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Linguistic terms for the history of English

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ablaut [morphology] A change in the stem vowel of a verb to indicate a change in tense, normally from past to preterite or with the past participle. Ablaut is common in Germanic and is still seen in the system of strong verbs in both German and English, cf. English singsangsung; bleibenbliebgeblieben. Also called apophony. (German: Ablaut)

agglutinative [language typology] A term used in language typology to denote those languages which use formally transparent bound morphemes to indicate grammatical categories. Finnish and Turkish are good examples of agglutinative languages as the nominal and verbal morphemes occur in one of only two forms (determined by vowel harmony) irrespective of the stem to which they are attached or of the combinations in which they occur. An example of agglutination from English would be mean-ing-less-ness or un-bear-abl-y. (German: agglutinativ)

alliteration [phonetics,phonology] The repetition of a consonant or cluster at the beginning of a word used as a device in poetry or in set phrases, particularly in German, cf. Roß und Reiter nennen, über Stock und Stein, mit Kind und Kegel. (German: Alliteration)

alphabet A system of letters intended to represent the sounds of a language in writing. For all west European languages the Latin alphabet has been the outset for their writing systems. However, because each language has a different sound system different combinations of letters have arisen and letters have come to be written with additional symbols attached to them.

amelioration [semantics,pragmatics] A semantic change which leads to an improvement in meaning as when nice progressed from ‘ignorant’ to ‘pleasant’ in the history of English. (German: Verbesserung)

analogical change [language change] A kind of change where one element changes to another on the basis of a similar relationship which already exists, the latter providing the model for the change by somehow being the dominant or productive pattern, e.g. the use of a plural fishes on the basis of dish : dishes. The similarity in such cases is usually phonetic. (German: analogischer Wandel)

analogy [general] A common type of language change where words are altered to conform to others which are more regular. The latter provide a productive pattern in a language and are normally more regular, i.e. have fewer unpredictable inflections. Analogical change has the effect of hiding earlier changes in a language and must always be considered when reconstructing linguistic forms. (German: Analogie)

analytic [language typology] A term used for a language which tends to use free morphemes to indicate grammatical categories. Examples are Modern English and French to a certain extent. Other languages, such as Chinese or Vietnamese, are very clearly analytic and approach a relationship of one word per morpheme. (German: analytisch)

areal linguistics [language typology] The study of languages from the point of view of their geographical distribution and possible clustering. This is one of the respects in which structural dialectology differs from the genetic study of language which was predominant in the 19th century.


borrowing [language change] The act of adopting some aspect of one language into another. It may be lexical (the most obvious and common type of borrowing) but also syntactic, morphological or phonological. The latter types of borrowing require that some section of the population be in direct contact with the second language. Lexical borrowing can be due to written influence as with the English loanwords in Modern German yielding so-called ‘cultural borrowings’. Borrowing is one of the chief means of expanding the vocabulary of a language.


canonical [language typology] A term which refers to a type of word-order which is regarded as usual, natural, unmarked in a given language. For instance VSO (Verb-Subject-Object) is the canonical word-order in English, SOV was canonical in Old English and the stages of Germanic before it, VSO is canonical in Irish, etc. These languages also have other word-orders, chiefly used for the purpose of topicalising sentence elements (often through fronting).

code mixing [sociolinguistics] Amongst bilingual individuals this is the act of mixing elements from one variety/language with those from another.

cognate [language change] Any item from two different languages which can be traced to the same root, i.e. to the time of the common language which existed before the two languages diverged. The term cognate is sometimes used for the languages themselves. (German: urverwandt)

colonial lag [language change] A term used to denote the supposed conservatism of peripheral dialects of a language such as colonial varieties of English (originally American English, also Irish or Scottish English, etc.). The reason proposed for the lag is that these varieties were cut off from the mother country at some early point in their history and did not undergo any further developments which are characteristic of the latter location. Of course such varieties have gone through independent developments which may or may not be due to substrate influence from languages in their environments. One should be careful not to rely too heavily on colonial lag as an explanation for the features of extraterritorial varieties of English.

comparative philology [linguistic theory] A branch of linguistics which is concerned with studying the historical relationships between members of one or more language families. The usual concern is with the Indo-European family. This branch started its development at the beginning of the 19th century and was the dominant school of linguistics until the advent of structuralism with Saussure at the beginning of the 20th century.

comparative method [language change] The method used in comparative philology. The technique involves comparing cognate forms from genetically related languages (such as those of the Indo-European family) with a view to reconstructing the proto-language from which all others can be taken to have derived. Such a method must take regular sound changes and later analogy into account. This allows one to link up forms which are superficially different but which can be traced back to a single form, itself usually non-attested. For instance English heart, German Herz, Latin cordia, Greek kardios can be shown to derive regularly from an Indo-European root *kerd.

compensatory lengthening [phonetics,phonology] A process, first phonetic later phonological, whereby a vowel is lengthened when a consonant after it is lost. For instance, English light comes from Old English [lɪçt] which became [li:t] in Middle English and then [lait] after the Great Vowel Shift. The phenomenon can be seen when one compares German and English as with five and fünf /fʏnf/. The German word has a short vowel and a nasal. The latter was lost in English and the vowel before it was lengthened to /i:/, this later diphthongising to /ai/ giving /faiv/. An important aspect of compensatory lengthening is that the quantity (or weight) of the syllabe rhyme (nucleus and coda together) remains the same, in the above examples, short vowel + single consonant to long vowel does not represent a change in quantity.

contact [language change] A term which refers to a situation in which speakers of two languages or varieties are continually in contact with each other, either due to geographical or social closeness or both. The mutual influence which results from such contact can and does lead to changes in the structure — or at least in the lexicon — of one or both languages.

contraction [phonetics,phonology] A process in which two or more words are merged, e.g. English do + not > don't [dəunt]). The contraction is a phenomenon of spoken language which may be later adopted into the lento style of delivery. Usually the non-contracted forms are irrecoverable.

convergence [language change] In a general sense a process whereby two languages or varieties come to resemble each other more and more. In historical linguistics the term is often used to refer to a situation whereby two causes are taken to have led to a certain effect, e.g. where a feature in a present-day dialect is taken to derive from both substrate interference and language-internal developments.

