Cognitive Approaches

Language change

1. Historical linguistics and language change

Historical linguistics is concerned with the description of the reasons and effects of language change. Furthermore, it explores the relationships of the world's languages. Since the 1960s, explanations in historical linguistics have been revolutionized by the sociolinguistic examination of language variation (highlighting the fact that the language we use varies from day to day, situation to situation, person to person). At the level of the individual, we should note that each speaker employs distinct registers of language in different situations. At the group level, language might vary in terms of regional dialects, social dialects, and so on.

(If you are interested in how the English language has developed and changed over time due to such remarkable events like the Great Vowel Shift, feel free to read about it in Ello's section on the History of English.)

In this section, we will take a look at the opinion of cognitive linguists on language change by introducing the so called Utterance Selection Theory developed by William Croft (2000).

2. The Utterance Selection Theory of language change

The key assumption of this theory can simply be put as: Languages themselves don’t change. Instead, people change language through their actions, i.e. language is changed by the way people use language (usage-based perspective on language change).
Of course, language is a conventional system that allows speakers to express meaning that will be recognised by other members of the community: speakers and hearers must share a common code if communication is to succeed.
The word dog for example is arbitrary in the sense that there is nothing predictable in the sounds that are used to express the lexical concept dog in English. Other languages (think of chien or Hund) use different sounds. However, a convention in English holds that the word dog refers to a particular kind of animal, a conventional meaning, allowing all speakers of English to use it with the given reference.

Furthermore, strings of sounds such as he kicked the bucket can be seen as a convention in English since the phrase has a fixed idiomatic meaning attached to it. - If convention is so important for human language as well as linguistic behaviour and if everyone is following the given conventions, what may then be the reason for the change? For this to happen, someone must break a convention and this innovation must then undergo propagation (it must spread through the linguistic community and establish itself as a new convention).
According to Croft, the explanation for language change lies in the fact that “there cannot be a word or phrase to describe every experience that people wish to communicate”. In other words, language use has to be partly non-conventional if it is to express all human experience, yet it is also partly conventional in that novel uses rely on existing aspects of language.

Croft’s Theory of Utterance Selection takes its inspiration from neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, particularly the application of theories of biological evolution to sociocultural constructs like scientific theories. In developing his theory of language use, Croft draw upon another theory called the Generalised Theory of Selection, which was brought forward by the philosopher of science David Hull.
Croft’s theory applies Hull's notions of replicator, interactor, selection and lineage to language change in the following way:

  • 1. Replicator: an element of language realised in an utterance (= a unique event bounded in space and time, including words, morphemes & grammatical construcitons). Croft calls these linguistic replicators linguemes (usually associated with a conventional meaning). Normal replication occurs when linguemes are used in accordance with the conventions of the language. Altered replication, which is essentially innovation, occurs when an utterance provides a meaning that breaks with the conventions of the language.

  • 2. Interactor: language users

  • 3. Selection: equals propagation, in that the selection and use of a particular utterance (containing a particular lingueme or set of linguemes) can propagate the altered replication, enabling it to diffuse through a linguistic community. In time, the innovation becomes established as a new convention.

  • 4. Lineage: relates to etymology (the historical study of linguistic units, particularly words). Etymologists are linguists who study the historical chain of developments affecting word form and meaning

(...about some reasons Croft proposes for language change)

In sum, the Theory of Utterance Selection is a usage-based approach to language change because it views language as a system of use governed by convention. Language change according to this view results from breaking conventions and selecting some of the new variants as a result of this departure. While the propagation of new forms can be due to intentional mechanisms relating to the expressive functions associated with language (advertising etc), it also involves non-intentional articulatory and perceptual mechanisms. Furthermore, the selection of variants is due to sociolinguistic processes such as accommodation, identity and prestige.



Research exercise: What's the meaning of meh?

Language acquisition