Animation still of person in the centre with sound waves going in to one ear and sound waves coming out of their mouth

Language evolves

Evolutionary linguist Kenny Smith explains how languages change over time

Languages change over time. Anyone who has looked at a King James Bible or studied Shakespeare or Chaucer at school will remember spending at least some time puzzling over the strange words they used and the unfamiliar ways they put them together – this is because English has changed quite a lot since those texts were written, both in the words we use and the rules for combining them. And if you read back far enough in time (say to 1000 years ago, roughly when the epic poem Beowulf was composed), you’ll find that Old English is as unintelligible as if it were a foreign language, because English has changed so much. 

Languages sometimes change because of dramatic geopolitical events – the Norman conquest of 1066 had a huge impact on the English language, for instance, most obviously in the importation of lots of vocabulary from Norman French. But languages also change for more mundane, everyday reasons, and it’s these humdrum processes of language change that tell us most about why all languages are constantly and gradually changing. Languages exist by being repeatedly learned and used, and people are creative in the way they learn and use language. Everyone deviates subtly from the language of their parents and peers and then passes on a slightly altered version of the language to the next generation. Over the space of a few hundred years, the accumulation of these tiny tweaks can cause languages to change quite dramatically.

Searching for and creating patterns

Some of the changes people make to language involve extending or tidying up existing patterns in the language or creating entirely new patterns from suggestive scraps. People hunt for patterns in the language they hear around them, and if they spot (or think they spot) a pattern in how the language works they are likely to seize upon it, broadening the scope of that pattern and pushing it into new parts of the language. This is particularly apparent during language learning – for example, young children learning English often go through a phase where they wildly over-use regular word endings, saying they “go-ed” rather than “went”, “think-ed” rather than “thought”. While in most cases people recover from this kind of ‘error’, these changes occur persistently enough that sometimes they stick. For instance, in the historical record of English we can see verbs flipping the way they form the past tense – the past tense of “help” used to be “holp”, “helped” appeared around 700 years ago and “holp” eventually died out completely in the 1600s.

Minimising effort and the loss of regularity

If this was the only kind of change going on that you might expect languages to be incredibly neat and rule-governed – languages actually are pretty well-behaved in that they are broadly characterised by exactly the kinds of rules that language learners look for. But anyone learning a new language or watching a child struggle with irregulars and idioms will have noticed that all languages contain little inconsistencies and exceptions. These are in part driven by another everyday cause of language change, people’s tendency to be lazy or, putting it more positively, to minimise effort. Talking can be tiring, and the lag between formulating a thought and waiting for all the words expressing that thought to come out can be frustrating, so if you can say something quickly and with less effort and still be understood, then why not? We are constantly tuning our language use in this way, under-pronouncing or entirely dropping sounds and words that are predictable and that can, therefore, be passed over quickly without impeding understanding. For example, in normal speech you’ll pronounce the word “piano” less distinctly when you say “grand piano” than when you say “Gran’s piano”, and when you say “kind of” (“he’s kind of annoying”) the “of” will be barely there compared to the “of” you use in less predictable combinations (“he’s the child of my colleague”). Because these little adjustments, shaving off a few milliseconds here and there, occur so consistently and pervasively they sometimes take hold in a language, eroding sounds and words entirely in predictable contexts, scattering exceptions and counterexamples throughout otherwise regular parts of language and providing some puzzling data for the next generations of learners to sift and sort and restructure once again. 

Looking deeper into the past

How long has this kind of language change been going on? There’s no reason to think that language change is a recent thing – as long as languages or their earliest progenitors have been learned and used and passed from person to person they will have been undergoing these same everyday kinds of systematisation and erosion. One of the fundamental ideas behind our research in the Centre for Language Evolution is that these same processes are responsible not only for language change that we can see happening in the recent past, but for the very origins of the fundamental structural properties of all languages: the fact that all human languages are set up to allow us to efficiently learn and use them (e.g. having reusable words and regular rules for combining them, with exceptions in just the right places to minimise effort without sacrificing communication) might itself be a product of language change on epic timescales, the accumulated innovations and modifications of millennia of language learning and use by our distant ancestors. If that’s right, then studying the ways in which languages change today can shine a light on where language comes from in the first place.

Further reading

If you are looking for a very readable introduction to language change and how it relates to language origins, I’d recommend Guy Deutscher’s book “The Unfolding of Language”, which is an amazing read – funny, clear, and packed full of fascinating detail.

An opportunity for teachers, parents and researchers

Recently we’ve been introducing some of these ideas to primary school children, through a series of hour-long sessions run in primary schools in Edinburgh and the Lothians, aimed at kids aged 8-12 (Primary 4 to Primary 7). We use some fun examples and hands-on games to introduce children to the idea that languages change, discuss some of the reasons why languages change and take a little look at communication in non-human animals. If you are within striking distance of Edinburgh and would like us to come and visit your school for a session, please get in touch with Kenny Smith (kenny.smith [at]

And if you are further afield but would like to use our materials to run a session in a school near you, we’d be happy to share, just drop Kenny an email.

About Kenny Smith

Kenny Smith is Professor of Evolutionary Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. He studies the evolution of language and is particularly interested in how languages are shaped by their repeated learning and use.

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