Recent changes in English and their position in the foreign language classroom



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Language Variation & Change:


strong connections with both theoretical and experimental linguistics, as well as with computer science, the humanities, psychology and social science.


Key themes:

variation within an individual as well as across speakers matters to linguistic theory


how our findings are related to current linguistic theory


interesting problems in variable data and how to explore various ways of analyzing these problems


variation in the lexicon


syntactic variation: empirical studies and recent theories


syntactic change


phonological variation / sound change and analogy


the role of external factors in variation (style, gender,…)


language variation and language change from the perspective of grammar


Practical goal: make this course serve as a starting point for research papers.



To discover more about how languages change and how they don’t


To learn about how the internal structure of language interacts with external social factors


To look as specific situations and see how these general principles are confirmed or refuted. Key on-going change investigations are of interest here.


To throw new light on the relationship of the standard of a language and the dialects which are also found





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Language Variation and Change



Language Variation

Everyone speaks at least one language, and probably most people in the world speak more than one. Even Americans, most of whom speak only English, usually know more than one dialect. Certainly no one talks exactly the same way at all times: You are unlikely to speak to your boss in the style (or vocabulary) that you’d use in talking to the idiot who just rammed your car from behind. All dialects start with the same system, and their partly independent histories leave different parts of the parent system intact. This gives rise to some of the most persistent myths about language, such as the claim that the people of Appalachia speak pure Elizabethan English. Non-Appalachians notice features of Shakespeare’s English that have been preserved in Appalachia but lost in (for instance) Standard English, but only Appalachian fans of Shakespeare would be likely to notice the features of Shakespeare’s English that have been preserved in Standard English but lost in the Appalachian dialect.

Types of Language Change

What kinds of language change are there? First, there’s vocabulary change. Slang terms, in particular, come and go every few years. In a 1990 Beetle Bailey cartoon, for instance, Sarge chews Beetle out with a string of symbols ending in #!!, and Beetle laughs, “#?? Nobody says # anymore!” Sarge, deflated, sighs, “Gee, I always thought # was all-time classic cussing.” Sarge is embarrassed because with a very few exceptions—notably the genuinely classic four-letter English words, at least one of which has a pedigree that includes a Latin obscenity written on the walls of ancient Pompeii—using last year’s slang spells social disaster. Meanings of words change, too. English and German both inherited a word that refers to a person of high rank in English (‘knight’) but to a servant or even a slave in German (‘Knecht’). (Thanks to evidence from other Germanic languages, we know that the German meaning is closer to the original.)

Grammatical constructions also change. A passage in the Old English Lord’s Prayer reads, in literal translation, ‘not lead thou us into temptation’, in sharp contrast to Modern English ‘don’t lead us into temptation’. Nowadays, ‘not’ must follow an auxiliary verb ‘do’ (often contracted to ‘don’t’), there is no pronoun subject in the sentence, and if there were one it would be ‘you’–‘thou’ has entirely disappeared from the modern language.

Last but not least, sounds change. Everyone realizes this, in a way, when dialect variation causes communication breakdown. If you go into a Chicago store and ask for ‘sacks’ in an East Coast accent you may get socks instead, and Bostonians sometimes have trouble understanding Alabamans even when both are using Standard English grammar.


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