Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

8.7: Syntactic and Lexical Changes

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    8.6.1 Syntactic and Lexical Changes, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    Syntactic change and lexical change. Again, everything impacting everything else. Now that we've already explored phonological change and we've explored morphological change, let's look at how the syntax and the lexicon can also change. I’m mostly going to focus on English and the Germanic languages, as well as Spanish and other Romance languages, because these are languages that most all of you either have constant contact with natively or you have learned at least one of them, if not multiple.

    One of the big things that happens when you have morphological change is that it impacts word order in some way. Either it becomes more loose, or it tightens up and becomes more strict. Certainly, when we talk about the loss of the case system like we see in English, and we see in the Romance languages as a whole, you're going to rely more on word order. To be fair, it's not to say that we cannot mess with the word order at all. If you are a poet, especially one that really focuses on meter, then you know that you are going to play with that word order to get the meter right for your lines; you know that's going to happen and certainly when we're talking not just about poetry, but song lyrics, you're going to play with the word order a little bit. But even within that, English has a set of rules; you cannot really mess with the word order too much, otherwise you break grammaticality. The same is true with the Romance languages to a varying degree. French has more strict word order because of the phonology; if you speak French or have tried to learn French, you know that the phonology of French is such that a lot of lexicons sound like one another. That means you're going to need more word order to keep everything straight, versus a language like Spanish, Italian or even Portuguese. You have a little bit more play sometimes because of other syntactic and morphologic rules in place, so that you can sometimes put the subject after the verb—which is not something you would think you can do, but in truth, you can.

    All of those changes with respect to English, as well as the Romance languages, are very early. When we talk about these early changes, we're really saying that they became established, not a few generations ago but several hundred years ago. Honestly, with respect to the Romance languages, this change happened about 1500 years ago, at the fall of the Roman Empire. By that point, Vulgar Latin was already changing a lot with respect to case and word order, so that by the time you get the earliest forms of the Romance languages—Old French, that's around 850 CE, Old Spanish is around 900 CE, Old Italian is around 900 CE and so on—you really only have a period of about 400 years where things are in flux. By the time we get to the early Romance period, the word order is set as Subject-Verb-Object almost always; yes, there were some tricks that you could do then. By and large, that word order has not changed in about 1000-1200 years.

    We see also with respect to syntactic change—and this is where Creoles come into play—we can see borrowing of grammatical constructions, although not as often. This frequently is in very isolated cases; we see more of it with respect to Creoles, of course, but as we talked about with creolization in the sociolinguistics chapter, if you have a creole that has been spoken for 300-400 years, you have a lot more stabilization then. Typically, there is some borrowing early on, but it doesn't tend to happen after a certain point. There is reanalysis of grammatical structures, which we saw with the previous section on morphosyntactic changes; the loss of case usually happens at the same time as other types of analysis. Reanalysis happens throughout the entire language: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, everywhere.

    We also have extension of grammatical structure. I like giving this example of the passive in Spanish. Native Spanish speakers, you probably don't even think about that pronoun se very often as to how many different ways, you use it. Those who learned Spanish, you think about this a lot, because it turns out this thing has a litany of uses. Let me just show you a little bit. When we get to Old Spanish—that's up until about 1400 CE, roughly when the Renaissance is a big change for a number of European languages. Both Indo European and Finno-Ugric languages, we see a big change once we get to the Renaissance for a variety of reasons, and we can talk about that at another time. But Old Spanish used se as a reflexive—that is still true in Modern Spanish: ‘Johnny dressed himself’, Juanito se vistió. This is the same now as it was then. But that pronoun se can be used to do different things, and it's in the Middle Spanish period in that 1300-1400 CE through about 1700 or so CE where we start seeing it being used as a passive. Spanish speakers, you know that you can say, Se captaron casi 2.000 personas. This is the Middle Spanish version: Cautiváron-se quasi 2.000 personas. Notice I changed my pronunciation a little bit, and certain terms like quasi instead of casi, cautivaron instead of captaron. Things have changed a little bit over time, but you can see that se being used as not a reflexive, but as a passive. This is something we can still do in Spanish, in fact, most of the Romance languages use se or whatever version of that pronoun for a passive construction where you're not mentioning who did the action. Notice the translation is, ‘almost 2000 people were captured’; we didn't say by whom. We just said they were captured. In English, that's just implied knowledge; we don't think anything more of it. We use context clues to get more insight. In the Romance languages, that's not the case; you have to somehow include the subject, and this is how they frequently do it, by using this reflexive pronoun. Not all Romance languages do it this way, but a vast majority of them do, and there are ties to Latin; again, I’ll explain it in a different time.