conversion [lexicology] The use of an item of one class in another without any formal change, e.g. to breakfast from breakfast. Conversion is a common feature of analytical languages such as English.

corpus [applications] Any structured and principled collection of data from a particular language — usually in electronic form, i.e. on disk — which has been compiled for the purpose of subsequent analysis. The number of corpora available has increased greatly since the spread of the personal computer in the 1980’s. The most famous corpus for historical forms of English is the Helsinki Corpus of Diachronic English.

corpus linguistics [applications] The use of computer corpora as a tool in linguistic analysis. As opposed to computational linguistics, which uses computers to simulate grammatical models, corpus linguistics uses data in one or more computer corpora to gain attestations for linguistic phenomena which a linguist is interested in analysing.


deterioration [semantics,pragmatics] Any alteration in the meaning of a word which leads to it being assessed negatively by speakers. The phenomenon is sometimes called pejoration and contrasts with amelioration, an improvement in meaning.

diachronic [general] Refers to language viewed over time and contrasts with synchronic which refers to a point in time. This is one of the major structural distinctions introduced by Saussure and which is used to characterise types of linguistic investigation.

dialect continuum [sociolinguistics] A continuous geographical region in which the transition from one dialect to the next is gradual, for instance the Romance dialects spoken on the Northern coast of the Mediterranean from Spain through the south of France to Italy. Another instance would be the continental varieties of German which stretch from the Netherlands in the north-west to Lower Austria in the south-east and which form a continuum dialectally.

dialect [sociolinguistics] A traditional term referring to a variety of a language spoken in a certain place. There are urban and rural dialects. The boundaries between dialects are always gradual. The term dialect is used to denote a geographically distinct variety of a language. Two major points in this connection should be noted: 1) ‘dialect’ does not refer to the social or temporal aspect of language and 2) the term ‘dialect’ makes no reference to the standard variety of a language. In connection with the latter point it is important to stress that the standard of a language is nothing more than a dialect which achieved special political and social status at some stage in the past and which has been extensively codified orthographically.

dialectology [sociolinguistics] The area of linguistics which investigates dialects. For most linguists nowadays this branch is regarded as conservative and not concerned with theoretical questions. Also called dialect geography.

diastratic [sociolinguistics] A term referring to variation in language between social classes.

diatopic [sociolinguistics] A term referring to variation in language on a geographical level.

dictionary [applications] A reference work which offers varied information — usually arranged in alphabetical order — about words in a language, such as their spelling, pronunciation, meaning and possibly historical origins, additional shades of meaning, typical combinations (collocations) and status vis à vis the standard of the language concerned.

double negation [syntax,grammar] A feature both of older English and many dialects. It refers to the use of two (or more) negative particles to intensify a negation, e.g. in Black English He don't know nothing.

double plural [syntax,grammar] The plural form of a noun which, when viewed historically, is seen to consist of two plurals, e.g. brethren which shows a reflex of the umlauted form of brother /o/ > /ø/ > /e/ and an r-plural; another common instance is children which historically contains both an r-plural and a nasal plural.

doublet [lexicology] A member of a pair of words which can be seen as deriving from the same root etymologically, e.g. shirt or skirt both of which represent reflexes of the same Germanic root (the former is West Germanic and the latter North Germanic in origin). (German: Doublette)

drift [language change] An imperceptible change in the typology of a language in a more or less constant direction as with the shift from synthetic to analytic in the course of the history of English.

dual [morphology] A grammatical category in some languages which refers to two persons, usually the speaker and the addressee. This has died out in Germanic, being replaced by the general plural which simply means ‘more than one’. Remnants of the dual were to be found in Old English.


Early Modern English (1500-1700) A division in the history of English which can be said to begin with the introduction of printing to England, just before 1500, and to end at the Augustan Age which began with the ascent of Queen Anne to the English throne in 1702. This time span includes the Elizabethan era with its most important writer William Shakespeare.

ease of articulation [phonetics,phonology] A putative reason for sound change. It may play a role in allegro speech and possibly effect the sound system over time but cannot be assumed to be a generally valid principle on the phonological level.

elocution [general] Special training which used to be quite widespread and which was intended to improve one’s ability to speak clearly and convincingly, particulary in public.

eponymy [lexicology] The process of using a proper noun (usually a personal name) to form a new lexeme. It is common with adjectives and, in English with verbs as well, though some examples are to be found in German also. Draconian (< Dracon, severe Athenian legislator in the 7th century BC), spartan (< Sparta, ancient Greek city known for austerity and rigour), platonic (< Plato, Greek philospher, refers to purely spiritual relationships); to hoover (< Hoover inventor of machine), to xerox (< Rank Xerox firm which first developed the machine).

etymological fallacy [language change] A common but erroneous opinion, found among lay speakers and historically with many authors before the advent of linguistics as a scientific discipline in the 19th century, that the oldest meaning of a word is the most genuine or correct. Note that the ‘oldest meaning’ is a fiction in itself as it is usually impossible to trace words back to their initial use, this lying in pre-history.

etymological respelling [language change] An alteration in the spelling of a word which is intended to show the etymological root of a word. Such respellings may or may not lead to a later change in pronunciation, contrast debt (Middle English dette) and fault (Middle English faute) remodelled after Latin debitus and fallitus respectively where the b is not pronounced but the unjustified l now is.

etymology [language change] An area within historical linguistics which is concerned with the origin and development of the form and meaning of words and the relationship of both these aspects to each other.

etymon [language change] The form of a word from which further forms are historically derived, e.g. captiare ‘to try to catch’ is the etymon of both catch and chase in Modern English (via Anglo-Norman and Central French respectively).

extraterritorial variety [variety studies] A form of English spoken outside of the British Isles. Typical areas with such varieties are North America, the Caribbean, West, South and East Africa, India and South-East Asia as well as Australia and New Zealand.

eye dialect [sociolinguistics] An alteration of standard spelling to indicate roughly some of the prominent features of a dialect, e.g. walkin' for [wɔ:kṇ] in a dialect which has alveolarisation of [ŋ].

eye rhyme [sociolinguistics] Two words which appear to rhyme on the basis of their spellings but not their pronunciations, e.g. rough /rʌf/ and cough /kɒf/.


family tree [language change] A model of language development common in the last century (the term derives from August Schleicher) which sees languages as splitting further in a manner reminiscent of genetic relationships. A major alternative to this was the wave model of Johannes Schmidt (1870).

family [language change] A group of languages that can be shown to stem from a single proto-language by a process of splitting at various points in the latter’s history.

