Social Factors in Language Change

In the long run of history, the English language is always changing , mainly in four different aspects: (1)pronunciation; (2)vocabulary; (3)grammar; (4)meaning. As a matter of fact, this is the case with every human language. But why these changes occurred, which is well worth studying, is due to the development of society and social changes..

Change in pronunciation  In Chaucer¡¯s time, for example, the English word for ¡°house¡± was pronounced [hu:s] instead of [hąus] as it is now.

Change in vocabulary    In old English, the past form ¡°did¡± was spelt ¡°didst¡±.

Change in grammar      Formerly, the negative form of a sentence was put ¡°not¡± at the end like this: I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.

Change in meaning      Some of the English words changed their original meaning. For instance, the word ¡°companion¡± used to refer to a person who shared bread with you, and the ¡°silly¡± meant ¡°happy¡± in old English and later in middle English it meant ¡°naive¡±.

Why did the English language change so much? What are the social factors in language change? The following are two main factors for the language change.

1.     The Introduction of Foreign words

The history of the English language begins with the conquest and settlement of what is now England by the Angles and Saxons. Long before their invasion of England the Angles and Saxons had had various contacts with the Romans, through which they borrowed a considerable number of Latin words: bargain, cheap, inch, pound, cup, dish, wall wine, ets. The English language continued to adopt words from Latin during the Old English period, especially after the introduction of Christianity into Britain in 597. It is natural that most of the Latin words borrowed at that time were related with religion. Among those that still survive in present-day English are abbot, altar, candle, disciple, martyr, nun, priest, pope, shrine, temple and agreat many others.

Since the French-speaking Normans were the ruling class, French was used for all state affairs and for most social and cultural matters; but the masses continued to speak English.Only towards the end of the 15th century did English become once more the language of the whole country. However, the language that emerged at that time showed vast and significant changes. French words were found in every section of the vocabulary: law and governmental administration (judge, jury, justice; government, parliament, state¡­); military affairs (conquer, sergeant, victory¡­); religion (baptism, cinfess, divine, sermon¡­); clothing (coat, dress, gown, robe¡­); food (beef, mutton, pork, dinner¡­); art (beauty, image, design¡­); literature (chapter, poet, prose, rime¡­); science (medicine, remedy, surgeon¡­), and so on.

From the sixteenth century onward, English borrowed words from an increasing number of languages, the major ones being the three Romance languages, French, Spanish snd Italian. English also adopted words from other European languages, such as Portuguese, German, Dutch, and Russian.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, as a result of exploration, colonization and trade, many words came in from non-European languages. Some examples are: boomerang, kangaroo and dingo from Australian; sugar, sultan and alcohol from Arabic; coolie and cashmere from Indian; schmozzo and schmaltz from Hebrew; yamen and loquat from Chinese; kimono and tycoon from Japanese; gorilla and zebra from African. In fact English has adopted words form almost every known language in the course of its historical development.

2. The Creation of New Words

  During the course of language development, new words were created while some old ones died out., and still some words established new meanings. The main reasons for the frequent appearance of new words and new meanings for established words are three: marked progress of science and technology; socio-economic.

Marked progress of science and technology: Since the end of World War II, tremendous new advances in all fields of science and technology have given rise to the creation in the English language of tens of thousands of new words. The great majority of these are technical terms known only to the specialist, but a certain number of them have become familiar to the masses and passed into general use.

Words used in connection with the nuclear bomb for instance, like chain reaction, radioactivity, clean bomb, neutron bomb and medium-range ballistic missiles, are familiar to most people. Some of these words have come into general use, e.g. in this sentence: ¡°Science can truly be said to have sparked off a chain reaction in the linguistic sphere.¡±

Then in the 1960¡¯s and 1970¡¯s saw spectacular achievements in science and engineering in the exploration of space. In addition to astronaut and cosmonaut, dozens of new words form space science were created, e.g. to blast off, to countdown, capsule, launching pad, space suit, spacemen, space platform and space shuttle.

Computer science is another field that has been opened up in the latter part of the 20th century. The impact of computers upon the life of the ordinary people has made the following words popular: software, hardware, input, output, memory, monitor, to process, programming and data base.

Socio-economic, political and cultural changes:

New social habits and new words, of which the following are but a few: hire purchase, credit card, fringe benefit, high-rise.

Then there are some changes in domestic habits. Many people do their own housework now. They call these rather dull household jobs chores. House sitter and house sitting are also new terms. Kitchenette, a very small kitchen, is used mainly for the kitchens in flats. Shopping is frequently done in a supermarket.

Internal political struggle in the U.S. also gave rise to a large number of new words. Sit-in and swim-in are products of the civil rights movements; teach-in a product campaign against the Vietnam War.

For the women¡¯s liberation movement we get such terms as the now widely used Ms, chairperson, chairwoman, spokeswoman, saleswoman, feminism and sexism.

Changes in education have given rise to a number of new words, such as: open classroom; open university and alternative school.

The development of science, the rapid changes in society, the receptive and flexible nature of English with regard to the influence of other cultures and languages¡ªall these have resulted in a dramatic increase in vocabulary, a growth which in turn contributes to the richness and resourcefulness of the English language.