How does language change through time?

How does language change throughout time, and how did it begin in the first place?
21 February 2017

Interview with 

Claire Dembry, Cambridge University Press; Mirjana Bosik


The British National Corpus is a collection of over 100 million words from samples of written and spoken English. However, 90% of it is written down, which limits what we can do with it. So, two years ago, a collaboration between Cambridge University Press and Lancaster University set about bringing the corpus into the 21st century. Emma Sackville heard how from Cambridge University Press’ Senior Language Research Manager, Dr. Claire Dembry…

Claire - Typically, when we recorded people’s conversations in the past you would have a massive tape recorder, and you’d put it on the table, and press the button, and they’d usually be somebody else there, kind of like this so that the conversation was, typically a bit self conscious. So what we did was ask people to make recordings on their smartphones or their tablet or whatever. The kind of became part of the conversation; people didn’t really realise that they were being recorded. So that’s meant that the recordings that we’ve gathered are really natural so we’ve got all kinds of really interesting topics.

Emma - So what have been some of the applications? What are you collecting this data for?

Claire - Here at Cambridge University Press we’re really interested in language teaching so we want to know that we’re teaching learners the best stuff. The things that are the most useful. More widely though, the whole of the data set will be publically available to any researcher and there’s so many, I think, fascinating questions we can ask. Also, one thing I think is really nice is that someone had prompted you with a question - how do you feel about the environment? You’ll say oh I’m very concerned about the environment. But because this is a free, unprompted collection of language, what we can also see is the topics that people are interested in. So there’s a wider social implications as well.

Emma - What have been the main or most surprising trends or differences in words?

Claire - Initially we had quite a lighthearted look at stuff. So we were interested in which words have gone up in frequency, which words had gone down. So we talk about tea almost exactly the same amount as we used to before - obviously it’s a massive concern. We looked at the word “love.” In the 90s we find that people loved their family, and their brothers, and their mum. And in our recent collection people love handbags, and cheese…

Emma - That’s kinda sad!

Claire - But language changes. And really what we’re saying there is that the word love is used differently. So that’s a nice example that reflects how language has changed.

Emma - So even in 25 years there’s been a pretty big difference in how we use language which got me thinking would we be able to recognise language from the 90s even if we might cringe at the hair in fashion.

And for suth my dear friends we can work out the words in a merry eve of Shakespeare.

But if we went really far back would we be able to understand english? And, if it comes to it, where did language even come from in the first place?

Mirjana - My name is Mirjana Boskik. I’m a university lecturer and I do research in the field of aspects of language comprehension.

Emma - How do we process language in the brain?

Mirjana - The current view is that there are two joint but functionally instinct networks. So one being bi-hemispheric networks, both left and right hemispheres that is the network for essentially basic comprehension so mapping sound to meaning. And then on top of that we have the left hemisphere network that seems to be dealing with specifically grammatical aspects of that sentence.

Emma - Is it that grammar side of things that makes humans distinct from animals because, obviously all animals do sort of communicate?

Mirjana - Yes, that is one of the current ways of thinking about it. Human language allows us to express pretty much anything. We can express past, and future, and possibility and that has not been observed in any other animal species.

Emma - Do we know when that ability evolved?

Mirjana - In short.... No. There was lots of speculation on this and one of the ideas is that something probably to do with tool usage. That the use of complex tools would be something that would require complex thinking allowing or triggering language. We know that in humans there is a white matter tract that links from tool to temporal regions in the left hemisphere that is really necessary for language comprehension. Comparing the consistency of those white matter tracts in humans versus chimps or macaques shows that this is much more prominent in humans.

Emma - If we were to go back in time, would we be able to understand the language that our ancestors were speaking?

Mirjana - I suppose it’s a question of how far back you go. I was looking up for English for instance, you would probably be able to understand language from 1500 or so but not language from the 5th century. So languages are going to evolve and develop over time. There are going to be different influences that are feeding in and then shaping how a particular language ends up looking. It’s a continuous process of development, obviously. But I think in the case of the english language, you would not be able to understand Old English, so what’s being spoken in the 7th century.

Emma - So some words might come and go and we might never find out exactly how language started. But there’s one thing we know for certain - the British will always be talking about tea!


Add a comment