First Sound Shift [language grouping] A wide-ranging change among the stops of Indo-European which altered them to fricatives (compare Latin pes and German Fuß) and which defines the hive-off point for the Germanic languages all of which show reflexes of this change. Also called the Germanic Sound Shift.

folk etymology [lexicology] A process which lay speakers are particularly prone to. It consists of establishing a semantic relationship between forms which sound the same at one point in time without any consideration of the etymology of the forms involved, e.g. samblind ‘half-blind’ became re-interpreted as sandblind ‘blind from sand’ because the sam was phonetically similar to sand which fits semantically. A fictitious example of folk etymologising would be if a speaker thought that bear ‘carry’ was connected with the animal bear because these are strong and can carry a lot.

fossilised [semantics,pragmatics] A term referring to any phrase or expression which is non-productive and which does not vary in its form. This applies for example to idioms like topsy turvy where the words only exist in this combination.

functional change [language change] A change in the role which a linguistic form plays. Such changes are typical of historical development, e.g. the ending -ing used to indicate a verb used as a noun — a gerund as in The reading of the book — but with the development of progressive aspect it came to indicate the continuous form as in She is reading the book.


genetic classification [language change] The arrangement of languages into groups on the basis of their historically recognisable relationships and not going on any similarity in structure.

geographical linguistics [sociolinguistics] Examining languages from the point of view of their regional distribution, the type of terrain they occur in, the demographic structure of the areas they occupy and considering the mutual effects of contact between languages.

gerund [syntax,grammar] A noun which is formed from a verb and which represents the action characteristic of the verb, but without specification of tense, mood, person or number of course. In English such forms are derived by adding the suffix -ing to the base of a verb as in Driving after drinking should be avoided.

glottochronology [language change] A technique developed by the American structuralist Morris Swadesh for determining time depth in historical linguistics by considering the changes in the core vocabulary of a language.

grade [phonetics,phonology] A vowel value which is associated with a particular manifestation of ablaut in Indo-European languages, for instance /o/, /e/ or zero-grade. Later alternations in attested languages can be traced to the original grades, though this does not make sense in synchronic descriptions of daughter languages of Proto-Indo-European as the grades do not always have a consistent reflex, let alone occur in anything like their original form.

grammaticalisation [language change] This is an historical process in language which refers to a change in status from lexical to grammatical for certain elements, frequently due to semantic bleaching (loss of lexical meaning). For instance the (archaic) adverb/adjective whilom ‘formerly, erstwhile’ derives from a dative plural of the Old English word hwilom ‘at times’ which was with time not felt to be an inflected noun but a different word class, an adverb or adjective.

Grimm’s Law [language change] An alternative term for the Germanic sound shift, named after Jakob Grimm who first described it systematically in his Deutsche Grammatik (1816, 1822).


h-dropping [sociolinguistics] A feature which is endemic in most urban varieties of British English. It consists of eliminating the initial /h/ of words; this can lead to hypercorrect forms like /hɒnə/ for honour.

hapax legomenon [language change] Any word which is only attested once in a language, e.g. the form Þymel ‘thimble’ in Old English.

High German Shift [language change] A series of sound changes which affected the dialects of Germanic in the interior mountainous region of the country and which consisted basically of affrication of stops in syllable-initial position and fricativisation in syllable-medial and -final position, cf. English tide, leap; German Zeit, laufen.

historical linguistics [language change] The study of how languages develop over time as opposed to viewing them at a single point in time. The major direction in linguistics up until the advent of structuralism at the beginning of the 20th century.

homograph [semantics,pragmatics] Any two (or more) words which are written the same, though the pronunciation may be different, e.g. lead, a verb, and lead, a noun.

homonym [semantics,pragmatics] Any set of words which share their form but have different meanings, e.g. bar ‘legal profession’ and bar ‘public house’. The formal similarity is an accident of phonological development and the forms do not share a common historical root, contrast this situation with that of polysemy.

homophone [phonetics,phonology] Any set of words pronounced the same way, e.g. English poor and pour /pɔ:/ (Received Pronunciation) and German Ferse and Verse.

hypercorrection [sociolinguistics] A kind of linguistic situation in which a speaker overgeneralises a phenomenon which he/she does not have in his/her native variety. For example if a speaker from northern England pronounces butcher /butʃə/ with the vowel in but, i.e. as /bʌtʃə/, then this is almost certainly hypercorrection as he/she does not have the but-sound in his/her own dialect and, in an effort to speak ‘correct’ English, overdoes it. The same applies to native speakers of Rhenish German when they pronounce Kirschen like Kirchen when they are talking to speakers of High German.


i-umlaut [language change] An historical change in Germanic whereby back and low vowels were shifted to a front position, e.g. /u,o,a/ to /y,ø,ɛ/, due to the assimilatory influence of a high vowel /i/ or the approximant /j/ in a following syllable. Because the latter occurred frequently in verb and noun inflections there are many instances of i-umlaut in nominal and verbal paradigms. In German the reflexes of these are still very evident, e.g. fahren but fährt where the front vowel of the third person singular present is historically due to i-umlaut caused by an ending no longer present in the word.

incorporation [language typology] A process — diachronic or synchronic — in language typology which involves the compression of several major word categories to one, e.g. noun, article and adjective or subject, verb and object.

inflection [morphology] An alteration made to a word to indicate a certain grammatical category, e.g. number and case with nouns or person, number and tense with verbs. The number of inflections in a language can be taken as an indication of its type, a large number being characteristic of synthetic languages. Diachronically inflections arise from clitics which become unseparable from the lexical bases to which they are attached.

inflectional language [language typology] Any language which relies heavily on the use of inflections for indicating grammatical relationships, e.g. Latin or German.

inflectional [morphology] A reference to the section of morphology which is involved in the indication of grammatical categories rather than in the formation of new words, the latter being termed ‘derivational’.

