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Over on ELU the question Is “bettern't” an OK word to use? drew me into debate about how significant "childish errors" are in the development of mainstream language. Hence, the question:

Are "childish errors" significant forces of language change?

I'll put my cards on the table and say straight off that my inclination is to think the answer is "not very". Two reasons immediately come to mind...

  • As an avid fan of Steven Pinker, I'm a great believer in the idea that children are to a considerable extent "pre-programmed" to emulate what they hear, rather than coin neologisms. And by implication, they're strongly motivated to quickly discard "apparently logical" forms when adults correct them ("Mummy! I be'ed wee-wee on the floor!" must have been said many times, but soon dropped).

  • The ability to produce "correct" speech strongly correlates with social status, so parents have considerable motivation to ensure their children do this as early and well as possible.

When I think about things like the etymology of "orange", I don't really see this as relating to faulty language acquisition by children, but I freely admit I'm an armchair philologist in such matters.

  • It's not clear to me what you mean by 'childish errors' as distinguished from any other kind of speech error. Do you mean errors by language learners? If so, then these errors are not limited to children and would occur whenever two languages come into new contact, for example. – Mark Beadles Feb 9 '12 at 2:19
  • @Mark Beadles: I'm asking in the context of language change, so I didn't think errors made by non-natives would be considered relevant. Perhaps I'm wrong in that assumption, but it would be a surprise to me if native speakers often changed their speech patterns to mimic errors made by foreigners. In historical times, at least - I can imagine that enslaved natives might be cowed into doing so by ruling conquerors (in the remote eventuality that the conquerors ever bothered with the native language in the first place! :) – FumbleFingers Feb 9 '12 at 3:56
  • @Artem Kaznatcheev: Thanks for that edit. A couple of minor changes do indeed make the question seem significantly clearer, even to me! – FumbleFingers Feb 9 '12 at 4:01
  • A more linguisticky rendering of the question would be: "Do mistakes in child language learning (L1 learning) contribute to diachronic language change? (and if so to what extent)". I think mollyocr addresses that via the well known phenomenon of regularization of verbs in English. – Mitch Feb 9 '12 at 14:30
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    @FumbleFingers: pick most any phenomenon in child language acquisition and you'll see the same phenomenon in diachronic studies (verb regularization is the most obvious example). You can go the other way too but to the same degree, because many new languages are pidgins, but bilingual children seem to be able to easily keep multiple language separate. – Mitch Feb 9 '12 at 15:50
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In Understanding Language Change (McMahon, 1994) there's a great statement:

"Historical linguists have so far had little success in assuming that children learning language initiate language change, since there is very limited overlap between changes and characteristics of child language.... How the child learns therefore seems more relevant to the historical linguist than the performance errors she makes."

Here are a couple papers that may help illustrate the point.

Kerswil, in "Children, Adolescents, and Language Change", directly and extensively tackles your question of whether linguistic innovation comes from the speech of children. (He does restrict his study to language change resulting from language contact.) His findings are basically that different age groups are responsible for different types of language change in accordance with the usual order of language acquisition, which he gives as:

  1. New phonological rules by age 3
  2. New phonological oppositions by age 3-13
  3. New grammatical parameters by age 8
  4. Changes to prosody by age 12
  5. New morphological classes in adolescence
  6. Morphologically conditioned changes after age 4-7
  7. All other linguistic changes at any age

I think this is important since it doesn't restrict itself to morphology and syntax errors, but to phonology, prosody, etc. as well. It also takes into account that adults can learn changes to vocabulary fairly easily; but changes in phonology are almost impossible to acquire past early childhood.


Verhoef & de Boer in "Language acquisition age effects and their role in the preservation and change of communication systems" found that, if anything, language learning by children tends to help resist language change:

Recent advances in sociolinguistics indicate that changes in language learning ability while growing up can account for the different ways that linguistic changes spread from community to community. They found that the structure of the system is better preserved when speakers of all ages are involved in language contact as opposed to only adult to adult contact.

This last is an important point, in my opinion: nearly all authorities agree that language change is driven by social groups, not individuals; so the ability of children to influence change depends on sociolinguistic factors. E.g. modern Western high school students may be an important group due to their wide social influence, but babies are seldom likely to drive change since they have little to no social influence.

I think looking at all these the overall effect is that performance errors by children don't have very great effects - but that the process of language acquisition by children influences the type and scope of change.

