Tracking language transmission
via grammar change
Word order and meaning
vary according to the means they use to express semantic content. Most languages make some use of word order to do this, though
there are certain so-called 'free word order languages' that don't. A language like English makes regular use of word order
in a sentence to express grammatical relations such as object and object. These relate to basic semantic notions of who-did-what-to-whom.
For example, the sentence The dog chased the cat contains the same words as the sentence The cat chased the dog,
but doesn't mean the same thing. It's the relative order of the cat and the dog that tells us who the agent of the action
Word order change
Word order is
fairly stable across time, which makes it all the more interesting when it changes. It has major implications for the structure
of a language - Old English word order was very different from modern English. It resembled languages such as German and Dutch
nowadays. Latin didn't really have fixed word-order at all, but tended to put verbs in sentence-final position. French, Italian
and other Romance languages generally developed from Latin, but do not put verbs in final position. Though their vocabulary
mostly has Latin etymology, they are structurally quite distinct from Latin. The effects of structure change are far-reaching,
typically affecting every sentence of the language. So why does word order change?
In modern standard
English, multiple negation is avoided, whereas in earlier times, even in writers such as Chaucer, multiple negation was normal
and not stigmatised. A sentence such as None of the men said anything about it would in pre-modern English have been expressed
using none and nothing. So between Chaucer's time and ours, the language norm has changed. Is this just a change brought about
by standardising written language and teaching it in the classroom? Or is it a change that has taken place 'naturally', as
children acquire language in the home? It seems that in this respect parental speech is imitated by children acquiring language:
if the parents speak standard English, their children will avoid multiple negation, whereas if the parents speak a non-standard
variety with multiple negation, so will their children, unless formal education succeeds in eliminating it from their speech.
So distinguishing changes that are 'top-down', instituted by a dominant social group, such as educators, and those that occur
without such social pressure isn't so simple.
The paradox of language change
also a rather intriguing problem in the very notion of structural change in language, as regards the idea of 'natural' change.
Research into child language acquisition has shown that, by and large, young children make very few errors of word order when
they are acquiring language. They make errors with word-choice and grammatical endings, but very rarely with syntax, which
seems to be closely modelled on that of their parents or other caregivers. But, again according to language acquisition researchers,
the rules of syntax appear to be laid down during a 'critical period' for acquisition in the early years of life. So if young
children simply follow their parents' example regarding basic syntactic patterns (though not in fashionable vocabulary, idioms
etc.!), how do these patterns ever get modified across generations? Why hasn't word order always stayed the same? This is
the paradox of language change.