rate of language change

Larry Trask larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk
Wed Jan 27 17:14:02 UTC 1999

On Mon, 25 Jan 1999, H. Mark Hubey wrote:


> > 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. 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".


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

> "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.

No, not at all.

I am a native speaker of a [hw-]ful variety of English, and I constantly
notice the absence of that [h-] in other people's speech, even after 28
years in England, where that [h-] is long dead.  It's very prominent to
my ears -- and not just because I'm a linguist.

Several weeks ago, I was interviewed by a British woman who asked me the
following question, apparently: "Is this connected to that recent work
on Wales?"  I was absolutely flummoxed for a few seconds, until I
finally worked out, after asking her to repeat the question, that she
was saying "whales".

My mother, who had no training of any kind in linguistics, phonetics or
English language, and not much education of any kind, was also, of
course, a [hw-]-speaker.  She constantly noticed it when the young folks
"dropped the h", and she didn't like it: she considered it sloppy.

About three or four decades ago, [hw-] was general in American speech,
and the loss of [h-] was confined to three smallish and widely separated
areas.  Then, suddenly, h-dropping began spreading across the country
with explosive speed.  Today, I am reliably informed by an American
linguist who's been monitoring this, h-dropping is close to universal,
and the former [hw-] is now confined to what he described as "a handful
of old fogeys".

This new style has even reached the remote valleys of the Allegheny
Mountains, where I come from.  In my home region, all the older
generation, including me, have [hw-].  But, among the younger
generation, that [h-] is completely gone.  All three of my younger
siblings have only [w-], and never [hw-].  And my sister is only
two-and-a-half years younger than me.

Now *that* I call fast.  And losing an entire consonant from
word-initial position strikes me as far from trivial.  It's rather as
though I had grown up surrounded by people pronouncing the /k/ in words
like `knee' and `knot', and then suddenly the whole country had stopped
pronouncing the /k/, except for me and a few other old-timers.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk

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