Mechanisms of linguistic change



You should spend about 20 minutes on Question 27-40, which are based on Reading Passage 3 on the following pages.


Mechanisms of linguistic change



The changes that have caused the most disagreement are those in pronunciation.We have various sources of evidence for the pronunciations of earlier times, such as the spellings, the treatment of words borrowed from other languages or borrowed by them, the descriptions of contemporary grammarians and spelling-reformers, and the modern pronunciations in all the languages and dialects concerned. From the middle of the sixteenth century, there are in England writers who attempt to describe the position of the speech-organs for the production of English phonemes, and who invent what are in effect systems of phonetic symbols. These various kinds of evidence, combined with a knowledge of the mechanisms of speech-production, can often give us a very good idea of the pronunciation of an earlier age, though absolute certainty is never possible.



When we study the pronunciation of a language over any period of a few generations or more, we find there are always large-scale regularities in the changes: for example, over a certain period of time, just about all the long [a:] vowels in a language may change into long [e:] vowels, or all the [b] consonants in a certain position (for example at the end of a word) may change into [p] consonants. Such regular changes are often called sound laws. There are no universal sound laws (even though sound laws often reflect universal tendencies), but simply particular sound laws for one given language (or dialect) at one given period.



One cause which has been suggested for changes in pronunciation is geographic and climatic, for example that people living in mountain country are subject to certain changes in pronunciation compared to plainsmen, but the evidence for this is unconvincing. Other people have suggested biological and racial factors: it has been said, for example, that races with thick lips have difficulty in producing certain speech-sounds. Once again, no really convincing evidence has been produced.But in these circumstances the theory is unnecessary: the influence of one language on another is quite enough to explain such changes, without racial characteristics being invoked.



It is also possible that fashion plays a part in the process of change. It certainly plays a part in the spread of change: one person imitates another,and people with the most prestige are most likely to be imitated, so that a change that takes place in one social group may be imitated (more or less accurately) by speakers in another group. When a social group goes up or down in the world, its pronunciation may gain or lose prestige. It is said that, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the upper-class pronunciation of Russian, which had formerly been considered desirable, became on the contrary an undesirable kind of accent to have, so that people tried to disguise it. Some of the changes in accepted English pronunciation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have been shown to consist in the replacement of one style of pronunciation by another style already existing, and it is likely that such substitutions were a result of the great social changes of the period: the increased power and wealth of the middle classes, and their steady infiltration upwards into the ranks of the landed gentry, probably carried elements of middle-class pronunciation into upper-class speech.



A less specific variant of the argument is that the imitation of children is imperfect: they copy their parents’ speech, but never reproduce it exactly. This is true, but it is also true that such deviations from adult speech are usually corrected in later childhood. Perhaps it is more significant that even adults show a certain amount of random variation in their pronunciation of a given phoneme, even if the phonetic context is kept unchanged. This, however, cannot explain changes in pronunciation unless it can be shown that there is some systematic trend in the failures of imitation: if they are merely random deviations they will cancel one another out and there will be no net change in the language. For some of these random variations to be selected at the expense of others, there must be further forces at work.



One such force which is often invoked is the principle of ease, or minimization of effort. The change from fussy to fuzzy would be an example of assimilation, which is a very common kind of change. Assimilation is the changing of a sound under the influence of a neighbouring one. For example,the word scant was once skamt, but the /m/ has been changed to /n/ under the influence of the following /t/. Greater efficiency has hereby been achieved, because /n/ and /t/ are articulated in the same place(with the tip of the tongue against the teeth-ridge),whereas /m/ is articulated elsewhere (with the two lips). So the place of articulation of the nasal consonant has been changed to conform with that of the following plosive. A more recent example of the same kind of thing is the common pronunciation of football as foopball.



Assimilation is not the only way in which we change our pronunciation in order to increase efficiency. It is very common for consonants to be lost at the end of a word: in Middle English, word-final /-n/ was often lost in unstressed syllables, so that baken ‘to bake’ changed from /’ba:kln/ to I’ba:kI, and later to /ba:k/. Consonant-clusters are often simplified. At one time there was a HI in words like castle and Christmas, and an initial /k/ in words like knight and know. Sometimes a whole syllable is dropped out when two successive syllables begin with the same consonant (haplology):a recent example is temporary, which in Britain is often pronounced as if it were temporary.



Questions 27-29

Complete the summary below.

Choose NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS from the passage for each answer Write your answers in boxes 27-29 on your answer sheet.

The pronunciation of living language undergo changes throughout thousands of years. Changes from [b] consonants to [p] consonants are usually called 27 ……………………. There are three reasons for these changes:Firstly,the influence of one language on another is an adequate explanation since no disagreement being put forward. Secondly, 28 ……………………. involving imitation is associated with the spread of this linguistic phenomenon. The incomplete imitations of children, moreover, may also contribute to this change if they are only deviations. However, for those random variations in pronunciation, the deeper evidence lies in the 29 ……………………. or minimization of effort.


Questions 30-37

Do the following statements agree with the information given in Reading Passage 3?

In boxes 30-37 on your answer sheet,write

TRUE if the statement agrees with the information

FALSE if the statement contradicts the information

NOT GIVEN if there is no information on this


30 The most controversial aspect of linguistic changes is the use of word.

31 It is possible for us to know the early pronunciation of some certain words.

32 The great change of language is related to the rising status and fortune of middle classes.

33 Some kind of languages change more significantly than other languages.

34 All the children learning speeches from adults cannot have the accurate pronunciation all the time.

35 The word scant can be pronounced more easily than skamt.

36 The [g] in gnat will not be pronounced in the future.

37 The sound of ‘temporary’ cannot be presented by its spelling.


Questions 38-40

Look at the following sentences and the list of statements below.

Match each statement with the correct sentence, A-D.

Write the correct letter A-D,in boxes 38-40 on your answer sheet.


A Since the speakers can receive less effort

B Due to the pronunciation cannot present the spelling accurately

C It is a language influencing other languages in a large scale

D Because the speaker can pronounce /n/ and Itl clearly in the same place


38 As a consequence, ‘b’ will be pronounced as ‘p’

39 The pronunciation of /m/ changed to /n/

40 The omit of ‘t’ in the sound of Christmas



Mechanisms of Linguistic Change


27 sound laws

28 fashion

29 principle of ease









38 C

39 D

40 A