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David Crystal on Language Change

The prolific British language writer, David Crystal, has produced another winner: A Little Book of Language (now out in paperback), which Publishers Weekly calls "the perfect primer for anyone interested in the subject." In this excerpt, Crystal explains how language changes, from vocabulary to grammar.

All living languages change. They have to. Languages have no existence apart from the people who use them. And because people are changing all the time, their language changes too, to keep up with them. The only languages that don't change are dead ones. Even so, it's possible to bring a language back from the grave and make it live – and change – again.

Why does a language change? Sometimes the reason is obvious. If we invent something, we need a name for it, and at that point a new word comes into a language. Think of some of the words that have become widely used in English to talk about new developments during the early years of this century. Many of them are to do with the internet: Google, blogging, texting, SMS, iPhone, instant message, Facebook, Twitter.

If we could time-travel back to 1990, and talk to the people, we'd have to make sure we didn't use any of these words, as they wouldn't know what we were talking about. Dr. Who must have this problem all the time!

We'd notice something else, as we traveled back in time. The people wouldn't understand all our words; but sometimes we wouldn't understand theirs. Imagine our time machine arriving in, say, 1850. We'd hear conversations like this:

We're coming in our brougham. The Smiths will be in their clarence. And the Browns will probably come in a landau.

What are broughams (pronounced 'brooms') and clarences and landaus? Types of horse-drawn four-wheeled carriages, popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. People stopped using them when motor cars were invented – though we'll sometimes see one on special occasions, such as when the Queen of England visits Ascot races.

New words come into use. Old words go out of use. This is a pattern we see in every area of human knowledge and every part of society. The old words never disappear entirely, of course. We see them every time we read an old book, and hear them whenever we go to see a play written a long time ago. Several people in Shakespeare's plays are called 'arrant knaves.' We'd say something like 'complete villains' in modern English. People stopped saying 'arrant knaves' around 300 years ago. But these words are still there in the plays, waiting for the actors to breathe new life into them.

Vocabulary is the area where we most often notice the way language changes, because each year hundreds of new words arrive in a language. We only come across a few of them in everyday life, of course. Most new words are technical terms to do with specialized areas of knowledge we don't know anything about, or they're slang words which are used by a very small group of people.

But every year we find ourselves using a few words and phrases that we never used before. Hardly anyone had met the term credit crunch before 2008. Then suddenly everyone was using it. Each year the dictionary-writers publish lists of the latest words to come into the English language. Over the past few years they include sudoku, bling, plasma screen, and blog. I wish I could say what new words are going to come into English in 2010. Unfortunately, I'm writing this book in 2009 and I can't see into the future. But by the time you get to read it, you'll know.

Every part of language changes. It's not just the words. Grammar changes. Pronunciation changes. The way we talk to each other changes. Even spelling and punctuation change. But not everything changes at the same rate.

When a new word comes into a language, it can be picked up and used by everyone within a few days. If it starts being used on the internet, millions of people can be using it within a few hours. Changes in the other areas of language take much longer. It might take 100 years or more before a change in grammar comes to be used by everyone.

Let's go back again in time to the nineteenth century. The novelist Jane Austen was writing in the early 1800s. Here's a sentence taken from one of her letters:

Jenny and James are walked to Charmouth this afternoon.

We couldn't say that today. These days we'd have to say:

Jenny and James walked to Charmouth this afternoon.

Nobody can say for sure when the 'are walked' way of talking stopped being used and the other way took over. We see it being used less and less during the nineteenth century, and then it just disappears.

Over the past 200 years lots of small changes like this have taken place in the way we construct sentences. Here are two more exam­ples of old usages from Jane Austen. What would we say today?

Shall not you put them into our own room?

Mr Murray's letter is come.

I think we'd say 'Won't you put them in our room?' and 'Mr Murray's letter has come.'

It takes a while for a change in grammar to spread throughout society. To begin with, just a few people use the new form, then a few more, and slowly it becomes the new way of talking and writing. But, as with any new development, not everyone likes it. People who are used to the old way of talking often dislike the new usage. Indeed, they can get very, very cross about it, and try to persuade everyone not to use it – usually by writing letters to the newspapers or complaining to a broadcasting company every time they hear the new usage on the radio or television.

They're wasting their time, of course. A new usage arrives when most people in a society decide to use it. In the case of English, that means millions and millions of people. Writing a letter of complaint to the BBC might make you feel better, but it won't stop the change taking place.

Adapted from A Little Book of Language by David Crystal, now available in paperback. Copyright 2010 by David Crystal. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 25th 2011, 5:53 AM
Comment by: BRUCE T. (OLYMPIA,, WA)
As an adult dyslexic; the Website, Visual Thesaurus will help me grow my vocabulary.
Monday April 25th 2011, 5:06 PM
Comment by: Juergen L.
I presume that everyone who reads the article is on the Internet, yes?
Wouldn't it make sense to link to Amazon's Kindle Store, rather than the printed book section?
Tuesday April 26th 2011, 3:00 PM
Comment by: Patricia B. (Bokeelia, FL)
I recall reading "he don't" as normal usage in books written back in the 20's and 30's. I also remember vividly what happened when as a college freshman I corrected my mother for using don't instead of doesn't. I was a bit gleeful for finding the error as she was a stickler for correct grammar, correcting my every slip. I then felt a tongue lashing from the one who "gave you the opportunity for college only to have you criticize MY language?" Needless to say........
Wednesday April 27th 2011, 12:12 PM
Comment by: Julie C
My children (14 and 22) have a made-up language, called "egaugnal" which is "language" backwards. All their words (mostly nouns and adjectives) are reverse words, or iterations of them. The thing that is fascinating to me, as a linguistics major long ago, is that they "work" - when they speak the words, they sound totally right, even though they are completely new to those who have never heard them. Example: "That was so drawk." Drawk is a shortened "awkward" backwards. "Yxes" is a favorite - sexy backwards, but the meaning is "cool" - pronounced "eek-siss." I think if more people than their friends and family knew about these wonderful words they would work their way into common language use. It would be totally yxes!
Saturday April 30th 2011, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Jose Lorenzo P.
I would like to add that with the change of language comes degradation. There are more uneducated people (or lazy) inclined to use their language in their own way as compared to people who use it properly. In a way, degradation can have it's "positive" effects such as time efficiency, humor, and etc. I'm no expert to conclude my statement though.

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Part 1 of our interview with David Crystal about text-messaging.
Part 2 of our interview with Crystal.
Part 3 of our interview with Crystal.
Crystal looks at the idioms contributed by the King James Bible.