A Language Constant: Change

berProvided by Betul Erbasi from betulerbasi.com

Hey, it is me, Betul (betulerbasi.com)! I am here again to talk about something about languages. This time, let’s talk about language change!

Let’s start this time with a guessing game this time. Guess which word the following pronunciation forms stand for (this is called phonetic transcription and we use brackets for it). If you get 8 out of 8, you are an expert in the history of the English language (Try not to do Google search on that; or any kind of Internet search for that matter):

1 [hu:s]   ( : indicates a long vowel)
2 [bi:tə]   ([ə] is a reduced vowel that English loves to use in unstressed syllables)
3 [bo:t]
4 [u:t]
5 [ma:ri]
6 [fe:t]
7 [li:s]
8 [knixt]  ([x] is a velar fricative, a sound English no longer has)

So, how did it go? Could you get 8 out of 8?

I am not sure how you did but I would not get it all (If you did, kudos to you.)

Here are the answers (with their current pronunciations):

  Then Now Word
1 [hu:s] [hɑʊs] house
2 [bi:tə] [bɑɪt] bite
3 [bo:t] [bu:t] boot
4 [u:t] [ɑʊt] out
5 [ma:ri] [meri] Mary
6 [fe:t] [fi:t] feet
7 [li:s] [lɑɪs] lice
8 [knixt] [nɑɪt] knight

We call this change in the pronunciation in the words of the English language the Great Vowel Shift, well, because it was so great that it changed each and every vowel of the language (as well as some consonants because it deleted them, see what happened with the [k] in knight).

But this did not happen overnight, just like any language change. It started around 1500s and continued up until 1800s.

That means people had a looong time to notice what was going on in their language, right?

Well, this is highly doubtful. Language change affects different people and different words in different ways and speed and it is usually an unconscious process. No one wakes up one day and says ‘Ah, I am going to change the language today’.

In fact, no one thought about the Great Vowel Shift that much until after it was completed, despite the fact that it was very robust and generalized. It was first studied after 1850s by Otto Jespersen.

Ok, people who undergo the change do not notice the process most often. But what instead happens is that there are people who start the change later. So there is usually time between people in terms of when they start the change.

In that time period, people who did not start the change yet notice that something is different about the other people who started it. And they start blaming the changers for the ‘degeneration of language’. They call the new version the broken form, the degenerate form. That is how we come to stigmatize speakers of different varieties of a language (But we blame them for what is only natural).

Do other people stop it? No, because it is inevitable. Once it starts, it goes on.

What happens later? Those people who blamed others are also caught in the change and they become part of it too.  Why? Because it is inevitable. This is how language change usually happens. And once everyone settles on the change, it becomes the standard. That is how we now speak the result of the Great Vowel Shift. What used to be considered degenerate at the time of the change is our standard now.

So, now we standardized it. We are done, right? Nope. There are similar shifts happening in American English (in the Northern Cities of the US (Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland etc.); in Southern Cities (Florida, Texas etc.) and in California). It continues to happen in various forms and places and it will always do that. And people will consider those who undergo change to be breaking the language (and it is happening now).

You know what else language change leads to other than a different standard form? Different languages! Romance languages such as Italian, French and Spanish were all once forms of ‘vulgar Latin’, stigmatized and looked down on. Now, we admire these languages. To me, all these indicate that language is by no means a tool to differentiate between people. Language change just happens. It is only natural. No one becomes an upper-class member just virtue of how they speak, nor can anyone become a so-called lower-class person. Language is uniformly the way a person expresses himself/herself, regardless of the form. In other words, there is no higher or lower forms.

What do you think? Did you know about the Great Vowel Shift? Did you know anything about language change? Did you notice any changes in your speech; something that differentiates you from your parents?

Note: Language change is to blame for one thing. It is the main reason why English spelling is inconsistent and also does not match up to the pronunciation all the time. English was printed as the Great Vowel Shift was going on. And written language does not change as fast as spoken language. So, what we spell now is how the language sounded back then.

19 thoughts on “A Language Constant: Change

  1. I answered three 😆
    It’s,amazing how English has changed from the Old English to what it is now. As an English speaker, if we tested on phonetics, such as you created, we would be screwed😂

    When I saw the Old phonetics of “bite” with that schwa on the end, I would’ve never guessed that was “bite”. If it were written with a line over the i (indicative of the long i sound), no schwa, then I would’ve known.

    1. I think all the words with unpronounced schwas now used to pronounce them. Same with unpronounced consonants like the [k] in ‘know’. English changed a lot and relatively fast, actually. And this is a really interesting thing to look into. And it makes the current speakers harder to relate to the old version of it:)

  2. I learned a lot more about language by reading this. Evolution. I wonder if, in some far distant future, the world’s languages will all meld together, and if so, what would that look like and sound like.

  3. You commented on my blog yesterday and I asked you if you were from Turkey. I told you that I had lived in Ankara for four years. During that time, I taught at Bilkent University.

  4. Great post! My sister is a polyglot; our former housemate is a medievalist, so the Great Vowel Shift has been the topic of discussions. It’s really fun – and when you compare some of the shifts in American English (not just pronunciation but word choice) it gets even more entertaining. Is it climate related? A throwback to whatever the indigenous people’s used as words? Just one of them things?

    There are a few games out there, where based on how you would say something – accent, or what words are selected to identify an item – will give you an educated guess as to where in the States you live.

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