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Introduction to Language
1.0 What is language?
The different approaches to linguistics should suggest to you that defining language itself is
quite difficult. It meant something very different to the neogrammarians than it did to the
structuralists, not to mention what it means to those today who follow Chomsky's ideas. Indeed,
the central question guiding the work of many of these scholars has been "what is language,"
and the definition one gives largely depends on the type of linguistics one studies. It is quite
difficult to define language in a way that encompasses all varieties that exist (or have existed)
and that distinguishes it from other forms of communication.
Because of this difficulty, instead of providing a simple definition, it is perhaps preferable instead
to provide a list of features that all languages share. For example, in several papers published
between 1959 and 1968, ​Charles Hockett​ enumerated 16 "design features" of language.
Several of these can be found in different types of animal communication, about which more is
being learned all the time (see​ ​this article​ ​from Jan 20, referring to this​ ​academic article​), ​but
only human language have all 16.
1. Vocal-auditory channel
2. Broadcast transmission and directional reception
3. Transitoriness
4. Interchangeability
5. Total Feedback
6. Specialization
7. Semanticity
8. Arbitrariness
9. Discreteness
10. Displacement
11. Productivity
12. Traditional Transmission
13. Duality of Patterning
14. Reflexiveness
15. Learnability
16. Blending
I am not going to discuss all the features in detail here (you can see them all in this​ ​Wikipedia
article​), ​but I will point out key points about several of the features that will be crucial for this
1. Vocal-Auditory Channel​. ​Language is produced in the vocal tract and processed by the
ears.​ This feature is very important to keep in mind for modern English speakers because we
live in such a heavily literate society. We therefore often tend to think that the written language
is somehow a more "pure" or "correct" version of English, and spoken English is often described
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with dismissive terms such as "colloquial" or "vernacular," as if it were a pale reflection of true,
written English. But for most of the history of English, the vast majority of people were unable to
read and write and yet were able to communicate perfectly well. All languages must have a
vocal-auditory method of communication, but there is no necessity for a language to be written.
Therefore, written forms of a language are often entirely ignored in linguistics. A necessary
consequence of this is that many of the so-called "problems" that people mention when they
discuss "bad English" are not actual linguistic problems. Errors of spelling, punctuation,
contractions, capitalization, fonts, substitution of symbols for letters ("2" for "to"), and so on are
aspects of writing and have nothing to do with language ​per se​.
7. Semanticity​. ​Speech sounds in language convey specific meanings​. To use Hockett's own
example, a dog's panting produces sound and may indicate that the dog is hot, but this meaning
is a side effect. The panting is a physical reaction to being hot, not an intentional communication
of that hotness. A person may breath heavily to intentionally convey a certain meaning;
however, it may also simply indicate that he or she is hot or has been physically exerting
themselves. In other words, there is not a single specific meaning conveyed by this sound.
Words, on the other hand, do convey specific meanings that are particular to those combination
of sounds.
8. Arbitrariness​. ​There is no direct connection between the auditory signal and the meaning
given to it.​ This is perhaps the most crucial feature for studying how a language can change
over time. It comprises two concepts: language is ​arbitrary​ and language is ​conventional​.
In his ​Course in General Linguistics​ Saussure presents the notion of the ​sign​, a combination of
the ​signifier​, which is the sound in speech of a word, and the ​signified​, the mental concept
which the sound evokes. In the case of “tree,” the sound we make when we say the word is the
signifier, which calls to mind the concept of a tree, which is the signified.
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The connection between the signifier and the signified, as Saussure stressed, is entirely
arbitrary​. In other words, we could use any combinations of sounds as the signifier for a tree.
There is nothing in the sound pattern t-r-ee that connects it inherently to either actual, physical
trees that exist in the visible world or to the mental concept of trees​. So why do we use the
signifier "tree" instead of some other group of sounds? Purely by ​convention​, that is, by
agreement. As a community of speakers of a language, we have all decided that the sound
"tree" will signify the concept of trees. We could change this and use a different sound, as long
as enough speakers "agreed" to it. In fact, a thousand years ago, many English speakers used
the word ​beam​ to refer to trees, but over time we have "agreed" to stop using "beam" for entire
trees and to use it for just a specific part of a tree, or even just a long piece of wood, or even
now just any long, straight thing, such as a beam of light. At the same time we agreed that trees
would be referred to by the word "tree." Since the connection between the word "tree" and trees
is arbitrary, we may decide in the future to use the word "tree" for something else and use
another word for trees. It should be emphasized here that the term "arbitrary" as used here
should not be confused with the false notion that anything can mean anything in language. As
described above, it is only the ​connection b
​ etween signified and signifier that is arbitrary, but
there is a connection, one that we have agreed upon by convention.