    When we talk about semantic change or lexical change, there's some pretty big, obvious pieces. Clearly, adding or losing lexicon to a language is going to be part of any historical process, and that makes sense, right? Notice that we have loss of lexicon; these are just three of a slew of different terms that have been lost in most English dialects. I will say that a couple of these still exist in other dialects of English, specifically Scottish and Irish English. Hie is a really great example; this still exists in Scottish English, especially out in the highlands. Wight, the Isle of Wight, still exists; it's an island off of the Scottish coast, which is a pretty important island for a number of historical reasons. Leman as a sweetheart doesn't really exist anymore, but it could. Certainly, the addition of lexicon, whether it's through coinage or eponyms, and these are all ways that we create new terms. A lot of these terms, we saw them when we talked about morphology. I do want to expand on a word coinage; it has to do with brand names, or inventions, that is a little bit more specific. With respect to borrowing, I wanted to tease this out a little bit more. It's actually a really interesting process, and languages tend to rely more heavily on one process versus the other, although both can exist. Calquing is when you translate the word; I remember very distinctly being in high school learning Spanish, and hearing that a ‘hot dog’ in Spanish, was a perro caliente—literally ‘dog hot’ so they've just translated ‘hot dog’. I thought that was hilarious. You can just borrow a loanword, so you've just taken the term wholesale, pronunciation at all—at least, to the best of your ability. Spanish has a tendency to calque; Italian, by the way, has a tendency to do loanwords. Here are some examples that we have brought into English: joie de vivre, coup d’état, pizza. We may not say these terms exactly as they are pronounced in their original languages, but we get pretty close. As I said, Italian likes loanwords: a ‘weekend’ in Spanish is el fin de semana, ‘the end of the week’. In Italian, you could say, il fine di settimana, which is the same thing, but most people haven't said that in about 75 years; they say il weekend. Literally, that's what they say. Spanish says deportes for ‘sports’, los deportes. In Italian, it's lo sport. Different languages are going to choose one or the other, either more calquing or more loanwords. It's not the same language does not do both; clearly, if you are a speak fluent speaker of Spanish, you know the various terms have just been straight borrowed, pronunciation and all. My absolute favorite example of this is there is a textbook or two out there for Spanish, and students who are learning Spanish the term for ‘jeans’ as los blue jeans. No, nobody says that; you either say los vaquerosvaquero, for those who don't know, is a ‘cowboy’, so los vaqueros implying that these pants that cowboys wear—or you say los jeans.

