Tuesday, February 8, 2011

TTYU Retro: 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 (such as Appalachia) 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 and Up Jim River). 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.

(I have at least one friend who is better conversant with the proper format of this line. This is my rough transcription of a portion I memorized solely by sound - somewhat improved by reference to internet sources.)

The words I know have remained most similar to modern English here are "in" 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.

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.


  1. Very interesting.

    I have to think about language too, as it forms a large part of my story's culture.


  2. Excellent post, for the guidelines and examples most of all. I think we forget how much our language is in flux, and how astounding the change has been in what is a relatively short time.

  3. I am in the middle right now of dealing with dialects and language change from one parent language to three daughter languages that have mixed with outside tongues to varying degrees. These retro articles are a godsend!

  4. Thanks, Misha, Porky and Megs! I spent a long time on this post when I first wrote it, and I'm glad it's getting another chance to give people ideas. I'm glad the timing is good for you, Megs!

  5. I like looking at linguistic drift, but I have a weird ability that, the longer I read something, the more my mind clicks into how it works subconsciously. I can read a lot of languages I have no background in because I can map them like a puzzle (okay, that doesn't make sense, but it's hard to explain). All this comment is because the last time I read Beowulf, I didn't have much trouble at all, but the snippet out of context was hard.

    However, I want to add something to your list regarding language drift based on a recent conversation with a friend. I discovered there is an antonym for ambidextrous--ambisinister--that I hadn't known. However, I know languages enough to know sinister means left. A friend only knew it by its newer meaning of threatening or evil. That's another factor in contemplating reconnecting societies where the overtones of the word pass to the separated part, but the original, more general, meaning is confined to the isolated and forgotten in the other. With something like sinister, the chances for serious insult rate right up there with the Russian telling one of the US presidents he would "see you in your grave" or something like that, not a direct threat at all in Russian but rather a statement of durability, "as a culture we will outlast you."

  6. Margaret, you're probably sensitive to patterns of repetition that give hints about language structure, etc. It's not unheard of, and languages are definitely a lot like puzzles. Yes, the loss of literal meaning can be a factor in language change over time, and etymology can be a valuable tool for the writer! Thanks for your comment!

  7. Yup. That's what I meant. Probably due to growing up in the Foreign Service surrounded by diplomats from all over. My parents have some wonderful stories about successful communication despite no common language between me and the other person.

  8. I don't think I'll ever have that kind of skill of showing language differences through written pronunciation differences ... I'll settle for having the sentences worded a bit differently. I'm willing to admit linguistics is not my forte.... Still, my hat is off to all of you who can find a way to write in such differences.

  9. Shannon, don't worry - you should do what you can do. This post is about how language changes over time, but I have another post on dialects (Tuesday, February 2 I believe) and how to render them... that one might interest you, and you don't need a linguistics talent to render them in interesting ways.