All languages are constantly changing, but some more quickly than others.

Languages change for many different reasons:

·         Changing needs of speakers

·         New users/learners

·         Creation or ‘borrowing’ of words



Languages change in these ways:

·         Lexically (vocabulary)

·         Phonetically (pronunciation)

·         Spelling changes

·         gradual shifts in meaning


Nothing stays the same

Languages are all constantly changing, but the changes normally happen so slowly that we don’t usually notice; for example, when teenagers come up with new slang, that is Language Change. When a new technology is invented (like a ‘laptop computer’) words are created to describe it. Even when we borrow a word from another language (like crêpe) it slowly changes our languages. Languages change, are born and can die.


Causes of Language Change

Use of a language

How and where languages are used as well as for what purpose can influence the changing of a language. For example, languages that are frequently learned by non-native speakers have the possibility that a new “branch” of the language will split off called a pidgin. If a language is used only in a remote location by few people, then it’s likely that that language will change very slowly.

Also, creating new words to talk about things that didn’t exist before, or adapting words for new purposes. (For example, 20 years ago the verb ‘to tweet’ was reserved largely for birds.)

Number of users

Languages that become a “lingua franca” will often have many more learners. This is due to the need to communicate with others who don’t speak your same language. One great example of the changes resulting from a language becoming the lingua franca is Mandarin Chinese. Today, Mandarin Chinese is easier to learn than other dialects of Chinese, all of which are tonal languages. This is the result of having so many learners (not only Chinese citizens, but also foreigners).

Some of you may be aware that in China there are many different dialects of Chinese. The trick with these is that they are not mutually intelligible (which means someone speaking one dialect cannot be understood by someone who speaks a different dialect) but they all do share the same writing system (sort of). All the Chinese dialects write the characters in the same way (though there are two options: traditional and simplified), but they will read/pronounce the characters differently. In addition, the different dialects will have different grammatical and syntax rules (the word order will be different). Obviously, having a country with so many different dialects is problematic. Enter Mandarin Chinese as the ‘lingua franca.’ (I once heard a very interesting story about the process by which Mandarin was chosen as the ‘standard’ dialect. But, we’ll save that story for another time.) Interestingly enough, some of you may know that if you ever watch Chinese TV (any program) there will be Chinese subtitles. They are intended for people who do not speak Mandarin very well, but speak another dialect. They will still be able to read the subtitles and understand what’s going on.

You may have heard some comparisons of Mandarin and Cantonese. Cantonese is said to have many more tones than Mandarin thus making it much more difficult to learn. Mandarin has only four tones (plus a neutral tone).


How language changes

There are a few main ways in which languages change, let’s take a look at them in a little more detail.

Lexical changes

These are changes to the words (or vocabulary) in a language. This is accomplished mostly through the invention of new words or ‘borrowed’ words (from other languages).

Phonetic and phonological changes03. Great Vowel Shift2

This has to do with the change in the pronunciation of a language. Actually of some interest is The Great Vowel Shift, where all the English language vowels changed their sound (resulting in the difference we now see between English and the Romance languages, like Spanish and Italian). See some examples below.


Spelling changes

One of the most interesting examples I’ve found is how we arrived at the spelling for the word ‘pea.’ It seems that it was originally an uncountable noun, and was always spelled ‘pease’ (whether it was one pea or several peas). Then over time (since no one eats just one pea) we thought the word was plural, and the singular should be ‘pea.’



What language changes have you noticed? Why do you think language usage has changed in this way?




Nelson Canario
Vice President
Instructional Methodologies

Instructional Methodologies helps people improve their communication, both written and spoken in several languages: English, Spanish and Chinese. Contact us to learn how we can help you achieve your objectives in any of our languages.

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