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8.1: Language Change Facts and Definitions

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    8.1.1 Language Change Facts and Definitions, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    Okay, folks: we're getting into the fun bit. Alright, for me it's the fun bit. Historical linguistics is my specific area of expertise, so this entire chapter of our text is all me, as Catherine Anderson doesn't really go into historical linguistics. I also should mention that this is not all my research; in fact, this is quite a number of pieces of people's research that are used to put together this chapter.

    To set the scene a little bit, let's talk about some basic definitions and some basic facts. Up to this point, we've talked about those core areas of linguistics that we did earlier: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. We've already talked about sociolinguistics, where we focus on synchronic language change. Synchronic means ‘at a given moment’, usually tied to the current moment. When we talked about dialects and we talked about register and all those areas, those are all synchronic.

    Now, we're going to move from the synchronic to the diachronic. Diachronic means ‘over a long period of time’, not one or two or three generations; now we're talking hundreds of years. This is an area that has always fascinated me because I love history and I love how language changes over time. One of my early influences to this area was within my own family, when my mother's family came over from Italy at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, Italy was technically a unified country, but to be very clear it wasn't. If you know anything about modern Italian history, you know that the reunification movements that happened, starting in the 1860s and through the 1880s and 90s, the country was not actually unified very much, not like when we think of like the Roman Empire. In truth, everybody spoke multiple dialects and, in fact, there were actual multiple languages of Italian spoken all the way through really the 1930s. That's when things changed due to a dictatorship (and that's a story for another time). However, when my great grandparents came to the United States, they were still speaking lombardese and Genovese—the dialects specific to Lombardy and the area around Genoa, which are both in the north west portion of Italy. They spoke very different dialects; in fact, at the time, you probably could still say that lombardese, as it were, might have been a different language, or certainly one of the Galo-Italic dialects. In addition, the Galo-Italic language was its own thing—the languages of the Northwest corner of Italy, and you can include Provençal and maybe even a little bit of Occitan, which were both spoken in the southwest portion of France. When I started learning Italian, I started learning standard Italian., which is based off of the Florentine regional dialect, and what I was learning was very different than what my two family dialects were—that has everything to do with history and with the change of language over time.

    To give us a little bit of a background before we go into analyzing language change over time, let's talk about three important facts with respect to language:

    Language change is not random. I know it may feel like it, and certainly as we go on to study how to reconstruct and how to analyze language, over time, some of these changes may seem random. Then again, every time you have learned a language, there might have been aspects that may have seen to you to be random language change and language as a whole is not random, it is not we have proven that pretty well over the last 75-80 years of diachronic analysis. Rather, it is rule governed at all stages and across all stages, that means that there's always a reason for it, and at times, when we cannot find that rule or pattern, we say, “Okay, we'll come back to this,” and rethink this, re-analyze this later on when we have some more tools and, especially, if we come across more data. As linguists, again, we want to be objective, we want to describe what we see and part of that is saying that randomness doesn't really exist; there's always a reason.

    Historical change always affects the components of a grammar, meaning every aspect of it; it affects the phonetics, the phonology, the morphology, the syntax, the semantics, and the pragmatics. You can say that it affects not just one specific dialect, but frequently affects others as well.

    Historical changes also relentless. In fact, one of the banes of my existence is when I hear people say, “These young kids today, they don't respect the language like we used to do, like we do now. Our older generation really knows this language much better than this new one.” That just does not fly with respect to linguistics; that is not an objective, descriptive mentality. It's highly prescriptive, and it also flies completely in the face of what we know to be true, which is that all languages change. They all change because when they stop changing, they've died out.

    Another term that you're going to hear is the term proto-language. A proto-language is a reconstructed, undocumented earlier version of a language; frequently, we’ll call it a parent language to another set. Focus on those two terms: undocumented and reconstructed. When we create something in linguistics, we are very careful to mark it as either a tested or hypothetical and, just like in the sciences, a hypothesis is an idea that needs to be tested and until it gets enough testing and data behind it. It remains a hypothesis, then it could become a rule or law or a phenomenon that is described when there are data behind it. When we're able to test it out, the same is true for proto-language or proto-languages; it’s our best guess based on the data that we have available and how we know languages in general, as well as within this family, with respect to change. You will hear me use the term Proto-Indo-European (PIE) quite frequently in this chapter, and that is because we have no written documentation of it. We have no direct, written data of PIE to suggest that this is definitely what the parent language of Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Aryuvedic, Hittite, Old Germanic, Old Celtic, you get the point—we don't know what that actual parent language did. We have really good guesses; we have hypotheses that are backed up with data that we have found. But that is it; we do not have actual written documentation of Proto-Indo-European, and that's why we have that proto- prefix in front of it.

    As we go through the rest of this chapter, these three facts must be kept in mind as well as the information about a proto-language, and the reason is this: we need to continuously be objective and descriptive and understand that this is a social science.

    8.1: Language Change Facts and Definitions is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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