Why does language change over time?

Learn about some of the main ways that language changes over time.
  • Language is constantly adapting and changing to reflect our changing lives, experiences and cultures.

  • Language change enables us to accommodate new ideas, inventions and technologies.

  • It's not just the words themselves which change; the way in which we use them can shift too.

Why does language change over time?

Language isn’t fixed; it is always evolving. The English language has changed dramatically over the last millennium.

There are many different ways that this evolution happens. Here are some of the primary ways:

1. Trade and migration

As cultures interact, mix and trade, language shifts to accommodate these changes.

English, for example, often borrows from other languages. These are called loanwords.

Avatar, tsunami and sudoku are good examples of more recent loanwords.

Can you guess which languages we have ‘borrowed’ these words from?

We frequently adopt new words from different languages and cultures.
'Email' is a portmanteau of 'electronic' and 'mail.' Portmanteaus are frequently used as words for new technologies and inventions.

2. Technology and new inventions

New words and phrases are also invented to describe things that didn’t exist before.

A few years ago we weren’t lured by clickbait and didn’t worry about our carbon footprint. It is only recently that we have taken selfies or listened to podcasts.

Sometimes these invented words are the fusion of two words that existed before.

These are known as portmanteau words. For example, blog comes from the combination of web and log.

3. Old words acquiring new meanings

Nice is often given as an example of a word shift.

Over seven hundred years it has changed its meaning from 'foolish' to 'shy', then to 'dainty', from there to 'delightful' and to our modern meaning of 'giving pleasure or satisfaction'. Some shift!

The internet has been responsible for a number of more recent word shifts: mouse, surf and web are obvious examples.

Language change today

Think about the English-speaking world today. We are experiencing an exceptional amount of international trade, migration and technological change.

Just as the world is quickly changing around us, so is the language we use.

Have you noticed the way you use language changing recently?

Language change quiz

Find out how much you know in this quick quiz!

Where next?

Discover more about this topic from around Bitesize.

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