Languages change all the time

If you have studied the English language at school, college or university you will know that it has changed since its beginnings to the present time. The following are the opening lines of Beowulf, written in Old English between 700 and 1000:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon

Unless you have taken a course in Old English, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to understand this passage. English gets easier to understand over time, so that Chaucer’s Middle English is not as hard to read as Old English, and Shakespeare’s Early Modern English is not all that far removed from Modern English.

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure famously made a distinction between studying a language diachronically, i.e. over time, and synchronically, i.e. at a particular time in its history. The distinction seems to be a useful one when we compare Beowulf with any piece of modern writing. However, in recent times linguists have questioned De Saussure’s distinction, and have pointed out that languages change all the time, even within the life span of individuals, and we can therefore speak of changes in progress, sometimes called ‘current change’. Nowadays, with the advent of large collections of language data (called corpora) tracking such changes has become easier.

Languages can change in many different ways.  The kinds of changes we can observe include sound changes, changes in the meaning or frequency of use of words, and changes in grammar. Let’s have a look at some examples.

Sound changes played a very prominent role in English, especially between 1350 and 1600 when the Great Vowel Shift took place. However, even in the present time changes in pronunciation happen. This is very obvious when you listen to announcers in old cinema newsreels: they sound distinctly different from present-day newscasters. Even the Queen’s pronunciation has changed over recent years, as recent research from a German University has shown.

In a post on my blog Grammarianism I discuss how the use of modal verbs has changed over the past few decades. Especially notable is the decline of must, which we can use to tell others to do something (“You must arrive by 6 p.m. at the latest”). Most likely as a result of our society becoming less hierarchical, speakers of English now tend to use different ways of making requests of others, without sounding too authoritarian. For example, they might use have to (“You have to arrive by 6 p.m. at the latest”) or need to (“You need to arrive by 6 p.m. at the latest”) instead.

As another example of changes in the use of particular words Catherine Soanes writes about the decline of the word whilst on the Oxford Dictionaries blog. She suggests that the reason for this decline might be that it sounds somewhat old-fashioned and pretentious, at least in the US. As for the UK, she observes:

In British English, whilst’ incurs less opprobrium, but guides and dictionaries usually advise that ‘while’ is preferable, given that it’s the most common form and may sound more up to date.

My own observations suggest that whilst may be making a comeback. I heard it recently in an announcement on a train platform: “Please take care whilst it is raining”. More tellingly, I hear it all the time in the speech of my 9-year old daughter and her friends. Of course, this is only anecdotal, and not solid evidence of a change, but if younger generations start re-using words, they may well be coming back into the language. Think also of the word cool which wasn’t cool for a long time, but it is now again being used by young people. Returning to whilst, interesting data on its use in the US are available in the following table from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:


COCA contains 520 million words, and the data are sourced from a large number of different text categories, including spoken material (shown at the top of the table). In the right-hand portion of the table we see a slight, but steady, increase in the use of whilst per million words between 1995 and 2015.

What about changes in grammar, i.e. the syntactic patterns that we find in language? Another observation I made in the speech of my youngest daughter (she’s a great source of data!) is the emergence of what I will call the isn’t it that-construction. Here are some examples:

Dad, isn’t it that you promised to make pancakes?

Isn’t it that Sarah’s party is this afternoon?

This construction seems to constitute a new way of asking questions: rather than asking Dad, didn’t you promise to make pancakes?  the new construction seems to be a clipped version of the longer Isn’t it the case that you promised to make pancakes? It’s not clear how the new construction came about, or whether it is more widespread than just in the speech of my daughter and her friends. At present the most we can say is that changes like this are trends, and more research is needed to find out if they will ever fully become part of the English language.

Bas Aarts is Professor of English Linguistics at UCL and the author of the Oxford Modern English Grammar. He is also a founder of the free Englicious website for teachers of English.

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