Why does language change?

Target audience: beginners.

Imperfect transmission

  • Every generation learns the language anew
  • They need to reconstruct in their own minds the grammar that the adults have
  • But sometimes what the adults produce is consistent with multiple possible representations (lexical, grammatical, etc)
  • As a result, language tends to drift over time
  • e.g. a napron => an apron
    • why? the string of sounds [əˈneipɹən] is consistent with both [ə] + [ˈneipɹən] and [ən] + [ˈeipɹən]

Bias (natural processes)

  • Certain facts about the human body and mind make certain patterns easier than others, especially in fast or casual speech
  • With repetition, these patterns can become ingrained even in careful speech
  • These include articulatory, acoustic, and cognitive biases
  • e.g. in + possible => impossible
    • it’s hard for the speech organs to change from one place of articulation to another in between consonants

Language contact

  • Through migration, trade, and war, populations speaking different languages come into contact with each other
  • In such situations, individuals may become partially or fully bilingual and words, sounds, and grammar can travel from one language to the other

Social differentiation

  • Language is used to mark group identity
  • Since people often value belonging (or not belonging) to particular social groups, they will adopt or abandon particular linguistic features to fit in better
  • This usually involves acceleration of other types of change

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