Language Change

by Assif Am-David, Frankfurt a.M.

One of the most intriguing and widely studied topics in linguistics is the nature of language change. It is a well-known fact that natural languages of all types keep changing constantly. Language change can be studied from several angles: One can reconstruct extinct languages, classify languages to language families, recognise trends in lexical and grammatical changes and draw historical conclusions from language change. However, perhaps the most prominent question regarding language change is why it happens in the first place.

The causes of language change have been set aside during most of the time in which historical linguistics was studied. This foundational question was regarded as immaterial to the study of language change due to the fact that the regularity of language change, and with it language change itself, was assumed as an underlying axiom. Notwithstanding, later linguistic theory came to regard the causes of language change as a crucial part of its investigation.

Two major schools are known in the history of linguistics, namely, the functional and the formalist, also called generative. Their different perception of the essence of language has given rise to competing linguistic theories, of which the foundational assumptions as well as applied methods vary greatly. The distinction between these schools mostly relies on four pillars: the purpose language has, how first language acquisition takes place, how to collect linguistic data and what causes language change. Whereas the functional school regards language as a primarily communicative tool, thereby motivating its existence sociologically, the formalist school regards it as a system which developed to sustain human cognition, thereby motivating its existence psychologically. The functional school generally assumes first language acquisition to take place similarly to other learning processes with emphasis on nurturing. Conversely, the formalist school assumes first language acquisition to be based on an innate mechanism called Universal Grammar which facilitates the acquisition process and delimits it. Data collection in the formalist research is normally based on grammaticality judgements reflecting the native speaker’s internal competence. On the other hand, functionalist research relies on language performance often in the form of corpora or speaker elicitation.


This contribution will focus on the fourth contested issue, namely how these two schools of linguistic thought differently account for language change. In this I shall mostly rely on Crowley and Bowern (2010). I shall start by reviewing the classical dominant view in theoretical linguistics that language change is internally motivated. Following, I shall proceed describing the alternative that language change is externally motivated. Finally, I shall argue that both accounts are needed in order to account for language change.


The prominent approach regarding language change prevalent in theoretical linguistics has been that language change can be accounted for by internal mechanisms alone. This relies on the perception that language as an innate system should in large be autonomous. Language competence is regarded as constant after the process of first language acquisition ended by the critical age, therefore not admitting any language change. Language change has to take place in infancy and childhood during the language acquisition process.


The best example a principle governing language change is economicity, which Crowley and Bowern (2010) call simplicity. According to economicity, many of the changes in language should be attributed to the speaker’s unconscious tendency to simplify her production. Complex phonology, morphology or syntax involve difficulties in the physical production (phonology) and in its derivation in the brain (at all grammatical levels). Economicity could account for how children in the process of language acquisition could trigger language change.


A problem resulting from this principle is that if economicity were indeed the major power behind language change, language change could proceed in one universal direction so that eventually all languages would tend to resemble each other, at least in some respects (Crowley and Bowern, 2010). A second problem with economicity is empirical, namely that what is considered complex reappears in the languages of the world despite economicity.


There are two proposed solutions to this problem. The first is postulating another principle (absent from Crowley and Bowern, 2010) called faithfulness or iconicity. This principle conflicts with economicity in that it focuses on the speaker’s unconscious tendency to reflect the structure of the linguistic content in the most precise and corresponding manner, in a way that facilitates processing on behalf of the interlocutor. Similarly to economicity, this tendency is unconscious and relies on linguistic principles. The conflict that arises between economicity and faithfulness results in a fragile balance that can account for the fact that languages constantly change.


A second solution to the problems created by economicity is that of structural pressure (Crowley and Bowern, 2010). According to this principle, speakers unconsciously strive to balance their grammars in a symmetrical manner. This leads them to fill gaps that are created in the grammar systems. If economicity should lead to a specific language change that temporarily creates a gap in the grammar, subsequent changes will tend to eliminate this gap. These may bring about new complexities that themselves call for further simplification, and thereby the constant language change can be accounted for.


