I love language change. Several years ago when I was a young and rabid prescriptivist I had some idea in my head that language could not achieve beauty if it didn't sit still long enough to be crafted by the lingual artisans. I really believed that.
Now I get all flustered and excited when I notice a new trend or a construction that doesn't work "logically" but starts taking over speech. I start hoping for quicker change. For new developments. For the same reason that geneticists rely on the mayfly for its short lifespan I yearn to see new generations of language spreading on the petri dish of.../abandoned metaphor/
Explaining change is one of the lovely theoretical areas I hope I can eventually contribute to. There is a wonderful paradox that both Labov and J Milroy examine: If language is a tool developed solely for the sake of communication it would logically follow that stability would be one of the fundamental characteristics. But language constantly changes. What's the free radical? Speakers.
So explaining language change must turn to the people who unwittingly allow such change. And what do such changes reveal about the system?
A late chapter in Lyle Campbell's Historical Linguistics text offers up some of the early theories for language change. The ideas are hilarious. And yet I can imagine some language prudes even today offering up suggestions like these.
Climatic or geographical determinismIn 1900 Harry Sweet wrote that the change from [a:] to [o] in northern European languages (such as Old English) was "doubtless the result of unwillingness to open the mouth widely in the chilly and foggy air of the North."
Nevermind that in England it was the Northumbrian dialect that resisted the rounding of [a:].
'Racial' and anatomical determinationThere were unsubstantiated claims that Grimm's Law (*p>f *t>θ *k>h *b>p *d>t *g>k etc) was a result of wax plugging the ears of the Germanic tribes.
"Hey I told you each to pillage and prepare the garrottes"
"Oh we thought you said eat our fill of the free fare and carrots"
Etiquette, social conventions and cultural traitsWilhelm Wundt claimed that in Iroquoian etiquette is was rude to close ones mouth while speaking. He then used that fact to explain why Iroquoian languages have no labial consonants. What was his evidence that it was rude? Well the absence of labials in the languages of course.
IndolenceYoung people don't care enough and are ruining our beautiful language! They're lazy lazy speakers.
Thank goodness such silly ideas are no longer thrown around so glibly.