rate of language change

Larry Trask larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk
Fri Jan 29 18:22:30 UTC 1999

On Fri, 29 Jan 1999, Theo Vennemann wrote:

> It may not be a useful part of your educational effort, but from a
> linguistic point of view the loss of word-initial h is a slow
> process which began before stronger consonants in Old English and
> worked its way down the consonantal scale until it hit the position
> before w. Even though w is not quite finished yet (there are still
> some old-timers--your term--saying hw- such as yourself), the sound
> change is now working on the pre-vocalic position. By the time of
> its completion the entire sound change will probably have taken a
> little more than a thousand years.

Theo is, of course, quite right: the consonant /h/ has been gradually
disappearing from English over many hundreds of years.  In some
varieties in England, it is now totally gone.  Elsewhere, it remains to
varying degrees.

This story is so fascinating that I've presented a popular summary of it
in ch. 5 of my little book Language: The Basics.

But my point is that, while the American loss of [h-] in [hw-] is
admittedly just part of a much larger development, this particular part
has been happening with astounding speed.  A generation ago, most
Americans still had [hw-].  Today, only a handful of us still do, and we
are not, on the whole, a youthful group.

In great contrast, some of the other steps in the erosion of [h] seem to
have occurred with almost agonizing slowness, with [h]-ful and [h]-less
pronunciations coexisting side by side for centuries.

[snip references]

Many thanks for the references, Theo.  I'm not acquainted with Lutz's
work.  I've taken most of my historical information on this from the
various works of Jim Milroy -- who himself cites some of Lutz's work, of

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk

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