Recall the language universal stating that all languages change over time. In fact, it is not possible to keep them from doing so. How and why does this happen? The study of how languages change is known as historical linguistics. The processes, both historical and linguistic, that cause language change can affect all of its systems: phonological, morphological, lexical, syntactic, and semantic.
Historical linguists have placed most of the languages of the world into taxonomies, groups of languages classified together based on words that have the same or similar meanings. Language taxonomies create something like a family tree of languages. For example, words in the Romance family of languages, called sister languages, show great similarities to each other because they have all derived from the same “mother” language, Latin (the language of Rome). In turn, Latin is considered a “sister” language to Sanskrit (once spoken in India and now the mother language of many of India’s modern languages, and still the language of the Hindu religion) and classical Greek. Their “mother” language is called “Indo-European,” which is also the mother (or grandmother!) language of almost all the rest of European languages.
Let’s briefly examine the history of the English language as an example of these processes of change. England was originally populated by Celtic peoples, the ancestors of today’s Irish, Scots, and Welsh. The Romans invaded the islands in the first-century AD, bringing their Latin language with them. This was the edge of their empire; their presence there was not as strong as it was on the European mainland. When the Roman Empire was defeated in about 500 AD by Germanic speaking tribes from northern Europe (the “barbarians”), a number of those related Germanic languages came to be spoken in various parts of what would become England. These included the languages of the Angles and the Saxons, whose names form the origin of the term Anglo-Saxon and of the name of England itself—Angle-land. At this point, the languages spoken in England included those Germanic languages, which gradually merged as various dialects of English, with a small influence from the Celtic languages, some Latin from the Romans, and a large influence from Viking invaders. This form of English, generally referred to as Old English, lasted for about 500 years. In 1066 AD, England was invaded by William the Conqueror from Normandy, France. New French rulers brought the French language. French is a Latin-based language, and it is by far the greatest source of the Latin-based words in English today; almost 10,000 French words were adopted into the English of the time period. This was the beginning of Middle English, which lasted another 500 years or so.
The change to Modern English had two main causes. One was the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, which resulted in a deliberate effort to standardize the various dialects of English, mostly in favor of the dialect spoken by the elite. The other source of change, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was a major shift in the pronunciation of many of the vowels. Middle English words like hus and ut came to be pronounced house and out. Many other vowel sounds also changed in a similar manner.
None of the early forms of English are easily recognizable as English to modern speakers. Here is an example of the first two lines of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English, from 995 AD, before the Norman Invasion:
Fæder ūre, ðū ðē eart on heofonum,
Sī ðīn nama gehālgod.
Here are the same two lines in Middle English, English spoken from 1066 AD until about 1500 AD. These are taken from the Wycliffe Bible in 1389 AD:
Our fadir that art in heuenes,
halwid be thi name.
The following late Middle English/early Modern English version from the 1526 AD Tyndale Bible, shows some of the results of grammarians’ efforts to standardize spelling and vocabulary for wider distribution of the printed word due to the invention of the printing press:
O oure father which arte in heven,
halowed be thy name.
And finally, this example is from the King James Version of the Bible, 1611 AD, in the early Modern English language of Shakespeare. It is almost the same archaic form that modern Christians use.
Our father which art in heauen,
hallowed be thy name.8
Over the centuries since the beginning of Modern English, it has been further affected by exposure to other languages and dialects worldwide.9 This exposure brought about new words and changed meanings of old words. More changes to the sound systems resulted from phonological processes that may or may not be attributable to the influence of other languages. Many other changes, especially in recent decades, have been brought about by cultural and technological changes that require new vocabulary to deal with them.
Just think of all the words we use today that have either changed their primary meanings, or are completely new: mouse and mouse pad, google, app, computer (which used to be a person who computes!), texting, cool, cell, gay. How many more can you think of