The primary objection that can be brought up against the notion of convention is onomatopoeia,
words whose sound pattern seems to mimic the actual sound it refers to. Such words rarely hold
up to scrutiny, however. First, many of the words which speakers of one language consider an
accurate phonic representation of a sound turn out to vary widely across languages. A good
example is the crow of a rooster. For English speakers, roosters say "cock-a-doodle-do," while
for Spanish speakers they say 'kikiriki" (according to​ ​this website​ ​which lists quite a number of
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Spanish animal sounds -- I have no ability to verify these contents). It is clear that roosters do
not actually crow differently in different countries, but our perceptions of them, or at least our
attempts to mimic them fall into the sound patterns of our own particular language, and thus
they belong to the same conventional connection between signified and signifier. Another
refutation is that the sounds in these words change over time according to the same sound
changes that other words undergo -- if they truly represented the sound they signify, then they
would presumably not be altered. For example, some might think that the word "fart" is an
onomatopoeic representation of a sound, but this word in fact goes all the way back to the
Proto-Indo-European root *perd-. This root may itself be an onomatopoeia, bu​t ​its descendants
in multiple modern languages all sound quite different​ --​ again breaking the notion of an intrinsic
connection between the sound of the word and the concept. An extract with Saussure's own
dismissal of onomatopoeia as an objection can be found ​on this page​.
9. Discreteness​. ​Each unit of communication can be separated and is unmistakable​. When
someone says the word ​pat​ we can separate it into three discrete or distinct ​segments​, p, a,
and t. These individual segments are recognizably distinct from other segments. They can also
be used in different combinations and have unrelated meanings, such as ​tap​ or ​apt.​
11. Productivity.​ ​Language can create an infinite number of new utterances with new
meanings by combining already existing signs​. In fact, every day each of us probably produces
or comes across utterances that have never been made before in human history. Note that the
ability to produce such new utterances and also to understand them means that language has a
grammatical patterning or system. If there was no underlying grammatical system over which we
could lay our signs in an understandable order, then we would only be able to reproduce
sentences that we had previously memorized.
12. Traditional Transmission​. ​Language is learned in social groups​. We learn English
because we grow up and are surrounded by other speakers of English. Furthermore, the variety
of English we learn is determined by the social group in which we are speaking. Recognition of
this fact will explain much of the "non-linguistic" material that we will cover in this course. For
example, we have a vast amount of words in English that we borrowed from Scandinavian
languages, due in large part to the Viking invasions of England in the ninth century. We also
have a large amount of French words from the Norman invasion of the 11th century. Language
is socially transmitted, not genetically transmitted.
13. Duality of Patterning​. ​The infinite number of new meanings is created by a finite number of
sound components​. The continuous stream of speech that we hear can be divided into discrete
segments (see discreteness above). These discrete segments are finite in number (in English
we only use about 39 or 40 individual sounds) and on their own are meaningless, yet they can
be combined in numerous ways to create an infinite number of meaningful statements.
These 7 features (out of the 16 total) are the most important for understanding how language
works and how it can change. If we had to construct a definition out of them, we could say
something like "Language is a conventional, socially-transmitted system of discrete vocal
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sounds which are combined to create an infinite number of signs used for human
1.1 Language is a system.
This is the most important aspect of language for you to understand. By system, I mean that
every language is based on a set of structures that work based on systematic rules. The three
basic structures as we will discuss them in this course are ​phonology, grammar, ​and ​lexicon​.
These structures combine with each other according to ​systematic​ ​rules​. By ​systematic​ I mean
that the rules are established and non-random; they are observable and reproducible. We can
establish what the rules of English are by observing how native English speakers speak. This is,
in fact, how all native speakers of English learn to speak it. As children we observe how others
use language: we internalize the system of sounds that are used (​phonology​), how these
sounds are combined to create words (​lexicon​) and how these words can be put together to
form meaningful utterances (​grammar​). If there were no system, then all utterances would be
random and therefore meaningless. No one would be able to learn the rules, and thus no one
would be able to understand what anyone else was saying.
This description of language as a system applies to all languages and all varieties of languages,
whether the language of the most literate and wealthy members of societies, or the language of
illiterate hunter-gatherers, or of any poor or lower class speakers dwelling in impoverished areas
throughout the world. We know this because all languages are equally capable of being
understood by their speakers. People who live in the Bronx have no difficulty communicating
with other people who live there, just as people who live in the hills of Appalachia can easily
communicate with other Appalachians. Many people think that certain languages, or certain
varieties of a single language, are somehow better at communication than others, or that some
language varieties are sloppier, simpler, or less emotional, or more violent or more romantic,
etc. than other languages. None of this is true. All languages are equally systematic and thus all
are equally able to express the concepts needed by its community of speakers.
