Change just sneaks upon languagesSeptember 4th, 2012 - 4:24 pm ICT by IANS
Brussels, Sep 4 (IANS) Changes in languages often sneak in, in small and unobtrusive ways, gradually conquering more ground in a process termed ‘actualisation’, now documented by Belgian researchers.
Hendrik De Smet of the University of Leuven investigated how actualisation proceeds by tracking and comparing different language changes, using large collections of digitized historical texts.
He has shown how any actualisation process consists of a series of smaller changes with each new change building on and following from the previous ones, the journal “Language” reports.
Consider the development of so-called downtoners — grammatical elements that minimise the force of the word they accompany.
Nineteenth-century English saw the emergence of a new downtoner, “all but”, meaning “almost”. ‘All but’ started out being used only with adjectives, as in “her escape was all but miraculous”, according to a Leuven statement.
But later it also began to turn up with verbs, as in “until his clothes all but dropped from him”.
In grammatical terms, that is a fairly big leap, but when looked at closely the leap is found to go in smaller steps. Before “all but” spread to verbs, it appeared with past participles, which very much resemble both adjectives and verbs, as in “her breath was all but gone”.
English is currently seeing some nouns developing into adjectives, such as “fun” or “key”. This again goes by small adjustments, but along different pathways. For fun, speakers started from expressions like that was really fun, which they would adjust to “that was very fun”, and from there they would go on to “a very fun time” and by now some have even gone on to expressions like “the funnest time ever”.
For “key”, change started from expressions like a key player, which could be adjusted to “an absolutely key player”, and from there to “a player who is absolutely key”.
When the changes are over, the eventual outcome will be the same - “fun” and “key” will have all the characteristics of any other English adjective - but the way that is coming about is different.
Another prediction is that the actualisation processes will differ from language to language, because grammatical contexts that are similar in one language may not be so similar in another.
Comparing the development of another English downtoner, “far from” (as in far from perfect), to its Dutch equivalent, “verre van”, it is found that, even though they started out quite similar, the two downtoners went on to develop differently due to differences in the overall structure of English and Dutch.
Importantly, this is one way in which even small changes may reinforce and gradually increase existing differences between languages.
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