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Topics in Linguistic Anthropology: Does Language Change?

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Does language change? Many people don’t realize it, but all languages change over time. Here are some examples. Some words are being lost because they aren’t used anymore, such as the word “typewriter.” Some new words are added, such as the word “podcasting,” along with lots of other computer-related words. Some words have a change in meaning, such as the word, “mouse.” It used to mean only a small animal with a long tail, but now it also means a computer mouse. Sometimes words are shortened. For example, the word “television” has been shortened to “TV.”

We also borrow words from other languages. Here are some examples. The words “jungle” and “pajamas” come from the Hindi language of India. The words “tomato” and “avocado” come from the Nahuatl language of Mexico and Central America. The words “recipe” and “piano” come from the French language, while the words “guitar” and “mosquito” come from Spanish.  There are many, many other examples, including “mattress” and “magazine” from Arabic and “yogurt” and “tulip” from Turkish.

Language Change and Social Factors

Sometimes languages change because of social factors. For example, in American English, the word “handicapped” is being dropped in favor of the word “disabled.” Also, the indigenous people of North America are now called “Native Americans” rather than the old term “Indians.” Similarly, Americans with an ethnic connection to the countries of Africa are now called “African-Americans,” rather than the outdated and offensive term “Negros.”

Stages of Language Change

But how exactly does language change happen? There are four stages. In Stage 1, someone comes up with a new word and shares it with a small group of people. In Stage 2, the new words is used by a larger group of people, but it is still only used within the subculture it started in. In Stage 3, the new word is used by an even larger group of people, who are not in the subculture it started in. And finally, in Stage 4, the new word is used by most of the different subcultures.

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Language Contact and Pidgins

Another way language can change is when two languages come into contact. When people who speak different languages try to communicate for the purposes of business and trade, a pidgin language can be formed. A pidgin is a simplified mixed language that the two groups of people can use to communicate and make business transactions. People do not speak a pidgin language as their native language–it is just a way for people who speak different languages to communicate with each other.

Language Contact and Creoles

Sometimes when languages come into contact, a new complete language is made from a mixing of the languages. This is called a creole. For example, the language of Haiti is a creole made from the mixing of some African languages along with Spanish, English, French, and a native Caribbean language. In contrast to a pidgin language, a creole is a complete and complex language, and people speak the creole as a native language.

Learn More

What to learn more about language change? Check out the YouTube video, “Language Change and Historical Linguistics: Crash Course Linguistics #13” at this link or view the embedded video below.

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