inkhorn term [lexicology] An historical term (16th century) for a word which is obscure or pretentious, especially for erudite creations from Latin or Greek as a sign of putative learning.

internal reconstruction [language change] One of the two major procedures of historical linguistics in which evidence from the internal development of a language is used in reconstructing earlier stages of the language. It contrasts explicitly with the comparative method which relies on evidence from related languages.

irregular [morphology] A form which can be regarded as an exception to a given pattern or rule, e.g. the plurals formed with a stem vowel change in Modern English, man : men, tooth : teeth.

isolating language [language typology] A language type where individual words do not vary in form and where grammatical categories and relations are indicated by separate words and/or by word-order. English is fairly isolating; Chinese much more so.


koiné [variety studies] A term deriving from ancient Greek which refers to a situation where the language variety of a specific area (usually that of greatest political prestige) is used as a general means of communication, almost as a standard, in the surrounding areas, frequently in an entire country. This was the position with West Saxon vis à vis the remaining dialects of Old English in other parts of England in the late Old English period.


language change [language change] A process by which developments in a language are introduced and established. Language change is continual in every language and it is largely regular. However, the rate of language change is different among different languages. It depends on a number of factors, not least on the amount of contact and informational exchange with other linguistic communities on the one hand (this tends to further change) and the degree of standardisation and universal education in the speech community on the other hand (this tends to hamper change).

language contact [language change] A situation in which speakers of two languages intermingle. The causes of this range from invasion and deportation to voluntary emigration to a new country. The results of this intermingling depend on external factors such as the relative status of the two linguistic groups and on internal factors such as the typological similarity of the languages involved, i.e. whether their grammatical structures are comparable or not.

Late Modern English (1700 - ) A period in the history of English which begins with the reign of Queen Anne and continues down to the present day. It embraces the eighteenth century which saw the rise of the middle classes in England and of presciptivem and an increasingly exclusive standard, leading into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which saw the continuation of earlier changes and an increasing diversification of English to due to new colonies overseas, especially in the Southern Hemisphere.

law [language change] A formulation of an ordered or predictable relationship between forms. Such laws can be diachronic or synchronic. An example of the former is Grimm’s Law which states (simply) that Indo-European voiceless stops changed to corresponding fricatives at the beginning of Germanic. A synchronic law would be the devoicing of obstruents at the end of words (and syllables) in German. A law is taken to be virtually without exception.

learned words [morphology,lexicology] A reference to a section of a language’s vocabulary which is not normally known by ordinary speakers because of its scholarly nature.

level [general] A reference to a set of recognisible divisions in the structure of natural language. These divisions are largely independent of each other and are characterised by rules and regularities of organisation. Traditionally five levels are recognised: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics. Pragmatics may also be considered as a separate level from semantics. Furthermore levels may have subdivisions as is the case with morphology which falls into inflectional and derivational morphology (the former is concerned with grammatical endings and the latter with processes of word-formation). The term ‘level’ may also be taken to refer to divisions within syntax in generative grammar.

lexical diffusion [language change] A type of language change in which a certain feature spreads slowly rather than establishing itself at once. Cases of lexical diffusion are characterised by incompleteness, otherwise it is not recognisable afterwards and is a case of normal change which affects the entire vocabulary. The lexical diffusion type of change usually ceases before it can cover all theoretical instances in a language, e.g. the lowering of short /u/ in the Early Modern English period which does not apply to instances before [ʃ] and after a labial stop: bush, push.

lexicalisation [language change] A process whereby an alternation of a word or a particular form is no longer derivable by application of a productive process, e.g. umlaut plurals in English such as goose : geese are lexicalised as there is no transparent and understandable process of umlaut in English any more.

lexicography [applications] The technique of writing dictionaries.

lexicology [lexicology] The study of the vocabulary of a language in both its diachronic and synchronic aspects.

lexicon [lexicology] The vocabulary of a language. It can refer to the book form of a dictionary (usually with an alphabetic listing of words) or the assumed lexicon which speakers possess mentally. The precise nature and organisation of this mental lexicon is much debated in linguistic literature as it is generally assumed to be radically different in organisation from a conventional dictionary.

lexicostatistics [language change] A technique developed by American structuralists — chiefly by Morris Swadesh — for determining the rate at which languages change by comparing sets of words in related languages (this is more precisely glottochronology).

linguistic area [typology] A part of the world in which several genetically unrelated languages are spoken but which nonetheless show structural similarities. Such areas usually form an approximate geographical unit, e.g. the Balkans, the Caucasus, perhaps the eastern Baltic Sea region. The term is a translation of German Sprachbund, lit. ‘language federation’.

linguistic atlas [variety studies] A collection of maps which show the geographical distribution of various key items for a set of dialects, usually the entire group for a particular language. Such an atlas was produced in England in connection with the Survey of English Dialects co-ordinated at Leeds.

linguistic universals [typology] A postulated set of linguistic features which are common to all languages and which ultimately derive from our psychological make-up and our perception of the world, e.g. the existence of subject, predicate, object or first, second and third pronouns in all languages.

linguistic variable [sociolinguistics] Any item which can be used to quantitatively assess a variety of a language. Speakers may be aware of these variables or they may be only known to linguists. The term refers to a specific feature of a language which shows particular variation in a community and which is used as a tag for classifying a speaker’s speech. For example in New York the realisation of /r/ is just such a variable. A common non-linguistic designation for a linguistic variable, which derives from the Bible, is shibboleth where the first sound could have been pronounced [ʃ] or [s].

linguistics The study of language. As a scientific discipline built on objective principles, linguistics did not develop until the beginning of the 19th century. The approach then was historical as linguists were mainly concerned with the reconstruction of the Indo-European language. With the advent of structuralism at the beginning of the 20th century, it became oriented towards viewing language at one point in time. The middle of this century saw a radically new approach — known as generative grammar — which stressed our unconscious knowledge of language and underlying structures to be found in all languages.

loan-word [morphology,lexicology] Any word which can be shown to have been imported from one language into another, that is which does not represent an historical continuation of an earlier form (although loan-words may be related at a greater time depth). The word cardiac is a Greek loan as it is derived from the word for ‘heart’ in the latter language although it is ultimately related to English heart as both stem from the same root in Indo-European *kerd.