The principles introduced above can serve as a basis of a language-internal model of language change that takes place during first language acquisition. Nonetheless, there are major aspects of language change for which this model offers no explanation. Language change does not only involve changes in the grammar. It additionally involves changes in the lexicon to both the meaning of existing words and the formation and borrowing of new words. These cannot be always be accounted for language-internally as they necessarily involve non-structural mechanisms such as metaphorical extension.


Moreover, as Crowley and Bowern (2010) emphasise, substratum (as well as language contact in general) can often account for far-reaching changes not only in the lexicon, but also in the grammar. These changes cannot be accounted for language-internally. Firstly, such changes often involve conscious decisions on behalf of the speaker such as borrowing a foreign word or a foreign sound. Moreover, these changes cannot take place within a single language system, but require the interaction of several separate ones. Such an interaction necessarily has to take sociological factors into account that are foreign to the language-internal approach.


The language-external approach focuses exactly on these aspects absent in the language-internal one. Major causes of language change in this respect are prestige, functional necessity and social identity. I shall now briefly dwell on each one of them separately.


Borrowing is a major component of every language in both lexicon and grammar. The most common cause of borrowing is prestige. A certain language community is perceived as prestigious by another language community and therefore, the latter borrows linguistic elements from the former. This relation does not necessarily involve speaker communities of two distinct languages, but can also occur between speaker sub-communities that are different in gender, age, geography or social class.


Functional necessity is when loanwords are borrowed to describe something for which the recipient language has no corresponding word. This often occurs when contact between two speaker communities involves the introduction of new biological species, technologies and cultural concepts. These are then also accompanied by the introduction of loanwords. Functional necessity does focus on the lexical level, however, as numerous French loanwords in English can attest, loanwords can also bring about changes to the phonemic inventory, as is the case with English /v/ which used to be an allophonic variant of /b/ until massive French relexification in Middle English changed its status into a distinct phoneme.


Social identity is manifested in various manners of which language is certainly a significant element. Crowley and Bowern (2010) cite natives of Papua, known for its considerable linguistic variety, stating that they would not like their language to resemble that of their neighbouring speaker communities. This conscious attitude towards linguistic identity seems to be universal and can motivate language change on all levels or its absence.


A possible solution for the language-internal account is that adults who borrow new linguistic materials into their language variety do so due to interference and that this results in production errors. The competence in their native language does not change, only their performance. It is only the next generation of language acquirers who transfer this modified performance or Intralanguage into a modified competence, similar to the change that takes place between pidgins and creoles.


The common advantage of the language-external account is that it allows speakers to be aware of language change. Since language change often involves more than one linguistic variety, the language-external account can better reflect the interaction between different speaker communities.


A further advantage of language-external account is that it does not only account for the change, but also for its spread among the members of the speaker community. Even when adopting language-internal accounts of language change, we should have to assume these occur at the level of the single speaker and therefore cannot diffuse to the extant speaker community. Language-external mechanisms would be called for in order to account for the following spread of the change initiated by language innovators. This would also be necessary in any model that involves children, because they usually live among adults and do not form a coherent social class capable of establishing a new variety.


On the other hand, the language-external account on its own is also insufficient for the description of language change. Many changes in the grammar, in phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics, take place unconsciously and do not involve several speaker communities. They often adhere to strict formal rules that can anticipate the direction of the change with high probability. The adoption of these principles is crucial for any account of language change.

In this essay we examined both language-internal and language-external accounts of language change, based on the formalist and functional schools in linguistic thought respectively. We opened with the formalist approach to language change and saw some of its major shortcomings. We then proceeded to the functional approach and saw how it accounts exactly for these aspects of language change which are missing in the language-internal account. Moreover, we argued that even if language-internal principles are adopted, these alone cannot account for the spread of language change within the speaker community. On the other hand, the description of grammatical change not involving borrowing can be carried out much better in the language-internal account.



Recalling these arguments I would like to conclude both the formalist language-internal and functionalist language-external approaches are called for in order to capture the complexity of language change. No single approach alone can fully model the causes of language change.



Crowley, T. and Bowern, C. (2010). An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 11-19.