Why study linguistics? Teachers and learners need an understanding of applied linguistics to better understand how languages work and the processes of L1 and L2 acquisition. In this article, I will discuss historical reasons for language change.

As I’ve written previously, ESL instructors need to understand how languages work to be better able to serve the student population. Language is what makes us human, and it's something no other creature has.

First, here is a brief history of grammar studies.

Early studies

Early linguistic studies involved grammar and contrastive grammar. Grammar study began with the ancient Greeks, who engaged in philosophical speculation about languages and described language structure. This was continued by the Romans, who translated the Greek names for the parts of speech and grammatical endings into Latin.

Other early grammar studies were conducted by the ancient Hebrews, Indians (Sanskrit and Urdu) and Arabs, with the earliest extant grammar coming from the Sanskrit language of India, compiled by the Indian grammarian Panini. That sophisticated analysis showed how words are formed and what parts of words carry meaning.

Grammar and other fields

Grammar has links to culture and other fields. These connections are significant as noted in the ACTFL standards:

"Connect with other disciplines and acquire information and diverse perspectives in order to use the language to function in academic and career related situations.

Making Connections: Learners build, reinforce, and expand their knowledge of other disciplines while using the language to develop critical thinking and to solve problems creatively.

Acquiring Information and Diverse Perspectives:Learners access and evaluate information and diverse perspectives that are available through the language and its cultures."

Why languages change

Languages change for a variety of reasons.

As William Bright writes, "Spoken language, everywhere and always, undergoes continual change of which speakers may be relatively unaware. Written language, because of its permanence and standardization, shows slower and less sweeping changes; the spelling of English has changed much less than its pronunciation since Chaucer's time. This in turn is linked to the factors of formality and prestige."


Languages may change when one language influences another. Languages borrow from one another. Turkish contains many words from Arabic because of the influence of the Koran, originally in Arabic.

Here are a few Turkish words that are from Arabic: Kitab book (Arabic kitab); hukumet government (Arabic hukuumah); cami (pronounced jami) mosque (Arabic jaami’).

Likewise, English speakers adopted words from a variety of sources. For example, words from Native American languages were borrowed and added into English:

"Thus speakers or English have adopted words like opossum, squaw, and wigwam from American Indian languages. Such adopted elements, most of which are in the sphere of vocabulary, are known as borrowings," wrote Winfred Lehmann in 1976’s "Descriptive Linguistics."

English has also borrowed from the Scandinavian languages. These include words such as skirt, sky, husband, happy die, and egg.

"In the English tradition sk- before high front vowels had become sh-as in shirt. Borrowed words thus reintroduce the sk-, and in this way may be distinguished from words in the native English tradition," wrote Lehmann.

Another set of borrowed words came from French. Words borrowed from French include words for government such as "government," "state," "nation," and "people."

"The French influence on legal language is especially strong, in part because French was the language of the courts of justice until 1731," also wrote Lehmann.

French word order (noun + adjective) has been maintained in such phrases as "attorney general" and "malice aforethought."

Child L1 acquisition

Another force for change is how children learn language.

"No one teaches the child the rules of the grammar; each child constructs his or her grammar on his or her own, generalizing rules from the linguistic input he or she receives," wrote Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman in the first edition of "An Introduction to Language."

A child receives input from many different dialects and styles of L1. Some of the features may merge or be omitted resulting in a slight change for the next generation which compounds with each succeeding generation. For example, the older generation may be using variable rules saying, "It is I" at times, and, “It’s me,” at other times. The next generation may only use "It’s me."

Each generation learns L1 differently. Children may make minor changes and simplifications that add up with each generation. Here is an example from German, according to a 2015 article from The Atlantic, written by John McWhorter:

"Rather, people who are perfectly capable of speaking Standard German use a different kind among themselves that shaves off some unnecessary complexities in the way that their parents’ version of German does. Languages are, as a rule, much more elaborate than they need to be, so the streamlining doesn’t deprive the speaker of expressive power."

Speech may be modified as L1 speakers try to assist L2 speakers.

Often, native speaker (NS) talk is modified to take the form of foreigner talk or teacher talk. Both of these forms are simplified at the lexical, phonological, and syntactical levels in an attempt to ease comprehension and facilitate the processing of linguistic features.

Common ancestor

Proto-European developed into "daughter" languages although the original was lost:

"Much of 19th century linguistics was devoted to working out the nature of this parent language, spoken about 6,000 years ago, as well as the changes by which 'Proto-Indo-European', as we now call it, developed into English, Russian, Hindi, and its other modern descendants," wrote Frederick J. Newmeyer.

The similarities would indicate a common ancestor.

Therefore, common ancestors will gradually develop into separate languages; dialects of Latin eventually evolved into the separate Romance languages. Latin itself remained a literary and liturgical language. Likewise proto-Semitic evolved into modern Arabic, Amharic, and Hebrew.


Creolization occurs when a trade language or pidgin is learned as L1 by children. An example is Haitian Creole, which is based on French and African languages.

"When a pidgin is adopted so widely that it becomes the native language of many speakers, as in Haiti, it is called a Creole," wrote Lehmann.

Creoles are now taught as foreign languages, according to a 2015 article in The New York Times:

"The New York City Education Department plans to expand dual-language programs offered in public schools, using the orchestra of local languages to spread bilingual little symphonies across the five boroughs — and perhaps to attract more middle-class families to poorer schools in the process.

Carmen Fariña, the city’s schools chancellor, announced the plan…saying that citywide, 40 dual-language programs for elementary, middle and high school levels would be created or expanded for the 2015-16 school year.

In each of the programs, which aim to teach students to read, write and speak in two languages, half the students will be English speakers and half will already speak the other language of the classroom. A vast majority of the programs will be in Spanish, but there will also be some in Japanese, Hebrew, Chinese, French and Haitian-Creole."

Types of change

There are several types of semantic change. A word may widen its meaning. For example in Latin, virtue was a male quality, but now it applies to male or female.

The word comes from "vir," man, according to David Crystal’s "Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language." Likewise, actor referred only to males but know is used for both alongside actress.

Here are some other types of linguistic change, according to Crystal.

Narrowing: when a word moves from general to specific. In Old English mete (meat) refers to food in general, but now it refers to meat. Corn in the King James Bible refers to grain since corn was only known in the Americas.

Shift: a word moves into another situation. For example navigator only referred to ships, but now includes planes and cars. It also refers to the internet.

Figurative use: a crane is a bird, but it then moved to meaning a piece of construction equipment.

Amelioration: a word loses its negative connotations. Mischievous once meant disastrous but now means more like "playful."

Pejoration: a word gains a negative connotation. Notorious once meant "widely known" but now it means “infamous.”

Dialects can drive language change, according to Elizabeth Malone, "Research in dialects helps scientists understand the fundamental principles that underlie language differences, language innovation and language variation in time and space."