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  • I'm upvoting/accepting this because it pretty much agrees with all my existing preconceptions. I don't see how anything here conflicts with the answer I wrote myself, but obviously it covers much wider issues, cites authoritative sources, and is more cogently phrased, so I thank you for it. – FumbleFingers Feb 11 '12 at 15:16
  • You're quite welcome, and thanks in return. This is really a fundamental question about language that you've raised here. – Mark Beadles Feb 11 '12 at 16:09
  • I had no idea it was so fundamental, but I'm quite a bit wiser now. I only asked because some people on ELU justified answering the bettern't question on the grounds that it was a "childish error" which had important implications for the evolution of language. The OP himself eventually admitted that he'd never actually heard anyone (even a child) say it, so I remain of the opinion that it was a pointless question in the first place. Hasn't been closed yet though - ELU is remarkably tolerant of trivia (excessively so, imho! :) – FumbleFingers Feb 11 '12 at 17:55
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What those "childish errors" really show are that children are generating language, not just repeating it. Think "This is a wug. There are two __." (Sorry, kids, the answer is "wuggen." There's more than one way to pluralize a wug.)

I would definitely argue that, particularly in verbs, the generative rules that children learn and then unlearn for irregular verbs is a factor in language change. It might not come directly from children, but the regularization of verbs happens:

Lieberman charted the progress of 177 irregular verbs from the 9th century Old English of Beowulf, to the 13th century Middle English of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, to the modern 21st century English of Harry Potter. Today, only 98 of these are still irregular...

Intuitively,

They regularise in a way that is 'inversely proportional to the square root of their frequency'.

That is, the more infrequently they are used, the less likely it is that somebody's going to remember the irregular form so they just follow the rules they know.

These are "early modern English" verbal forms (about 400 years ago):

  • help, holp, have holpen
  • swell, swole, have swollen
  • melt, molt, have molten
  • slide, slid, have slidden
  • abide, abode, have abidden
  • strike, struck, have stricken
  • shear, shore; have shorn

Some of these forms survive as adjectives ("shorn," "stricken", "swollen"), but "have holpen"? Yeah, right.

Interestingly, there are a few of verbs particularly in American English that have gone the other direction: where past participle form ("have __ed") was regular, but because there was a very common, phonologically similar word, it was "irregularized."

  • dive, dove, have dived; "dove" like "drove"
  • sneak, snuck, have sneaked; "snuck" like ...idk.

This is not very common, probably hypergrammaticalization, a very "grown up" occurrence. I mean, adults get things "wrong" all the time. (My peeve is phenomenon/phenomena.) English in particular is a confusing mess of different verbal paradigms and borrowed words with borrowed plurals from a half-dozen other languages. (Phenomenon/phenomena is Greek, but radius/radii is Latin, etc.) Point is: you still know exactly what the kid means when she says "gooses" or "thesises" or, as my niece is attributed, referring to a babydoll whose eyes would open and close: "She oped her eyes!"

The key concepts for verb regularization are economy and analogy. Why remember forms when instead you could remember one simple rule? Think about programming a vocabulary into a computer: would you rather program every form of every word, or just tell it to concatenate the verb with "ed" to form the past tense and concatenate the noun with "s" to form the plural? Child (and adult) speakers' brains are just as lazy as the programmer-you is in this scenario. We'd all rather things be simple, neh?

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  • If anything I'd have thought the situation vis-a-vis irregular works against the idea that childish errors have much influence. I'm sure I recall reading somewhere that although there are actually very few irregular verbs, they account for an astonishingly high proportion of all actual usages, because they're mostly the very, very common ones. Which by implication would mean the ones that children meet first, so if they could change adult speech patterns one would have expected all the irregular verbs to have vanished by now. – FumbleFingers Feb 8 '12 at 23:02
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    The part about regularizing "inversely proportional to the square root of their frequency" is important. Children quickly learn the irregular paradigm for "to be" because they're getting input/being corrected at a higher frequency. Uncommon verbs are forgotten and left by the roadside. Also, I feel the need to reiterate that I don't like the term "childish errors" because these kinds of changes happen all the time. (I'm loath to admit that I've uttered the phrase "have boughten" then hated myself.) Also, I've heard the number 3% tossed around for irregular verbs in English. – mollyocr Feb 8 '12 at 23:16
  • Re the term "childish errors", perhaps my original question wasn't clear. I'm not concerned with the kind of shift that created crawfish, for example, because I don't think that particularly involved children. You say you loath your own have boughten - I'm asking if a child saying, for example, "It just got brokened" is likely to cause adults to start saying "Hey! Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings! Why don't we change our usage to make life easier for generations to come!" (not that that particular example would simplify anything, actually! :) – FumbleFingers Feb 8 '12 at 23:37
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    @FumbleFingers By "childish errors" maybe you meant "mistakes made by children by applying regular rules to irregular verbs"? Maybe you can edit the title just to avoid future posts directed at you about the problem in the title, although I understood you meant that. About the things mollyocr said, I remember in my uni course we mentioned the mistakes done by children as being weird (and somehow amusing/funny), but totally legit. They were perfectly, i.e. correctly, applying grammatical rules... just to the wrong verbs. :) – Alenanno Feb 9 '12 at 9:47
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    By '"early modern English" verbal forms (about 100 years ago)' did you mean maybe 400 years? – Mitch Feb 9 '12 at 14:32
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With due regard to @mollyocr's answer, I shall answer my own question.