To understand in more detail how this system works, it is useful to break language up into three
basic structures: ​Phonology, Grammar​ and ​Lexicon​.
1. Phonology
This is the study of the sounds, or ​phones​, we make in a language. When we listen to
someone speak, their speech is uttered in a continuous stream; this continuous stream can be
broken up into discrete ​segments​ of meaning. These segments are called ​phonemes​. A
phoneme​ is “the smallest ​meaningful​ unit of sound in a language.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of the definition of a phoneme is the word ​meaningful​. Think
about how many sounds we can make with our mouths, and how few of these we actually use
to speak English. We can make all sorts of grunts, clicks, and other types of noises, but out of
all these possible sounds, General American only uses about 39 specific and distinguishable
(i.e., meaningful) sounds to form its utterances (this number might vary depending on your
specific dialect of English; many of you who speak Western American English probably have
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only 38). When you hear someone speaking, you are able to break up their utterances into
combinations of 39 discrete segments that you consider meaningful, and the other sounds are
discarded as non-meaningful. These 39 sounds are the phonemes of English. These four
sentences (called​ ​phonemic pangrams​) c​ ontain all the different phonemes of English. Say them
out loud and see if you can distinguish 39 different sounds:
"With tenure, Suzie'd have all the more leisure for yachting, but her publications are no
"Shaw, those twelve beige hooks are joined if I patch a young, gooey mouth."
"Are those shy Eurasian footwear, cowboy chaps, or jolly earthmoving headgear?"
"The beige hue on the waters of the loch impressed all, including the French queen,
before she heard that symphony again, just as young Arthur wanted."
(Note: Do not confuse the sounds you make using your mouth with letters you write).
Other languages have their own set of phonemes which may differ drastically from those used
in English, and some sounds are only used in a few languages. For example, very few
languages have our "th" sounds. Some languages, like​ ​Xhosa​ ​and​ ​Khoekhoe​, ​use​ ​clicks​ ​as
phonemes (similar to the tsk tsk sound we make). Watch this very short video of someone
explaining the four clicks in the Nama dialect of Khoekhoe.
YouTube Video: ​
Although we are able to make these sounds, and we can even use them to convey a meaning
such as disapproval, they are not part of the phonemic system of English. We cannot combine
clicks with other phonemes to create meaningful words.
There are also ​suprasegmental ​aspects of our phonology, that is, features above the level of
the segments. One such suprasegmental is ​accent ​or ​stress​, which plays a major role in
creating meaning. For example, say this sentence four times, each time with the stress on a
different word:
DID you kill him?
Did YOU kill him?
Did you KILL him?
Did you kill HIM?
The meaning of the sentence changes each time based entirely on the intonation pattern of the
sentence. We will, however, not consider suprasegmental features in this course, since it is
difficult to study their history before recording technology.
In summary, the phonemes we use in English are a system. We use a set number of
phonemes, about 39, that we combine in certain ways and combinations, to form larger units,
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and we discard as non-meaningful all the other sounds we make vocally (grunts, throat-clearing,
clicks, snorts, etc.). If we as English speakers did not agree which sounds are meaningful and
which are meaningless, then the phoneme system of English would break down and become
unsystematic, and communication with other English speakers would become impossible.
2. Grammar
Grammar​ ​is the system of rules that determine the forms of words and how they can be
combined into meaningful sentences. This is quite different from the type of "grammar" one
learns in school, which largely consists of rules of punctuation (and thus is outside our scope
here) or of prescriptive rules governing stylistic usage and what is considered "proper."
Grammar as defined by linguists can be divided into two subsections: ​morphology​ and ​syntax​.
Morphology​ is the study of the forms (​morph​ means “form”) of English, the combination of
phonemes into meaningful units, called ​morphemes​. The definition of a morpheme is thus very
similar to the definition of a phoneme: a morpheme is the smallest, ​meaningful​ unit of (lexical or
grammatical) meaning. Take the word ​walk​. It is a morpheme. We can’t make it any smaller
(such as *​w​ and ​*alk)​ ​ ​and have it still mean anything. Now take the word ​walks​. This word has
two morphemes in it: ​walk​ and -​s.​ We don’t consider -​s​ a word, but it has meaning: it means
that the verb is 3​rd​ person singular, and that it is present tense. ​Walk​ is a ​free morpheme
because it can stand on its own, whereas -​s​ is a ​bound morpheme​, because it can only appear
when bound to another morpheme. There are many other bound morphemes we can add to
walk:​ ​walk-er, walk-ed, walk-ing, walk-athon​. These bound morphemes can be further
subdivided. The ones like –​s, -ed​ and -​ing​ do not change the meaning of the word ​walk​;
instead, they only add grammatical information. These are called ​inflectional morphemes​,
because the grammatical syllables we put on the ends of words are called ​inflections​. The
morpheme -​er​ that changes ​walk​ from a verb into a noun referring to “someone who performs
the act of walking” is called a ​derivational morpheme​, because an entirely new word with a
new meaning is derived from it.
