound appearing in a language. As far as we can tell, Proto-Germanic did not have a separate sh-sound originally. At some point, this sound has appeared in some descendant languages (as we can see just looking at the fact that it's present at least in Modern English, but also in some varieties of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish ...)

At some point, some combinations of sounds assimilated each other and turned into one new sound; East Swedish "sh" comes from clusters such as -/sj/-, -/sk/-. East Swedish "tsh" comes from /k/ + front vowel, /tj/, /kj/ and so on. At some point, probably, the sounds in these clusters acquired allophones specific to these clusters - realizations that were identified as the same basic sounds - and soon this allophonic variation become reduced a bit, and as the speakers were left with pairs of words that earlier had been distinguishable by an extra sound in there (sked vs. sed or somesuch pairs), the distinguishing feature between these words now was a different type of s-sound instead.

Likewise, the appearance of the front vowels y and ö in the Scandinavian languages and German occurred through assimilation to an i in the following syllable under certain circumstances. Traces of this are still present in English as well (man,. men and mouse, mice for instance, is a result of a similar change, although later sound changes have obscured the relation there a bit).

The neo-grammarian stance of the late 19th century was along the lines that all sound changes happen throughout the vocabulary simultaneously. As though a language consists of a bunch of strings, and sound change happens as a search-and-replace throughout the bunch of strings. This search-and-replace need not be of the form replace every k by h or somesuch, but can rather be something like replace every unstressed back vowel before a stressed front vowel by a front, round vowel of corresponding opening as the back vowel had. 

I am unaware of any historical linguists having posited any specifically computational restriction on how complicated these rules may be, although I have the feeling Optimality Theory could easily be applied to obtain such a restriction or even basically already has compiled enough information about sound change in general that such a restriction already could be known if someone applied themselves to obtaining that knowledge.

Now, more modern research indicates that it is not a complete search-and-replace, but rather somewhat probabilistic, and more likely to hit common words than less common words, and sometimes the sound change peters out before having affected all the words. However, the notion of slightly information-theoretical analogies for linguistic historical development will appear again in this blog on occasion, as it is both a fairly good model for thinking of this stuff, and a sufficiently practical thing for many modern readers to grasp easily. One can also, of course, program probabilistic models and emulations of it, but tracing the history of a probabilistic thing is less straightforward, for obvious reasons, than tracing the history of a predictable mechanical apparatus.

Further, analogy further muddies the waters, as does interdialectal loan. Analogy serves to regularize a word where sound change has hit some forms of it but not all. If Latin, once intervocalic s had turned into r, had made flos - florem more regular, either by restoring the s to *flosem or analogized flos to *flor, this would seem to be an irregular sound change. (But the change that actually had happened would have been a grammatical change). Sometimes, analogies happen between unrelated words as well, as well as dissimilations: some dialects of German apparently have changed zwei to zwo to easier distinguish it from drei, whereas in some other languages, numbers cause each other to increase in similarity.

In my dialect of Swedish, a "fake sound change" can be observed, although the interesting bit is the analogy we are applying to new loans - and the function of the analogy is really the point of this paragraph. However, first, final -a in Swedish nouns correlates to final -u in my dialect, so there are a bunch of nouns such as penna - /pɛn:u/, vecka - /vɪku/, ficka - /fɪk:u/, klocka - /klok:u/, kråka - /kru:ku/, tunna - /tɔn:u/, brygga - /brød͜ʒu/ . This is the result of the accusative case having replaced the nominative - a case distinction lost in both Swedish and my dialect (so, the change is not a result of final a turning to u); the relevant bit is we still analogize this when borrowing new nouns from Swedish, such that any noun ending in -a is rendered with an -u in the dialect. This analogy does not happen when nouns are borrowed from Finnish, however. Similar application of a sound change can easily happen in languages as well, if the result is regular enough that analogy makes it seem reasonable.