merger [language change] The fusion of two sounds such that only one results, for instance after Middle English the /ɛ:/ and the /e:/ vowels merged to one and were later raised to /i:/ in standard forms of English. A merger is generally taken to be irreversible but different varieties of a language may not show the same historic mergers.

metanalysis [morphology] An incorrect separation of two forms. This has occurred historically in English, e.g. the French loan naperon was later interpreted as an apron as was the native word nadder which later resulted in an adder.

metathesis [phonetics,phonology] The reversal of the linear sequence of sounds in a word. A common form of metathesis is the reversal of /r/ and a short vowel in the histories of both English and German, e.g. three ~ third; bird < ME brid(d). Metathesis is most frequent with vowels but is also found with consonants, e.g. aks, waps for ask, wasp respectively, both historically and regionally in English.

metonymy [language change] A type of semantic change in which a single aspect of a meaning or an attribute is used for the entire phenomenon, e.g. Whitehall for the English parliament, Paris for the French government, The White House for the American administration.

Middle English (1066-c.1500) A collective term for the forms of English spoken in the period from about 1100 to 1500. More precisely the beginning is set by the Norman invasion of 1066 and the end is often seen as 1476 when William Caxton introduced printing to England and so heralded in a period which the spelling of English was increasingly standardised.

mora [phonetics,phonology] A reference to quantity in phonology. One mora is taken to be the unit which consists of a short vowel and short consonant, a long vowel, a diphthong or a long consonant. The advantage here is that one can see how quantity is frequently maintained although phonetic substance is lost, e.g. [nɪçt] was the former pronunciation of night which on loss of [ç] lengthened the vowel (> [ni:t], later [nait]) thus maintaining the quantity of the syllable rhyme (one mora).

morphological alternation [morphology,lexicology] A situation where two forms occur in two separate but related grammatical contexts. For instance there is morphological alternation between voiceless and voiced fricatives in English with certain plurals such as life /-f/ : lives /-vz/.

morphologisation [morphology] A process whereby a change in the environment of an alternation leads to it no longer being predictable on a sound level and hence becoming part of the morphology. For instance umlaut in German used to be predictable on the basis of phonetic environment (very long ago) but after the loss of high vowels in inflections the motivation of the shift to front vowels as in fahren : fährt was lost and the change became morphologised.

morphology [morphology] The level of linguistics which is concerned with the structure of words, both from the point of view of inflections and of word-formation. It is traditionally located between phonology (the level of sounds) and syntax (the level of sentences).

mutation [language change] A kind of sound change whereby one sound is altered because of the presence of another sound in the immediate environment, e.g. back mutation in Old English which caused the plural of bæþ to appear as baþas with a back stem vowel triggered by the back vowel in the plural inflection.


negation [syntax,grammar] In a very general sense the process of denying something. There are many means of saying that something is not the case and most languages reflect this fact in their modes of expression for negation. The Indo-European languages have negation particles beginning in /n-/ which are normally positioned adjacent to the verb to negate it, Er kam nicht; He didn't come. In addition there are usually means of negating an entire sentence Not all the students took their exams in June. Furthermore, languages have means of augmenting negation, by special adverbs or by doubling the negation particles: He definitely won't stay; He don't do no work for no-one (non-standard).

neo-classical compound [morphology,lexicology] A type of word which is produced by taking a stem and an ending both of which are loans from either Latin or Greek, e.g. biology (the study of life); orthodontics (the technique of straightening teeth). A common feature of modern European languages such as English and German.

Neogrammarian hypothesis [language change] A view of language change which assumes that it proceeds gradually on a phonetic level but affects all words with the sounds undergoing the change simultaneously. This view was propounded in the 19th century by German linguists starting from Leipzig. It contrasts with the more recent view that change can proceed word by word through the lexicon (see Lexical Diffusion).


Old English (450-1066) The initial period in the history of English which lasted from the mid fifth to the mid eleventh century. It begins with the traditional date for the arrival of the Germanic tribes in Britain, 449, and ends with the Norman invasion of 1066. Written documents begin in the late sixth century and continue through to the late eleventh century. (Old English is also a term for the original settlers in Ireland of Anglo-Norman stock from the twelvth to the sixteenth centuries).

onomastics [general] The linguistic study of names, both personal and place names. This field is particularly concerned with etymology and with the general historical value of the information which names offer the linguist.

opaque [morphology,lexicology] A term referring to any form or process which cannot be spontaneously understood by lay speakers. One could say that the word gospel is opaque for English speakers as they do not normally know that it comes from good + spell.

orthoepy [phonetics,phonology] A term referring to the determination of correct pronunciation, in particular with reference to those writers in 16th, 17th and 18th century England who were concerned with this subject matter.


palatalisation [language change] A common historical process whereby sounds produced at the velum are progressively shifted forward towards the palate. This is usually a change in manner of articulation from stop to affricate and possibly to fricative. Cf. /k/ > /c/ > /tʃ/ (> /ʃ/) as can be seen in the development of Latin camera to Modern French chambre.

paradigm [general] The set of forms belonging to a particular word-class or member of a word-class. A paradigm can be thought of as a vertical list of forms which can occupy a slot in a syntagm. Pronounced [ˡpærədaim].

paradigmatic change [language change] A kind of change which results from members of a paradigm (set of grammatical forms) exerting an influence on a particular member such that it comes to conform with the majority in the set, e.g. the shift of /r/ to /s/ (later /z/) in verb paradigms like choose in English: the past participle in Old English was coren but was regularised to chosen with a sibilant to conform with the majority of forms in this verb’s paradigm.

paradigmatic regularity [morphology] The extent to which a language shows symmetry in its declinational and conjugational patterns (for nouns and verbs respectively).

parent language [language grouping] Any language which is the historical original from which one or more other languages are derived, e.g. Germanic is the (non-attested) parent language of English, German, Swedish, Gothic, etc.

patois [sociolinguistics] An unwritten dialect.