Syntax​ is "the study of the principles and processes by which sentences are constructed in
particular languages" (Chomsky, ​Syntactic Structures,​ p. 11). It includes not only word order but
also what types of words can be placed in which positions, the agreements between words
(such as noun and verb), and other related subjects.
3. Lexicon
The​ ​lexicon​ ​or vocabulary is the last of the structural parts or systems of language. The lexicon
is not only all the words of a language, but also all the prefixes or suffixes used in a language,
that is, the lexicon of a language is all the morphemes of that language. Thus, ​luck​ is a member
of the English lexicon, but so is the prefix ​un-​ and the suffix ​-y​ that you can use to create the
word ​unlucky.​ Similarly, ​walk​ is a member of the English lexicon, but so are the suffixes ​-ed,
-ing,​ and -​s​ that you can use to create the words ​walked, walking,​ and ​walks.​ In the same way
that phonology has phonemes and morphology has morphemes, the lexicon of a language has
lexemes​. A lexeme is a basic unit of lexical meaning, regardless of how many morphemes are
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used to create that meaning: Thus, ​walk,​ ​walks, walked, walking,​ and ​walker​ are all forms of the
same lexeme WALK.
Semantics​ is the study of the meanings of these morphemes. This does not mean looking up all
the words in a dictionary. Semantics, rather, deals with ​how w
​ ords can mean, where they derive
their meanings from (e.g., from mental images, from usage, etc), and with how these meanings
can shift or change over time. The latter is the only part of semantics that we will be concerned
with in this course. The lexicon is systematic in that specific words have specific meanings, and
even when these meanings can be multiplied or can shift over time, they are not random.
Finally, I want to point out one thing missing in the above summary of the structural components
of English. I have said nothing about ​graphics​, the writing system of a language. This includes
the type of writing (alphabet, hieroglyphs, etc.), the spelling (orthography), and the system of
punctuation, etc. None of these are truly part of language as we have defined it here. Rather
they are part of a method used to record language; in other words, they constitute a technology.
We will study the technology of writing in this course because simply having the ability to write
has had an impact on the history of English, but I will continue to repeat throughout the
semester that "Writing is not language."
1.2 Langue/Parole, Competence/Performance
Langue vs Parole
The final contribution of Saussure that we will discuss this week is the divide between ​langue
and ​parole,​ French words that roughly equate to ​language a
​ nd ​speaking.​ For Saussure, ​langue​,
language, is the system of signs that a speech community has agreed upon. It is one
homogeneous whole. It exists "outside the individual who can never create nor modify it by
himself. It exists only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of a community."
Thus, learning a language is a matter of learning all the linguistic signs of the community, which
sounds make up the phonemic system, how the sounds are put together into linguistic signs,
i.e., being able to relate the sound-images (signifiers) with their appropriate mental concepts
(signifieds), and combining these into coherent utterances. Standing apart from this
homogeneous system is the individual utterance, the execution of the act of speaking, that is,
parole​. Unlike ​langue,​ speaking is always heterogenous, changing with each utterance. The
distinction is important because linguistics as a science is concerned only with ​langue,​ not with
parole​. (See ​Course in General Linguistics​, pp. 10-15).
Competence vs Performance
Saussure's division of human speech into ​langue​ and ​parole​ has had a vast influence on
thinking about language and linguistics, and eventually led to a new formulation by ​Chomsky.
Chomsky's views of language as part of the innate biology of the human mind led him to shift
the notion of ​langue​ away from an external "social contract" of linguistic signs, to an internal,
cognitive recognition of the grammar of language. The term he used for this internal
grammatical knowledge is ​linguistic competence​. As a native English speaker, you have an
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internalized set of finite rules that allow you to comprehend and to create an infinite number of
expressions. These rules govern the use of the different structural systems of English--the
phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon, and so on. The actual execution of these rules is the
performance​, almost identical to Saussure's ​parole.​ You may violate any of the rules when you
actually speak, and yet this has no bearing on your linguistic competence. Imagine you are
having a conversation with your friends, and you are telling them about your day. You know
which words to use, you know how to pronounce them, you know the order to put them in, and
your friends have no trouble understanding what you are saying. In other words, you have
perfect linguistic competence in producing comprehensible English to describe anything you
wish, just as your friends have perfect competence in understanding your use of English. Of
course you will probably make a mistake when you are speaking; you might stutter or
mispronounce a word, you might need to pause because you momentarily forget the words you
are looking for, or you might use the wrong word by accident and have to correct yourself. In
spite of what errors appear in your individual performance, your linguistic competence remains.
