Photograph of Victorian women

Changing voices: An introduction to English language change over time

Should a language be fixed in time or should it adapt and evolve to reflect social and political change? Discover how and why spoken English changes and explore attitudes to language change.

All languages change over time, and vary from place to place. They may change as a result of social or political pressures, such as invasion, colonisation and immigration. New vocabulary is required for the latest inventions, such as transport, domestic appliances and industrial equipment, or for sporting, entertainment and leisure pursuits. But a language can also change by less obvious means.

Influenced by others

Language also changes very subtly whenever speakers come into contact with each other. No two individuals speak identically: people from different geographical places clearly speak differently, but even within the same small community there are variations according to a speaker’s age, gender, ethnicity and social and educational background. Through our interactions with these different speakers, we encounter new words, expressions and pronunciations and integrate them into our own speech. Even if your family has lived in the same area for generations, you can probably identify a number of differences between the language you use and the way your grandparents speak. Every successive generation makes its own small contribution to language change and when sufficient time has elapsed the impact of these changes becomes more obvious.

Learn more and listen to recordings which illustrate important, recent changes in spoken English including examples of phonological change, grammatical change and lexical change.

Attitudes to language change

some method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our language for ever ... it is better a language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing

Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, wrote these words in 1712. They express a sentiment we still hear today – the idea that language should be fixed forever, frozen in time, and protected from the ravages of fashion and social trends. Language change is almost always perceived as a negative thing. During the 18th century, Swift and many other influential figures felt the English language was in a state of serious decline and that a national institution, such as existed in France and Italy, should be created to establish rules and prevent further decay. Even today we hear people complaining about a supposed lack of ‘standards’ in spoken and written English. New words and expressions, innovative pronunciations and changes in grammar are derided, and are often considered inferior. Yet because of its adaptability and durability, English has evolved into an incredibly versatile and modern language, retaining a recognisable link to its past.

Change can be a good thing

Most contemporary linguistic commentators accept that change in language, like change in society, is an unavoidable process – occasionally regrettable, but more often a means of refreshing and reinvigorating a language, providing alternatives that allow extremely subtle differences of expression. Certainly the academies established in France and Italy have had little success in preventing change in French or Italian, and perhaps the gradual shift in opinion of our most famous lexicographer, Dr Johnson, is instructive. A contemporary of Swift, Dr Johnson, wrote in 1747 of his desire to produce a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed and its purity preserved, but on completing the project 10 years later he acknowledges in his introduction that:

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify.

Johnson clearly realised that any attempt to fix the language was futile. Like it or not, language is always changing and English will continue to do so in many creative and – to some perhaps – frustrating ways.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

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