    There are also, of course, a number of meaning changes. We talked earlier in semantics about broadening and narrowing. You have pretty good examples here of that. Broadening, of course, meaning the term has expanded; narrowing, that the term has contracted. You also have shifts, which again makes sense, because we no longer use the term for knight as a ‘youth’; it is a specific designation. Fond does not mean ‘foolish’; it means that you care about somebody. Within the meaning changes, there's actually more nuance: pejoration and amelioration. If you know a Romance language, those might look a little familiar. Pejoration is worsening, meaning the term has become a term that is not used for negative reasons; amelioration is to improve, that the meaning has improved over time. A mistress, a hussy, a slut, a moron, a madame (sometimes), these all have some kind of negative connotation to them—some more than others. But that wasn't the case even 200 years ago, even 100 years ago in the case of mistress and madame, they had no negative connotation whatsoever. In fact, you were the master of the house or the mistress of the house, meaning you were the lady of the house—nothing negative about that. Fond, knight, those are actually amelioration. Hyperbole and understatement: hyperbole, of course, meaning bigger or grander, understatement mean lesser. Terribly, horrible, starve, quell, these are all terms that have augmented their meaning—they have gotten to encompass much more than previously. Terribly was not something that was not an adverb that was used to mean anything more than terrorizing in some way. Now, that's taking on a much greater role; terribly can be either catastrophic, and in some dialects, it can mean ‘very’: “Oh, it's terribly important,” ‘it's very important’. Understatement is when we make the meaning less than it was before. Kill, of course, means literally to take the life of another animal, human or otherwise, but you could also say I could kill for some chocolate right now. Clearly, when we say that, we are not planning to commit a murder, which of course is also under become an understatement.

    It really is the case that in language, we change meaning all the time, it affects everything that we do. The phonology effects the morphology and the syntax and semantics; the morphology effects the syntax and semantics; the syntax effects morphology, syntax, and semantics. They all interchange and they all work together as language changes over time.

    14.2: Lexical change

    Sporadic change

    Many internal language changes are sporadic, which means that they affect only one, or maybe a few, individual words or expressions. For example, the shortened form app for application in English is a sporadic change, because most other similar words, like complication, implication, and multiplication, are not shortened to *comp, *imp, or *multip.

    Furthermore, the shortened form app is not used for all possible meanings of application. We can use app when referring to computer programs, but we would not normally shorten an expression like daily application of ointment to *daily app of ointment, because this use of application refers to a different meaning, the addition of a substance to the exterior surface of some object.

    Another example of sporadic change is the shift from two-handed to one-handed signs in American Sign Language (ASL). Some two-handed signs, such as COW, have changed over time to use just one hand (Frishberg 1975). However, this change did not affect all two-handed signs, like BOOK or HALLOWEEN.

    COW (older):
    COW (newer):

    An important kind of sporadic change is lexical change, which is a change to a language’s lexicon, especially through the addition of new words. See Sections 1.1, 7.4, and 7.5 for further discussion of the lexicon.

    Root creation

    When a new word is created entirely within a language without direct influence from another language, the new word is called a neologism. We often say that the act of creating a neologism is coining it, especially when we know who first did so. The most basic type of neologism is root creation, where the new word is not derived from any other existing word. Root creation is relatively rare, as it is difficult for humans to coin completely new words without some influence from other words.

    Root creation often gets its influence from being imitative or echoic, so that the articulation of the word mirrors its meaning in some way. An example of imitative root creation is the English word zap, which was coined in 1929 for Phillip Francis Nowlan and Dick Calkins’s newspaper comic strip adaptation of Nowlan’s 1928 and 1929 novellas starring pulp science fiction hero Buck Rogers. The buzzing [z] at the beginning of the word and the short sudden end with a voiceless plosive work together to evoke the sound of a short energetic burst, used by Nowlan as the sound of a laser pistol. There are many examples of imitative root creation in English, such as glug, cuckoo, and other instances of onomatopoeia.

    Imitative root creation is very common in signed languages, because much more of the world is visible than it is audible. Lots of signs in ASL are clearly imitative, and that imitation may even change if the nature of the object itself changes. A notable example is PHONE, which was originally signed with two hands to match how a user handled original two-handed telephones in the early 1900s. Over time, telephones changed to a different shape that required only one hand, so the ASL sign changed as well, this time with one hand imitating the new shape of the phone rather than how it was handled. But as smartphones replaced corded phones in the early 2000s, a new version of the ASL sign emerged, with one hand imitating how the phone is handled (just a bit too late to be included in Sternberg’s 1998 dictionary of ASL). The changes in the ASL sign for PHONE can be seen in the links below, matching the evolution of telephones depicted in Figure 14.3.