And it is the rules that make up one's linguistic competence that are the object of study in
Descriptive vs Prescriptive Linguistics
Many of us have been taught certain "rules" of English in grammar classes from elementary
school up through college: "do not split infinitives," "do not end a sentence with a preposition,"
"two negatives cancel each other out and make a positive," "i before e except after c," and so
on. ​These are not rules of English​; rather, they are rules of a specific type of standard, formal
written English as decided by certain people who are considered (by some) to be authorities.
Most of them were invented as stylistic suggestions in the 18th century, and they have since
been passed down as rules for "correct" English. We call them ​prescriptive​ rules because they
prescribe, that is, authorize or at least recommend, a certain usage. If you are trying to write
formal written English, then it is a good idea to follow these rules, but that does not mean that
they are actual rules of English or that the version of English they prescribe is the "correct" or
"pure" version.
The true rules of English, those which make up one's linguistic competence, are discovered by
observing how English speakers actually speak, that is, they ​describe ​the usage found among
English speakers; they are therefore called ​descriptive​ rules. Let us start with rules of
pronunciation. Consider a word like "rbadn." As a native speaker of English, you should know
immediately that this word cannot exist in English. You know this because it violates a
phonological rule of English: we do not use the consonant cluster ​rb​ at the beginnings of words
in English. It is probable that no one has ever taught you this rule, but you still know it as part of
your ​competence​ as an English speaker. When we call this a rule of English, we do not mean it
is a rule that we ​must f​ ollow, but rather that it is a rule that all English speakers simply ​do​ follow
(compare Saussure's notion of a "social contract" here). If we were to search every single word
that exists in English we would not find a single one that begins with the consonant cluster ​rb.​ In
other words, this rule ​describes ​a feature of English. It does not ​prescribe ​a feature. If a
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community of English speakers start using a new word that begins with ​rb​, the rule would
change so that it would describe the new reality.
The same types of rules exist for English grammar. “Don’t end sentence with a preposition” is
not a descriptive rule of English; we know this because many English speakers frequently end
sentences with prepositions. As an example, many native English speakers would feel quite
comfortable with a sentence like “What did you do that for?” Therefore, it would be wrong to say
that English cannot have prepositions at the end of a sentence.
People sometimes confuse descriptive grammar with an idea that there are no rules of English
or that "anything goes." Observation of English speakers tells us that this is not so and that
there are in fact a great many rules of English, and if a speaker violates one of these rules then
the utterance is considered ungrammatical. The term we use when evaluating whether an
utterance is grammatical or not is ​acceptability​. Any native speaker who hears an utterance
makes an immediate judgment whether or not the utterance is acceptable or not. This term
keeps us from falling into problems that are associated with more loaded terms like “good” or
“bad” or “correct” or “incorrect.” Some utterances are “acceptable” and some are not, based
solely on the criterion of whether or not a linguistic community accepts the phrase as
The acceptability of an utterance depends entirely on the usage of speakers of the language. In
other words, different speakers might have different notions of acceptability. We must therefore
make a distinction between what we as individual speakers of a language consider acceptable
and what we as students studying language can term acceptable or not. Consider the following
three sentences:
A. I do not have any money.
B. I ain’t got no money.
C. Money no I has.
Which of these are acceptable and which are unacceptable? The criterion used to make that
determination depends on the person making the judgment, so that you personally might find
that only A is acceptable, or only B, or perhaps you find both A and B acceptable. Part of what
makes you a native English speaker is having the ability to determine what is acceptable in your
version of English. As linguists studying English as a whole, however, we can observe that
many speakers of English would utter either A or B or both, but that no speakers of English
anywhere would utter C. C is therefore unacceptable in English grammar because we can find
no actual attestations of it in usage among speakers. To denote that an utterance is unattested,
and therefore considered unacceptable, we mark it with an asterisk *:
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C. *Money no I has.
A final note on the idea of acceptability: it should be noted that our judgment of grammatical
acceptability is not dependent on the semantics of the utterance. In his 1957 work ​Syntactic
Structures,​ Chomsky presented what has become his most famous sentence:
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
This sentence makes no sense, and yet it can be judged as grammatically acceptable by all
native English speakers. Chomsky contrasted it with the sentence *"Furiously sleep ideas green
colorless," immediately recognized as unacceptable to a native English speaker. In other words,
our notions of what is acceptable in a linguistic performance depends on whether or not the
sentence conforms to the internalized rules of linguistic expression, not to whether or not the
utterance makes logical sense.