pejorative [general] Undesirable, unacceptable lexical connotation. Words are often said to have a pejorative meaning, e.g. bitch is not just a female dog but a derogative term for a woman. Semantic change frequently involves a shift from good to bad meaning.

periphrastic ‘do' [syntax,grammar] A form of the verb do which was used in simple declarative sentences up to about the beginning of the 17th century. This is not to be confused with the use of do in questions and negatives and for emphasis in modern English.

phonetic alphabet [phonetics,phonology] A system of transcribing sounds in which one symbol is used for one and only for one sound. The most well-known alphabet of this kind is the International Phonetic Alphabet.

phonological [phonetics,phonology] A reference to the phonology of a language, i.e. to the deeper and more abstract organisation of the sounds of a language. A language’s phonology is its inventory of phonemes and the rules for their combination, distribution, etc.; in short all the ‘grammatical’ or structural aspects of the sound level. In a wider sense, phonology could be said to subsume phonetics as its ‘surface’ aspect.

phonology [phonetics,phonology] The study of the sound system of one or more languages. Phonology involves the classification of sounds and a description of the interrelationship of the elements on a systematic level.

polysemy [semantics,pragmatics] A reference to a word which shows more than one meaning. In such instances one of the meanings is usually basic and the other derived, e.g. foot (part of the body) and foot (base of something) as in at the foot of the mountain. See Homonym.

polysynthetic [language typology] A reference to a language which has large complex words in which several grammatical categories are fused together. See Incorporation.

post-modification [language typology] Refers to those languages in which modifying elements (such as adjectives) occur after the element they modify (such as nouns).

post-vocalic r [phonetics,phonology] A reference to the pronunciation of /r/ in the coda of a syllable as in many dialects of English, e.g. in American, Irish, Scottish English in words like word, card, far, etc.

pragmatics [semantics,pragmatics] The study of language in use in interpersonal communication. Apart from the purely linguistic approach there is a philosophical type of pragmatics, as developed in the late 19th century by American philosophers such as William James and Charles Peirce.

pre-modification [language typology] Refers to those languages in which modifying elements (such as adjectives) occur before the element they modify (such as nouns).

preterite [syntax,grammar] The simplest form of the past tense, i.e. that which is not formed using an auxiliary verb, e.g. He spoke as opposed to He has spoken.

pronunciation [phonetics,phonology] A collective reference to the manner in which sounds are articulated in a particular language. Given its concrete nature pronunciation is a matter of phonetics rather than phonology.

protolanguage [language grouping] A language which is not attested but which is assumed to have existed and to represent a common earlier stage for two or more languages which are known to be genetically related to each other.

purism [sociolinguistics] An attitude to language which demands the preservation of conservative forms which are somehow viewed as ‘correct’. A noticeable characteristic of purism is its rejection of foreign influences on a language.

push-pull chain [language change] A view of an instance of language change which sees a causal connection between the shifting of single elements in a language such that one element ‘pushes’ or ‘pulls’ another into a new position. A case in point is the Great Vowel Shift which is seen by many linguists as a group of changes effecting the long vowels of late Middle English whereby the high vowels /i:/ and /u:/ started to diphthongise and hence pulled the mid vowels /e:/ and /o:/ upwards (a pull chain) or where these mid vowels started to shift and caused the diphthongisation of the high vowels (a push chain). The combined term ‘push-pull chain’ basically avoids the decision concerning which of the two possibilites was actually the case.


Received Pronunciation [phonetics,phonology] The standard pronunciation of British English. This stems originally from the speech of the middle and upper classes in London. In the course of the 19th century it developed into a sociolect, particularly when adopted by the public schools, and attained a wide distribution in Wales and Scotland as well. The term was coined by the English phonetician Daniel Jones.

reconstruction [language change] A technique for determining earlier forms of a language. This is achieved by analysing and comparing early attestations (first texts) in one or more languages.

redundancy [phonetics,phonology] Superfluous information in language. Multiple marking of grammatical categories is the most common case of redundancy and is often found in German, e.g. the plural Dörfer which takes both an ending -er and a shift in stem vowel from back to front (umlaut).

rhotacism [language change] A common kind of phonetic change whereby a voiced sibilant [z] develops further into [r]. This is found, for instance, in Germanic (compare English lose and German verlieren) and in Latin (compare flos : floris ‘flower’-NOM : ‘flower’-GEN). As can be seen in English was : were, rhotacism was an important feature of Germanic verbal morphology because in some points in verbal paradigms an [s] was voiced (due to Verner’s Law) and this [z] developed further to [r].

rhotic [phonetics,phonology] A reference to a variety of a language in which a syllable-final /r/ is pronounced, for instance (generally) in American English as opposed to Received Pronunciation in England.

root [general] 1) In grammar the unalterable core of a word to which all suffixes are added, e.g. friend in un-friend-li-ness. 2) In etymology, the earliest form of a word. 3) In phonetics, the part of the tongue which lies furthest back in the mouth.


sandhi [phonetics,phonology] Any phonetic change which occurs across word boundaries, e.g. going to > gonna. It takes its name from Sanksrit where the phenomenon was common.

semantic bleaching [semantics,pragmatics] A process whereby the lexical meaning of a word is continuously eroded. It is a pre-stage to cliticisation and can ultimately lead to the rise of synthetic structures in a language. An example would be German nicht and English not both of which arose from something like nā wiht ‘no person’ which lost its lexical meaning but gained grammatical meaning in the process.

semantic field [semantics,pragmatics] A collective term for sets of meanings which are taken to belong together, e.g. colour, furniture, food, clothes. Most of the vocabulary of any language is organised into such fields, i.e. there are few if any words which are semantically isolated.

semantics [semantics,pragmatics] The study of meaning in language. This is an independent level and has several subtypes, such as word, grammatical, sentence and utterance meaning.

sense relations [semantics,pragmatics] The semantic relationships which obtain between words as opposed to those which hold between words and the outside world.

sentence [syntax,grammar] The basic unit of syntax. A structural unit which contains at least a subject and a verb possibly with other complements and which may occur with subordinate elements (in relative clauses) or which may be concatenated with other sentences.