    PHONE (original):
    PHONE (newer):
    PHONE (newest):

    Three versions of the telephone. The first labelled "original" is a candlestick shape with separate earpiece requiring two hands. The second labelled "newer" is a one-handed handset with both speaker and microphone on the same piece. The third labelled "newest" is a small rectangular smartphone.
    Figure 14.3. Evolution of the shape and handling of the telephone: original two-handed telephones (left), newer one-handed telephones with a large receiver (centre), and the newest small smartphones (right).

    Other examples of root creation have no obvious imitative origin and are sometimes said to have been coined ex nihilo. An example of ex nihilo root creation in English is the word googol, which was coined in 1938 when Edward Kasner asked his nine-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta, to invent a new word for the number 10100, which is equivalent to the number expressed as the digit 1 followed by one hundred zeroes (Kasner and Newman 1940). Other examples of ex nihilo root creation in English include the following:

    • yahoo ‘brute’ > ‘uncultured or unintelligent person’ (coined by Swift 1726)
    • blurb ‘short summary or description’ (coined by Matthews 1906)
    • grok ‘understand’ (coined by Heinlein 1961)

    Derived neologisms

    More frequently, neologisms are derived from other words that already exist in the language. Proper names are a particularly rich source of neologisms, and some come about in surprising ways.

    The Canary Islands are a group of islands off the coast of Morocco. They are home to a particular species of bird called canary in English, which is named after the islands. Interestingly, the English name Canary Islands itself is derived from the Latin name for the islands, Canariæ Insulæ, which means ‘Islands of the Dogs’. The Latin name was given to the islands by Pliny the Elder in his encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (AD 77) due to the presence of large dogs on one of the main islands. Thus, canaries are indirectly named after dogs, by way of a Latin proper name for a group of islands they are both native to.

    Sometimes, a brand name for a specific product is the source of a neologism. If the neologism shifts the meaning of the brand name to refer to any similar product regardless of brand, this is called genericization. This has happened with English words such as dry ice, dumpster, escalator, heroin, and zipper, all of which were originally trademarked brand names that referred to specific products. But now, any dumpster is called dumpster, regardless of which company manufactured it.

    In some cases of genericization, the trademark still exists. This is the case for chapstick, frisbee, realtor, thermos, and velcro. So there is technically a legal difference between true ChapStick (which is manufactured by the company Haleon) and generic lip balm (which can be manufactured by any company), but few people bother to make this distinction.

    There are many other ways that new words can be created from existing words. One important type is a compound, which is a neologism derived from putting two or more individual words together, often with a resulting meaning that is non-compositional or idiomatic. That is, the meaning of the compound is not predictable as a transparent combination of the meanings of the component words. See Sections 5.8 and 7.4 for further discussion of compounds.

    Clipping (a.k.a. compression or truncation) is a neologism derived by shortening a longer word. The creation of the neologism app from application is clipping, and there are many other examples from English. Clippings can come from the front of a word, as in English exam < examination, or from the end of a word, as in English burger < hamburger. In some very rare cases, clippings can even come from the middle of a word, as in flu < influenza. Other examples of clippings in English include the following:

    • gym < gymnasium
    • lab < laboratory
    • phone < telephone
    • bot < robot
    • fridge < refrigerator
    • rona < coronavirus

    A blend (sometimes called a portmanteau) is a neologism derived by putting together pieces of two or more words to create a new word that shares pronunciation and meaning with the original words. This is like a combination of clipping and compounding. For example, the English word brunch is a blend of breakfast and lunch, with [br-] and [-ʌnt͡ʃ] as the clipped forms that are put together as [brʌnt͡ʃ], and with a meaning that combines the meanings of breakfast and lunch: a breakfast-style meal served around lunchtime. Other examples of blends in English include the following:

