Language in use  
English Language & Linguistics

English Language


Processes of Change

What are the major processes of change at work in modern English?

Class Structure | Education | Public Broadcasting | Film | Youth Culture | Dialect and Urbanisation | Global Communications

Read the following article then follow up the article with research of your own. Use the keywords underlined in the text and find out more about each using reference sources on the Web and in book form. the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language is a good starting point.

1. Blurring of the class structure

* Partly as a result of the common experience of war, when men were valued for their character and deeds rather than their social class, when officers and men shared a trench, and women found themselves working for the war effort in jobs previously closed to them (and again in World War II) rigid class boundaries were broken down.
* With this came a gradual decline in the notion of deference - where "one's elders and betters" were respected, the century has seen a greater respect for individuality, whether in the guise of "the self made man" or "the proud working man".
* Language is one way of making class boundaries clear and a diction which is less rigidly adhered to by the landed gentry, the rise of the middle classes to bridge the great divide between the upper class and the working class all meant that there was greater contact in less formal settings between social groups and a less rigidly marked division between them. The proportion of the population categorised as upper class at the end of the 20th century is a small fraction of the proportion at the beginning. The proportion of the population speaking Received Pronunciation (RP) is now no more than 3% of the population.
* At the end of the twentieth century there is a greater tolerance of a regional accent in areas where it would earlier have been a social stigma.

2. Education

* Some of the above can be the result of a broadening availability of education for all. Near-universal literacy, increasing tolerance brought about by state education and latterly comprehensive schooling which has brought all social classes together, has brought about a greater understanding of the people behind the accent. While this is not universally true, where the wealthy upper classes and newly wealthy aspiring "Yuppies" may still send their children to exclusive schools, the vast majority of the population is familiar with people from all social classes - and the divisions between social classes are less clear.
* University education is also much more accessible and (not withstanding recent government decisions on the virtual abolition of grants for students) the proportion of the population attending university has risen from about 4% in the 1920s and 30s, to 10% in the late 1960's, 23% in 1991/2 to 34% in 1997/8, with many more in other forms of further education. With universities less élitist the scope for being in contact with a wider social spectrum uttering a wider range of accents and registers is obvious.
* Education also brings with it understanding and information, both political and social.
* Partly as a result of this, society has become more tolerant of a wider variety of pronunciations and speech choices.


3. Introduction of public broadcasting

* In 1922 Lord Reith, as head of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), set out to provide on "the wireless" an example of clear expression, high values and a model of "correct" speech. Everything was scripted and today early broadcasts sound stilted formal and unnatural. They did however exemplify a high standard of correctness - to which listeners should aspire.
* In due course that same organisation was to provide examples of local regional speech which was new to a population which had rarely travelled far from home.
* The introduction of television, mainly following the Coronation of 1953, further exposed British viewers to a wide range of regional and foreign accents. Although it still upheld certain values (and was widely known as "Auntie" during the 1960s because of its rather patronising tone,) it was also a vehicle for radical attitudes towards sex, humour and social change as film makers used it as a popular medium.


4. Proliferation of film and video

* From 1927 film acquired sound - the Talkies. The cinema was a mass public entertainment and for the first time English viewers could hear American accents - and at first these were difficult to understand. America became fashionable and US speech was one of the features much imitated by some, tolerated by others. Even when tolerated it meant that there was less social stigma in the short "a" in dance and laugh as spoken in the north of England; the long "a" of the south-east "darnce" and "larf" was no longer so exclusive.
* American influence on the English language is significant but has been exaggerated - often by those who disapprove of change and who are ready to "blame" the US for changes which they perceive as a "decline" of standards. Often in fact such changes originated in English but from an earlier age.


5. Popular Youth Culture

* Teenagers did not exist until the late 1950's. This may be a surprise for young people of the 1990's, but an earlier generation moved seamlessly from childhood to adulthood, often leaving school at 14 and straight into a trade as an apprentice without further formal education. The relative prosperity of the post-war years, the sudden rise in births known as the "baby boom," popular music focused on young people and growing commercialism produced an affluent generation who left full time education later and had more leisure and more spending power. The baby boom generation had an influence greater than any generation of young people before it. With pop music as its focus, spoken language frequently reflected the language of song lyrics and the musicians and performers who produced it. Regional accents, notably the accent of Liverpool following the Beatles in the 1960s, became not simply acceptable but actively fashionable and an anti-authoritarian stance in both behaviour and language encouraged considerable change.
* Teenagers are more open to change and to fashion than people over 30 and their choices at an early age influence their life styles for the rest of their lives. A decision at the age of 16 whether to adopt a regional accent or maintain an existing accent is likely to determine a speaker's way of speaking for the rest of their lives. Teenagers also tend to be less formal than their elders and this has helped bring about a decline in formality of speech generally. While older speakers often decry this, seeing it as a decline in standards, as "sloppy" speech and a lack of precision, younger people see this as a more comfortable and appropriate form of speech associated with an informal relaxed life style. The use of the word "like" to punctuate speech is very evident "He was like really laid back, y'know?"

6. Decline of rural dialect and the rise in urbanisation

* The move from the country and into the cities which has accompanied industrialisation is associated with a shift in the perception of dialects. Urbanisation has meant the decline of the extended family as different members move away to follow available work and a consequent decline in dialect where a rural accent is perceived as of low status - the country bumpkin.

7. Global communications

The 20th century has seen the introduction of communications system which can instantly connect people throughout the world. Starting with the telegraph in the nineteenth century, through the telephone (note that "tele" means "far" in Greek), wireless, television and Internet, the increasing ease of communicating across thousands of miles means that language varieties are created to cope with new kinds of discourse and conveyed rapidly to all users worldwide.

A study of e-mail shows that it is usually informal tenor (often with Americanisms), limited in its typography to the symbols on a standard keyboard, uses "emoticons" (symbols such as :-) ) to convey irony and to replace facial expression, is tolerant of spelling errors, welcomes the copying (cut and paste) of the previous writer's words and leads to a continuing thread of conversation where each speaker's words are marked by a number of >> signs. E-mail is a distinct language domain with its own rules, vocabulary and advantages.

That this communications medium and this language have been created largely since the explosion of the World Wide Web in 1994 is a remarkable example of the ability of a language variety to be created, adopted and to infiltrate the whole community (including non-users of e-mail and the Internet) in a matter of a few years. In 1995 the BBC news referred to "The Internet, the world-wide network of computers" but by 1999 it has become "The Internet" or even "The Net." "E-commerce" had become a frequent term in the national newspapers, showing that "e-mail" was understood by most readers. By 1999 many regular users were saying "I'll mail you" meaning e-mail but using the truncated version as in the US. "Post" is still mainly used for traditional postal services in the UK.


* Collect some e-mails and try to construct a description for this language variety.

* Get permission to record some telephone calls and look particularly at the openings and closings of these conversations. What conventions do they conform to? How do people announce themselves? How do people signal they want the conversation to stop?