5 1.5 Language Change in Progress

This unit looks at some changes that have happened in English and some that are happening right now:

  • Changes to the vocabulary of English.
  • A change in the sound system that happened through the 20th century.
  • Some changes in the morphosyntax that are in progress in 2020.

Check Yourself


Video Script

We saw in the last unit that every language changes over time. In this unit, we’ll look more closely at some of the changes that are happening in English right now.

Every part of a language’s grammar can change, but some of these changes are faster than others, and some are more noticeable. The lexicon is the vocabulary of a language — what words are in the language. New words enter English all the time as new technologies and concepts emerge, and dictionary editors like to publish lists of the new words they’ve added. This list shows a handful of words that were added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2020: beardo, awesomesauce, mentionitis, self-isolate, PPE (for personal protective equipment), and, thirsty? Surely the word thirsty was in the Dictionary before 2020!? Yes, it was, with the meaning of “wanting something to drink”, but a new meaning was added in 2020 — if you don’t know that new meaning you might want to look it up.

A kind of language change that happens more gradually is in the sound system. Here are two English words, and I want you to think about whether both these words sound the same to you. For me, these two words sound the same — they’re both [waɪn]. But for some English-speakers, the second word, the one that’s spelled with a “wh”, has a voiceless sound at the beginning, so it’s pronounced [ʍaɪn]. When I say, “some English speakers”, who do I mean?

Jack Chambers, a linguist at the University of Toronto, conducted a large-scale study of Canadian English and how it has changed over time. One part of his study asked people to say words that started with a “wh”: words like where, whine, whale, wheel. Then he analyzed his findings according to how old his participants were. In this graph, I’ve plotted people’s decade of birth along the x-axis. So when Chambers was doing his research, people who had been born before 1920 were in their 80s. You can see that for this age group, more than half of them have the voiceless [ʍ] at the beginning of these wh-words. So for this group, whine sounds different from wine. For the next younger group, the pattern is about the same, but for each successively younger group, the proportion of people who pronounce a wh-word with a voiceless [ʍ] drops off. So for the people who were in their late teens and early twenties when Chambers interviewed them, only about 10% pronounced whine differently from wine. By looking at this snapshot across different age groups, we can get a picture of how Canadian English has changed over time.

Languages might also change in their morphology and syntax, though these changes tend to happen very slowly indeed. Let’s look at a couple of changes that are in progress right now. The first one I want to look at has to do with the word because. Suppose I start a sentence like this, “Alex took an umbrella because…” and I ask you to finish it. You might finish it by appending another whole sentence, “because it was raining”. Or you might choose a prepositional phrase that starts with of, “because of the rain”. Both of these options have been available in English syntax for centuries. But a new option is emerging. If you’re young, or if you spend a lot of time online, you might finish this sentence just, “because thunderstorm”, with just a plain old noun phrase. This change seems to have started on Craigslist in 2011, with an ad for a car that was “completely stripped inside because race car”, and now forms the title of the book Because Internet, in which linguist Gretchen McCulloch documents the ways that the internet has changed how we use language.

The last change I want to talk about is also happening in the morphosyntax of English, in the pronoun system. But first we need to look at a change that happened hundreds of years ago. In the 16th century, English used to have two ways of saying “you”. If you were talking to a group of people, you’d say you just like we do now. But if you were talking to just one person, you’d address them as thou or thee, as in, “What classes art thou taking this term?” or “I really like thy new haircut”. By the 17th century, thou and thee had all but disappeared and were only reserved for conversations with people you’re very close to. So the word you was used for both singular and plural. In modern English, we don’t have thou or thee at all unless we’re trying to be funny or old-fashioned. But it can be pretty useful to have a way of distinguishing between singular and plural, so some varieties of spoken English have other plural forms, like y’all or you guys or youse. Maybe your variety of English has one of these.

So that change in the pronoun system happened hundreds of years ago without incident. These days a different change is happening, this time to the third person pronoun they. For centuries, they has been used as a plural pronoun, to refer to a group of people, as in, “The children said they played soccer all afternoon”. And it’s also very common to use they when we don’t know how many people are involved. You might hear someone say, “Whoever was in here, he or she or they made a big mess” but it would sound very formal and stuffy. The same is true if you’re talking about one person whose identity you don’t know, or if it just isn’t relevant — maybe I’m telling one of my colleagues, “One of my students told me they were locked out of their email”. There’s only one student, but their identity isn’t relevant to the story, so I just refer to them as they. This so-called singular they has also been in English for centuries — you can see that it’s documented as far back as the fifteenth century, in contexts that are really clearly singular: each of them, a man, a person. The change that’s in progress right now is to use they for a single person whose identity we do know, either because they’re non-binary and use they/them pronouns or because we’re choosing not to specify their gender. When I poll students, that is, people in their 20s, I usually find that about half of them have this specific-singular-they in their mental grammar, and about half don’t. So it’s a change that’s unfolding right now.

As always, when language changes, some prescriptivists get quite uptight about it. The Chicago Manual of Style tells people “it is still considered ungrammatical”, and the AP Stylebook tells you it’s “acceptable in limited cases” but they’d really prefer if you didn’t use it. And then there are the extremely crabby folks like this author who claimed it hurt her ears and burned her eyes, poor thing! But no matter how much the prescriptivists yell, specific-singular-they is getting used more and more widely. In 2015 the American Dialect Society voted it the Word of the Year; the Globe & Mail added it to its style guide in 2017, and it was the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2019. And linguists are paying attention to how this part of English grammar is changing. Bronwyn Bjorkman found that English-speakers with a conservative grammar didn’t use they in this way, but those with an “innovative” grammar did. Lauren Ackerman has proposed that the more trans and non-binary friends you have, the likelier your grammar is to have specific-singular-they. Kirby Conrod found in their dissertation that older people were less likely to use it and younger people were more likely, and Lex Konnelly just published a paper tracking the three stages of grammatical change that are unfolding.

I said earlier that this change is happening no matter how much it bothers the prescriptivists. No one can stop language from changing. But can we make it happen faster? After all, grammar is people — if everyone woke up tomorrow and started calling a dog a “blimlimlim”, the dictionaries couldn’t stop us! There is good research that shows that misgendering people does real harm. One way to make it less likely that non-binary people will be misgendered is for the language to change to include specific-singular-they. And the way that language changes is for people to change how they use it. If you already have specific-singular-they in your grammar, use it as much as you can! And if you’d like to change your own mental grammar, Kirby Conrod gives some good advice — slow down, listen to people who use it in their own language, and practice! The more you use it, the more natural it will feel.

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Essential of Linguistics by Catherine Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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