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LING001. Historical linguistics 4-8-2009. Change in Time. The rate of change varies, but they build up until the "mother tongue" becomes arbitrarily distant and different (cf. difficulty in understanding some Brits or even Appalachians)

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Historical linguistics


change in time
Change in Time
  • The rate of change varies, but they build up until the "mother tongue" becomes arbitrarily distant and different (cf. difficulty in understanding some Brits or even Appalachians)
  • After a thousand years, the original and new languages will not be mutually intelligible (cf. English and German and Dutch, and even more distantly English and Pashto (language of Afghanistan))
  • After ten thousand years, the relationship will be essentially indistinguishable from chance relationships between historically unrelated languages.
  • Some changes take place in one generation (recall the cot-caught merger last time), some take over hundreds of years (word order change in Classic Chinese)
historical reconstruction
Historical Reconstruction
  • When considering whether languages are related, we look for systematic correspondences between vocabulary items in different languages
  • Since the relationship between sound and meaning is arbitrary (dog-chein-gou), these differences aren’t expected accidentally
a note of caution
A Note of Caution
  • Chance resemblance is possible, just not common
  • English bad, Persian bad “bad”
  • Dutch elkaar “each other”, Basque elkar “each other”
  • Examination of the rest of the vocabulary of these languages reveal that these are accidental
another note of caution
Another Note of Caution
  • Borrowing
  • We need to consider if the word is a new addition to the language or if it is vocabulary that is native to the language
  • e.g. we don’t want to conclude that English and Mandarin are related based on:
    • English: /kɑfi/ “coffee, Mandarin: /kɑfe/ “coffee”
    • Btw, the English term came from Arabic, by way of Turkish and then Dutch
classifying languages
Classifying Languages
  • These systematic correspondences (we’ll look at them more in a moment) are used to classify languages according to their origins.
  • Languages are put into families (and sub-families)
  • the relationships between languages are described using female terms: most often daughter (and mother)
indo european ie
Indo-European (IE)
  • An early sketch from the late 1800s, more or less accurate even today
  • The Romance languages descended from Latin are the only Italic languages spoken today
  • Ibero-Romance: Portuguese, Spanish
  • Gallo-Romance: French, Catalan, Romansch
  • Italo-Romance: Italian, Sardinian
  • Balkano-Romance: Romanian
  • English is part of the Germanic family.
clear cognates
Clear Cognates

English Dutch Danish

one een en

two twee to

three drie tre

four vier fire

five vijf fem

six zes seks

seven zeven syv

eight acht otte

nine negen ni

ten tien ti

classifying languages indo european
Classifying Languages: Indo-European
  • We also notice that there are similarities between Latin (Romance), English / German (Germanic) and yet other languages: Greek and Sanskrit, for example.
  • Sir William Jones, in the 1780s, was the first to notice them.
more distant relatives
More Distant Relatives

English Lithuanian Greek

one vienas heis

two du duo

three trys treis

four keturi tettares

five penki pente

six sheshi heks

seven septyni hepta

eight ashtuoni oktô

nine devyni ennea

ten deshimt deka

language classification how
Language Classification: How?

We rely on two things:

  • the Uniformitarian Principle
  • The regularity of sound-change
the uniformitarian principle
The Uniformitarian Principle

‘knowledge of processes that operated in the past can be inferred by observing ongoing processes in the present’

or, for language:

‘Language must work now in the same way as it ever did’

regularity of sound change
Regularity of Sound-Change
  • Most of historical linguistics relies on the assumption that
  • sound-change is regular and exceptionless
  • That is, any sound-change will affect all the words that contain that (combination of) sound(s).
regular and exceptionless
“regular and exceptionless’
  • Consider:
  • OE cnafa /knava/ > ModE knave /nejv/
  • OE cniht /knixt/ > ModE knight /najt/
  • So what’s the rule?
  • And what’s the ModE reflex of OE cyning /kyniŋ/?
regular and exceptionless18
“regular and exceptionless’
  • OE /kyniŋ/ > ModE /kɪŋ/
  • Why not /nɪŋ/?
  • Because the rule that deletes initial /k/ only applies before /n/.
  • So, the rule getting rid of initial /k/ is exceptionless, but it has a specific environment when it applies, just like phonological rules
the comparative method
The Comparative Method
  • If we assume that sound-change is regular and exceptionless in this way, we can use systematic comparison of languages to see the relationships between them.

