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Do some languages change more slowly or quickly than others?

If so, what factors slow or accelerate the rate of change? (For this question, let's forget about the possible effects of modern mass media and concentrate on factors that might have always affected the rate of language change.)

I know that, as long as a language has native speakers, the language will change. But how fast?

(Thanks go to the book, "Language Myths" (Laurie Bauer, ed.), for telling us lay people that Appalachian dialects of English are not the same as Elizabethan English.)

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    Linguists have a term for languages and dialects which change at a relatively slow rate in comparison with other languages: conservative. Individual changes are termed innovations, and languages which have changed comparatively more are called innovating. – hippietrail Jul 22 '13 at 7:27
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Languages definitely change at different rates. A clear contrast is between Icelandic and some dialects of Norwegian - Icelandic has one of the slowest rates of change observed (Icelandic schoolkids can read the Norse sagas as easily as English-speaking schoolkids can read Shakespeare), but certain Norwegian dialects have some of the highest rates observed. And yet both are North Germanic - clearly speed of change is independent of the actual language that's changing.

It's not clear at all what causes these disparities. To some degree, isolation seems to be a factor, but it's not obvious which direction it pushes (Norwegian dialects were pretty isolated from each other due to mountains, and Icelandic has been pretty isolated from the rest of the world due to location). Other factors may include how many people are learning the language as adults (more learners tends to lead to innovations that simplify things), and the level of visibility of a written prestige/standard variety (since standard/prestige varieties tend to be based on older forms of the language, and speakers may want to emulate prestigious writing styles in speech). There may be additional factors as well, some of which might well be due to the language itself - for example, if a language ends up in some kind of unstable state (say, with a very unbalanced vowel system), it may suddenly right itself, thus triggering a cascade of further changes (say, if rebalancing the vowel system results in ambiguity in person-marking verb suffixes; then the person-marking suffixes will themselves change). Indeed, there's so many potential factors affecting speed-of-change that it's very hard to isolate any one to study it.

While some aspects of the mechanics of linguistic change are fairly well understood (we have a pretty good idea about how things like phonemic imbalances and articulatory difficulty can cause change), other factors (for example, things like sound changes not caused by either of the above) are less well understood. Rate-of-change and change timing are things that we just don't really know that much about yet.

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  • Which Norwegian dialects have been ‘observed’ to have changed at a particularly fast pace? I can’t think of any Norwegian dialects that aren’t quite conservative in many ways (and quite innovative in others). In any case, no North Germanic language can compare to what happened to Primitive Irish on its way to becoming Old Irish around AD 400–600. Over the course of two hundred or so years, the language became utterly unrecognisable compared to its earlier stages; yet its development since then has been quite controlled and steady, and not at all ‘unreasonable’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 27 '13 at 19:24
  • I wish I could give an example, but I've forgotten now where I read that. I'd definitely be curious to see that Old Irish data though! ^_^ – Sjiveru Jul 27 '13 at 22:03
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Yes, languages change at different rates. An Italian linguist, Matteo Giulio Bartoli, elaborated 5 norms that can help explain or at least understand how languages can change differently.

Note: I've studied these norms in Italian so the English translation I'll be giving them might not be what you can see in books, researches, etc. Please note that I might not be choosing the best terminology, so feel free to comment for corrections. For example "form" is here intended as "linguistic phase of a language".

The examples are not meant to be fully meaningful sentences but only represent how words (nouns and adjectives) change depending on their geographical location. Also, the words are presumably Latin forms that give origin to the modern words and do not represent the modern language itself.

  1. Norma dell'Area Isolata (Isolated Area)

    This one states an isolated area (and so less exposed to commerce and communicaton) usually keeps an early linguistic form. An example of this is Icelandic, very similar to the Old Norse.

    Another example is Sardinian, derived from Latin, that still keeps many features of this language unlike Italian that evolved quite a bit from it. A clear example is the use of the personal pronoun ego to say "I" in some towns1.

    Sardegna: domus magnus ager
    Iberia: casa grandis campus
    Gallia: casa grandis campus
    Italia: casa grandis campus
    Dacia: casa mare campus

  2. Norma dell'Area Centrale (Central Area)

    The lateral areas will usually keep a later form than the central area, with the condition that the central area is not an isolated area. An example

    Iberia: equa mūtāre formōsus
    Gallia: caballa cambiare bellus
    Italia: caballa cambiare bellus
    Dacia: equa mūtāre formōsus

    The central one will present an innovation.

  3. Norma dell'Area Maggiore (Bigger Area)

    The bigger, wider area will usually keep the early form. The condition is that the smaller area is also not the isolated area or the sum of the lateral areas.

