Change and variation of English lexis and its educational implication

Essay, 2017
7 Pages, Grade: 2.7


Change and variation of English lexis and its educational implication


Language change and variation is a problematic issue to teachers because it tries to destandardize a language and cause trouble in students’ language learning. This essay focuses is divided into four parts. It will first define the difference between lexical change and lexical variation in English, then it would investigate in the the reasons why there are such lexical changes. After lexical change, lexical variations would be analyzed according to their characteristics and taxonomized into different types. The essay would end with an educational implication relating to teaching of vocabulary.

Distinction between lexical change and lexical variation in English

Lexical change is the difference change in choice of words over time, while lexical variation is the difference over choice of words for different types of people at the same time (Holmes, 2008). For example, the word bus was thought to be ‘a vulgar shortening’ or the word omnibus, while it now has become so common that the use of the word omnibus has become extremely rare (Holmes, 2008, p.205). This is one example of lexical change, from ‘omnibus’ to ‘bus’. For lexical variation, one example is that the word ‘splinter’, which means a strip of wood, is rarely used in other English dialects, but rather ‘spelk’, ‘spell’, ‘speel’, ‘spile’, ‘spool’, ‘splint’, ‘spill’, ‘shiver’ and ‘silver’ are used according to region (Trudgill, 1994).

Causes for English lexical change: Social Network Influence

Microspectively, the social network view in sociolinguistics proposes that there are three kinds of personal network that can influence a person’s language use, including lexical change. Milardo (1988) proposed that the ‘exchange network’ includes personal ties that a person interacts frequently for the purpose of getting help and support, such as in the case of a teacher-student, while the ‘interactive network’ includes personal ties which a person interacts frequently but without the purpose of getting any help or support, such as in a customer-shopkeeper relationship (p.26-36). Li (1994) proposed that the passive network, which includes people which a person interacts rarely but are still of value to the extent that it may cause some linguistic influence on the person, such as remote relatives. Through these networks, If a novel lexical feature by chance successfully appeared somewhere, the person who has the largest amount of people in his exchange network and interactive network using this new lexical feature would be most likely influenced by such a feature. Social networks, therefore, determines the pattern how language spreads and influences a community. By using the social network model, we can explain why certain lexical change can have a far-reaching influence and some do not, by analyzing the social network patterns around the origin where the pattern first appeared.

Causes for English lexical change: Becoming a norm in a speech community

Macrospectively, the speech community view explains that lexical change are firmly established only if it is considered as a shared norms within a speech community (Labov, 1972). For example, Labov (1966) identified black speakers having different uses in terms of the words eh, oh, ay and aw when compared with white users, but among the black speakers they use the words in the same manner generally, and Labov therefore considered them as one speech community. Besides race, sex, social class can also be boundaries between speech communities. The existence of speech community favours lexical change within the community as a way in establishing identity (LePage & Tabouret-Keller, 1985).

Causes for English lexical change: Prevalence of a Variation by Community of Practice

Greater scale of lexical change occurs when a variation not only novelly appear within a speech community, but also prevails over other variations and making them eventually disappears. Therefore, in order to look at why lexical change occurs, we also have to look at why lexical variation appears. Lexical variation can occur in different communities of practice. Meyerhoff (2002) concluded that there are 3 stages for a variation to be born due to community of practice: mutual engagement of the members, jointly negotiated enterprise and members’ shared repertoire. Mutual engagement means the group have to get together frequently for some purpose in order to allow sufficient time for a variation to be established (Meyerhoff, 2002). Wenger (1998) pointed out that such engagement need not be a positive engagement but may also be a negative one, such as in the community of a group of departmental leaders in a company who meet constantly over allocation of resources due to a decreasing budget. A jointly-negotiated enterprise means that there is a common purpose behind the frequent meetings in pursuit of something (Meyerhoff, 2002). Wenger (1998) pointed out that such purpose cannot be too general, or otherwise the common purpose can hardly be called specifically shared only within the group and create an identity that allows the creation of a variation. The last criteria is shared repertoire, which means as a result a variation that is commonly known within the group is produced due to mutual engagement and jointly-negotiated enterprise.

Causes for English lexical change: Flawed familial language acquisition

The reason why lexical change is always occurring is because family is one important medium of lexical change. Roberts and Labov (1995) proposed that children are major contributors to language change since it is impossible for them to copy the language that is exactly the same as their parents. These children have peers to communicate with and communication within these peer groups can be quite different from communication with their parents because language choice varies with context (Labov, 2001). Since parental influence is not the sole influence on the children’s language acquisition, several studies has confirmed that no child copies exactly their parents’ language variation patterns’ (Wilson & Henry, 1998). It is found out that only 86-98% of children’s words can also be found in their parent’s, despite that they should be having a much smaller vocabulary size comparing with their parents (Hart & Risley, 1995). Another explanation of such difference is that it is difficult for parents to expose to all the intra-personal variations of the language their children use since for some variations their children would only choose to use when their parents are absent, so parents can hardly copy exactly their children’s language variation patterns as well.

Major types of lexical variation: Intra-speaker variations

In the microspective view, a person can alter the morphosyntactic features of its speech and choose the appropriate variation for the right context (Crystal, 1991). One simple example is that an American speaker may use the ‘-ing’ form for continuous tense words as in the word “walking” in the formal setting rather than using the “-in” form as in “walkin”. This variation is called a register variation (Schilling-Estes, 2002). Intra-speaker variation can also involve dialect variations. For example, it was found out that although some Anglo-Texas saleswomen do not consider themselves as a Southerner, they would try to use the Southern English variation in order to get better sales (Johnstone, 1999).


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Change and variation of English lexis and its educational implication
Education University of Hong Kong  (Department of English Language Education)
ENG2347 Words and Their Meanings
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change, english
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Bachelor of Education (Music) Kwan Lung Chan (Author), 2017, Change and variation of English lexis and its educational implication, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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