language history and change n.
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Language history and change. Introduction.

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  • In 1786 Sir William Jones suggested that a number of languages from very different geographical areas must have some common ancestor. This common ancestor had to be hypothesized on the basis of similar features existing in records of languages which were believed to be descendants.
  • Linguistic investigation focuses on the historical development of languages and attempts to characterized the regular processes which are involved in language change.
family trees
Family trees
  • A term came into use to describe that commo0n ancestor. It incorporated the notion that this was the original form (proto) of a language which was the source of modern languages in the Indian sub-continent (Indo), and in Europe (European). With Proto-Indo-European established as the ‘great-grandmother’, scholars set out to trace the branches of her family tree, showing the lineage of many modern languages, as illustrated in the diagram (see your book).
family relationships family connections
Family relationships(Family connections)
  • Q: How can it be determined that these language groups are related?
  • A: 1- by looking at records of older generation,

2- by comparative reconstruction.

Example of no.1: if we use familiar letters to write out the words for father and brother in Sanskrit, Latin and Ancient Greek, some common features become apparent. The fact that close similarities occur is good evidence for proposing a family connection.

  • A cognate of a word in one language (e.g. English) is a word in another language (e.g. German) which has a similar form and is, or was, used with a similar. Thus, the English forms mother, father and friend are cognates of the German forms Mutter, Vaterand Freund. On the basis of these cognate set, we would propose that such sets in modern English and modern German probably have a common ancestor in what has been labeled the Germanic branch of Indo-European
comparative reconstruction
Comparative reconstruction
  • Aim: to reconstruct what must have been the original, or ‘proto’ form in the common ancestral language.
  • Procedure: using two principles (1) the majority principle and (2) the most natural development principle.

The majority principle:

If, in a cognate set, three forms begin with a [p] sound and one form begins with a [b] sound, then our best guess is that the majority have retained the original sound (i.e. [p]), and the minority has changed a little through time.

  • The most natural development principle:

Based on the fact that certain types of sound-change are very common such as:

1- final vowels often disappear


2- voiceless sounds become voiced between vowels

  • 3- stops become fricatives
  • 4- consonants become voiceless at the end of words.
  • Sound reconstruction
  • What was the most likely form of the initial sound in the original language source of the following three? What is the evidence?



cavallocaballo cheval (horse)

cantarecantar chanter (sing)

catena cadenachaine(chain)


Look for the answer on your book!

w ord reconstruction
Word reconstruction
  • In the following set of cognates, you can arrive at their protoforms via the two principles. (Read it from your book)
  • Languages

1 2 3 Protoforms

mubemupemup ___ (stream)

abadiapatiapat ___ (rock)

aganaakanaakan ___ (knife)

enuguenukuenuk ___ (diamond)

language change

Language change

The reconstruction of proto-forms is an attempt to determine what a language must have been like before written records began. However, even when we have written records from an older period, they may not resemble the written forms found today.

the history of english
The History of English
  • The historical development of English is divided into three major periods.
  • 1- Old English lasts from the seventh century to the end of the eleventh century.
  • 2- Middle English 1100 to 1500.
  • 3- Modern English from 1500 to the present time.
old english
Old English
  • The English language developed from the Germanic languages spoken by tribes from northern Europe. These tribes are Angles, Saxons and Jutes. They invaded the British Isles in the 5th century AD. From the first two we get the term Anglo-Saxons and from the first we get the word for their language Englisc, and for their new home, Engla-land.

Most of the basic terms come from OE such as mann(man),wif(woman), cild (child), hũs(house) and others.

  • From 6th to 8th C. these Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity and a number of terms from the language of religion, Latin, came to English such as angel, bishop, candle, church and others.
  • From 8th to 9th and 10th C. another group of northern Europeans, the Vikings, came and settled in costal regions of Britain. From their language Old Norse, we get forms like give, law, leg, skin, sky, take and they.
middle english
Middle English
  • The Norman French invasion of England marks the end of the OE period and the beginning of the Middle English period.
  • These French-speaking invaders became the ruling class so that the language of the nobility, the government, the law and civilized behavior in England for the next 200 years was French. It is the source of such words as army, court, defense, faith, prison and tax.

Yet the language of the peasants remained English. They worked on the land and reared sheep, cows and swine (words from OE) while the French-speaking upper classes talked about mutton, beef and pork (words of French origin) Hence,the different words in modern English to refer to these creatures ‘on the hoof’ as opposed to ‘on the plate’.

  • From 1400 to 1600, the sounds of English underwent a substantial change to form the basis of Modern English pronunciation.
sound changes
Sound changes
  • The most obvious differences between Modern English and the English spoken in earlier periods is in the quality of the vowel sounds as shown below.
  • OE ME

hu:s haws (house)



brε:k bre:k(break)


Sound disappearance

In addition to sound change, some sounds simply disappear such as the voiceless velar fricative /x/ e.g. nicht= night.

Metathesis involves a reversal in position of two adjoining sounds. Examples from OE:

frist first hros horse

bridd bird acsian ask


Metathesis may also occur between non-adjoining sounds as in the reversal of the [l] and [r] sounds in the following examples.


parabola  palabra(word)

miraculum milagro(miracle)

Epenthesis involves the addition of a sound to the middle of a word, such as:


timr timber


Prothesis involves the addition of a sound to the beginning of a word. It is common in the change of pronunciation of some forms from Latin to Spanish as in:

schola escuela(school)


Syntactic changes

The difference between OE and ME in sentence structure involves word order. The subject-verb-object order common in ME is also


found in OE but we can also find different orders such as:

  • 1- verb  subject as ferde he (he travelled)
  • 2- object  verb as he himegeseah(he saw him)
  • 3- object at the beginning of the sentence as him man ne sealde( no man gave [any] to him).
  • The most sweeping change in the form of English sentences was the loss of a large number of inflectional affixes from many parts of speech.
lexical changes and semantic changes
Lexical changes and Semantic changes
  • ME differs lexically from OE in the number of borrowed words. Moreover, many words have ceased to be used.
  • More interestingly are the two processes of broadening and narrowing of meaning.
  • E.g. of broadening is the change from holy day as a religious feast to the very general break from work aholiday.

E.g. of narrowing is OE word hund, used for any kind of dog, but now, hound, used only for some specific breeds.

  • The process of change
  • The changes in language can be linked to major social changes caused by wars, invasions and other upheavals.
  • But the most pervasive source of change seems to be the continual process of cultural transmission. Each new generation

has to find a way of using the language of the previous generation.

  • Diachronic and synchronic variation
  • Diachronic variation concentrates on the historical perspective of change through time.
  • Synchronic variation concentrates on differences within one language in different places and among different groups at the same time.