Is change hindered by mass education of grammar rules and idiomatic writing, publishing of lexicons, standardization, etc?

Is the only manner in which english is allowed to evolve, as things stand now, is by extension of vocabulary?

Have its other aspects (e.g. grammar, pronunciation/spelling) been frozen at the 19/20th century state, when those restricting/standardizing phenomena appeared?


2 Answers 2


Change is affected by numerous social forces, including education, mass media, and various other forms of social uniformatization. This can both retard and accelerate language change. For example, the widespread adoption of expressions ("sentences") like "As if", "whatevs" and so on would not have happened without mass communication gadgets. Central California vowel centralization has spread considerably over the past 30 years, for some social reason. There is a register often used by police department spokesmen which is similar to and attempts to emulate high register talk promulgated by standard education and propagated by the media, which surely would not exist if society were the way it was 200 years ago.

There is no issue of "allowing" English to evolve – no legislation or agency can directly force people to pronounce "which" differently from "witch", and no law can suppress the pronunciation "boid" for "bird" in New Orleans (and elsewhere). If it becomes socially disadvantageous to say "boid", then people may be motivated to change their pronunciation. "Boid" can also be a badge of yat solidarity, so it depends on one's goals.

Linguistic "suppression" is primarily manifested via dialect choice, as exemplified by the spread of Standard General American in the southern states (among those born in the south), since southern dialects are stigmatized in some circles. Since all linguistic change starts at a very localized level as a deviation from the current Standard Language norm, hindering a language change amounts to a language change failing to catch on sufficiently. This happens so often that we don't even notice it.

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    I wish parents and teachers would not "uncorrect" children and students who say "gived"! Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 19:49
  • @yourworstnightmare: it's hardly a clear disadvantage for a language to have irregular forms. I think there have been studies, not conclusive either way, but it's a common phenomenon in many languages, and new irregular forms (like snuck) are constantly arising even as old ones are leveled out. Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 5:40
  • @sumelic Irregular forms are a clear disadvantage! Try to learn a 2nd languge! And my example should have made it clear, that with regular forms, children learn the language faster! Sure it might have other advanteages, like "gave" can be understood when being shout, wile the "d" at the end of "gived" might not, and is less convinient to pronunce. But I claim learnability to be more important, both for native children and 2nd language learners.
    – user10729
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 6:42

The answer by @user6726 is pretty much accurate. I'd just like to add a bit by challenging the assumption that the processes of standard maintenance (dictionary writing, usage guides, schooling, public discussion, etc.) are in some way in opposition to 'natural' language change. That is exactly how language change occurs. The normative standard is just one of the dialects with higher prestige in certain contexts and therefore higher motivation for emulation. However, that prestige may wane with time (as happened in the UK) and various challenges will appear to undermine some aspects of the standard - this will include pronunciation, morphology, syntax and vocabulary. For instance, English has seen the spread of [be+Ving] construction to more and more verbs to expressions such as 'I'm liking this more and more'.

Also, the processes of standardization did not just appear in 19th century. They were always around but in different forms.

The question is did things like mass education and mass media slow down change or slow down change in some areas? This is a question that's difficult to answer because no one knows what the rate of language change should be over relatively short periods of time like 200 years. Some languages change a lot in that time and others remain relatively stable. We know that things like increased contact and social change have an impact but even that is not predictable. RMW Dixon proposed punctuated equilibria as the answer to the question but I'm not aware of any research that followed up on it.

  • except other Australianists who challenge it (the equilibria) :-) Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 6:05

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