    Iberia: cor deus furnus
    Gallia: cor deus furnus
    Italia: cor deus furnus
    Dacia: anima dominus deus coctōrium

  4. Norma dell'Area Seriore (Older Area, seriore means "chronologically later")

    The zones where the language has arrived later will keep an early form.

    Latin: edĕre > Spanish: (comedere) > comer
    Latin: manducāre > Italian: mangiare

    Latin reached Spain after Italy for obvious reasons.

  5. Norma della Fase Sparita (Disappeared form)

    This is not a geographical norm, rather it states that if we have two phases/forms and one of them died or is about to, and the other one survives, the first one is usually the early form.


1: Sardinian is not a "single" language but has countless varieties, usually changing from town to town. Being the more different the farther you go from a certain location.

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  • 1
    Google on "matteo bartoli norms" and you will find a wealth of information. These are quite famous in historical linguistics. – jlawler Jul 21 '13 at 3:22
  • Would you please explain the examples a little? I found them very confusing until I realised that each was a list of unconnected words, parallel in the several lines in the example. – Colin Fine Jul 21 '13 at 20:48
  • @ColinFine All of them or just some? They are not really fully meaningful sentences, but they just help to show how single terms developed (more/less) according to the geographical placement. For example, the term domus (house) became casa in Spanish and Italian, but it became domo in Sardinian (central area). Different from the Latin term, but it still is visibly similar to it. That's the intention of those examples (not elaborated by me by the way). – Alenanno Jul 21 '13 at 21:20
  • Just necessary to explain the first set. The things I think are not obvious are 1) these are unconnected words, not sentences, and 2) the forms are presumably the Latin words that are believed to underlie the terms used in the modern language in each area. Or are they forms actually recorded in that area? – Colin Fine Jul 21 '13 at 21:38
  • @ColinFine 1) You're right, it's ambiguous, I'll add the note to make it clear. 2) I'd say the first you said. I'm sure for the Italian examples and the others do look like Latin as well. I'll make sure to make that clear too. Thanks! – Alenanno Jul 21 '13 at 21:52
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I agree with all the answers here. I would recommend Dixon's 'Rise and Fall of Languages' http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rise-Fall-Languages-R-Dixon/dp/0521626544/ where he explores some of these issues in depth. I particularly found his analogy with 'punctuated equilibria' very useful. But he also addresses questions of language boundaries and relatedness. Well worth a read, even if a bit controversial in places.

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  • Hello Dominik. Answers are made for answering a question but yours only refers to a book that might answer the question (making it a non answer). Can you expand on it and try to answer the question? You can still reference books of course. As is, your post would be better as (and converted to) a comment. Thanks! – Alenanno Jul 23 '13 at 17:12
  • On the other hand, I appreciate the good lead on the information that I'm looking for. – James Grossmann Jul 23 '13 at 19:32
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Yes. I quote pp. 122-124 of McWhorter, J. PhD Linguistics (Stanford). Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (2009). He bruits that Icelandic changed less than other Germanic languages.

p. 122

  Comparison reveals what was going on even if no one at the time bothered to describe it. Among Germanic languages, Icelandic, spoken on a remote island, has (1) rarely been learned by foreigners and (2) is also the least simplified member of the family. Even today, its grammar is so little changed from Old Norse that Icelanders can read the epic eddas in Old Norse written almost a thousand

p. 123

years ago. Icelandic has three genders; most of those case endings and conjugations we saw in Old Norse are still used in everyday language in Reykjavík; and it’s got the “you mistake you” quirk, hithering and thithering, V2, a be-perfect, and most everything else the well-dressed Proto-Germanic descendant wears.
  Icelandic shows that there is nothing inevitable about a language tossing off its suffixes and what linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir called “nuance” over time. Linguists call a language that has a way of holding on to what is passed down to it “conservative.” Ordinarily, languages’ grammars are rather conservative—like Latin, Greek, and Russian.
  In comparison, even the other Germanic languages besides Icelandic are less conservative. It surely isn’t an accident that they also, roiling around on the Continent, where populations have been mixing and conquering one another forever, have been learned by foreigners much more than Icelandic. This is why German, Dutch, and Swedish have shed a lot more of Proto-Germanic’s suffixes than Icelandic. However, that’s pretty much all. Suffixes—small and usually pronounced without stress (or, in the term more common among laymen, accent)—are uniquely fragile. But otherwise, these languages retain the other complexities of Proto-Germanic. Largely, their coexistence with other languages (including one another) has been a matter of linguistic equilibrium—stewing, but not boiling down.

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