This is known as the Comparative Method.

grimm s law
Grimm’s Law
  • Important result of the comparative method
  • Grimm’s Law: consonant changes between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic
grimm s law21
Grimm’s Law
  • p t k > f θ x
  • became fricatives in Germanic, but stayed same in Latin & Greek
  • b d g > p t k
  • devoiced in Germanic, but stayed same in Latin & Greek
  • bh dh gh > b d g
  • deaspirated in Germanic, but fricatives in Latin (f, f, h), devoiced in Greek (ph, th, kh), retained in Sanskrit, Hindi
p > f

Sanskrit pita padam

Greek pate:r poda

Latin pate:r pedem

Gothic fadar fotu

English father foot

PIE *pǝter- *ped-

(majority rule here in the inference about PIE)

completed chain shift
Completed Chain Shift
  • e.g. The Great Vowel Shift
chain shift in progress
Chain Shift in Progress
  • e.g. The Northern City Shift (around the Great Lakes, esp Syracuse, Rochester, Detroit, Chicago)
  • ӕ > ej (ɪj), ɑ > a (ӕ), ᴐ > ɑ, ɛ > ʌ, backing of ʌ




northern cities shift
Northern Cities Shift
  • ӕ > ej: laughs at it
  • ɑ > a: on
  • ᴐ > ɑ: all
  • ɛ > ʌ: seventeen
  • ʌ > ᴐ: fund
phonological and morphological change
Phonological and Morphological Change
  • Old English had rich case inflection
  • Modern English has almost none
  • Phonological change led to morphological change
  • Nominative = subject marker
  • Accusative = object marker
  • Dative = indirect object marker
  • Genitive = possessive marker

Se cniht geaf gief-e þӕs hierd-es sun-e

the youth.NOM gave gift-ACC the shepherd-GEN son-DAT

“The youth gave the shepherd’s son a gift.”

sound changes
Sound Changes
  • Dative: consonant deletion results in loss of plural –m
  • All cases: unstressed vowels reduced to schwa
  • All cases: schwa deleted
  • So, what’s left?
modern english
Modern English


NOM hound hounds

ACC hound hounds

GEN hound’s hounds’

DAT hound hounds

morphological change
Morphological Change
  • Reanalysis (folk etymology) – speakers provide a morphological analysis that doesn’t correspond (historically) to the derivation of the word
  • e.g. hamburger
morphological change32
Morphological Change
  • Reanalysis
  • e.g. earwig
  • Old English: ēarwicga ear+insect
    • would have been earwidge in Modern English
  • “widge” is lost as an independent word
  • Middle English: arwygyll ear+wiggle
  • Modern English: earwig
morpho syntactic change
Morpho-Syntactic Change
  • e.g. Latin had no pronounced determiners
  • the distinction between a and the (new vs old information) was marked through word order
    • latrâvit canis “a dog barked”
    • canis latrâvit “the dog barked”
morphological change34
Morphological Change
  • Over-regularization – irregular morphology becomes regular
  • e.g. Old English Comparatives
    • Adjective + ra, with stem change (similar to certain irregular past tense, e.g., say-said)
      • long ~ lengra
    • Adjectives + ra, no stem change
      • wearm ~ wearmra
  • Expected in Modern English:
      • warm ~ warmer, long ~ lenger!
  • Instead, overregularization yielded longer
semantic change
Semantic Change
  • Other examples of semantic change
    • Broadening: dogge used to be a specific breed
    • Narrowing:
      • meat used to be “food” (flesh was “meat”)
      • deer originally meant “animal” (cf the related German word Tier “animal”), but became restricted
    • Shifting: nice used to mean “ignorant”
syntactic change
Syntactic Change
  • Modern English:
    • auxiliary verb raises to Tense
    • main verb stays in VP
    • result: main verb follows adverbs: John often went skiing.
  • French:
    • auxiliary verb raises to Tense
    • main verb raises to Tense
    • result: verb (aux or main) precedes adverbs: John went often skiing
syntactic change37
Syntactic Change
  • Old and Middle English:

Here men vndurstonden ofte by this nyght the night of synne

here men understood often by this night the night of sin

syntactic change38
Syntactic Change
  • Modern English
    • I to C in questions
    • result: aux verb to C in questions
  • French
    • I to C in questions
    • result: verb (aux or main) to C in questions
why do languages change
Why do Languages Change?
  • Natural processes in language use
    • rapid or casual speech produces assimilation, vowel reduction, deletion
    • this pronunciation can become conventionalized, and so end up being produced even in slower, more careful speech
child language
Child Language
  • What’s natural for kids was natural for our ancestors as well.
  • “scant” was “skamt”: m became n in the neighborhood of t (assimilation: K.I.S.S.)


bug-gug: child

why do languages change42
Why do Languages Change?
  • Language Learning
  • The child must construct their language based on the input received
  • This process is imperfect
  • Bias towards regularization – learning an irregular form requires more input
  • Also random differences may spread, especially through a small population
why do languages change43
Why do Languages Change?
  • Language Contact
  • Through migration, conquest, trade
  • Adults may learn the new language as a second language
  • Children may be fully bilingual
  • Results in borrowing of words, sounds, even syntactic constructions
  • Borrowed words with sounds not in the borrowing language may be “nativized”
    • e.g. Russian does not have [h]
    • German words with [h] borrowed into Russian change to [g]
    • German Hospital -> Russian gospital
  • Or, the borrowed sounds may be incorporated into the new language (Bach [x])
  • If the borrowing is extensive enough, a new phoneme may be added to the borrowing language
language change good or bad
Language change: good or bad?
  • Not an aesthetic question!
  • All stages of language are valid expressions of our language instinct (Universal Grammar)
  • Just as all languages and dialects are valid expressions of our language instinct