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Classes of words in languages tend to be either "open" (accepting new members readily) or "closed" (rejecting new members). This distinction is fairly easy to see: compare how readily English accepted the verb "to google", versus the hundreds of years of resistance to singular "they". So descriptively, verbs in English are an open class, while pronouns are closed.

But have we ever observed a class of words changing from open to closed, or from closed to open? Or an intermediate "half-open" stage, where new words are accepted but not commonly used or always seen as foreign?

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    Related: Languages with different open and closed word classes and the discussion there and in linked pages about Japanese verbs and pronouns acting as "closed" or "open" classes; the situation is a bit complicated and seems to have changed somewhat over time – sumelic Nov 26 '17 at 21:39
  • ...in Old Japanese, pronouns were apparently more of a distinct "morphological class" – sumelic Nov 26 '17 at 21:45
  • Japanese counters seem to have been opener in the past. They're still not completely closed, but the way they're open seems to have changed. – melboiko Dec 28 '17 at 23:24
  • Bahasa Melayu (Indonesian) is claimed to be a language with an open personal pronoun class; any noun that can refer to a person (especially kinship and relational terms) can be used as a referential personal pronoun. Of course, the most commonly-used personal pronoun in all 3 persons is Zero, so the system is considerably more complex than usual, too. – jlawler Jan 26 '18 at 17:51
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    To state the obvious, all classes must have started as open. Going from closed to open is less self-evident. – Mathieu Bouville Apr 22 at 7:46
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But have we ever observed a class of words changing from open to closed, or from closed to open? Or an intermediate "half-open" stage, where new words are accepted but not commonly used or always seen as foreign?

In this example a full verb acts like a modal:

brauchen = need (full verb)

du brauchst nicht (zu) kommen
you need not (to) come
you need not come

cf. sollen (clearly a modal)

du sollst nicht (*zu) kommen

This is (Austrian) German.

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    Isn't that just grammaticalisation? – curiousdannii Nov 27 '17 at 3:33
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    yes. i think grammaticalisation is the term op is looking for – purlupar Nov 27 '17 at 21:42
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    Need is a (semi)modal in English, though it is certainly not cognate with brauchen historically. Need and dare can function as modals only in negative environments; semi-modals are negative polarity items. Members need not reply vs *Members need reply. And then there are the English periphrastic modal idioms: hafta, gotta, gonna, wanna, oughta, able to, willing to, etc; they have their own interactions with negation: He must not leave vs He doesn't have to leave and their own syntax. – jlawler Feb 25 '18 at 18:40
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Yes we have, in English. Our prepositions used to be an open class (its why we have so many). New prepositions were derived using the suffixes a- be- de- and a fourth one I can't seem to recall nor find right now.

So yes, it can happen. I admit though, I have no idea why it happened in English. All I know is that it did.

Though come to think of it, the same thing may be happening to Chinese's pronouns. Thanks to communism, they've done away with their old system of pronouns, which relied heavily on their honorific system. Now there's only one word for I, one for we, etc... The older system is only still remembered because its used to stories taking place in the past, just for the sake or historical accuracy.

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    Are English prepositions not still a somewhat open class? It seems to me like there is still a tendency in English for certain words or phrases to come to be lexicalized as expressions that act like "prepositions": e.g. "despite", "regardless of". I found on Google a paper proposing a cline of more vs. less lexicalized prepositions, with only the prepositions "closer to the grammatical end of the cline" constituting a closed class: cercles.com/occasional/ops2010/bordetjamet.pdf – sumelic Nov 27 '17 at 7:04
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    Also, a relevant ELU question: What are the historical processes of preposition coining in English? – sumelic Nov 27 '17 at 7:07
  • Re: 'The older system is only still remembered because its used to stories taking place in the past, just for the sake or historical accuracy.': It's also used in formal letter-writing. Most people write emails in English here, but when we do write the odd letter in Chinese we stick somewhat to the old style (I do, anyway). – WavesWashSands Nov 29 '17 at 8:50
  • However, I'm not sure it used to be an open class: You can create new honorific terms using existing morphemes (e.g. sticking gui, ling etc. to nouns) but a) the words that can go through these processes seem to be more like nouns than pronouns and b) it's unclear that these morphemes are bound rather than free (wordhood is notoriously difficult to determine in Chinese after all). – WavesWashSands Nov 29 '17 at 8:53
  • Personal pronouns have various places on the referential hierarchy; first and second person (deictic) pronouns, for instance, are often deleted and indicated by syntax; e.g, Ever been to Vegas? vs Never been to Vegas. Third person pronouns can be referential or not, specific or not, definite or not, and so on. Epithets, for instance, can function pronominally: Bill caught the ball, but then the bastard ran the wrong way. This doesn't make it an open class. – jlawler May 27 '18 at 16:22
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Maybe we can see a (semi-)opening of the personal pronoun class in English just now: There are not only a lot of suggestions of an epicene pronoun floating around (this would extend the closed class by one member, but is in itself not an opening), but there are also a bunch of new pronouns on the verge for a "Third gender", going as far as allowing every individual to chose Eir own pronoun.

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    Yeah, but the native speaker has already chosen they, them, their, themself. Long ago. Other epicene pronouns may come in certain other contexts, but not in speech. – jlawler Jan 26 '18 at 17:46

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