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Language & Society
Contact, conflict and incredible cultural complexity shape way
we speak

Are Dialects Fading?
TV has no influence on the way we talk

The Decline of Grammar
Geoffrey Nunberg asks for civility when assessing language change

Like, Quote Me
Like as a quotative – a way of indicating speech — has spread like a global brushfire

Additional Resources
Language Change Index

Language Change

The Truth About Change

What, Like, Makes Language Change?
Language sows its own seeds of change, and social context offers fertile ground for its growth and spread. Walt Wolfram explains that language changes differently than we may think.  It’s not the media;
it’s the middle class.  Read Summary.

Twenty-five years ago, speakers who used like in she’s like, “Don’t leave the house!” were largely confined to Southern California and strongly associated with a stereotypical Valley Girl way of speaking. Today, the specialized use of like to introduce a quote (what linguists call the “quotative like”) has spread throughout the English-speaking world. The rapid, expansive spread of “quotative like” among speakers under the age of 40 is truly exceptional. It also raises important questions about the nature of language change.

The common myth in American society is that the English language is now following a single path of change under the irrepressible, homogenizing influence of mass media. However, the truth is that language is far too resourceful and social structure far too complicated to follow any single path.

Language changes subtly…women often lead the way

Change is one of the inevitable facts in the life of any language. The only language not in a perpetual state of flux is a dead language. Language itself provides the seeds of change, and social circumstances provide fertile ground for their growth and spread. Yet the truth about language change may be different from the popular conception. People often assume that change begins with the upper class, modeling language for other social groups to follow. In fact, most language change starts subtly and unconsciously among middle-class speakers and spreads to other classes — and women often lead the way.

Pressure to change comes both from within language itself and from its role in society. Because language is a highly patterned code for communication, people collectively pressure it to change in ways that preserve its patterning or enhance its communicative efficiency. (More on this later.) At the same time, we use language as a social behavior, to solidify or separate different social groups.

The Social Context of Change

Social context, including the social evaluation of language differences, is as important in language change as the inner workings of language. The reason that oxen has not yet given way to oxes throughout the English language cannot be found within language itself, but in the social sanctions that have been placed on the use of this form by socially dominant groups. By the same token, one can only speculate as to why mouses (as in, "We asked the IT department to order some new mouses") would become an acceptable plural for a computer device by the same middle-class speakers who resolutely chastise any speaker who might call rodents mouses. Social evaluation of language may seem inconsistent and arbitrary, but this does not lessen its role in language change.

Most language change actually starts subtly and unconsciously among the lower classes and spreads. Extremes in social strata, for example, the highest and the lowest classes, tend to be marginal to this process. Instead, the middle-class groups, who have the strongest loyalty to the local community while being connected to other groups, are the most sensitive to language innovation.

The other side of language innovation is resistance

On the other side of language innovation lies resistance. Even when certain changes seem natural and reasonable, they are resisted by socially dominant classes who want to avoid being affiliated with subordinate groups that have already adopted these changes. The regularization of irregular past forms such as knowed and growed or the regularization of such as hisself and theirselves, which have made some inroads among vernacular speakers of English, tend to be resolutely resisted by the middle classes despite their linguistic reasonableness. Higher-status groups may often suppress natural changes taking place in lower-status groups to maintain their social distinction through language. The acceptance and rejection of language changes are constrained by the social interpretation of those changes and the relationships that exist among social groups.

The Spread of Language Change

computer screen

Language change can spread via several paths. In American society, one prominent pattern of language change is the cascade or hierarchical model, in which change starts in heavily populated metropolitan areas that serve as cultural focal points. From these areas, the change spreads first to moderately sized cities that fall under the influence of these urban areas, and then to yet smaller cities and communities, affecting the rural areas lastly. The Northern Cities Vowel Shift is following this pattern of diffusion, which is facilitated by the cultural status of metropolitan areas and by the more extended social networks of cities with larger populations.

Other paths of diffusion in language change show that it is not simply a matter of population dynamics. In Oklahoma, for example, the structure fixin’ to for ‘intend to’ in a sentence such as They’re fixin’ to move has spread from its rural roots to larger urban areas rather than the converse. This contrahierarhical model of change is explained in terms of cultural identity and trends in population movement. As more non-Southerner transplants move to large cities in Oklahoma, native residents want to assert their Southern identity to distinguish themselves from outsiders. By adopting a language feature associated with rural Southern speech, natives can counteract the influx of the newer transplants through this symbolic use of language.

A third diffusion pattern follows a wave-like pattern in geographical space. In this instance, the pattern of diffusion is explained primarily in terms of physical distance — the farther the location is from the site of the innovation, the later the change will take place. The merger of the vowels in field and filled or steal and still in some areas of the South illustrates this pattern of contagious diffusion.

Different diffusion patterns are not necessarily exclusive; they may co-exist in the same region depending on the language differences involved. Population dynamics, social structure and the social meaning ascribed to changing structures help us to understand the paths of language change.

Language Change and the Media

Is the media homogenizing English?

It is sometimes assumed that the language of the media is homogenizing English. After all, everyone watches the same television networks, in which a dialectally neutral English has become the norm. Doesn’t this common exposure affect language change and the level of dialect differences? It can be quite difficult to assess the precise role of the media in language change, but a couple of observations are appropriate.