sociolinguistics [sociolinguistics] The study of the use of language in society. Although some writers on language had recognised the importance of social factors in linguistic behaviour it was not until the 1960’s with the seminal work of Labov that the attention of large numbers of linguists was focussed on language use in a social context. In particular the successful explanation of many instances of language change helped to establish sociolinguistics as an independent sub-discipline in linguistics and led to a great impetus for research in this area.

sound change [phonetics,phonology] The continuous process of change which all languages are subject to. The rate of change differs from language to language and can be influenced by external factors, for instance by contact with other ethnic groups.

sound law [language change] Any phonetic change which is largely regular. No sound law is absolute and exceptions may well occur due to the phonetic environment in which a segment occurs, for instance the /t/ in star / Stern did not undergo the Germanic Sound Shift because it was probably unaspirated in this position.

source language [language change] The language which provides the input in the borrowing process.

speculative grammar [general] The grammatical tradition of the Middle Ages which consisted of writing treatises which attempted to reach universal principles of language, usually on the basis of the structure of classical languages like Latin.

spelling pronunciation [phonetics,phonology] A pronunciation which is derived from the spelling of a word when this is different from what one would expect etymologically, e.g. English fault is pronounced with an /l/ (ultimately to show that it is related to Latin fallitus) but there was no lateral in the form of the word borrowed from French in the Middle English period.

spontaneous change [language change] Any instance of language change which cannot be traced back to a definite motivating trigger, internal or external. Nowadays sociolinguists tend to believe that this kind of change does not exist. Linguists postulated it previously because they did not appreciate all the social factors involved in language change.

Sprachbund [language grouping] A group of languages found in a delimited geographical area and which share a number of features which can be taken as having spread between members of the group. The languages in question need not be genetically related. Examples of Sprachbünde are the Balkans, the Caucasus, possible the east Baltic Sea area and India.

standard [sociolinguistics] A variety of a language which by virtue of historical accident has become the leading form of the language in a certain country. As a result of this, the standard may be expanded due to the increase in function which it experiences due to its position in society. There is nothing inherently superior about a standard although nearly all speakers of a community accept that it has highest prestige.

structural transfer [language change] A process in a language contact situation in which features of the grammar of one language are transferred to another language usually by partially bilingual speakers.

structuralism [general] A type of linguistic analysis which stresses the interrelatedness of all levels and sub-levels of language. It was introduced at the beginning of the century by Ferdinand de Saussure (1957-1913) as a deliberate reaction to the historically oriented linguistics of the 19th century and subsequently established itself as the standard paradigm until the 1950’s when it was joined, if not replaced, by generative grammar.

substrate [language change] A language which is socially less prestigious than another spoken in the same area but which can nonetheless be the source for grammatical or phonological features in the more prestigious language. Substratum influence is often quoted as being instrumental in the formation of pidgins and creoles and as being responsible for many instances of historical change.

superstrate [language change] A variety of a language which enjoys a position of power and/or prestige compared to another. It may be a standard form of a language or a different language from that found natively in a specific country or region.

suppletion [morphology] A form in a paradigm (a set of morphologically related elements, such as the forms of a verb or noun) which etymologically comes from another source, e.g. the past tense form went in English is not formally related to the verb go

switch-over [language change] A situation in which speakers of language A change to language B, abandoning the former in the process. Historical examples are the change from Irish to English, Scottish Gaelic to English, etc. Note that language contact does not necessary lead to a switch-over as stable bilingualism may evolve or one of the languages in contact may be abandoned (such as French after the Middle English period) after possibly influencing the other language in various ways.

symmetry [phonetics,phonology] A common feature of phonological systems whereby consonants and vowels appear in pairs, e.g. /ʃ/ and /ʒ/, /þ/ and /ð/ in English. An asymmetry can be seen in (standard) German which has /x/ but no voiced counterpart /ɣ/.

synchronic [general] A reference to one point of time in a language. This may be the present but need not be. Forms a dichotomy with diachronic. Structural studies of language are usually synchronic and the Indo-Europeanists of the 19th century were diachronic in their approach.

syncope [phonetics,phonology] The deletion of unstressed vowels usually in the middle of a word or internally in a word group, e.g. police [pəli:s] -> [ˡpli:s].

syncretism [morphology] The collapse of a grammatical distinction in a language, for instance the formal merger of the accusative and dative of Old English in the Middle English period.

synonym [semantics,pragmatics] A word which is taken to have the same meaning as one or more other words. The collocations in which words occur may — indeed usually do — differ as seen with cranium and skull which are distinguished according to register: the former is a medical term, the latter an everyday one.

syntagm [syntax,grammar] Any set of elements which can be strung together as a linear sequence, i.e. as a syntactic unit (phrase or sentence).

syntagmatic [phonetics,phonology] A reference to the linear (or temporal) sequence of elements which contrasts directly with the vertical axis — the paradigmatic axis.

syntax [syntax,grammar] The investigation of the possible combinations of words in a language. The basic unit of syntax is the sentence which minimally consists of a verb and a subject and maximally of a string of clauses, possibly in a specific relationship to each other. As it is concerned with whole words, syntax is above morphology which examines the internal structure of words. Like other levels of language, syntax is governed by rules of well-formedness which specify which combinations are permissible and which not. It is the task of a syntactic theory (of which there are many) to determine these rules.

synthetic [language typology] A language which is characterised by an extensive inflectional morphology, e.g. Latin and Modern German. This type contrasts with analytic and can be taken to have developed historically from the latter through centuries of change during which words fused together to give compound forms. For this reason new languages, like pidgins and creoles, are never synthetic in type.

systemic [general] A reference to the entire structure of language, in particular to those investigations which stress that language consists largely of sets of functional contrasts. More or less synonymous with structural.


