Study: Language change works like a silent message game

Language has changed over the centuries. In a study published in the journal “Cognitive Linguistics”, researchers from the University of Vienna demonstrated that this language change works like the game of silence, based on sound change phenomena in medieval English texts. Accordingly, frequent and therefore prototypical sound patterns are more easily perceived and learned by the brain and consequently used more and more from generation to generation.

Languages ​​spoken today differ fundamentally from those of the past, not only in their vocabulary and grammar, but also in their pronunciation. In the early Middle Ages, the English word “make” was pronounced as “ma-ke” with two syllables and a short “a”, while in the late Middle Ages it became monosyllabic “maak” with a long “a”. The loss of the second syllable and the simultaneous lengthening of the vowel as in the word “make” occurred in many English words from the Middle Ages, according to a broadcast from the University of Vienna on Thursday.


In their study, Theresa Matzinger and Nikolaus Ritt from the Institute for English Studies at the University of Vienna investigated which factors are responsible for this change in speech sounds and what such phenomena can say about the abilities of the brain. To do this, they analyzed more than 40,000 words from English texts from the early Middle Ages and determined the length of the vowels in them, for example with the help of dictionaries or by taking into account adjacent sounds.

The frequency of words with long and short vowels showed that the majority of medieval monosyllabic words had long vowels and only a minority had short vowels. According to the researchers, monosyllabic words with short vowels were not recognized or learned as well or as quickly by listeners because they did not fit into the usual sound pattern. “Words that fit the common sound patterns with long vowels, on the other hand, could be processed more easily by the brain,” explained Matzinger.

language pattern

“You can imagine language change as a game of silence,” emphasized the expert. Over the centuries, the easier perception and learning of monosyllabic words with long vowels led to more and more monosyllabic words being given long vowels. Children would be better at recognizing patterns that are common in the language of their parents’ generation, so they would learn them faster and use them even more often. They therefore pass on a slightly different language to their own children. Over the centuries, language variants would arise that are so different that they can hardly be understood anymore.

“In our study, we were able to show that our brain’s general ability to perceive and learn things that are common is an important factor that determines how languages ​​change,” says Matzinger. The scientists now want to investigate whether these frequencies of linguistic patterns also occur in other language change phenomena or in languages ​​other than English.

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