What makes dialects differ, is in part local developments in the vocabulary, but also sound changes that covers just a region. My dialect of Swedish has a sound change which seems never to have spread beyond one village in Finland, although an identical sound change has occured in a dialect in the northernmost parts of the Swedish linguistic area of Sweden (in a region that even now mostly is inhabited by speakers of Finnish). Other sound changes seem to have spread all the way through, basically, the entire Germanic language area (possibly excepting the East Germanic languages). If a dialect has not had a certain sound change, or has had one not shared by the rest of the speech comunity, and a word is loaned into the wider speech community from that dialect, if that word has been hit by the sound change that differentiated the two groups of dialects, it will seem to be a word that has violated the regularity of sound change.

However, once people speaking the pre-change form no longer are around, the pre-change form is essentially lost from the actual language and has no future impact on the language. Of course, the invention of writing makes it possible to store this information to some extent, and that can undo the strength with which the previous claim applies.

An indication of historical sound changes are rhymes (or similar devices) that no longer rhyme due to sound change. Of course, the poet might have been slightly careless as well.

Semantic Change

(Turns out all the samples I have here can be found in Lyle Campbell's Historical Linguistics an Introduction; fascinating, as I had not read that book until I had half-finished this post; seems all books on historical linguistics for an anglophone audience use the same examples. Pretty much every one of these can be found in the chapter on change of meaning).

Over time, words change meanings. This generally follows much less regular patterns than the change of sounds. A really weird example in English is that of beads. Originally, it signified prayers, but as rosaries were common and people were said to count their beads while engaged in prayer, this somehow appears to have been reinterpreted as signifying the physical objects that represented the prayers. 

Meanwhile, some more normal examples include meat, which earlier signified food in general. This meaning still is present in some dialectal expressions and in words such as sweetmeat.A cognate is present in the Scandinavian languages, viz. mat, that still signifies food. Deer, likewise is cognate to Scandinavian dyr/djur, and signified any animal at an earlier stage of English - which it still does in Scandinavian. Scandinavian, on the other hand, has extended some meanings from their original meaning that English has kept unchanged. [1, p 256.]

Salary, on the other hand, has become less specific. Originally (and in the original Latin), it signified the allotment of salt of a soldier.

It should be clear here that nothing like the neogrammarian search-and-replace can apply to word meanings, and they change due to different evolutionary pressures and random happenstance. 

However, once a word has changed its meaning, its new meaning is what it means. This fact has escaped some people, and sometimes you run into people who will say that "technically, anti-semitism is the hate of the semites, whereas you are talking of anti-hebraism/judaism/..". In this case, anti-semitism is nowadays a separate lexical entry, whose meaning has developed separately from the word semite. We can find a similar divergence between two related roots in decimate and decimal.

Figuring out how and why a meaning has changed is not entirely trivial. One key bit of understanding, as far as I can tell, is that language has not been designed, and even if it were, its designer could not know all the uses it would be put to. This means that language is, for very many imaginable and unimaginable situations incomplete. But we are flexible beings, and we can realize that hey, the person I am talking to is probably extending the meaning of the word right now a bit (or restricting it), because it seems it would make sense that the meaning is not quite the usual meaning of that word or that combination of words at this moment.

(Wittgenstein's notion of language games is maybe even a better thing to think about here, since those too force one to realize just how flexible language is. It is obvious this flexibility undermines rigid meanings.)

Grammar Change

The most common kind of grammar change we think of is the loss of inflection that has occured over wide areas of Europe during the last 2000 years and maybe more. The average reader probably is aware that English back in the day had cases and inflected its verbs for more persons than it currently does, likewise did Old Swedish and Old Norwegian, and Latin had a richer morphology than any of its descendant languages have. It seems the pre-neogrammarian view of language decay still is widely believed by most people who have not studied linguistics to any extent.

