Language Evolution

Evolution occurs in culture as well as in the natural world. One example of this is language evolution. All languages change over the course of time, for a whole range of reasons. We can broadly divide the causes of language change into internal and external factors; below I’m going to consider the evolution of English to illustrate this point.

External Change Factors

The earliest records we have of the English language go back to the eighth century, where we can find single words, ‘glosses’, written in Latin manuscripts to explain the meaning of individual Latin words. Like other Germanic languages, Old English had gender and cases; nouns could be masculine, feminine or neuter and a noun’s function in a sentence was determined by its ending. Old English was subject to three major external influences: contact with the Christian Church, the immigration of Scandinavian-speaking settlers, particularly in the North, and the Norman Conquest. Words were borrowed from Latin (the language of the Church, such as mass, bishop, priest), Old Norse (scum, law, egg, die) and from Norman French (mutton, gaol, pork, dungeon, guardian). Sometimes a language acquires new words to express newly imported concepts or objects, such as Church terminology. Sometimes language borrowing works to split up a semantic field (a group of related meanings) to make meaning more precise. Thus, Old English had foam, but contact with Norse speakers allowed a new distinction between clean and dirty bubbles: foam and scum. Old English did not have a separate term for the meat from an animal (it just stuck the word flæsc ‘flesh’ onto the end of the animal name, as in modern German). It was the Norman aristocrats who were eating the meat that their English serfs were rearing, so they called it by its familiar Norman French names: beef and pork. The peasants kept to the old words: swine, sheep, ox and cow. In other cases, the borrowing of new words seems quite random. Old English had perfectly good words for ‘law’, ‘egg’ and ‘to die’: æ, ey, and sweltan (compare this to ‘it’s sweltering hot’), so it’s not clear why the Norse words should have been adopted instead.

Internal Changes

Internal changes were also underway in Old English. The old case system began to disappear; noun endings that had been quite distinct, such as -a or -an or -as, started to coalesce around -e, -en and -es (with e pronounced as a kind of [uh]) sounds. Would this change have happened anyway, or was it a consequence of Old English speakers coming into contact with Old Norse speakers who used a different, but related, set of endings? We can’t be sure, but the immigration of Norman French speakers certainly accelerated the demise of the different case endings.

Later Changes

The same patterns of change have continued through the history of English. New words have come into the language through cultural contact with other language speakers, particularly as a consequence of imperial expansion (karaoke, bungalow, ketchup, avocado) or exposure to new kinds of knowledge or technology (syndrome, optics, existentialism). New words have been coined or invented to express new concepts: the Old English thrifaldness was invented to express the concept of the Trinity, but was eventually replaced by a Latin-derived term; language purists often used to complain about television because it combines a Greek prefix with a Latin stem. Calque is a term for a word or phrase that is a literal translation of a word that originates in another language: flea market; masterpiece; pineapple; antibody; stormtroopers.

Internal language change has continued too. Noun endings finally disappeared (with a couple of exceptions – plurals and genitive -s); the verbs simplified so that only the third person singular -s was retained in regular verbs; nouns lost their grammatical gender, or, rather, the idea of gender became associated with nouns denoting only male or female people or creatures: girl, ram, actress, chairman. Rather oddly, ships and some countries became identified as female; there is much speculation as to why. The second person singular pronoun thou (with thee, thy and thine) vanished except, for a while at least, in addressing God when praying. This was a consequence of the originally plural form you becoming first the polite, and then the only form for addressing one person – unlike French and German which retain the tu / vous, du / Sie distinction, or Icelandic which has abandoned the polite form and only has a singular / plural distinction in þú and þið. This development has left standard English without a clear second person plural pronoun; consequently, some varieties of English have filled that gap: Irish and Scouse youse or Southern US English y’all.

Changes in Speaking

Above all, English pronunciation has changed. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a change known as the Great Vowel Shift occurred (this is the main reason why our spelling system is so far from being phonological, or why words are often pronounced so differently from how they are spelled). The long vowels in English mostly moved higher and further forward in the mouth and new diphthongs (two sounds sounded together) were created. Have you ever wondered why in English we have the same vowel for a short i as in most other languages, and yet the long vowel sounds radically different? Think about pin and kind, for example. The vowel in the second is clearly not a longer version of the first; the long vowel became diphthongized as part of the Great Vowel Shift.

