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Causes of Language Evolution

The causes or moving factors in language history have always attracted the attention of linguists and have given rise to various explanations and theories. In the early 19th c, philologists of the romantic trend (J. G. Herder, J. and W. Grimm and others) interpreted the history of the Indo-European, and especially the Germanic languages, as decline and degradation, for most of these languages have been losing their richness of grammatical forms, declensions, conjugations and inflections since the so-called "Golden Age" of the parent-language. Linguists of the naturalist trend (e.g. A. Schleicher) conceived language as a living organism and associated stages in language history with stages of life: birth, youth, maturity, old age, and death. In the later 19th c. the psychological theories of language (W. Wundt, H. Paul) attributed linguistic changes to individual psychology and to accidental individual fluctuations. The study of factual history undertaken by the Young Grammarians led them to believe that there are no superior or inferior stages in language history and that all languages are equal; changes are brought about by phonetic laws which admit of no exceptions (seeming exceptions are due to analogy, which may introduce a historically unjustified form, or else to borrowing from another language). Sociologists in linguistics (J. Vendryes, A. Meillet) maintained that linguistic changes are caused by social conditions and events in external history.

Some modern authors assert that causality lies outside the scope of linguistics, which should be concerned only with the fact and mechanism of the change; others believe that linguistics should investigate only those causes and conditions of language evolution which are to be found within the language system; external factors are no concern of linguistic history. In accordance with this view the main internal cause which produces linguistic change is the pressure of the language system. Whenever the balance of the system or its symmetrical structural arrangement is disrupted, it tends to be restored again under the pressure of symmetry inherent in the system.

The recent decades witnessed a revival of interest in extralinguistic aspects of language history. The Prague school of linguists was the first among the modern trends to recognise the functional stratification of language and its diversity dependent on external conditions. In present-day theories, especially in the sociolinguistic trends, great importance is attached to the variability of speech in social groups as the primary factor of linguistic change.

Like any movement in nature and society, the evolution of language is caused by the struggle of opposites. The moving power underlying the development of language is made up of two main forces: one force is the growing and changing needs of man in the speech community; the other is the resisting force that curbs the changes and preserves the language in a state fit for communication. The two forces are manifestations of the two principal functions of language – its expressive and communicative functions. The struggle of the two opposites can also be described as the opposition of thought and means of its expression or the opposition of growing needs of expression and communication and the available resources of language.

These general forces operate in all languages at all times; they are so universal that they fail to account for concrete facts in the history of a particular language. To explain these facts many other conditioning factors must be taken into consideration.

The most widely accepted classification of factors relevant to language history divides them into external or extralinguistic and internal (also intra-linguistic and systemic).

Strictly speaking, the term "extra-linguistic" embraces a variety of conditions bearing upon different aspects of human life, for instance, the psychological or the physiological aspects. In the first place, however, extralinguistic factors include events in the history of the people relevant to the development of the language, such as the structure of society, expansion over new geographical areas, migrations, mixtures and separation of tribes, political and economic unity or disunity, contacts with other peoples, the progress of culture and literature. These aspects of external history determine the linguistic situation and affect the evolution of the language.

Internal factors of language evolution arise from the language system. They can be subdivided into general factors or general regularities, which operate in all languages as inherent properties of any language system, and specific factors operating in one language or in a group of related languages at a certain period of time.

The most general causes of language evolution are to be found in the tendencies to improve the language technique or its formal apparatus. These tendencies are displayed in numerous assimilative and simplifying phonetic changes in the history y of English (e.g. the consonant cluster [kn] in know and knee was simplified to [n]; [t] was missed out in often and listen, etc.) To this group we can also refer the tendency to express different meanings by distinct formal means and thus avoid what is known as "homonymy clashes".

On the other hand, similar or identical meanings tend to be indicated by identical means, therefore the plural ending of nouns -(e)s has gradually spread to most English nouns and replaced numerous markers of the plural.

Another group of general internal tendencies aims to preserve the language as a vehicle fit for communication. These tendencies resist linguistic change and account for the historical stability of many elements and features ("statics in diachrony"). For instance, since the earliest periods English has retained many words and formal markers expressing the most important notions and distinctions, e.g. the words he, we, man, good, son; the suffix -d- to form the Past tense. This tendency also accounts for the growth of compensatory means to make up for the loss of essential distinctions, e.g. the wider use of prepositional phrases instead of case forms.

Among the general causes of language evolution, or rather among its universal regularities, we must mention the interdependence of changes within the sub-systems of the language and the interaction of changes at different linguistic levels.

Interdependence of changes at different linguistic levels can be illustrated by the history of noun morphology in English. In the course of history nouns have lost most of their cases (in OE there were four cases, nowadays – only two). The simplification of noun morphology involved changes at different levels: phonetic weakening of final syllables, analogical levelling of forms at the morphological level, and stabilisation of the word order at the level of syntax.

Some factors and causes of language evolution are confined to a certain group of languages or to one language only and may operate over a limited span of time. These specific factors are trends of evolution characteristic of separate languages or linguistic groups, which distinguish them from other languages. Since English belongs to the Germanic group of languages, it shares many Germanic trends of development with cognate languages. These trends were caused by common Germanic factors but were transformed and modified in the history of English, and were combined with other trends caused by specifically English internal and external factors. The combination of all these factors and the resulting course of evolution is unique for every language; it accounts for its individual history which is never repeated by other languages. Thus English, like other Germanic languages, displayed a tendency towards a more analytical grammatical structure, but it has gone further along this way of development than most other languages, probably owing to the peculiar combination of internal and external conditions and to the interaction of changes at different linguistic levels.

In conclusion it must be admitted that motivation of changes is one of the most difficult problems of the historical linguistics. The causes of many developments are obscure or hypothetical. Therefore in discussing the causes of the most important events in the history of English, we shall have to mention various theories and interpretations.

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