Competing Motivations in the Process of Language Change

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Types of Language Change
2.1 Lexical and Semantic Change
2.2 Morphological and Syntactic Change
2.3 Phonological Change

3. Theoretical Approaches to Language Change
3.1 Lexical Diffusion
3.2 Grammaticalization
3.3 The Invisible Hand Phenomenon
3.4 Sociolinguistic Aspects of Language Change

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Language change is a steadily continuing process. Languages were changing 2000 years ago. They are changing today and they will certainly be changing in the future. So we are able to determine different steps in the development of the English language: roughly speaking, Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. All of them are different from each other in terms of semantics, phonology, or morphology. In this manner, morphological and syntactic, phonological, lexical and semantic characteristics of a particular language are altering all the time. These processes may happen consciously or unconsciously. They may be perceived by the speakers of the respective language or they may be not. However, this process is always going on.

Furthermore, there are lots of motivations causing those changes. As an example, the ambition to ease pronunciation – that is, the reduction of effort that is necessary for moving the speech articulators – causes changes in phonology. The contact between several languages may cause lexical and semantic change as well as phonological change. Social pressures may be equally influential. Lexical items, additionally, may take over grammatical functions losing their original meaning due to frequent usage of the particular word or phrase. Thus, a language, as will be explained in this paper, is generally shaped and altered by using it.

In fact, a number of linguists claim that language change is caused by competing motivations, which “[...] can never all be satisfied at once.”[1] This seminar paper deals with the processes of language change and these competing motivations. Hence, the various types of language changes – lexical and semantic, morphological and syntactic as well as phonological changes – will be defined and described. Furthermore, the theories of ‘Lexical Diffusion’, ‘Grammaticalization’, the ‘Invisible Hand Phenomenon’, and, finally, the sociolinguistic aspects of language change are taken into consideration. This work, however, does not meet the claim to provide a complete illustration of language change. It is rather an overview of the different motivations influencing and shaping a language steadily.

2. Types of Language Change

2.1 Lexical and Semantic Change

Lexical and semantic changes are the most obvious changes of a language. New words are, for example, pouring in steadily from other languages, they are formed out of existing word, they may simply be invented new or they change their actual meaning. These processes are, thus, very common in language change and will be briefly looked at in this section by describing the phenomena of lexical change first. The way how semantic change works will be the second part of the following illustrations.

Lexical change, as its name suggests, terms the modification of the lexicon of a certain language. In this way, there are several processes going on during lexical change. First of all, borrowing, a type of lexical change, is the most frequent phenomenon which is caused by the contact between languages.[2] Lexemes, such as karaoke from Japanese, vis-à-vis from French, or leitmotif from German, are so called loanwords introduced into English. An obvious reason for borrowing words from other languages is that an item is completely new to a speaker and, thus, a name for it simply does not exist in his or her language. Hence, the speaker adopts the respective term from the donor language, such as kangaroo from Guugu-Yimidhirr – an animal which might have been unknown to speakers of English discovering Australia in the seventeenth century. Another motivation for borrowing is prestige. As an example, many words have been borrowed from French which was often considered the “language of the élite”, as Trask points out.[3] Moreover, a borrowed lexeme may be so successful that it totally drives out the respective term in the lending language.

A further type of lexical change is word formation using already existing words to build up new lexemes. In this manner, two or more items can be combined to a new one which is called compounding. Derivation (the addition of affixes), clipping (just taking a part of a word), blending (combining pieces of words), or the use of acronyms are only some examples how new words can come into existence. Finally, terms, such as x-ray or blog, may just be invented which are then called neologisms.[4]

A second phenomenon, that will be discussed in this section, is a part of language change, as well: semantic change, the change in the meaning of a word which is commonly evoked by a change in the world or in the linguistic context (e.g. avoiding taboos using euphemisms) both shifting the markedness of the meaning.[5] In fact, there are many different types of semantic change that are not described in detail here. In this way, the meaning of a word may be broadened or narrowed, meliorated (improved) or pejorated (worsened). The use of metaphors, metonymy, or synecdoche may also result in semantic change. As a consequence, a “[...] new meaning may completely displace an older meaning [...]” or coexist with it.[6] Furthermore, the introduction of new words through borrowing may trigger a meaning shift of a former word.

2.2 Morphological and Syntactic Change

Changes of the morphological structure of words, of inflected forms and of the overall morphological system are referred to as morphological change. As in all language changes, there are different types of morphological change which will not all be illustrated here due to a lack of space. Reanalysis is a very common type of morphological change: according to Trask, it means that “[...] a word which historically has one particular morphological structure comes to be perceived by speakers as having a second, quite different, structure.”[7] In this way, the word bikini, a single morpheme in origin, has been perceived as consisting of the morphemes bi- (a prefix meaning ‘two’) and - kini. Hence, the word monokini could be built up by replacing the bi- prefix through the prefix mono-, which means ‘one’. Reanalysis is also an important factor in the process of grammaticalization, which will be described later on in this paper.

The effects of analogy influence the morphology of lexical items, as well. Thus, morphological rules are generalised and words are formed according to certain patterns – analogically. As an example in English, all regular plurals are inflected by adding an –s to the singular form. According to this general pattern, native speakers are usually able to form the plural of words that are even totally new to them. As demonstrated in the section on phonological change, analogy, however, can be in conflict with phonological modifications, known as Sturtevant’s paradox: analogy “[...] can sometimes block or reverse the effect of a regular phonological change.”[8] Thus, regular conditioned phonological changes may cause irregularities in the morphology whereas irregular – that means “unpredictable” – analogical changes evoke regularities.[9]


[1] R.L. Trask, Historical Linguistics, (London: Arnold, 1996) 95.

[2] Trask, Historical Linguistics, 17.

[3] Ibid. 20.

[4] Ibid. 30-37.

[5] Ibid. 38, 45.

[6] Trask, Historical Linguistics, 45.

[7] Ibid. 102.

[8] Ibid. 108.

[9] Ibid. 109.

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Competing Motivations in the Process of Language Change
College  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Historical Linguistics
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ISBN (Book)
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language, change, lexical, semantic, morphological, phonological, theoretical, approach, diffusion, grammaticalization, invisible, hand, phenomenon, sociolonguistic, english
Quote paper
David Stehling (Author), 2010, Competing Motivations in the Process of Language Change, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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