Monday, August 11, 2008

Do you want to consider language change?

Have you ever tried to hear the difference between a Cockney British accent and an Australian accent?  

Once I set myself the challenge - I was on a train platform in Tokyo, and I heard some people talking near me, and I started listening just trying to place my best guess as to where they were from.  It was pretty hard.  Eventually I fastened onto one single language feature:  these people were using glottal stop "t" (a "t" pronounced way back in the throat) in the middle of words instead of flap "t" (like in American "batter").  That one difference told me I was listening to British English instead of Australian English.  The rest of it - vowels, intonation, everything else - was at the time too subtle for me to distinguish.

Why in the world are these accents so similar?  It turns out that when Australia was first settled, starting in 1788, most of the people who moved there came from the same area of England where Cockney speakers live today. A lot of them were convicts.  My Aussie husband will tell you that these folk were subjected to a trip to Australia for petty crimes, like stealing or poaching, rather than anything more serious.  Who'd want to be stuck on a ship full of murderers for six months?  But as a result, both Cockney and Australian English are actually  "daughter languages" of the same parent, an English dialect spoken in a particular region (and by a particular social group) in London at the end of the 18th century. 

It's been more than two hundred years since then, and at the sound level, the two dialects are remarkably similar.  There are more noticeable divergences of vocabulary, of course (for example, Australians say "truck" instead of "lorry") but a lot still remains common (such as saying "lift" rather than "elevator"). 

I remarked in my earlier post on dialects that the longer a language exists in a particular area, and the more isolated regions are, the more dialects will diverge.  In the United States, there are isolated regions in the East (I'm thinking it was the Appalachian mountains?) which preserve language features that haven't been present in a standard American dialect for hundreds of years.  These are in fact useful for scholars who study language change.

You probably already know how I'm going to be connecting this to speculative fiction.  It becomes relevant in all kinds of contexts.  One possible science fiction context is that of extrapolating the language used by future societies (I think immediately of Mike Flynn's The January Dancer).  One possible fantasy context is that of quoting ancient texts (I think of Tolkien).  Either science fiction or fantasy can easily support the idea of two societies that have been isolated for a long period of time suddenly finding one another again and having to resume communication (I think of Stargate, and one of my own planned stories).

If you're writing a story that involves language change, it's useful to consider the following factors:
1.  amount of time elapsed
2. presence or absence of written language (this can slow change)
3. amount of intercommunication between isolated groups (more communication can mean slower change)
4. amount of intermixing with other language groups (this can accelerate change)

It's also useful to consider that change can occur in any of the following features:
1.  phonology (consonant, vowel systems, etc.)
2. morphology (verb conjugations, noun pluralization, negation, etc.)
3. vocabulary (some words lost, some words new)
4. syntax (probably not the main word order, like subject-verb-object for English, but phrasings can vary a lot)
5. discourse (the order in which thoughts are presented, for example)
6. politeness (all kinds of manners may change along with social activities)

When you think about the degree of change that you want in your language, here are some English-language landmarks that you may find useful.

Old English:  Beowulf, dated variously from the 8th or 11th centuries, so between the years 700 and 1000

 hwaet we garde na, in gerdagum, theod cyninge, thrym gefrunon, hu the athelingas ellen fremedon.

(You'll have to forgive me, because this is actually an extremely rough transcription of the first line, which I memorized solely by sound - I've reconstructed some of it from internet sources, but help me anyone who has the actual text!!)

The words I know have remained most similar to modern English here are "we" and "hu" (who) and "the."  I think "gerdagum" means "those days" which sounds a lot like German to me.  Needless to say, not a lot is comprehensible after more than a thousand years.

Middle English:  Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400

  Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour, 
Of which vertu engendred is the flour...

Okay, this is much, much more comprehensible, but still pretty tough.  Consider also that its pronunciation is quite well reflected in the spelling of the words, so that gh is actually pronounced like "ch" in the German "ich". In addition, "flour" is actually "flower."  So here we've got a pretty serious degree of difficulty.  Amount of time elapsed:  600+ years

Shakespeare's English:  excerpt from "The Tempest," written 1610 or 1611

I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who
Art ignorant of what thou art, nought knowing
Of whence I am, nor that I am more better 
Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell,
And thy no greater father.

This should be much more familiar to a general audience.  And while it is written in verse, it does give us an indication of the kinds of phrasings and vocabulary used in this time period, because Shakespeare's plays were intended to be performed for the general public (I would argue that they still come across better read aloud than read silently).  Time elapsed: 400 years.

It's late and I'd better wrap this up, but I hope it's been interesting.  A last couple of notes:  slang is always present, and changes pretty rapidly, but may not always be incorporated into the main thrust of change in a language.  Also, language does not always simplify, nor does it always complicate - it will generally simplify in some areas of the language and complicate in others.  

I welcome any questions or suggestions you may have on this topic.


  1. Really interesting. Two comments:

    1. Yes, it’s Appalachia you’re thinking of. I’ve been told that’s the living dialect closest to the English of Shakespeare’s day that is still spoken, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.

    2. You can get a better sense of Shakespeare’s pronunciations by reading the First Folio texts. Spelling wasn’t standardized in his day, so he was often making fine phonetic distinctions in the spelling ‘errors’ that modern editors want to correct.

    I don’t think it makes a big difference in the passage you cited from the tempest:

    I have done nothing, but in care of thee
    (Of thee my deere one; thee my daughter) who
    Art ignorant of what thou art. naught knowing
    Of whence I am: nor that I am more better
    Then Prospero, Master of a full poore cell,
    And thy no greater Father.

    But look at this passage from Macbeth:

    This supernaturall solliciting
    Cannot be ill; cannot be good.
    If ill? why hath it given me earnest of successe,
    Commencing in a Truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
    If good? why doe I yeeld to that suggestion,
    Whose horrid Image doth unfixe my Heire,
    And make my seated Heart knock at my Ribbes,
    Against the use of Nature? Present Feares
    Are lesse then horrible Imaginings:
    My Thought, whose Murther yet is but fantasticall,
    Shakes so my single state of Man,
    That Function is smother'd in surmise,
    And nothing is, but what is not.

    All those r’s and s’s- don’t you just have to hiss and roll them? What better transcription for a Scottish lord making a treasonous aside to the audience.

  2. Thanks for this one. It's just what I needed. :)