Although TV shows have clearly contributed some words to the vocabulary and facilitated the rapid spread of some popular expressions, including perhaps the use of quotative like, media influence is greatly exaggerated because people do not model their everyday speech after media personalities with whom they have no interpersonal interaction. In ordinary, everyday conversation, most people want to talk like their friends and acquaintances.

Commonplace conversation, interpersonal interaction and social networks are the venues through which language change takes place, not impersonal media characters. Furthermore, the current evidence on language change and variation indicates that language diversity is alive and well. Some historically isolated dialects are receding due to outside influences, but other dialects are intensifying and accelerating in their rate of language change. If the media were so influential, that wouldn’t happen. Part of this trend toward maintaining diversity is due to the fact that language change is inevitable. And part of it may be due to a renewed sense of place and region that attaches social meaning to some of the language changes taking place in American society.

The Nuts & Bolts of Change and the Language System

Languages are highly patterned cognitive systems. Within the system of English, irregular noun plurals such as oxen for the plural of ox and sheep for the plural of sheep go against the dominant grain of forming the plural by adding –s or –es, creating pressure to change these plurals to oxes and sheeps. Vernacular dialects throughout the English-speaking world have succumbed to this linguistic tendency even as standard English has withstood this internal pressure.

At the same time, the plural of mousemouses — would have seemed unthinkable to any standard English speaker a few decades ago, but this regularized plural is now commonly used to refer to the hand-held computing device, as in “We purchased new mouses for all of our computers.” Over time and place, language itself will pressure exceptions into conforming with dominant patterns.

The mind organizes language in a way that predisposes it to certain types of change

There is also pressure to expand patterns of application. Lexical items (words), for example, tend to extend their meaning to cover new references; grammatical forms tend to become more general in their application. The term holiday, once limited to a religious event, now refers to any day away from work. In a similar way, the shape associated with the nautical vessel submarine was extended to refer to the fast-food sandwich based on the shape of the roll wrapped around the contents. The use of the word like to introduce a quote as in, “He’s like, What are you doing?” simply extends this grammatically versatile word, already used as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective and conjunction, to set off quoted statements. The human mind organizes language and uses it to communicate thought in a way that predisposes it to certain types of change.

Change within language is also shaped by our ability to produce and perceive language sounds. The sound of th in think and that, for example, is more difficult to produce and to perceive than the t of tea or the d of dip, one of the reasons that th is not nearly as common in the world’s languages as t or d. Not surprisingly, throughout the English-speaking world, the th sounds show phonetic variation and change, with pronunciations that range from t or d (tink for think, dat for that) to f or v (baf for bath, brover for brother). Similarly sequences of consonant sounds such mpt in attempt or sts in tests are much more phonetically complex than a single consonant at the end of a word (top or this), and therefore subject to change over time and geographical space.

vowel shift example

Sounds may also change based on their relation to other sounds in the system. Vowels, for example, are primarily differentiated from one another by where the tongue is positioned in the mouth, somewhat like the different sounds created by whistling into bottles filled with various amounts of water. A slight shift in the position in one vowel closer to the position of another vowel may make it more difficult to hear the difference between the neighboring vowels, triggering one of two effects. It may create a domino-like effect, a chain shift, among a series of vowels in which other vowels move to preserve phonetic distance between them, or it may cause adjacent vowels to merge and become one sound. Both chain shifts and mergers have played an important role in past and present-day changes in English language vowels.

One important chain shift taking place in the vowels of American English, the Northern Cities Vowel shift (in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Syracuse, Rochester and more), involves the sound of coffee shifting so that it is produced more like (though not identical to) the sound of cot. This in turn triggers a shift in the pronunciation of a word like pop so that it is produced more like pap, which, in turn, triggers a shift in the pronunciation of bat so that it sounds a bit more like bet. But the shift doesn’t end there, as the sound of bet moves back, closer to the sound of butt, and the sound of butt moves closer to that of bought, the place vacated by the original shift of the vowel in bought or caught. This shift of the vowels in the mouth looks somewhat like the following rotation.

vowel shift diagram

This subtle and elaborate shift in vowel production is not conscious, but rather the natural outcome of the rotational force of vowels. Meanwhile, Southern vowels rotate in a completely different format, resulting in growing divergence in the vowels of Southern and Northern speech in the United States.

Vowels also shift by merging into one sound. In Eastern New England, including Boston, and in most of the Western United States, a shift in vowels of caught and cot and dawn and Don has resulted in their identical production. Similarly, before a nasal sound, the vowel of pin and pen are merged in the South. Though there may be different responses to the movement of vowels, it is natural for them to shift their position over time, affecting other vowels. Though often unnoticed, language change is by guided the pressures of the language system working in tandem with societal divisions that assign social meaning to these changes.

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Chaika, Elaine. Language: The Social Mirror. 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1994.
  • Wolfram, Walt and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.
Walt Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University, where he directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project. He has pioneered research on social and ethnic dialects since the 1960s, publishing 16 books and more than 250 articles on language varieties such as African American English, Latino English, Appalachian English, and Southern Vernacular English. Wolfram is deeply involved in the application of sociolinguistic information and the dissemination of knowledge about dialects to the public. In this connection, he has been involved in the production of TV documentaries, museum exhibits, and other community-based dialect awareness initiatives; he also served as primary linguistic consultant for the Children's Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street. He has served as President of the Linguistic Society of America, the American Dialect Society, and the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics.
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