TMA [syntax,grammar] (tense/mood/aspect) The three axes along which verbs can make distinctions. Not all of these are equally well represented in a given language. For instance the tense system is well catered for in the Romance languages but Germanic languages only have a past and present tense with the future formed with the help of modals.

typological classification [language typology] The ordering of language on the basis of shared grammatical structure rather than on historical or genetic grounds.

typology [syntax,grammar] The description of the grammatical structure of language independently of genetic relationships. There are many commonalities between languages which result from morphological principles so that this view of language structure is just as valid as an historical consideration. Furthermore, languages which occupy a geographically delimited area, for instance the Balkans, may come to share structural properties, irrespective of historical background or genetic affiliation.


umlaut [phonetics,phonology] A significant sound change in the Germanic languages whereby a back vowel was shifted to a front articulation in anticipation of an /i/ or /j/ in the following syllable. Because /i,j/ occurred commonly in inflectional endings and because these were later lost this initially phonetic phenomenon gained morphological significance and is reflected widely in German (Mann : Männer, jung : jünger) and occasionally in English (foot : feet). Umlaut is found sometimes in the opposite direction when a preceding vowel is retracted, cf. Old English bæþ : baþas. The German term is used in English and is synonymous with the translation equivalent vowel mutation, metaphony.

universal grammar [syntax,grammar] A term which is taken to refer to either the output of linguistic investigations in 17th century France such as the Port Royal grammar or — in a contemporary context — to the assumed common core of all languages which is genetically encoded and innate in every individual.

universal [general] Any feature or property which holds for all languages. These are few and far between though near-universals, i.e. those which are good for the vast majority of languages, are more common and often more interesting in the insights which they lead to concerning the nature of human language in general.


variety [sociolinguistics] A term used to refer to any variant of a language which can be sufficiently delimited from another variant. The grounds for such differentiation may be social, historical, spatial or a combination of these. The necessity for a neutral term such as variety arose from the loaded use of the term dialect: this was not only used in the sense defined above, but also with the implication that the linguistically most interesting varieties of a language are those spoken by the older rural population. This view is understandable given the origin of dialectology in the 19th century, that is in the heydey of historical linguistics. Nowadays, sociolinguistic attitudes are prevalent and the need for a term which can include the linguistic investigation of urban populations from a social point of view became evident.

velar softening [phonetics,phonology] A common process in modern English whereby a velar stop /k/ alternates with an alveolar sibilant /s/ as in electric : electricity.

velarisation [phonetics,phonology] A type of secondary articulation where the root of the tongue is raised towards the back of the soft palate producing a characteristic ‘hollow’ quality, e.g. with [ɫ] versus [l].

verb, strong [morphology] A traditional reference to a type of verb in Germanic languages in which a change in the stem vowel indicates the past tense, e.g. sing : sang : sung, bleiben : blieb : geblieben. This phenomenon goes back to Indo-European and is taken to be related to the pitch patterns of the original language.

verb, weak [morphology] Any kind of verb which uses suffixation of (d/ or /t/, contrast previous entry) to indicate a change in tense, e.g. laugh : laughed, machen : machte in modern English and German respectively.

verb-second rule [language typology] A rule in Germanic languages which specifies that the second position in a main clause should be occupied by the finite verb.

vernacular [variety studies] The indigenous language or dialect of a community. This is an English term which refers to purely spoken forms of a language.

Verner’s Law [language change] A change which took place before the beginning of Germanic in the descent from Indo-European. In essence the change involves a voicing of consonants when the accent was not on the preceding syllable. This phenomenon can be seen in Modern English in execute [ˡeksekju:t] : executive [ɪgˡzekju:tiv]. For the Germanic languages the change was particularly significant because in verbal paradigms the original accent of Indo-European varied in position and hence induced Verner’s Law (in the 2nd person singular and plural of the preterite for example). Later in Germanic the accent was fixed on the first syllable and additional changes such as the shift of /z/ to /r/ (called rhotacism) further complicated the picture. The effect of Verner’s Law is ultimately responsible for such alternations as was : were in the past of the verb ‘be’ in modern English (though many verb paradigms have been regularised by choosing one of the alternating sounds, contrast English lose with German verlieren).

vocabulary [lexicology] The set of words in a language. These are usually grouped into word fields so that the vocabulary can be said to show an internal structure. The term lexicon is also found here but the latter has two meanings (the words of a language and one’s mental storehouse for these words).

vocalisation [phonetics,phonology] A shift in articulation which leads to a consonant losing its constriction in the vocal tract and adopting the character of a vowel or being absorbed by a preceding vowel as happened in the history of English with /x/: night Middle English [nɪxt] > [ni:t] > Modern English [nait].


Wackernagel’s Law [language change] A general tendency, first formulated by Jakob Wackernagel at the end of the 19th century, for unstressed elements such as clitics to move into second position in the main clause of a sentence. This tendency is taken to be responsible for many changes in word order such as from SOV to SVO in subordinate clauses in Old English.

wave theory [language change] A view of language change developed by Schmidt around 1870 and which sees instances of language change as spreading out from a centre like concentric waves in water when the surface is broken.

weak form [phonetics,phonology] A phonetically reduced form of a word which occurs when it is unstressed, e.g. and [ænd] > [ən] or to [tu(:)] > [tə], particularly in fast speech.

weakening [phonetics,phonology] A term in phonetics and phonology which refers to the reduction in articulatory effect expended on a sound. This leads to a relaxation of the articulation, typically a change from voiced consonants to voiceless consonants or to an opening with the former group, e.g. when a voiced consonant becomes a glide and ultimately a vowel. It is a common historical process and has led to many changes in the history of English.

word formation [lexicology] The second main branch of morphology (the other being inflection) and the chief process in lexicology (the study of the vocabulary of a language). Word formational processes are closely connected to a language’s type: German as a synthetic language has much compounding but English as an analytic language has somewhat less, though in this sphere a tendency towards complex formations is noticeable, e.g. part-financed, low-intensity, small-scale.

word order [syntax,grammar] The arrangement of words in a linear sequence in a sentence. There is normally an unmarked, a so-called ‘canonical’, word order in a language — such as SVO in English, VSO in Irish, SOV in Turkish — but usually alternative word orders exist, particularly to allow for emphasis in a sentence such as the fronting of sentence elements for the purpose of topicalisation.

word [morphology] A general term for a morphological form which is internally stable, can stand on its own and which in principle can be moved to a new position in a sentence. In a synthetic language like German inflected words tend to be morphologically complex whereas in an analytic language like English these are usually simpler in structure.


zero derivation [morphology] The transfer of an element of one word class into another without any formal alteration. This is particularly common in English today, e.g. breakfast (noun) > to breakfast (verb). Another name for this phenomenon is conversion.