<Language> Re: rate of language change

Dr. John E. McLaughlin and Michelle R. Sutton mclasutt at brigham.net
Tue Jan 26 02:18:36 UTC 1999

H. Mark Hubey wrote:

> Larry Trask wrote:

> > On Sat, 23 Jan 1999, H. Mark Hubey wrote:

> > > No, I am assuming that everyone would agree that in a highly
> > > literate society language changes would be small and minimal,

> Has there been any syntactic change? Or has there been a substitution of
> some English terms (probably mostly Americanisms) like show, footlight,
> etc.?

Perhaps you should look at some references before you write sophomoric
responses to Larry T.'s very-well constructed posts.  Larry is NOT talking
about simply borrowing terms and to think that he would try to sandbag anyone
with such simplistic examples (the kind you can read in any op-ed column in
any American newspaper) is ludicrous.  I learned Hungarian from a bunch of
1956 refugees.  Whenever I've tried to converse with modern Hungarians,
however, it becomes quite clear that the language has changed at many
levels--lexical (of course), phonological, syntactic, and morphological.

> > Britain and the USA are also highly literate, yet changes in all
> > varieties of English are proceeding apace.  In little more than a
> > generation, the loss of /h-/ in the word-initial cluster /hw-/ (as in

> Wow. I don't even notice the difference much in this neighborhood and
> neither does anyone else.

One of the "tricks" of linguistic change is that one rarely sees it from the
inside.  I doubt that you live in a community of phoneticians so I'm not
surprised that your neighbors have noticed the change as well.  Incidently, I
grew up in a dialect area that lost /hw/ clusters a few decades ago.  I
thought, though, that being a linguist I could reproduce them adequately on a
speech sample tape I made a couple of years ago.  No matter how hard I
pronounced the 'h', linguists who still had /hw/ in their dialect couldn't
hear it.

> The only thing I noticed here is that some
> people, mostly Hispanics, or those that live in Hispanic neighborhoods
> are speaking a clear-l instead of the standard dark-l. Is that "great
> change".

Yes, it's always them 'furinners. :-)

> > `white') has spread out across the USA with breathtaking speed.  In many

> "Breathtaking speed"? Are you serious? There wasn't much to notice in
> the first place; that is why nobody noticed it except for a few people
> whose job is to split hairs.

I do believe that splitting phonetic hairs is exactly the job of a linguist,
especially one that is interested in historical change.  It's called "paying
attention to detail".  Poor linguists who don't get quickly weeded out of the

> > American cities, a number of vowels (up to six) have been changing their
> > qualities so rapidly and dramatically as to impede communication with
> > speakers not participating in these shifts.  In less than about ten

> I don't believe that.

Read any of Labov's studies about sound change in Philadelphia.

> I live right here in the USA and speak to all
> kinds of peoples and don't have any problems.

But you also don't spend a lot of time analyzing how their speech physically
differs from yours.  There are probably half a dozen syntactic structures that
go unnoticed by you everyday because you're trying to politely listen to what
the person is saying rather than how they're saying it.  It's called
communication.  But look at the structure and you'll see vast differences
between every native speaker of English.

> > There's a moral here: you can't figure out how languages change by
> > sitting in your armchair and thinking about it.  You have to go out and
> > look at the data.

> Don't be ridiculous.

Ahem.  All linguistics proceeds from field work and hard data.  To think
ANYTHING else is vanity.  Where is your hard field data to prove your
assertions.  I don't think I've ever read any post or paper of yours that
exhibited hard data.

Let me give you some more hard data.  My wife and I grew up here in Brigham
City, Utah and we didn't distinguish between [E] and [I], so 'pen' and 'pin'
are identical in our speech (context usually always distinguishes them).  We
do, however, both have a healthy distinction between [e] and [E], in 'sail'
and 'sell', for example.  Our daughters are also growing up right here in
Brigham City.  Not only has the collapse of [E] and [I] solidified in their
speech, but the collapse of [e] and [E] has also started and is spreading.
This change happened while I was not living here so has not affected my own
speech, but is firmly planted in my daughters' speech.  I say [sEl] and [sel],
but they say [sEl] for both.  Context distinguishes them.  That's a pretty
significant change in vocalic structure in just a couple of decades.

John McLaughlin
Utah State University

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