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Tracking language change

July 24, 2009

Hello again,

I always enjoy reporting on the way our language is changing. The speed and range of communications globally seem to have accelerated the process of change and it is sometimes hard for teachers to keep up. Of course one problem


... we all face is that we can’t tell if a change is a temporary blip or a will have long-term effect. But I have been asked how research is undertaken to monitor English and its evolution.

To answer that question I want to highlight just one of the many research studies that are going on in universities. At University College London, which has a strong background in linguistic research, greatly influenced by distinguished scholars such as Randolph Quirk, an informative long-term study is under way. The UCL Survey of English language undertakes research in Corpus Linguistics. This is the study of naturally-occurring language structures and usage by collecting samples of spoken or written language and second, analysing them.

When the survey began way back in 1959, the samples were collected through recorded interviews, transcribed and stored on cards. Of course new technology has radically transformed research methods and now corpora are kept in data bases and analysis is carried out with various types of software.

So what kinds of questions does the research project ask about English? As there have been a series of projects, the questions are very varied but a current one examining the verb phrase asks the following :

▪ Which changes have occurred in the structure of the verb phrase (VP), concerning word order and complexity?

▪ Which changes have occurred in the major verb complementation patterns in English?
▪ Have there been changes in the aspectual system? There is evidence that the progressive is much more widespread than it used to be (witness the McDonald's slogan I'm loving it! and the so-called 'interpretive progressive', see Smith 2005), and there are signs that English present perfect constructions are now being used with adjuncts specifying a definite time reference.

▪ Have there been changes in the mood system of English? The use of the subjunctive has both been argued to be on the increase and on the decline. Is there evidence for either position? And is the spoken/written dimension of relevance here?

▪ Have there been changes in the English tense and voice systems, e.g. the use of the past and present tenses and the passive?

▪ Have there been shifts in the use of auxiliary verbs, especially the semi-auxiliaries and the modals?

Regarding all of the above: why have the changes, if any, taken place? And are the differences, if any, statistically significant?

▪ Are particular components of grammar more prone to change than others, and if so, why?

▪ What are the differences between long-term and short-term changes?

▪ Do changes propagate themselves equally in all genres of spoken English, or do particular forms of spoken English, e.g. conversation, display more change than others?

I find this kind of research absolutely fascinating. But what is also excellent from a teacher’s point of view is that the website is full of extremely useful resources.

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