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Why Do Languages Change?


  • 8 b/w illus. 11 tables
  • Page extent: 210 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.35 kg


 (ISBN-13: 9780521546935)

Why Do Languages Change?
Cambridge University Press
9780521838023 - Why Do Languages Change? - By R. L. Trask and Robert McColl Millar

Why Do Languages Change?

The first recorded English name for the make-up we now call blusher was paint, in 1660. In the 1750s a new word, rouge, displaced paint, and remained in standard usage for around two centuries. Then, in 1965, an advertisement coined a new word for the product: blusher. Each generation speaks a little differently, and every language is constantly changing. It is not only words that change, every aspect of a language changes over time – pronunciation, word meanings and grammer. Packed with fascinating examples of changes in the English language over time, this entertaining book explores the origin of words and place names, the differences between British and American English, and the apparent eccentricities of the English spelling system. Amusingly written yet deeply instructive, it will be enjoyed by anyone involved in studying the English language and its history, as well as anyone interested in how and why languages change.

R. L. Trask was a world authority on the Basque language and on historical linguistics. He wrote both academic and popular books, notably on grammar, punctuation, and English style and usage. His publications include Language: The Basics (1995) and Mind the Gaffe (2001). At the time of his death in 2004, he was Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex.

The book has been revised by Robert McColl Millar, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Aberdeen.

Why Do Languages Change?

R. L. Trask and Robert McColl Millar

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK

Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title:

© R. L. Trask 2010

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2010

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-0-521-83802-3 Hardback
ISBN 978-0-521-54693-5 Paperback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party Internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

For my wonderful Jan


List of figures and tables
A few words before we start
1     How do languages change?
2     Why are languages always changing?
3     Where do words come from?
4     Skunk-Leek – my kind of town: what’s in a name?
5     Where does English come from?
6     Why is American English different from British English?
7     Why is English spelling so eccentric?
8     Which is the oldest language?
Some final thoughts
Further reading

Figures and tables


1.1   The cot/caught merger
7.1   A mystery word
8.1   The BSL sign for ‘walk’


2.1   Old English words and their modern equivalents
2.2   Old English plurals
5.1   Some Grimm’s Law changes
5.2   Old Norse words in English
5.3   Some Old English vocabulary
6.1   Some British–American vocabulary differences
6.2   British and American automobile vocabulary
7.1   Some ‘foreign’ words in English
7.2   Some pairs of English words
7.3   Some more pairs
8.1   The spread of writing

A few words before we start

This book is intended to give a sense of language change to interested laypeople of any age; it is not a textbook. I do hope, however, that it will act as a door into historical linguistics for some readers.

Because of its nature, I have made no assumptions about knowledge either of languages or, more importantly, of the techniques linguists use to describe language. If we are going to treat the subject in any depth or seriousness, however, I have found it necessary occasionally to use special terms and symbols in the text. I normally explain these, but I want to discuss some potential sticking points before we start. Readers may well find themselves coming back to this page occasionally.

The Roman alphabet used for English is not terribly effective, as we will see, in representing the sounds of English, never mind the potential sounds found in all the world’s languages. Because of this, phoneticians and other linguists who work with sounds have spent a considerable amount of effort over the last hundred years and more developing an extended writing system, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which can describe all of these sounds. I will not use more than a handful of these symbols in this book, and only when necessary. Most of these symbols make sense to anyone used to the Roman alphabet: /p/ stands for <p>, for instance; /n/ for <n>. Sometimes, however, there is potential for confusion. IPA /j/ stands for the first sound in English yes; the <j> in judge is represented by /dʒ/ in IPA; IPA /y/ stands for the vowel in French tu. When potential headaches of this sort exist, I have highlighted them. It is worth noting that the vowel symbols in IPA stand for the ‘continental’ values associated with these letters. Thus /e/ stands for the vowel found in bay, if you are from Scotland and a few other places, not the vowel in bee. /a/ stands for the vowel in cat for most British people; while /ӕ/ is the vowel found in the same word in most North American accents (and some conservative upper-class varieties in southern England); /ɑ/ is the vowel found in words like bath in southeast England (other British varieties would have /a/).

You may have noticed that I have used the convention / / to surround sounds in most of the book, but [ ] for a few. This represents a subtle but important distinction in sound perception. All speakers have the ability to produce all sounds which can be produced by humans. By the time they have reached school age, however, the number of separate sounds speakers perceive from this variety depends upon what language they speak. For instance, German speakers can, of course, make the sound [θ], as found at the start of English thing; unless they are trained, however, they hear it only as a variant of a larger unit, /s/. For most English speakers, however, the initial sounds in thing and sing are absolutely separate; to a German speaker, they are variants of the same essential sound. These essential sounds are called phonemes and are represented by / /; all variants of these phonemes are called allophones and are represented by [ ]. The important thing to remember is that how phonemes are laid out over the range of potential sounds differs from language to language. Spellings, when necessary, are shown using < >.

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