It is a well-known fact that language is constantly changing. The speakers of a language are aware of this, as over the years they witness these changes, some of which may be more noticeable than others, in their language around them. Without exception, all languages change over time. HIGHLIGHTSProfile: Pilar García Mouton
These changes may become apparent at a particular moment, even if they have been incubating for centuries, waiting for the time to be ripe for them to emerge. The agents of a change in a language are, without doubt, its speakers.
The history of a language is the result of the linguistic and cultural history of countless generations. For this reason, out of scientific curiosity, in line with developments in other fields, linguists in the late 19th
and early 20th
century set themselves the task of reconstructing earlier languages and investigating how linguistic change takes place. It was a time in which there was a great deal of interest in reconstructing protolanguages and establishing the main language families. And it meant recognising something that had always been known intuitively: that languages too have an age and ancestors, an age that to some extent runs parallel to the sum of generations of their speakers.
Languages may not have changed in the Middle Ages the way they can today, when the media amplifies and makes global what used to be local. Nevertheless there are also changes that can be traced over the course of just a few decades. And they relate to the way time passes for individual speakers and how they talk. The most widely used guide to usage in Spain, Manuel Seco’s Diccionario de dudas y dificultades de la lengua española [Dictionary of doubts and difficulties in the Spanish language]
, was first published in 1961. It gave answers to the linguistic questions that concerned people at the time and was such a success that the author did not have time, between one edition and the next, or one reprint and the next, to give it a thorough revision until 1986, with the ninth edition. Twenty-five years had passed when Seco wrote:
In this interval the language has, of course, continued its ceaseless evolution. Thus, while many of the points covered in this work have not changed perceptibly, others have ceased to be problems, either because they were decided one way or the other, once and for all, or simply because they faded away, and others have emerged as new difficulties for speakers of the language. And yet others have, while being old, taken on a new twist that justifies taking a fresh look at them.
So, in the space of twenty-five years many difficulties of Spanish had not changed; others were no longer a matter of doubt; partly because some of them no longer existed; and other new issues had arisen, some of them old, but worth addressing from a new perspective. New
are repeated as normal adjectives for certain features of language.
Most of the changes arise out of this tension between “old” and “new” which is undoubtedly related to speakers’ ages, as although the mother tongue is passed on in childhood by contact between the generations, it takes on a different hue in each stage of life. Obviously, for reasons related to how the brain works, infancy is the stage at which linguistic capacities are greatest in terms of everything to do with the process of language acquisition. Families and the community are witnesses to this rapid process and the enormous brain plasticity of children up to a certain age, enabling them not only to learn their mother tongue, but any others they are in contact with, thus the undeniable importance of early teaching of other languages to make children bilingual or trilingual. Like so many other skills, children’s linguistic capabilities develop out of contact with older speakers who already master the language. Thus, little by little they acquire the mother tongue, as historically it has been mothers, or other women entrusted with bringing up the children, who have played the role of language educators in the family, and even at school.
In his Historia de las hablas andaluzas [History of Andalusian dialects]
, Juan Antonio Frago quotes Juan de Barahona y Padilla who, in his Institución de toda la vida del ombre noble
[Lifelong institution of the nobleman] (Seville, 1577), warned that it was necessary to correct the Andalusian pronunciation that nursemaids passed on to children. Therefore, the noble child “should be taken away from the nursemaid to avoid his learning servile customs. And because speech is essential to human conversation and relations, as the instrument for manifesting concepts, in the two subsequent years he must be taught diligently the language of his city, perfecting and making civil the words crudely taught him by his nursemaid, such that they be clean, sweet and remote from this vulgar usage.” Some years later, in 1611, Sebastián de Covarrubias mentioned this central role of women in teaching language and social customs in the definitions of his work the Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana o Española
DIX and dixes. Trinkets of gold, silver, coral, glass, ornaments and other small items that are hung around children’s necks to please them or keep them quiet, although it is also said that they are to divert the gaze of those who would put the evil eye on the child by staring him in the face. Some say that it is a word invented by mothers to use when they show shiny things to their children. [...]
Although language use differs with age, speakers of different ages influence one another.
AXONIÑO. When mothers or nursemaids teach a sucking child to speak, the first thing they hear is gurgling and the voice in their throat, because they do it without the other instruments necessary to form meaningful speech properly, contenting themselves with a guttural sound. [...]
CALLAR. Mothers teach their children not to gossip, so that they do not talk outside the house of what goes on inside it; and if you ask one of them: “What has the child eaten?” they will reply: “Callares.“
CACA. [...] When the nursemaid does not want the child to eat something harmful, she calls it “caca” and makes an angry gesture, to show it is dirty and foul smelling.
MAMAR. [...] “Mama” also means the child’s mother, or wet nurse, who the child calls “mama” because it’s what they teach them to say.
Some things have changed a lot since the 17th
century —among others, nursemaids are rarer today— but, at least in Spain, it would be worth asking if perhaps we should not talk more of the grandmother tongue
rather than mother tongue
when describing the language that many urban children, and some rural ones, learn, because it is with their grandparents that they spend much of the day, and it is their grandparents that they talk to and listen to. In a way, older people have regained their role as transmitters of language and culture, a role traditionally ascribed to them in rural societies, but which had been lost in the city. In fact, in their field work, linguists always sought the most authentic language among older speakers, and some, such as Dámaso Alonso or Lorenzo Rodríguez-Castellano, considered old women to be the community’s linguistic memory.
