Languages changing faster or slower?

Is language changing faster or slower than in the past? Regarding English; Going way back, Middle- and Old-English appear incomprehensible to a current speaker of English, per an earlier SDMB thread. But when I read writings from 200 and 100 years ago I can see changes from today’s language but the changes are slight and both are quite legible. Is there a “punctuated evolution” of language? Closer to today I can think off-hand of many factors that could contribute to the rate going either way; increased communication, a lot more things getting documented (word processors, the web, etc), rapid technological change, extinction of some languages and pre-eminence of others, and so on.

So, is the pace of change of language slowing down, or maybe speeding up?

Good question. I think that as soon as a language gets written down, it tends to change more slowly. Only makes sense. On the other hand, the tech revolution has introduced so many new words and phrases as well as a huge amount of jargon, that you might argue the opposite.

And be careful about drawing conclusions from your ability to read 200 yr old English. Do you think a guy from the 1800s would be able to understand a Computer Users manual (no jokes about us moderns being able to understand them, please)?

It works both ways. I think the everyday words change more slowly, but there is an ifusion of new words all the time.

Two different effects are at work here. Before the printing press, spelling was, shall we say, individualistic. Words in the same sentence or a person’s name could be spelled in many different ways. Yet each word probably had fewer meanings or metaphorical extensions than they do now. Old English was also more highly inflected, so the number of cases and variations was higher. Middle English is less inflected and a simplification of the language continued for centuries. The King James Bible made the inflections of thee and thou seem like holy and high language but it was not out of the ordinary for formal language of the time although the contemporary Shakespeare shows little use of it.

The printing press started a process of standardization of spelling, a long-term one that continued until the creation of dictionaries made alternate spellings appear to be the work of the less educated. Books on grammar also reinforced notions of “correct” grammar with inflexible rules.

But increases in literacy helped along by the printing press sparked a revolution in usage. Shakespeare may never have spelled his name in the same way twice, but he either invented or put into print hundreds of words either never recorded or not recorded in that sense before.

Since that time the absolute number of words has increased tremendously, both because of new inventions, the need to do identification of things in new places, and the spread of borrowed terms from dozens of immigrant languages; but mostly because words accrete new usages, literal and metaphorical. Our current spelling and grammar are fairly well fixed, however. (No matter what the Internet is tending to do to them. :frowning: )

So the answer is both. Or neither. Language changes continually, but in different ways at different speeds in different periods.

If you are seriously interested in the question, may I recommend a book called, IIRC, Principles of Diachronic Syntax, by David Lightfoot. Although not stated in these terms, this book advances a thesis that there may well be a kind of punctuated evolution of languages.

I may be doing it an injustice, but my recollection, nearly 25 years old, is that by way of example he claimed that the English modals underwent a fairly major reorganization between the years 1550 and 1600. Before 1500 English, like French and German, had a special class of verbs called modals, but by 1600 and continuing to the present day, English has a new syntactic category called modals that are not verbs for a number of reasons. Before 1550, the periphrasitc expressions such as, “be about to be”, “be able to be”, “have to be” didn’t exist since we had “will”, “can”, and “must” to cover those semantic areas, but after 1600, we didn’t. In French and German, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “Je doit pouvoir” and “Ich muss koennen”, but in English you have to say, “I must be able to”, not “I must can”. There were other changes in the verb that took place at the same time (see Lightfoot’s book for more details).

A more obvious example is that in the years from 1066 to around 1400, English became a new language. This was partly because of a massive infusion of new words from French, but even more because it changed from a fairly hrighly inflected language to one that has basically only 4 inflections (three of which consist in adding an “s”). Obviously, there are historical reasons for this, but it is still an example of punctuated evolution. Biological evolution too, is frequently punctuated by major enviromental changes.

The evolution of languages is probably speeding up, due to the internet’s making contact with people all over the world possible.

I’m not sure the question can be answered as phrased. Mass communication destroys linguistic diversity. Throughout most of human history, language has been a continuum rather than a discrete, well-defined thing. People in village B had a couple of unique words and an accent slightly different than the people in village A, just down the road. The people in village C has a slightly stronger “accent” etc. Eventually, these differences would render communication between people from village A and village Z almost impossible.

You still see this in Italy today. “Italian” is a modern creation and is actually just the dialect of Tuscany. Even today, many people can also speak regional dialects that increase in mutual unintelligibility as you go north or south. The “Italian” dialect in, say, Trentino Alto Adige is completely incomprehensible to someone from Sicily.

The printing press fixed the dialect of London as “standard” English and largely wiped out linguistic variety. The size of the British empire and relatively poor communications allowed English to flourish in new evolutionary niches, for a little while. Thus, Indian English and American English, while still quite comprehensible to speakers of British English, started to accrete differences. However, the growth of satelite television and, more importantly, the Internet, is provding an irrestible impetus for standardization.

Under these circumstances, some kinds of linguistic change, e.g., new vocabulary, can spread with blinding speed. Others, however, may never take place. I think it will be almost impossible for things like variant spellings to creep into English. There is too much inertia in the form of digital source material and too many people able and willing to correct errors.

I change in things like grammer have slowed down, due to mass communiction fixing things in place, but vocabualary is changing quite rapidly, mostly through lots of new words being added, without throwing away lots of older words.