Language Change

Regularity of Sound Change: Consistent change according to phonological rules; for example, the caught-cot merger, which has occurred in regular contexts in areas of North America and Scotland.

see:  the Northern Cities Vowel Shift affects the six short vowels in caught, cot, cat, bit, bet and but.

Sound Correspondences: Great Vowel Shift – In England Middle English changed to Modern English by means of a shift in pronunciation of vowels. Called a chain shift because several sounds move as if in step across the phonetic chart. (see more in section below)

Ancestral Protolanguages

Indo-European is the protolanguage, or ancestor, of the modern European languages, which split into ten groups over time (not the oversimplified two in the text!)

  1. Celtic, with languages spoken in the British Isles, in Spain, and across southern Europe to central Turkey;
  2. Germanic, with languages spoken in England and throughout Scandinavia & central Europe to Crimea;
  3. Italic, with languages spoken in Italy and, later, throughout the Roman Empire including modern-day Portugal, Spain, France, and Romania;
  4. Balto-Slavic, with Baltic languages spoken in Latvia & Lithuania, and Slavic throughout eastern Europe plus Belarus & the Ukraine & Russia;
  5. Balkan (exceptional, as discussed below), with languages spoken mostly in the Balkans and far western Turkey;
  6. Hellenic, spoken in Greece and the Aegean Islands and, later, in other areas conquered by Alexander (but mostly around the Mediterranean);
  7. Anatolian, with languages spoken in Anatolia, a.k.a. Asia Minor, i.e. modern Turkey;
  8. Armenian, spoken in Armenia and nearby areas including eastern Turkey;
  9. Indo-Iranian, with languages spoken from India through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iran and Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey;
  10. Tocharian, spoken in the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang, in far western China.

This chart from the Utexas Linguistics research Center shows the progression over time of these languages developing:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
PIE minus
Helleno-Armeno-Aryan Hellenic Hellenic
Armeno-Aryan Armenian
Balto-Slavic-Germanic Balto-Slavic Balto-Slavic
Germanic Germanic
Italo-Celtic-Tocharian Italo-Celtic Italic Italic
Celtic Celtic
Tocharian Tocharian
Anatolian Anatolian


Regional dialects became separate languages – as Romance languages developed from Latin. Regular sound changes characterize the differences between the languages.

Phonological Change

Examples of the sound changes in English:

lost sounds: /x/ velar fricative lost from words like light and night; 

new sounds: the allophone (variant sound not signalling meaning change) of /f/, /v/ becoming its own phoneme; the sound ʒ as in leisure: ˈli ʒər;

sounds from other languages’ influence: /ch/ or // sound from Italian as in /tʃɜrtʃ/ church replaced /k/ as in proto-germanic kirika  and /ʃ/ sound from French as in shut /ʃʌt/ – compare to Old English scyttan

changed sounds: doubled (geminate) consonant /f:/ becoming simplified to /f/

Great Vowel Shift is credited to Otto Jesperson, who coined the term, “The great vowel-shift consists in a general raising of all long vowels” (A Modern English Grammar, 1909).

Great Vowel Shift

Morphological Change

The eight historical Indo-European cases are as follows, with examples either of the English case or of the English syntactic alternative to case:

  • The nominative case indicates the subject of a finite verb: We went to the store.
  • The accusative case indicates the direct object of a verb: The clerk remembered us.
  • The dative case indicates the indirect object of a verb: The clerk gave us a discount.
  • The ablative case indicates movement from something, or cause: The victim went from us to see the doctor. and He was unhappy because of depression.
  • The genitive case, which roughly corresponds to English’s possessive case and preposition of, indicates the possessor of another noun: John’s book was on the table. and The pages of the book turned yellow.
  • The vocative case indicates an addressee: John, are you all right? or simply Hello, John!
  • The locative case indicates a location: We live in China.
  • The instrumental case indicates an object used in performing an action: We wiped the floor with a mop. and Written by hand.

Syntactic Change

Word order in English has changed; Old English allowed for Subject -Object-Verb construction because case marking clarified relationships.

English negation: used particle ne in OE; allowed double negation; this survives in some dialects (as in “I haven’t never owed nothing to no one“)

Location of negation in contraction has changed

Formation of comparatives & superlatives: more gladder was grammatical in 1470

Jakob Grimm:

Noticed regular sound correspondences between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and Germanic languages. Posited what came to be known as Grimm’s Law: Voiced aspirates become unaspirated, voiced stops become voiceless, voiceless stops become fricatives. (IPA CHART )

Yoda’s syntax (p. 527) is OSV (object –subject-verb)

Lexical Change

  • Change in category – Nouns becoming verbs (impact; hoover, Mirandize – can you think of more?);
  • Addition of new words
    • coinage – Kodak, Xerox, Google, sudoku
    • from names (eponymous) – Eponym board
    • Blends – podcast, chortle
    • Reduced words
      • clipping – prof.
      • acronyms – NASA
    • Borrowings / loan words
  • Loss of Words – pease; groovy?
  • Semantic Change
    • Broadening – holiday
    • Narrowing – meat
    • Meaning Shifts knight, lust
  • Reconstructing Dead Languages
    • 19th Century
      • Comparatists
      • Cognates
    • Comparative Reconstruction
    • Historical Evidence – written works and letters – best if written by poor spellers!
  • Extinct &  Endangered Languages

–  Modern examples of resurrection: Hawaiian, Hebrew

  • Genetic Classification of Languages
    • Languages of the world
  • Types of Languages
  • Why Do Languages Change?