The errors children make include a high proportion of utterances where they've correctly identified a "general principle", but haven't yet learnt that it doesn't apply in some particular case. Common errors obviously being to apply the rules for regular verbs/plurals to irregular words.

Collectively we have a vested interest in discarding existing irregular forms (also in preventing new ones appearing, but that's so easy we barely notice we're doing it). Of the existing irregular forms, only a few intractable ones still survive (intractable because they're so common it's difficult to change them).

Every time a child makes a mistake in the "right" direction in respect of irregular/illogical forms, they raise awareness of how we'd like things to be. Like biological evolution, language change can take a very long time - but language, unlike biology, is guided by our own rational thoughts. Be it ever so slowly, adults gradually come to adopt the "logical" errors made by people (including children), while correcting the "illogical" ones.

I don't think childish errors directly influence language change, but some (the ones we judge logical) constantly remind us of certain illogicalities. Plus they provide a mechanism for adults to increasingly adopt those "errors" in appropriate circumstances, which may eventually become all circumstances.

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    I marked you down because talk about language as if people are consciously aware of its details. Anyone who studies language closely soon sees that this is not correct. Also the notion of 'logical' errors (or changes) is problematic. Such well-known changes as 'a napron' -> 'an apron' or 'pease' -> 'pea/peas' have little to do with logic but are about reanalysis by child learners. – Gaston Ümlaut Feb 10 '12 at 11:57
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    Agreed with @GastonÜmlaut: Language change is not as intentional, logical, or immediate as you're making it sound. If your question is really whether an adult would ever say "Hey! Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings! Why don't we change our usage to make life easier for generations to come!" -- the answer is no, at least for grammatical happenings like past tense and pluralization. I think there may be something to be said about children or youth influencing the emergence of new words, or language play, or code switching & mixing, or language transfer, or heteroglossia... – mollyocr Feb 10 '12 at 15:26
  • @Gaston Ümlaut,mollyocr: I think those reactions are a bit harsh. I did compare language evolution to the biological variety, so I'm certainly not suggesting anything as facile as individuals consciously thinking "That child's error actually makes sense, so I'll copy it in my own speech". But I'm sure that on average English has a tendency to become more logical - only things like large-scale cultural upheaval (mass immigration, invasion, revolution) disrupt this process. Children's errors will always push in the "logical" direction, and we will be at least peripherally aware of this. – FumbleFingers Feb 10 '12 at 15:45
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    @FumbleFingers I don't think they are meaning to be 'harsh', but to respond to some important errors in your approach. For example, the use of the term 'logical': all natural human languages exhibit features like ambiguity, polysemy, homophony, redundancy, polarity, grammatical gender, etc. None of these are strictly "logical" in sense you're using. But then, natural languages are seldom used simply to communicate statements of truth! You say that "language...is guided by our own rational thoughts", but that is not the case, when we look at the linguistic evidence. – Mark Beadles Feb 10 '12 at 19:11
  • @Mark Beadles: I've no doubt you'll be able to find "linguistic evidence" supporting your implication that language evolves in non-rational ways, but I suggest that in most cases that will be because you/linguists fail to appreciate the subtleties of the underlying reasons for some particular change. Human language exists primarily in order to communicate (rational) thoughts, and on average it slowly changes in order to better discharge that function. Similar to the evolution of computer languages, which change much faster by comparison, so we can all see the process much more easily. – FumbleFingers Feb 11 '12 at 15:06

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