One caveat: Many students have made the mistake of confusing the notions of "improper" or
"colloquial" English with "unacceptable" English. If you look at sentence B above, it may seem
thoroughly incorrect to you. You may even think that allowing it to be considered an acceptable
utterance is some form of political correctness gone wrong. Such an idea, however, is simply
not accurate. Linguistics is a descriptive science, like all other sciences, and thus it seeks to
describe language as it is found in the world. It is a linguistic fact that sentence B is a very
common construction in English, and therefore it is necessarily a valid English construction.
Saying that it is "wrong" would be like a botanist criticizing a flower as an invalid flower because
it had five petals when the botanist preferred six petals, or as if an astrophysicist said that a
certain star was wrong and should not be allowed to exist because it burned at an improper
temperature compared to the sun. These examples are almost too silly to write down here, and
yet people complain endlessly about phrases that they hear native English speakers uttering. I
emphasize this point only because grammar, or its "misuse," seems to engender much emotion
among some parts of the population. Language is one of the first ways in which we seek to
categorize those to whom we speak, or to position ourselves within a certain group or class of
speakers. We often judge people as smart or dumb or employable or socially acceptable based
solely on their pronunciations or word choices: this person says Nevada with the wrong "a," that
person said "aks" instead of "ask," this person said "pop" instead of "soda," and so on.... As
linguists, we must accept all these variations as acceptable, simply because we observe them in
use among speakers.
1.3 Language and Change
Just as there are many ways to define or study language itself, there are many ways to study
language change. The difference between these ways lies in choosing which elements to
highlight rather than one way being correct and the others being incorrect. For example, one
approach to the study of language change is to concentrate on the different uses of language
within society: who uses the language; what social forces or institutions are in place to keep
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language from changing, or to accelerate the change of language; which groups in society
control the standardization of specific uses of language. You might consider today the
standardized educational system in the U.S., which teaches certain "grammatical rules" across
the entire nation, regardless of whether these "rules" are followed by the students, their families,
or even the teachers themselves. Another approach, following the neogrammarians, we might
study only the sounds of the language and how the pronunciation of English has changed
throughout the centuries. Or, we could also focus on the other cultures that English speakers
have come into contact with and whose languages have influenced English. Think of all the
Spanish words that are used currently in the English of the southwestern United States and ask
yourself if Shakespeare or Jane Austen would have known the meaning of any of them. We will
try to adopt a mixed approach in this course, studying both the internal changes that the
language has undergone and the external forces that have had an impact as well.
How languages change​:
The details of language change are what this course will be about, so here in the first week I will
only mention a few basic points you should understand. First, the best way to understand
changes in language is to think of them in terms of the three systems we discussed in the
previous sections: phonology, grammar and lexicon. For example, sounds can change. If you
have ever heard someone speaking with a different regional accent, such as Southern
American English, or Bronx English, or Californian English, not to mention British or Australian,
then you have seen the effects of sounds changing. For example, sometimes a group of
speakers will slowly change the way a particular sound is pronounced, perhaps over several
generations, so that it eventually becomes an entirely new sound. Sometimes two sounds
merge​ together, or one sound ​splits​ into two different ones.
Grammar also changes. If we think of morphology alone, we can see that modern English has
very few inflectional endings, like the s-plural or the 's-possessive. In the past we had many
more, as you will see later in the semester. The loss of these inflectional endings is a major
example of the grammatical change English has undergone over the centuries. Syntax has also
changed, as you aware if you have ever struggled with the word order of a Shakespeare play.
Even the syntax of a simple sentence like "You know not what you do," from the beginning of
Romeo and Juliet,​ would sound odd and artificial if spoken by anyone today, although it is
clearly understandable to use.
Finally, words change. Some groups of speakers begin to prefer one word, like "soda" or
"couch," while another group tends to prefer "pop" or "sofa." Over time, the unused words can
entirely drop from the speech of a group of people. In other cases, words can acquire new
meanings and lose their old meanings. Also, entirely new words can appear in the language,
especially due to technology or borrowing from other languages.
Having said this, it might seem unnecessary to point out that language change is natural, but
there are many people who assume that changes in language are somehow detrimental, or that
the language is becoming less "pure" or more "corrupted" than it was in the past. This is in fact a
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major notion among the public in general, and I am sure many of you have come across
arguments that the use of some word or phrase or spelling is somehow wrong and should be
stopped. For example, there are still people today complaining about the forms of language
used in text messages or online chats, although as you already know most of this involves
changes in spelling conventions (i.e., "2" for "to" or "cu l8r" for "see you later") rather than any
change in the language itself. Others are upset that words from languages like Spanish are
being used in English, somehow making it less "pure." In fact, there is no such thing as a pure
language or even a corrupted language. All natural languages are continually changing, both
from external pressures based on the society in which we live and on internal processes of the
language itself. A language that has ceased to change is a ​dead language​.