(Morphology, for those not in the know, is the manner in which, or the study of the manner in which, a language has its words change forms to express different things with these words, such as jumps, jumping, jumped or I, me, my, mine or ox, oxen, ox's ... or kauppa, kaupan, kauppaa, kauppoja, kaupassa, kaupalla, kaupasta, kaupalta, ... or wide, wider, widest, widen, widened, widening, widens, widenin', width, widths, width's, widths', ...the last series including some derivative morphology as well. )

But this is not the only way languages change over time - and how could it be? If this were the only way grammar changed, we would have to conclude that the first languages man spoke were immensely rich as far as inflections go, and from then on only ever have lost inflections. Some languages - Turkish and Finnish among them, have lost less than Spanish and English, other languages again have lost even more, such as Mandarin. Prior to the Neo-grammarians, it was assumed the early stages of civilization brought linguistic advances, which later succumbed to laziness.

Of course, this idea is compelling! It is very easy to believe that the loss of a case or a tense is the result of laziness or bad learning. Even further, this is helped along by observing that immigrants do not learn the grammar properly, and I would guess this even is further supported by the willingness we have to perceive immigrants as lazy.

That is not generally how it occurs, though, but let us ask the other question first: how did these suffixes come about in the first place?

Generally, the process that gives birth to morphology is called grammaticalization. Grammaticalization is the process in which a word first loses much of its original meaning through a process called semantic bleaching. Once a word has been semantically bleached, there is no guarantee it will grammaticalize as a suffix - it may also grammaticalize as a particle, and neither does it have to be entirely semantically bleached before being grammaticalized as a particle.

Let us consider a simple thing in the Scandinavian verb. The Scandinavian languages all form passive verbs by suffixing -s on the verb. Historically, this stems from a pronoun, sig, which means (it/him/her/)self/themselves. This, when placed directly after the verb was - depending on intonation patterns and such - sometimes reduced to just -s. This was then analysed as part of the verb, and the reflexiveness was reinterpreted as passiveness. A similar thing seems to have occured in Russian, although the -ся, -сь suffix (-sja, -sj) there is more often reflexive in meaning than it is in Scandinavian.

Similar processes have given us all the morphological grammar ever. But sound change, as mentioned above, can cause irregularities. Say we have a sound change along the line of a back vowel, when the next syllable has an /i/, is fronted to a vowel of roughly the same openness as the back vowel. What if this situation only obtains in some forms? We get situations similar to man - men!

Analogy can undo this, restoring the latter and making it conform with the more regular way the language forms plural (and it seems Afrikaans is the one Germanic language for which that particular noun has been analogized). As rather good pattern-matching machines, we like to extend patterns, and this easily makes the most common type of inflecting or conjugating something slowly conquer the entire vocabulary, but other sound changes may undo that process in the meantime. Some verbs have actually become strong in English in recent centuries, and some strong verbs have become weak.

A common kind of sound change is the loss of a bit of words. There is a terminology for the different kinds of losses: loss of final sounds, loss of unstressed sounds, loss of initial sounds, and loss of medial sounds. These are strictly sound changes, and so belong under the previous heading. The position in which sounds are most likely to disappear are positions in which they naturally are weakened or are difficult to pronounce.

This kind of change we know to have occured in the lead-up to several classical languages as well, so it does not reduce how advanced a language is by any means. However, many grammatical affixes do occur at the edges of words, and these are places where sound changes are likely to chip away at them until the case system or tense forms are reduced.

However, grammar can exist in forms other than affixes and rich declension tables, and I think that deserves a separate post of its own, explaining how people tend to underestimate the amount of non-morphological grammar in languages vastly, and how the idea that we, in a reasonable manner, somehow can measure how complex languages are is misguided.

As for sources for this post, I haven't actually read any books on linguistic change in several years. Skimming through Lyle Campbell's book confirms I have not forgotten much, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to whomever so wishes to learn more about this topic.

[1] Campbell, Lyle; Historical Linguistics an introduction, 

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