Language change – lexical changes


Old English and Old French

Today we looked at language change and possible reasons for this. Interestingly, the Skills for Life Quality Initiative states that ‘words that have one syllable generally come from Old English and many words that have more than one syllable come from French, for example:dead comes from Old English, deceased comes from French.’ There is an accompanying activity which asks you to consider lexical features of register in English, however its just as useful when thinking in terms of etymology and lexical influence and change.

Latin and Greek influences

Latin and Greek prefixes include:

tele- to or at a distance (Greek) e.g. television, teleport
syn- acting or considered together (Greek) e.g. syndicate, synchronise
circa- approximately  (Latin) e.g. circa 1990…
per- through/all over (Latin) e.g. permeate, perforate


As new things are invented, products and appliances go our of fashion and new words are needed to name things in society, nouns are created. From my experience, nouns make up the bulk of language change and it is noticeable to most, including learners. They include: clipping (when a word has been shortened), acronyms (when the initial letters are used to form a new word), abbreviations (when the initial letters of a phrase are said aloud to shorten a word), and compunds (when 2 words come together to make a new word). Some examples are:

  • technology e.g. computer, iPhone, MMS, blog, epithets such as milf, yolo, lmfao, idk, lol, DM
  • TV – channel, remote control, HDMI
  • medicine and science – HIV, smear, scan
  • employment – TOIL
  • culture – dude/dudette, chillax, muggle, sudoku, photozine
  • food – potato, foreign fruits etc as culture here widens so does ‘native’ language

A version of this activity could be used in class with learners and can


  • to text (past simple/participle ‘texted’?)
  • Lasered


  • have your cake and eat it
  • bright as a button, pmsl
  • compare ‘you’re English, aren’t you?, ‘You’re English, innit?’

Regional lexical changes

  • boss
  • jackbit
  • mint
  • sick
  • ostracism for using these terms or being excluded from usage

Ostracism – from errors in grammar e.g. split infinitives, ending sentences with a preposition e.g. ‘a preposition is a bad word to end a sentence with’. based grammar on Latin, influx of rules from other languages

Telescopic blends


How words are introduced
It is interesting how where grammar used to be rather prescriptive in terms of how words were catalogued and included in the dictionary, it is now more descriptive. The OED look at usage and variants of spelling and meaning. What’s particularly interesting is that with the introduction of the internet, no longer does someone have to wait for the new volume of the OED, but words can be added daily as and when appropriate with the click of a button. I have noticed that even in my lifetime as soon as a new word enters to the width of mass media, if I realise I’m not sure what it means, the entry is usually able to be found on the internet through reputable sources relatively quickly. This means language is far more accessible than ever before and ultimately responsive to the society in which it is used.

We then did an activity which helped us to focus on any changes, and it could also be adapted for class use by taking a gapped text, replacing words with even newer words.

In classes, it is important to recognise that we need to limit the use of jargon in the classroom. in subjects such as IT and literacy, students can be introduced to multiple new words in the same session. We must recognise that creating a glossary, and doing some wok around word meanings in all subject is sometimes necessary, regardless of the level which is being taught and learnt. Even in pur sessions at college, I have been provided with, and researched so many terms which are integral to demonstrating my understanding of literacy for assessment purposes, and have created a glossary in order for me to be able to quickly check the meaning of the terms.

These, of course, could be examples of jargon, a point which Steven Poole discusses in The Guardian Blog, along with Tim Chatfield’s top 10 words that the internet has given to English.

Things to try in class

  • Nouns activity – with a simple chart, post its or mind map, ask learners to work on their own, in pairs or in small groups to think of words which have been invented in their lifetime.
  • text with underlined words which could be replaced with newer words.
  • encourage learners to create glossaries and put things in their own words to help them in future (study skills)

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