rate of language change

Larry Trask larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk
Wed Jan 27 17:57:22 UTC 1999

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

> I don't think it useful to even dig into this deeper until there is an
> "operational" definition of "rate of change" of language. So far nobody
> has done it, and most people have attacked me for even entertaining the
> thought that the rate of language change should be measured along with
> lots of other properties and characteristics of language. I suspect that
> some people prefer the present state of affairs because if measurements
> are lacking nobody will be able to catch them stating falsehoods and
> completely unsupported bald assertions.

Mr. Hubey, this is as ignorant as it is offensive.  (Well, you did say
you wanted "vigorous" discussion, didn't you?  ;-) )

To begin with, all statements made by responsible linguists -- among
whom I count myself -- are based directly upon the scrutiny of data.
We have a large and constantly growing body of data on language change,
obtained not only from the scrutiny of documents but also, and
increasingly, from the careful examination of language changes in

Our predecessors did not know how to study language changes in progress.
Today, we know a good deal about how to do this, thanks mainly to the
efforts of the sociolinguists, to whom I take my hat off.  At any given
moment, there are hundreds of linguists studying language changes in
progress and publishing their findings.

Naturally, we are always interested in rates of change, and we now have
a good deal of data.  That's how I was able to report, in an earlier
posting, that we can find no correlation between the rate of language
change and the degree of sophistication or literacy of a society.

Anyway, the exercise is far from trivial.

First, at any given moment, any given speech variety is in the middle of
a whole bunch of changes.  Some of these may even be competing changes:
different changes which are "trying" to apply to the same words or forms
to produce different outcomes.

Second, some changes are blindingly fast, some are slower, and some are
positively glacial.

Third, changes don't affect every member of a community simultaneously:
they affect some members earlier than others.

Fourth, not all individuals are affected in the same way.  An affected
individual typically exhibits variation between a conservative form and
an innovating form (and frequently also one or two intermediate forms),
and uses each form with some particular frequency.  This frequency
depends both upon the individual and upon the context of speaking.

Consequently, we can't even talk meaningfully about "measuring the rate
of change" until we first clarify exactly what it is we want to measure.

Linguists have now developed techniques for examining the manner and
rate of language change.  We have statistical approaches which, properly
used, can reveal a great deal about these matters.  We have discovered
fascinating correlations between language change and a whole host of
social factors, such as social class, sex, age and context, and even
such things as speakers' attitudes toward their social group and toward
other social groups.  And we have discovered a number of previously
unknown phenomena, such as lexical diffusion, the lower-middle-class
crossover, near-mergers, metatypy, esoterogeny, and the Bill Peters
effect.  (Sorry about the fancy terms, but these are necessary labels
for important and fascinating phenomena.)

You will hear no "falsehoods" from me or from any reputable linguist.
The occasional error, no doubt, but no falsehoods.

And you will also hear no "completely unsupported bald assertions" from
us -- in great contrast to your own postings, I might add.  Everything
we report is based upon the scrutiny of hard linguistic data.
Naturally, I can't reproduce those data here -- life is too short.  But
the data, and the conclusions derived from them, are in the public
domain, and can be examined by anyone who is interested.


> > 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. This is one of the standard lines that people like
> you have learned to spout without even having the slightest idea of what
> measurement is about and how to interpret data.

Ooh...Mr. Hubey.

If *you* want to learn something about language change, I suggest you
read some knowledgeable books on the subject, those written by
professional linguists and containing hard data.  May I suggest starting
with my own textbook of historical linguistics, perhaps especially with
chapter 10?  Try reading this, and then try the exercises at the end.
Exercise 10.7 is particularly appropriate, I think.  But all the
exercises here present some data on language change and then invite the
reader to interpret those data.

Let me know how you get on.

> As far as I am concerned you are faceless and nameless.

Interesting, since you know my name so well that your blood pressure
probably rises every time you see it on your mail spool.  And I look
like Richard Dreyfuss -- remember?

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk

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