Why languages change​:
Once the notion has been accepted that language change is an integral and necessary part of
language, the most common question asked is why. This is a very difficult question to answer.
Sometimes there is no satisfactory reason that we can give. For example, why did speakers in
the south of England in the 13th century start to pronounce the "a" sound in some words like an
"o" sound instead? Why did speakers in the 16th and 17th century start to use the word "do" in
questions and negative sentences, so that utterances like "Have you a pen?" and "I saw him
not" became "Do you have a pen?" and "I did not see him"? We can trace the rise and spread of
these changes and others like them, but it is very hard to explain the starting impetus for the
change. Many proposals for why certain changes occur have been made in the past, from racial
and ethnic differences to the climate in which the language was spoken. Most of these have
long since been discarded. One cause that is still put forward, known as "ease of articulation"
suggests that we make changes in how we produce sounds because it is physically easier to
produce the sound in the new way. This may in fact be a reason for why some sounds change,
and we will discuss it in more detail later in the semester, but it certainly can't be the whole
story. Others have suggested that we change the way we speak in order to imitate other
speakers who hold more elite positions. This is no doubt true, though it hardly explains why the
elite speakers spoke differently in the first place. Yet another suggestion is that when we learn
to speak as children, we learn imperfectly, and thus we grow up speaking slightly differently
than our parents. As these changes accumulate over time, the entire language itself changes.
Internal and External History of the Language
In his discussion of ​langue​ and ​parole​, Saussure specifies that "My definition of language
presupposed the exclusion of everything that is outside its organism or system--in a word, of
everything known as "​external linguistics​." He continues with a definition of external linguistics:
First and foremost come all the points where linguistics borders on ethnology, all
the relations that link the history of a language and the history of a race or
civilization.... Second come the relations between language and political history.
Great historical events like the Roman conquest have an incalculable influence on a
host of linguistic facts. Colonization, which is only one form that conquest may take,
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brings about changes in an idiom by transporting it into different surroundings....
Here we come to a third point: the relations between language and all sorts of
institutions (the Church, the school, etc.) All these institutions in turn are closely tied
to the literary development of a language, a general phenomenon that is all the
more inseparable from political history.... Finally, everything that relates to the
geographical spreading of languages and dialectal splitting belongs to external
linguistics" (Course in General Linguistics, pp. 20-21).
Saussure then explains what is ​internal linguistics​ with one of his most famous passages, a
comparison between language and chess:
Language is a system that has its own arrangement. Comparison with chess will
bring out the point. In chess, what is external can be separated relatively easily
from what is internal. The fact that the game passed from Persia to Europe is
external; against that, everything having to do with its system and rules is internal. If
I use ivory chessmen instead of wooden ones, the change has no effect on the
system, but if I decrease or increase the number of chessmen, this change has a
profound effect on the "grammar" of the game. One must always distinguish
between what is internal and what is external. In each instance one can determine
the nature of the phenomenon by applying this rule: everything that changes the
system in any way is internal (Course in General Linguistics, pp. 22-23).
In this course we will have recourse to both the internal and external history of English,
especially where they begin to blend together as causes for change. An external event like the
invasion of the Norman French in 1066 may have caused the replacement of English words with
French (compare the use of ivory vs wooden chessmen), but it also led to the introduction of
several new sounds into the English phoneme system. Other external events, the invasions of
the Germanic tribes into Britain, of the Vikings into England, the colonization of America by the
English, the immigration of Spanish speakers into the US, technological developments such as
the invention of the printing press and the computer, the growth of institutions such as the
universities, all have played a major role in the external history of English. It will be less
important for us to keep the division between internal and external causes clear, but it is useful
to recognize the myriad of sources which can put pressure on a language to change how it is
1.4 Linguistic Variation and Dialects
Now that you understand the notions of competence and acceptability, we must specify what we
mean by "acceptable." All languages have variation within them. Each person who speaks a
language has their own subtle preferences they make in word preference, pronunciation
variations, and grammatical choices. At the individual level, these preferences form the
speaker's ​idiolect​. Each individual speaker, however, also belongs to a larger group, whose
utterances form a ​dialect​. Dialects differ from other dialects not only in pronunciation (accent),
but also in grammar and in lexicon. Thus, people in the Southern US will not only pronounce the
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long i-sound in words like ​eye​ or ​rice​ differently than people in other parts of the country. They
will also use grammatical constructions like "I might could go" or "I'm fixin' to go," that differ from
those used by speakers elsewhere, and they will use words like ​y'all​ or ​carry​ (meaning to take
or drive someone somewhere, as in "I carried him to the doctor").
