Language Variation and Change

The speech of no two people is identical, so it follows that if one takes manuscripts from two eras, one will be able to identify differences and so point to language "change." In this sense, languages are constantly changing in piecemeal, gradual, chaotic, and relatively minor fashion. However, historians also know that languages sometimes change abruptly, several things changing at the same time, and then settle into relative stasis, in a kind of "punctuated equilibrium."

So, all of the long vowels in English were raised (and the highest vowels diphthongized) in the famous Great Vowel Shift, which took place in late Middle English. Similarly, the language lost several uses of the verb be simultaneously in the nineteenth century (I wish our opinions were the same, but in time they will; you will be to visit me in prison; their being going to be married) and developed the first progressive passives: everything is being done (Warner 1995).

We may adopt a cognitive view of grammars, that they are mental entities that arise in the mind/brain of individual children. Hermann Paul (1880) was the first person to study change with roughly this view of grammars. Then it is natural to try to interpret cascades of changes in terms of changes in grammars, a new setting for some parameter, sometimes having a wide variety of surface effects and perhaps setting off a chain reaction. Such "catastrophic" changes are recognizable by the distinctive features discussed in Lightfoot 1991 (chap. 7). So grammatical approa-ches to language change have focussed on these large-scale changes, assuming that the clusters of properties tell us about the harmonies that follow from particular parameters. By examining the clusters of simultaneous changes and by taking them to be related by properties of Universal Grammar, we discover something about the scope and nature of parameters and about how they are set. Work on language change from this perspective is fused with work on language variation and acquisition. Change illuminates the principles and parameters of Universal Grammar in the same way that, when we view a forest at some distance, we may not see the deer until it moves.

This grammatical approach to diachrony explains changes at two levels. First, the set of parameters postulated as part of UG explains the unity of the changes, why superficially unrelated properties cluster in the way that they do.

Second, historical records, where they are rich, show not only when catastrophic change takes place but also what kinds of changes were taking place in the language prior to the parametric shift. This enables us to identify in what ways the trigger experiences of children who underwent the parametric shift differed from those of people with the older grammar. This, in turn, enables us to hypothesize what the crucial trigger experience is for setting a given parameter.

Recent work has treated this topic in terms of cue-based learning (Dresher and Kaye 1990; Dresher 1997; Lightfoot 1997): under this view, parameters have a designated cue; children scan their linguistic environment for the relevant cues and set parameters accordingly. The distribution of those cues may change in such a way that a parameter was set differently.

This model has nothing to say about why the distribution of the cues should change. That may be explained by claims about language contact or socially defined speech fashions, and it is a function of the use of grammars and not a function of theories of grammar, acquisition, or change -- except under one set of circumstances, where the new distribution of cues results from an earlier parametric shift; in that circumstance, one has a "chain" of grammatical changes.

This approach to change is not tied to any particular grammatical model. Warner (1995) offers a persuasive analysis of parametric shift using a lexicalist HEAD-DRIVEN PHRASE STRUCTURE GRAMMAR model. Interesting diachronic analyses have been offered for a wide range of phenomena, invoking different grammatical claims; see the Further Readings for examples.

This approach to abrupt change, where children acquire different systems from those of their parents, is echoed in work on creolization (see CREOLES) under the view of Bickerton (1984), and the acquisition of signing systems by children exposed largely to unnatural input (Goldin-Meadow and Mylander 1990; Newport 1999; Supalla 1990; see SIGN LANGUAGES). Bickerton argues that situations in which "the normal transmission of well-formed language data from one generation to the next is most drastically disrupted" will tell us something about the innate component and how it determines acquisition (Bickerton 1999).

The vast majority of deaf children are exposed initially to fragmentary signed systems that have not been internalized well by their primary models. Goldin-Meadow and Mylander (1990) take these to be artificial systems, and they show how deaf children go beyond their models in such circumstances and "naturalize" the system, altering the code and inventing new forms that are more consistent with what one finds in natural languages. The acquisition of signed languages under these circumstances casts light on abrupt language change, creolization, and on cue-based learning (Lightfoot 1998).

There has been interesting work on the replacement of one grammar by another -- that is, the spread of change through a community. So, Kroch and his associates (Kroch 1989; Kroch and Taylor 1997; Pintzuk 1990; Santorini 1992, 1993; Taylor 1990) have argued for coexisting grammars. That work postulates that speakers may operate with more than one grammar in a kind of "internalized diglossia" and it enriches grammatical analyses by seeking to describe the variability of individual texts and the spread of a grammatical change through a population.

Niyogi and Berwick (1995) have offered a population genetics computer model for describing the spread of new grammars. Certain changes progress in an S-curve and now Niyogi and Berwick provide a model of the emergent, global population behavior, which derives the S-curve. They postulate a learning theory and a population of child learners, a small number of whom fail to converge on preexisting grammars, and they produce a plausible model of population changes for the loss of null subjects in French.

Taking grammars to be elements of cognition has been productive for work on language change, but it is not as common an approach as one that takes grammars to be social entities. The distinction and its implications for historical linguistics are discussed by Lightfoot (1995). The approach described here is analogous to the study of evolutionary change in order to learn about general biological principles and about particular species.

