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What Is Language Change?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Language change is the change that takes place within a language over time. These changes can be gradual, can be caused by the dominance of one dialect over others, by official control or by the invasion of another linguistic group. While some languages have changed little over time, many more, like English, are unrecognizable compared to older versions.

Cultural dominance as a cause of language change can be seen in Europe through the effects of Latin and Greek on modern European languages. In the east, the dominance of China can be clearly seen in all surrounding languages. This is not just in the case of the imposition of Chinese characters, but whole words. Cultural dominance can occur because of power, religion or popular culture.

For example, the Japanese word for mountain is ‘yama,’ but the language uses the Chinese word ‘San,’ taken from the Mandarin word ‘shan,’ for naming a mountain like ‘Fuji-san.’ Another example in Japanese is how the Emperor is known as ‘Tenno,’ a Chinese word meaning ‘Son of Heaven.’ The original Japanese word for Emperor is ‘Sumeramikoto.’

One source of language change, as seen by the effect of Turkish on Hungarian, is the borrowing of words from other languages to describe new things. This is a passive form of cultural language change. It is a common misconception that the majority of Turkish loan words in Hungarian were adopted during the Ottoman occupation in the Late Middle Ages. In fact, most of them were adopted as the Magyars were migrating westward through Siberia and came into contact with the Turkic peoples then living in Central Asia.

Outright invasion had a marked influence on languages such as English. While English took precious little from the native languages of the Romano-British after they moved to Britain, it was changed permanently by the Norman invasion of 1066. This caused a dual rupturing of the language. First, the political and cultural elite were wiped out, removing official top-down linguistic rules such as gender. Second, the time saw an influx of foreign words that replaced or co-existed with native words.

The modern phenomenon of popular culture, which has developed steadily over the last hundred or so years, but owes it origins to ancient Greece, has also effected language change. It has caused a steady creep of a dominant culture’s language into foreign languages. As the era of modern technology and mass communication has been dominated by English-speaking powers, namely Britain and then the United States, language change has seen a growing influence of English in other languages.

An example of this includes the growing use of the ‘s’ on the end of words to pluralize nouns, as seen in Swedish. It also includes the use of words like ‘hello,’ ‘passport’ and ‘condom’ in most languages around the world. These linguistic changes are fueled by the export of music, television, literature and movies.

Politics and cultural sensitivity can also cause the prevention of language change or a concerted attempt to prevent it from happening. Certain countries, such as France, have created councils or organizations that are charged with controlling the language. In this, they seek to stamp out banned words, reduce the influence of foreign languages and approve or reject words than can be used in official publications. In France and Wales, this has resulted in the active attempt to reduce words of English origin picked up from British and American popular culture.

Languages change by natural evolution, too. Words and forms evolve as different ideas or regional dialects gain prominence. For example, in English, the dominant plural was first the London plural, then the southern plural before it settled on the northern ‘s’ plural. This is why some words like children contain a different plural form. Other changes occur because a new or invented word, like dog, becomes popular and replaces an older word like ‘hound.’ What is slang one day often becomes official in the near future.

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Discussion Comments

By donasmrs — On Feb 07, 2015

@turquoise-- I didn't know that about Turkish and Hindi, that's interesting. I guess major language changes occur either due to migration or invasion. I bet trade has had a lot to do with it too.

India is a peculiar case because the official language of India remains English and most North Indians use many English words when they speak Hindi.

By turquoise — On Feb 07, 2015

Hungarians weren't the only ones who picked up words as they migrated. Turks also picked up many Persian and Arabic words as they migrated to Anatolia from Central Asia. Majority of the exchange took place during the Ottoman Empire however as Turks invaded surrounding lands and ruled over peoples speaking many different languages. Ottoman Turkish was a mixture of Turkish, Persian and Arabic words. This is also the reason for many common words between Turkish and Hindi. Hindi too borrowed heavily from Farsi during Moghul rule of India.

By bluedolphin — On Feb 06, 2015

Language really does change very quickly. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around the 1600s, which in terms of the history of language, is not that long ago. But when I read Hamlet today, I have difficulty understanding some of the language and the vocabulary. We don't even need to go so far back. There are so many words that were used in American English in the 1950s that have fallen out of favor now. And of course, everyone knows about how British English has transformed into American English after America was colonized.

Sometimes I wonder what language will be like for my grandchildren or great grandchildren. I hope we will be able to understand each other!

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