Terttu Nevalainen, Tanja Säily, Turo Vartiainen, Aatu Liimatta, Jefrey Lijffijt
October 15, 2020
In this paper, we explore the rate of language change in the history of English. Our main focus is on detecting periods of accelerated change in Middle English (1150–1500), but we also compare the Middle English data with the Early Modern period (1500–1700) in order to establish a longer diachrony for the pace at which English has changed over time. Our study is based on a meta-analysis of existing corpus research, which is made available through a new linguistic resource, the Language Change Database (LCD). By aggregating the rates of 44 individual changes, we provide a critical assessment of how well the theory of punctuated equilibria (Dixon, Robert M. W. 1997. The rise and fall of languages . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) fits with our results. More specifically, by comparing the rate of language change with major language-external events, such as the Norman Conquest and the Black Death, we provide the first corpus-based meta-analysis of whether these events, which had significant societal consequences, also had an impact on the rate of language change. Our results indicate that major changes in the rate of linguistic change in the late medieval period could indeed be connected to the social and cultural after-effects of the Norman Conquest. We also make a methodological contribution to the field of English historical linguistics: by re-using data from existing research, linguists can start to ask new, fundamental questions about the ways in which language change progresses.