Cognitive Approaches

Causal mechanisms for language change

What social mechanisms give rise to replication? Because the Theory of Utterance Selection is usage-based, we are concerned with utterances, which are embedded in linguistic interaction. What kinds of interaction do we talk about and what motivates them?

In general all language interaction preserves language stability, since speakers follow linguistic conventions. It also brings about innovation by breaking linguistic conventions and may result in the forming of new conventions.
In order to account for human behaviour in linguistic interaction, Croft adopts a model proposed by Rudi Keller (1994), which describes linguistic interaction in terms of a number of maxims.
Hypermaxim of linguistic interaction: “talk in such a way that you are most likely to reach the goals that you set yourself in your communicative enterprise”.
Croft argues that by observing the various maxims in service of fulfilling the hypermaxim, speakers facilitate normal and altered replication as well as selection and thus bring about language change.

Convention is crucial to the success and stability of a language as a communicative system, which is why normal replication is important and implied in maxim 1, stating: Maxim 1: Talk in such a way that you are understood

According to Croft, innovation arises because, in addition to be understood, speakers also have a number of other goals, represented by the following maxims:

  • Maxim 2: Talk in such a way that you are noticed
  • Maxim 3: Talk in such a way that you are not recognizable as a member of the group
  • Maxim 4: Talk in an amusing, funny, etc. way
  • Maxim 5: Talk in an especially polite, flattering, charming, etc. way

In order to observe the hypermaxim, speakers might follow the above maxims, however, in following them, they may need to break the conventions of language, resulting in innovation or altered replication. Another maxim which may be crucial in altered replication is:

  • Maxim 6: Talk in such a way that you do not expend superfluous energy.

Maxim 6 is related to the notion of economy and might serve to explain why frequently used terms in a particular linguistic community are often shortened The observation of the maxims considered so far is intentional rather than unintentional. However, there are a number of mechanisms resulting in altered replication that are non-intentional.

Altered replication: sound change
Sound change occurs when an allophone is replicated in altered form, which might happen through “errors” in articulation. The articulatory system can overshoot or undershoot the sound it is attempting to produce, giving rise to a near (slightly altered) replication.
Assimilation e.g. counts as a non-intentional process that results in sound change. Croft argues that this type of sound change might be accounted for not by articulatory mechanisms but by non-intentional auditory (perceptual) mechanisms.
Assimilation is the process whereby a sound segment takes on some of the characteristics of a neighbouring sound. If you for instance try saying first bell and then bang while pinching your nose, you will realize that the vowel sound in bang has a different quality in production and sound than bell. This is because the following sounds in bang, the ng is a nasal sound, produced with the air flowing out of your nose. In anticipation of the following sounds, we also produce the vowel that proceeds with some of the air flowing out of the nose, a process called nasalization. Also many French vowels have undergone nasalization when they occur before a word-final nasal such as fin or bon. The consequence here is, that in most contexts the final nasal segment is no longer pronounced in Modern French words, because the presence of a nasalized vowel makes the final nasal sound redundant. The process that motivates assimilation of this kind is called hypercorrection.

Altered replication is not restricted to sound change, but can also effect symbolic units or in other words form-meaning pairings. Language change that affects these units can therefore be called form-meaning reanalysis and involves a change in the mapping between form and meaning. Consider the examples:

  • I’m going to the library.
  • I’m going to be an astronaut (when I grow up).

The be going to construction in the first sentence describes a physical path of motion while in sentence two it describes future time, which is a more recent meaning associated with this construction (a form-meaning reanalysis known as grammaticalisation). Reanalysis as such is non-intentional and derives from pragmatic (contextual) factors.

What are then the social mechanisms responsible for selection and how is innovation propagated through a linguistic community so that it becomes conventionalised?
In the Theory of Utterance Selection, mechanisms of selection operate over previously used variants, which is reflected in the maxim:

  • Maxim 7: Talk like the others talk.

Croft argues that this maxim is closely related to the so called theory of accommodation, which holds that interlocutors often tend to accommodate or “move towards” the linguistic conventions of those with whom they are interacting in order to achieve greater rapport of solidarity. Maxim 8 is merely a variant of the preceding one:

  • Maxim 8: Talk in such a way that you are recognized as a member of the group.

This maxim then refers explicitly to group identity and points out that the way we speak is an act of identity, referring to the function of language to identify ourselves with a particular social group.

Go back to Language change