Age is one of the variables the sociolinguist takes into account, because, from the moment speakers are socialised to behave in a particular way, the way they speak tends to fit in with what is expected of a certain age group. Scientific studies show that the age variable should not be taken in isolation, but correlated with others such as education, sex, etc. because, it does not affect uneducated rural speakers in the same way as urban speakers embedded in a multitude of social networks.
Time and age are therefore decisive factors. For this reason, depending on their degree of development, linguists talk about processes of change that are recent, in progress or obsolescent; and they study them in apparent time
, comparing how speakers of different ages address them, to simulate what their recent history might have been; or real time
, to identify how they might be like in the future. To do so, they resort to setting generations, or at least, establishing age groups, because there are normally language differences between them, as the experience of any language speaker attests.
As to the question of the age at which individuals master the rules, although language learning begins intensively in infancy, it is in late adolescence and youth that stable characteristics emerge, although it is worth noting that there are speakers who can adopt certain changes at any time in their life to adapt to usages considered prestigious. Moreover, the cut off points between ages that once made up rigid stages have become a much more flexible continuum, with fuzzy edges: today, adolescence spills over into the end of what was once considered childhood, and youth stretches well into what was once adulthood, while maturity has also been shifted, with a delay in old age.
Young people’s language reflects part of this path towards linguistic maturity at a life stage that is highly receptive to any social label enabling identification with their peers. Specialists have come to consider it a group language, a language that plays at breaking away from the community, is especially receptive to fashions, slang and expressiveness, with its own hallmarks that are wilfully New and old are repeated as normal adjectives for certain features of language
rule-breaking and countercultural. Looking at the issue scientifically, there have been studies measuring the lexical availability of school children in an attempt to determine —and potentially correct— their active or passive mastery of words and culture. Throughout history it has been a constant that the older members of the community consider youth to have an alarming linguistic poverty, because they use the same words over and over without conceptual precision and use fashionable new coinages, catch phrases, colloquial appellatives, swear words, and phatic connectors (although in the later stages of youth, these signs tend to disappear). Older people also accuse the young of losing many of the linguistic formulas of courtesy that are part of established good manners, while young people tend to consider the old, despite their mastery of the language, to be using words and turns of phrase that are out of date, that belong to another age, and that they do not identify with. It is this tension that, little by little, drives linguistic evolution.
Between the young and old there is an intermediate group, young people who have reached maturity, who are linguistically mature but conserve some of the manners of speech that were once innovative, breaking away from the norm, and which characterises them as a generation. Because one should not forget that linguistic attitudes change with age, although they are driven by the shifting concept of prestige. The evolution is clear: the older the individual, the more linguistically conservative, and the more sensitive to the norm
; the younger, the more receptive to innovation. Older people tend to follow what they consider the norm more closely than young people, who are more inclined towards innovation, rule breaking or adopting traits that identify them as a distinct group from adults.
The lexicon is closely joined to the community’s tangible and intangible culture, such that it almost reflects cultural changes almost automatically producing a continuous process of loss and acquisition; for The lexicon is closely linked to the tangible and intangible culture of the community
this reason it is possible to witness a process of lexical death in the space of a generation, and to a lesser extent, changes in a language’s phonetics, morphology and syntax. The lexicon and set phrases may suffer the effects of time more, but the rest of the linguistic structure is fairly stable, such that the youngest speakers, despite their innovative and marginal traits, can communicate with adults and old people, because they all share a language in which new and old forms coexist without problems, provided they do not affect the community’s capacity for mutual comprehension.
In the history of European Spanish in the 20th
century it is easy to trace certain relatively recent changes, such as the unstoppable rise of the informal second person pronoun tu against the more formal Usted, which began in the years after the Civil War and became widespread in the 70s and 80s; the use of vale to express consent or approval, rather than the traditional de acuerdo; or the loss of the pronunciation of the double l in a way which made it possible to distinguish it from y, thanks to the spread from the cities of a more relaxed pronunciation that no longer made the distinction. In all these cases prestige —class, youth, urbanity— was the driver of linguistic change, but, despite their receptiveness to innovation, it has not always been the youngest generation that have driven change. The implementers of a linguistic change that others adopt and spread are linguistic leaders
who, in most cases studied, are middle-class women, not necessarily young, whose sphere of action is not limited to a particular social position. These individuals are in contact with people on the social scales above and below them who may be of different ages and social class, which makes them exceptional agents in the spread of change. Women seem to be more receptive to picking up the direction in which linguistic prestige is moving and to adapting their speech to it. In my studies of dialect in Castile-La Mancha —and something similar has happened in many other areas, including urban ones— individuals over 65 years of age, rather than being conservative as one might expect of rural grandmothers, changed the way they spoke to bring it closer to their grandchildren, who they looked after and helped with their homework. The justification was that if they did not their grandchildren would “tell them off”, but the truth is that they recognised the prestige of education in the way they spoke, in a process of intergenerational linguistic interaction that shows that, although language usage varies with age, speakers of different ages do influence one another.