Language is Changing, Innit?

Language change is inevitable. In English we’ve dropped malison (a curse), though kept benison (a blessing). We’ve lost wrine (a deep line in the face), but kept the diminutive form wrinkle. Wofare has gone, too (it means sorrow), but we’ve kept welfare. The change seems capricious, with little logic.

Language change is inescapable. It’s neither a good thing, nor a bad thing, though some try to cling to some past ideal of what language should be like. The French go further than most in this respect; its General Commission of Terminology and Neology has tried to eliminate le weekend, le shopping, le air bag, le cash flow and le stress, but with little success. In England some decry the rise of “Estuary English”, but that’s just the way some people talk, and others want to talk. (Yes, Jamie Oliver, I’m thinking of you.)

Language change is surprisingly fast. Latin mutated into both Spanish and Italian in perhaps as few as 50 generations. And the changes are decidedly odd. For example, the Latin scola (school) became école in French and escuela in Spanish. Actually, the changes weren’t in a single step. For French:

scola → iskola → eskola → escole (Old French) → école (Modern French)

Here we have the introduction of a leading vowel, then a change in that vowel, then the loss of “s” where it occurs before another consonant.

In Spanish the sequence runs:

scola → iskola → escuela

Sometimes sounds even get switched around, so the Latin parabola became the Spanish palabra (meaning word). And Old English brid became bird and hros horse.

Perhaps one of the most astounding changes in English was The Great Vowel Shift as we moved from Middle English to Modern English when long vowels started to be pronounced higher in the mouth and (in some cases) further forward. Thus /o:/ became /u:/, /a:/ became /e:/ and /e:/ became /i:/ . At the same time certain long vowels became diphthongs. (For clarification, a diphthong is not an undergarment worn by the sartorially challenged at the beach.) Thus /i:/ became /ai/ and /u:/ became /aʊ/. So, whilst we used to live in a hoose (as the Scots still do), we now live in a house; and whereas we used to milk a cuu, now we milk a cow. Even the number of digits we have on each hand has changed, from feef to five.

Thai underwent a similarly dramatic change: The Great Tone Shift. Tones are incredibly important in Thai; maa can mean come, horse or dog according to the tone with which it’s pronounced. Similarly yaa can mean grass, medicine or don’t. Every word has its correct tone. However, dramatic changes occurred in which words that were originally pronounced with a low-tone are now pronounced with either a low-tone or falling-tone; words that were pronounced with a mid-tone are pronounced with a high tone or a falling tone &c. Unfortunately, the changes occurred shortly after King Ramkhamhaeng devised the Thai script, which accounts in part for the complicated written mess that is the Thai language; originally the two tone marks each corresponded to a single tone, as did the absence of a tone mark. (Subsequently two further tone marks were introduced to accommodate certain foreign words.)

Such a dramatic shift in the language sounds like a recipe for total confusion. I don’t want to go to a restaurant and order dog meat, yet receive horse. Nor do I want to go to the pharmacy and be given grass to cure my malady. Yet Thais can whisper to each other and be understood with no difficulty at all, even though the physiology of whispering makes it impossible to produce tones. Perhaps the tones aren’t that important after all.

Thai continues to evolve. At the moment perhaps the majority of Thai speakers uses /r/ and /l/ interchangeably (very similar to the way that in most Spanish dialects /b/ (or /β/) and /v/ have merged, so many Spanish speakers Barcelona and Valencia start with the same sound). It is axiomatic in historical linguistics that once two sounds have merged they can never “unmerge”. Whether the merger will run to completion in Thai is unclear to me. There appears to be little social stigma attached to merging the sounds. (In other languages undergoing a similar merger there has been a small “upper caste” which has preserved the sound distinction, and the merger has not been completed, and has often been reversed.) However, Thai is obsessive about maintaining the original spellings of foreign words in its script, so the need to be able to write might just preserve the /r/ /l/ distinction.

A second change is the dropping of consonant clusters. Thai has no consonant clusters at the ends of syllables, so a word such as statistics becomes sa-thi-ti (สถิติ) in Thai. And there are few Thais who could get their tongue around a word such as crisps. Consonant clusters at the beginning of words tend to have an unstressed /a/ inserted. So, sport becomes sa-port in Thai, for example. However, the language does have a limited range of initial consonant clusters- but these clusters are fast disappearing. Thus plaa (fish) is most often pronounced paa, and the polite particle used by men, formally pronounced khrap is most often reduced to khap.

So, like, y’know, language changes. People just talk so vat uvver people cn understan vem. Wasssamatter wiv vat?

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