Is language change decay?

Published 8:44 am Thursday, March 16, 2017

In order to be accurate, any description of language must always acknowledge two fundamental principles that are always operating in a language, and these are that language exists in variation and that language is always changing.

These two principles are, of course, at odds with how we think language should be. Most people feel that language should be uniform and not change too much, which is why we have a standard language variety that follows a specific set of prescribed rules.

This variety that is taught in school and used to inform our writing has many wonderful advantages. It allows us to have one agreed upon way to do things which facilitates literacy, education, communication, etc. But we should never forget that language is always changing and it is surprising to some how much English has changed. The following excerpts from the Lord’s Prayer give us a glimpse of language change in progress over the course of hundreds of years:

Here is a sample of Old English: Faeder re, th the eart on heofonum, s th n nama geh lgod. rne gedaeghw ml can hl f syle s t daeg.

Although this is a very early version of English, this represents a different language for us reading it today. While we can work out which words are “father,” “earth” and “name,” other words are unrecognizable to most of us. Without a dictionary, it would be almost impossible to see that “heofonum” is “heaven,” that “geh lgod” means “blessed” and that “gedaeghw ml can” is the Old English word for “daily.”

With a little bit of help, we can see earlier stages of words we do recognize today such as “hl f” which in Old English meant “bread” but eventually developed into the word we know today as “loaf.” The word we know today as “bread” meant “any piece of food” in Old English. The Old English word “t daeg” continued evolving to give us our modern word “today.”

Note, too, that the grammar is different. For instance, in this passage the adjective “re” follows its noun “faeder,” literally translated “Father our.”

Now for an example of Middle English: Fader oure that is i heuen, blessed be thi name. Oure ilk day bred gif us to day.

Compared to Old English, Middle English seems much more readable, especially because we are familiar with the modern version of the text although “ilk” doesn’t look like our word “every.” The phrase “ilk day” translates to “every day.” Out of context it would be hard to know that “gif” is the forerunner of our word “give.”  This by the way is the language of Chaucer. As for grammar, you can see that the word order is different from modern English, as is spelling, although to be accurate it was difficult to maintain a standard spelling system until the invention of the printing press in the late 15th century.

The same selection of text in early modern English from the King James version of the Bible (completed in 1611) looks like this:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Give us this day our daily bread.

Finally, we read a sample of English that is mostly recognizable to us although even in this early stage of modern English we still see archaic forms such as “art” and “thy.”

From early modern to modern English, we do not see a lot of changes in the text.

Our Father who is in heaven, blessed be your name. Give us our daily bread today.

This shows us how successful the printing press was at standardizing language and slowing the process of change, especially in the written language. Our spelling system, standardized during the early modern stage of English, is lagging behind the changes in spoken language. For example, we no longer pronounce the “k” in “knife” or “knight.”

It is difficult to grasp the nature or drift of the change within the perspective of one lifetime because the changes are occurring so gradually. And most of us are uncomfortable with language change. We invest years of our lives in learning the standard way to do things and any changes to this system seem like corruption or decay, but this is simply not true.

Language change is not decay — it’s just change and history eventually proves that many of the changes that make speakers uncomfortable are eventually accepted without question by future generations of speakers.