 Changes in pronunciation are still ongoing. If you listen to the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts from the early years of her reign as opposed to last year’s, you will see how much her usage has changed over the years. One marked tendency in pronunciation change is spelling pronunciation. People used to pronounce waistcoat as ‘weskit’ (you might still hear this with very old speakers); golf would be pronounced to rhyme with oaf by upper-class speakers. The first syllable of constable and Covent Garden were pronounced if the vowel were a ‘u’ rather than an ‘o’; in fact the Cambridge Dictionary gives the ‘u’ pronunciation as standard British.

Underway at present is a change in forehead from something like ‘forrid’ to pronunciation in line with spelling; so too worry is undergoing what linguists call ‘unrounding’: the o, formerly pronounced as ‘uh’ (as in cut) is becoming ‘o’ (as in pot). If you check the Cambridge Dictionary pronunciations for these words, you’ll see that the Dictionary has not caught up with these two changes.

Complaining about Language Change

People have been aware for centuries that language is evolving. William Caxton, the pioneer of printing, noted in 1490: ‘And certainly our language now used varieth far from that which was used and spoken when I was born’. In the early modern period, a huge number of new borrowings came into English with the rediscovery of Greek learning. While writers and scholars celebrated the arrival of exciting new words and hastened to use them, others complained that they did not know what these words meant. Prototype dictionaries, called ‘Lists of Hard Words’, subsequently became very popular. Later still, intellectuals began to worry that language change meant that Shakespeare and Milton would become as obscure and difficult to understand as Chaucer, and they looked for ways of fixing language. In the late seventeenth century, an academy was proposed to approve new words; this never really got off the ground, unlike the Académie Française, which had ­­– and still has – a language policing role across the Channel. In 1697, Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was a keen proponent:

The Work of the Society should be to encourage Polite Learning, to polish and refine the English tongue, and advance the so much neglected Faculty of Correct Language, to establish Purity and Propriety of Stile, and to purge it from all the Irregular Additions that Ignorance and Affectation have introduc’d.

In his ‘Plan for an English Dictionary’ (1747), Samuel Johnson claimed that such an undertaking might produce ‘a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened’. By the time he came to publish the Dictionary in 1755, he had discovered that language change was both inevitable and impossible to prevent: ‘tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language’, he urged.

Language Evolution Now

Was Johnson right about English degenerating? Nowadays, linguists see their work as descriptive, rather than prescriptive; they investigate how language is actually used in practice, rather than producing rules about how language should be used. This does not stop many non-linguists from complaining about other people’s usage. They often find new words offensive: slang, shortenings, acronyms, or new pronunciations, especially when the variant is associated with a particular social class or group. But, as Johnson discovered, language is in a constant state of change.

Or does language evolution imply language improvement? English’s openness to change in terms of word-borrowing has given it a much bigger vocabulary than many other European languages – although of course other words have simply dropped out of use. Amateur critics argue that language used to be ‘better’ (usually in some unspecified way) in the old days. At the same time, we know that language constantly evolves to meet the communicational, social and creative requirements of the community that uses it. One thing is for certain: just like William Caxton in 1490, I know that the English we speak today has changed a great deal from the English spoken in my childhood – and the same will be true in fifty years’ time. How it will change though is another question.

Explore language evolution further…

See if you can find a word that has come into English from the following languages: Icelandic (NOT Old Norse); Greenlandic / Inuit; Malay; Australian Aboriginal; Nahuatl; Hindi.

Semantic change is an important part of language evolution: words change meaning. See if you can trace the semantic change(s) undergone by: geek, silly, weird, box, beads, deer, fee.

How language changes over time on TED.com: This playlist of TED talks explores how language changes and new words come to be.

Why does language change over time? on BBC Bitesize

Is English changing?

How the English language has changed over the decades

Changing voices

Your task

Find someone your parents’ age or older, and ask them what words for common objects they used to use when they were young that they don’t use or hear other people using any more. For example, wood lice can be referred to as cheesy bugs, roly polies, woodpigs or even something else depending on where you come from. Some of these words may be dialect and not a part of Standard English; others may have fallen out of use. If you speak a different language at home, it might be worth thinking about the interaction between this language and English. Think about why these words may have fallen out of use, and write a 300-word essay about what you have found.


Professor Carolyne Larrington

Professor Carolyne Larrington, Tutorial Fellow in English Literature

I teach medieval English literature in the College, ranging from the earliest Old English to the beginning of the Renaissance period. I studied medieval English language and literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford and my DPhil was on Old Norse and Old English wisdom poetry. Before starting graduate work I taught English in Japan for two years. My research often takes me to Scandinavia and Iceland, and I also travel widely for pleasure.