See also

Additional links

-- David Lightfoot


Bickerton, D. (1984). The language bioprogram hypothesis. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 7(2):173-222.

Bickerton, D. (1999). How to acquire language without positive evidence: What acquisitionists can learn from creoles. In DeGraff, Ed. (1999).

DeGraff, M., Ed. (1999). Language Creation and Language Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dresher, B. E. (1997). Charting the learning path: Cues to parameter setting. To appear in Linguistic Inquiry.

Dresher, B. E., and J. Kaye. (1990). A computational learning model for metrical phonology. Cognition 137-195.

Goldin-Meadow, S., and C. Mylander. (1990). Beyond the input given: The child's role in the acquisition of language. Language 66:323-355.

Kemenade, A. van, and N. Vincent, Eds. (1997). Parameters of Morphosyntactic Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kroch, A. (1989). Reflexes of grammar in patterns of language change. Journal of Language Variation and Change 1:199-244.

Kroch, A., and A. Taylor. (1997). Verb movement in Old and Middle English: Dialect variation and language contact. In van Kemenade and Vincent (1997).

Lightfoot, D. W. (1991). How to Set Parameters: Arguments from Language Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lightfoot, D. W. (1995). Grammars for people. Journal of Linguistics 31:393-399.

Lightfoot, D. W. (1997). Catastrophic change and learning theory. Lingua 100:171-192.

Lightfoot, D. W. (1998). The Development of Language: Acquisition, Change, and Evolution. Oxford: Blackwell.

Newport, E. L. (1999). Reduced input in the acquisition of signed languages: Contributions to the study of creolization. In DeGraff, Ed. (1999).

Niyogi, P., and R. C. Berwick. (1995). The logical problem of language change. MIT A. I. Memo No. 1516.

Paul, H. (1880). Prinzipien der Spachgeschichte. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Pintzuk, S. (1990). Phrase Structures in Competition: Variation and Change in Old English Word Order. Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania.

Santorini, B. (1992). Variation and change in Yiddish subordinate clause word order. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 10:595-640.

Santorini, B. (1993). The rate of phrase structure change in the history of Yiddish. Journal of Language Variation and Change 5:257-283.

Supalla, S. (1990). Segmentation of Manually Coded English: Problems in the Mapping of English in the Visual/Gestural Mode. Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois.

Taylor, A. (1990). Clitics and Configurationality in Ancient Greek. Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania.

Warner, A. R. (1995). Predicting the progressive passive: Parametric change within a lexicalist framework. Language 71(3):533-557.

Further Readings

Battye, A., and I. Roberts, Eds. (1995). Clause Structure and Language Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, R., and I. Roberts. (1993). A computational approach to language learnability and language change. Linguistic Inquiry 24:299-345.

Fontana, J. M. (1993). Phrase Structure and the Syntax of Clitics in the History of Spanish. Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania.

Jespersen, O. (1922). Language, Its Nature, Development, and Origin. London: Allen and Unwin.

Kemenade, A. van. (1987). Syntactic Case and Morphological Case in the History of English. Dordrecht: Foris.

Kiparsky, P. (1995). Indo-European origins of Germanic syntax. In Battye and Roberts (1995).

Kiparsky, P. (1997). The rise of positional licensing in Germanic. In van Kemenade and Vincent (1997).

Lass, R. (1997). Historical Linguistics and Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lightfoot, D. W. (1979). Principles of Diachronic Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lightfoot, D. W. (1993). Why UG needs a learning theory: Triggering verb movement. In C. Jones, Ed., Historical Linguistics: Problems and Perspectives. London: Longman, pp. 190-214. Reprinted in Battye and Roberts (1995).

Lightfoot, D. W. (1997). Shifting triggers and diachronic reanalyses. In van Kemenade and Vincent (1997).

Lightfoot, D. W. (1999). Creoles and cues. In DeGraff, Ed. (1999).

Pearce, E. (1990). Parameters in Old French Syntax. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Roberts, I. G. (1985). Agreement patterns and the development of the English modal auxiliaries. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 3:21-58.

Roberts, I. G. (1993a). Verbs and Diachronic Syntax. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Roberts, I. G. (1993b). A formal account of grammaticalization in the history of Romance futures. Folia Linguistica Historica 13:219-258.

Roberts, I. G. (1998). Verb movement and markedness. In DeGraff, Ed.(1999).

Sprouse, R., and B.Vance. (1999). An explanation for the loss of null subjects in certain Romance and Germanic languages. In DeGraff, Ed. (1999).

Vance, B. (1995). On the decline of verb movement to Comp in Old and Middle French. In A. Battye and I. Roberts, Eds., Clause Structure and Language Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Warner, A. R. (1983). Review article on Lightfoot 1979. Journal of Linguistics 19:187-209.

Warner, A. R. (1993). English Auxiliaries: Structure and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Warner, A. R. (1997). The structure of parametric change, and V movement in the history of English. In van Kemenade and Vincent (1997) .