Review: Some general causes of language change


Language-external causes


Contact-induced changes



Language-internal causes


Universal tendencies?

-SOV therein -> SVO in here


Ease of articulation?

-OE þæt [θ], wæs [s] -> [ð] and [s]



-OE naman, land, tala, béc -> names, lands, tales, books


Phonological symmetry

-development of phoneme /ŋ/

          -/m/, /n/, /ŋ/

          -/b,p/, /d,t/, g,/k/

-development of phoneme /ž/

          leisure /zj/ -> /ž/

          fisc /š/


Spelling pronunciation

-ME human [j_] -< [hj_], herb [h{revope}{lm}rb] (h{revope}{lm}b, {revope}{lm}b...)




Some general types of language change (phonology, morphosyntax)

with lazy links to the Wikipedia ...


Syntactic change: one kind of change is grammaticalization

  1. ic sceal gán “I have to go”, ic will gán “I want to go” -> I shall go, I will go
  2. I am going to market -> I’m going to be rich, I’m gonna collapse


Morphological change: one very general mechanism is analogy (here, extension)

  1. OE word, ðing “words”, “things” -> words, things
  2. OE hé bóc “he baked” -> he baked


Some subcategories of the same...

  1. OE he wrát, writon -> he, we wrote ... analogical levelling (2 past tenses -> 1)
  2. OE rædels “riddle” ... back formation
  3. wedlock < OE wedd “pledge” + lác “gift”; sockeye Salish sukkegh ... folk etymology


Sound changes: “unconditioned” sound changes


  1. *kel- “to cover, conceal, save”-> *hel-      (IE->Gmc)
  2. /bot/ -> /but/                                            (GVS)


Sound changes: “conditioned”

  1. English [ʊ] split
  2. Standard British English /r/

·        burst (bust), curse (cuss)                             ditto?

  1. Standard British English: pat [æ], pass [ɑ:], path [ɑ:]      conditions for change are...?
  2. General Canadian English: white [wʌyt] wide [wayd]     conditions for “Canadian raising”?


One (subset of a) very common type: [deletion of a sound]

  1. OE cniht, gnæt
  2. ring [rɪŋg] -< [rɪŋ]; PDE dumb, comb


Another important type: assimilation of a sound

  1. Gmc *fuliθ -> OE fylþ, OE talu, tellan                  front mutation in OE
  2. Gmc *kIn ->. OE cinn                                           palatalization in OE


A memorable but much more sporadic type is metathesis

  1. OE beorht, brid -> bright, bird
  2. OE wæps ->
  3. “Ax me no questions I’ll tell you no lies.”
  4. PDE nuclear “nuculur”


One key source:

Brinton, Laurel J. & Leslie Arnovick. 2006. The English language: a linguistic history. Oxford UP.



Campbell, Lyle. 1999. Historical linguistics: an introduction. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Schendl, Herbert. 2001. Historical linguistics. Series: Oxford introduction to language study. Oxford UP.

Sihler, Andrew L. 2000. Language history: an introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.