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Rate of Linguistic Changes
Linguistic changes are usually slow and gradual. They proceed in minor, imperceptible steps unnoticed by the speakers. The rate of linguistic changes is restricted by the communicative function of language, for a rapid change would have disturbed or hindered communication between speakers of different generations. Unlike human society, language undergoes no revolutions or sudden breaks. The slow rate of linguistic change is seen in the gradual spread of new features in language space. This should not be understood to mean that the speed of evolution in language is absolutely consistent or that all changes proceed at exactly the same pace. As shown below, at some historical periods linguistic changes grew more intensive and more rapid, whereas at other periods they slowed down and the English language was stabilised.
It is important to note that different parts or levels of language develop at different rates.
It is often said that the vocabulary of a language can change very rapidly. This is true only if we compare lexical changes with changes at other linguistic levels, e.g. grammatical. Lexical changes are quite conspicuous and easy to observe, since new items spring into being before our very eyes, though, as a matter of fact, they rarely amount to more than isolated words or groups of words. New words are usually built in conformity with the existing ways of word-formation which are very slow to change; the new formations make use of available elements - roots, affixes – and support the productive word-building patterns by extending them to new instances. Cf. motel and hotel, typescript and manuscript. It should be added that if the number of new words is very large, it takes them several hundred years to be adopted and assimilated (as was the case in the Middle Ages, when English borrowed hundreds of words from French). The system of phonemes cannot be subjected to sudden or rapid changes since it must preserve the oppositions between the phonemes required for the distinction of morphemes. Sometimes phonetic changes affect a whole set of sounds – a group of vowels or a group of consonants, - but as a rule they do not impair the differentiation of phonemes.
Likewise, the grammatical system is very slow to change. Being the most abstract of linguistic levels it must provide stable formal devices for arranging words into classes and for connecting them into phrases and sentences.