As long as the differences in the forms of utterances are considered "acceptable" to the
speakers, then the two varieties are called dialects. Thus, even if you yourself do not say the
word ​y'all,​ you recognize it and may even consider it an acceptable word choice. As dialects
diverge, more and more of their individual forms become unacceptable to speakers of other
dialects, the general effect of which is to impede comprehension. For example, if you heard a
southerner say that they had carried someone to the doctor, you might think that they carried
them in their arms, likely the result of some emergency, rather than simply drove them to an
appointment. In other words, your comprehension of their meaning was impeded, and if you
learned what the speaker actually meant by the word "carry" you might consider that usage
unacceptable. When enough instances of pronunciation, grammar, and word choice are
considered unacceptable that comprehension is no longer possible between two speakers, then
we say that the two forms of speech are different ​languages​ rather than different dialects. In
other words, dialects are mutually comprehensible, while languages are not mutually
(When speaking about dialects and languages, it must be emphasized that all varieties of a
language are dialects. In other words, there is no "pure", non-dialectal version of a language.
Many people think of "proper" English as being the "real" version, and then there also exist less
educated or at least less well-spoken people who speak dialects. This is not the case. Every
form of a language represents a dialect of that language, including the form that is considered
"standard." The notion of what is standard in a language comes about not from linguistic purity
but from external factors. In other words, the standard dialect is often the dialect of the people
who happen to be the people with the most power: the wealthiest, most educated, people who
hold positions of economic or political importance and who live in the most economically and
politically powerful areas of the country.)
Consider the following 13 sentences:
1. I’ll stay while eight.
2. I told un so.
3. I’m after seeing him.
4. I done tol’ him he cain’t come round here no mo’
5. The other team are all sitting down
6. That girl be workin’ hard.
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7. That girl workin’ hard.
8. Are you coming with us? I might do.
9. Are you coming with us? I might could.
10. Are you coming with?
11. He been done work.
12. Ain’t nobody gonna come in here now.
13. The men works hard.
All these sentences are acceptable within certain communities of English speakers, but I am
assuming that only a few of them are acceptable in your own dialects. I am also assuming some
of them are to some degree incomprehensible to you. For example, in #1, what does the word
"while" mean as used in this sentence? In #2 what does the word "'un" mean? In #3, how would
you interpret "after"? What is the grammatical difference between #6 and #7? You may be able
to answer some of these questions, while for others you may have no idea. Such variation is a
crucial aspect of linguistic change, as is the growing incomprehensibility of certain
constructions. As each year goes by, groups of speakers make different choices about
pronunciation, word choice and grammar, causing their dialect to diverge from other dialects.
Eventually, the divergence is so strong that we would consider the two as separate languages.
We will only spend a little time in this course on different contemporary dialects of English,
which we can call ​Present-Day English​ (​PDE​), but earlier forms of the language can be
considered in much the same way. In other words, when you read texts written in previous
centuries there is the immediate problem of comprehension. While almost every reader today
could comprehend ​Harry Potter​ with little difficulty, if we move back in time to an author like
Dickens or Austen, there will be grammatical constructions or word choices that are less familiar
to us, that is, less acceptable to us, and this will slow down our comprehension, although both
Harry Potter​ and ​Sense and Sensibility​ are written in ​Modern English (ModE)​. The problems in
comprehension grow if we move further back in time to an author like Shakespeare, whose
word choices and grammar often conflict with our own. In fact, we would probably say that much
of Shakespeare borders on unacceptable. This would be even more so if modern editions of
Shakespeare had not cleaned up the spellings to reflect modern conventions. And yet
Shakespeare is still considered ​Early Modern English (eModE)​, meaning that the differences
we see are not enough to truly differentiate his English from our own.
If we move further back to Chaucer, writing 600 years ago, we see that there are enough lexical
and grammatical differences (and pronunciation if we include the spelling) to stand in the way of
complete comprehension to the average modern reader. There are so many differences that
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we call his version of English by another name, ​Middle English (ME)​. If we move back another
four centuries, to a text like ​Beowulf,​ copied around the year 1000, we see that there are so
many changes that we can no longer comprehend any of the text besides a few small words
here and there. This too we call by another name, ​Old English (OE)​, and almost all of it would
be considered unacceptable by contemporary standards. The last half of this course will be
devoted to understanding the basic systems (phonology, grammar, and lexicon) of these
different forms of English, and how they changed from one to the other. You will learn the
origins of many of Modern English's constructions as well as find that more of Old and Middle
English is comprehensible than you would first have thought. Before that, however, we will
spend several weeks on a basic introduction to the aspects of language and linguistics that will
be necessary for you to understand the last half of the course.
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