    • blog < web + log
    • frenemy < friend + enemy
    • guesstimate < guess + estimate
    • mansplain < man + explain
    • podcast < iPod + broadcast
    • romcom < romantic + comedy
    • smog < smoke + fog
    • soylent < soy + lentils (coined by Harrison 1966)

    In some blends, all of the original words may be clipped (podcast, romcom, etc.), but in other blends, some of the original words may remain whole (blog, frenemy, etc.). In addition, sometimes there is overlap between the original words (frenemy, guesstimate, etc.), but not always (blog, podcast, etc.). If none of the original words are clipped, and if there is no overlap between the original words, then the resulting neologism is a compound rather than a blend.

    Acronyms are neologisms derived from pieces of the spelling of a word or phrase rather than from its pronunciation. Acronyms may be pronounced as a normal word based on the derived spelling, as with the English acronym scuba < self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, which is pronounced [skubə].

    Acronyms may instead be pronounced letter by letter, in which case, they are sometimes called initialisms. An example of initialism in English is the word SO < significant other, which is pronounced [ɛs o], letter by letter, rather than *[so], like the ordinary word so. An initialism may even be respelled to better match the pronunciation, as with MC < master of ceremonies, which is pronounced [ɛm si] and so is sometimes spelled with the alternate spelling emcee.

    Some acronyms may be pronounced either way, as with ASAP < as soon as possible, which can be pronounced either [esæp] or [e ɛs e pi]. Finally, some acronyms may be pronounced as a mixture of the two methods, as with HVAC < heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning, which is pronounced [aɪt͡ʃ væk], not *[aɪt͡ʃ vi e si]. Other examples of acronyms and initialisms in English include the following:

    • fomo < fear of missing out
    • laser < light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
    • snafu < situation normal, all fucked up
    • ASL < American Sign Language
    • BLT < bacon, lettuce, and tomato
    • POV < point of view

    Acronyms are relatively modern phenomena, and nearly all claims about acronym-based etymologies for words before the mid-20th century are usually false. For example, coma is sometimes claimed to be an acronym for cessation of motor activity, but it actually comes from the Greek word κῶμα (kôma) ‘deep sleep’. One of the few possible early English acronyms is OK, which was coined in the early 1800s and might have been an acronym for oll korrect, a joking misspelling of all correct. But the actual etymology of OK is unknown!

    As discussed in Section 2.2, taboo avoidance is another way that the lexicon can change. Taboo words can be replaced with existing words (as with sugar and shoot for English shit), which effectively adds a new meaning to the replacement, a type of semantic change (see Section 14.6 for further discussion). However, taboo avoidance may be accomplished by creating a neologism rather than using an existing word. This is how the neologisms dang and gosh entered English, as they were coined as alternatives to damn and God, respectively.

    Other lexical changes

    In this section, we have focused on internal neologisms. However, words and morphemes that already exist in the lexicon can also undergo various other kinds of internal change that affect their pronunciation, structure, position, or meaning. These changes are discussed in Sections 14.3, 14.4, 14.5, and 14.6. In addition, there are many ways that the lexicon can be affected by external change, which is covered in Section 14.7.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Frishberg, Nancy. 1975. Arbitrariness and iconicity: Historical change in American Sign Language. Language 51(3): 696–719.

    Harrison, Harry. 1966. Make room! Make room! New York: Doubleday.

    Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a strange land. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

    Kasner, Edward, and James Newman. 1940. Mathematics and the imagination. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    Matthews, Brander. 1906. American character. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

    Nowlan, Phillip Francis. 1928. Armageddon 2419 A.D. Amazing Stores 3(5): 422–449.

    Nowlan, Phillip Francis. 1929. The Airlords of Han. Amazing Stories 3(12): 1106–1136.

    Sternberg, Martin L. A. 1998. American Sign Language dictionary. 3rd edition. New York: HarperPerennial.

    Swift, Jonathan. 1726. Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships. London: Benjamin Motte.

    8.7: Syntactic and Lexical Changes is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?