Language Change (9093) and how to approach it

When getting ready for A level exam, one inevitably notices that past papers for Language Change are available only for the last few years. It poses a serious question if you do what the vast majority of students do – study from past papers. The official coursebook offers an outline of what is coming. However, it seems unbalanced to an extent and while it goes into detail regarding the way words change within a language, not that much when it comes to the change in the areas of pronunciation, spelling or grammar. Are those areas important or would focusing on vocabulary be enough?

Levels of analysis

If you want to analyse any text from different aspects, you are likely to end up with one of these schemes, outlining different levels of language:

Figure 1 from “A Review of Natural Language Processing Techniques: Application to Afan Oromo”.

Lexicology, etymology, graphology, phonetics, and grammar might be helpful additions to the list as well. To make things a little bit more complicated, you need to consider each aspect from the historical perspective and this is where it gets tricky. Not that one can’t find materials about the history of the English language, it’s the opposite. You can find anything from monumental volumes devoted to a specific timeframe. You can find very detailed scientific articles on any aspect. The problem is that you might not be ready to dive that deep. Many will lack the theoretical background to understand the details. Many will get bored. All of that alone is not the best, but the problem is that with all this theory you need to apply it somehow. Unfortunately, no additional books focus on that aspect according to Cambridge’s expectations.

Do I need it?

And what do I do with this theory? are two key questions to ask yourself when revising or studying for language change. Let’s take one common example – the Great Vowel Shift.

If you study English as a linguist, this topic does appear to be as Great as the name states. This change affected the language in many aspects and understanding what happens is crucial. It will answer the why’s about the inexplicable correlation between spelling and pronunciation in English, at least to some extent. The Great Vowel Shift is in the coursebook and is in literally any materials about key topics of the English change over time. Sounds like something to spend a fair amount of time on and to highlight in your actual response. But wait a second. Have you noticed how often in the examiner reports they mention the Great Vowel Shift being used inappropriately or applied to the wrong material all in all? There were a few, if any, cases when the topic was brought up in a timely manner. What’s the problem?

First of all, the Great Vowel Shift affected pronunciation, not spelling. Since we don’t have a recording or a transcription, talking about phonetical changes is not the most successful idea. Then it is often applied in relation to a word as a whole, a short vowel or, for some reason, even a consonant. None of this will work since the Great vowel shift affected long vowels only. If you have solid evidence that, as a domino effect, something else changed in the word, make sure to include it step by step. The chances of coming across such words and a student actually remembering the details are fairly low.

Does it mean that studying the Great Vowel Shift is a waste of time? Of course, not. It answers many questions, gives valuable background knowledge and connects two epochs of language development.


Vocabulary inevitably becomes the centre of one’s analysis in language change since it’s the most obvious part highlighted by the coursebook. Moreover, texts B and C do everything to give you more data for the analysis of vocabulary. Still. try not to stick to the meaning and worldbuilding only. Some options:

  • collocations (text B gives you a set but check what else is there in the text)
  • colligations (your lucky escape to grammar)
  • political correctness (connect with register, social paradigm, reasons for the change in the meaning; go to the discourse level)
  • consistency of spelling (in older texts you can find the same word written differently; this is a good place to talk about standards)
  • full or shortened form of the word (any abridged forms? are they standard or an inventive stroke of the author?)

Syntax / Grammar

A fair share of the material you will come across will talk about the monstrosity of Old English grammar and how lucky we are that with time almost everything disappeared, and here is a 700-page volume with the details of how it was and how it was changing to get us where we are now. Since you will not get a text belonging to Old English, it may seem to be a total waste of time. Yet, don’t brush it off so easily.

First of all, it is interesting and without that story of the old times, you won’t be able to appreciate the current state of the language. It also gives you a better idea of the language change direction and adds depth. It answers a bunch of questions about the systems and provides a solid ground for the topics from Language and the Self (e.g. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis from a historical perspective).

Sprinkle curiosities over your text mentioning a few topics (e.g. strong and weak verbs) to show how well-rounded your knowledge is. Make sure that you introduce it because you have an example from the text to comment on; do not surprise everyone with a sudden paragraph devoted to some grammatical feature which does not exist anymore.

Finally, if you see a sentence which ‘does not sound right’ there is a good chance that it used to be a perfectly standard structure but nowadays we (most likely) use its simplified version. In any case, make sure to explain the nature of ‘not right’ syntax and explain what the standard is now.

Let me tell you a story…

Language change seems to be the place for your history knowledge to shine. Don’t let those illusions take over your response. The paper is called ‘Language analysis’ for a reason and it is to check how well you can analyse the language (surprise, surprise). You will not get points for retelling the Norman conquest or the genealogical tree of the royal family. Check historical facts to better understand the context unless it is related to language. For example, the name William Caxton should not be foreign to you.

Graphology and spelling

Do not ignore this couple going hand in hand. If your text is from long ago, you might see unusual letters, most likely a long-s and some ligatures. If you have an example of a modern text, a hashtag, an ampersand or a dollar sign may be conveniently present. Unusual capital letters, layout? perfect, it all works for us. Punctuation? Again, works for this category as well as for syntax (unless it’s some internal punctuation).

Spelling is a treasure chest often overlooked. In old texts standards might have been not solid yet so all sorts of options are present. In modern online texts, spelling is not the priority (think about language online) and it’s a great place to talk about the reasons for spelling-pronunciation inconsistencies. If nothing better is left for you, check for American or British forms and whether the writer used them consistently. Remember, your task is not to find and fix the mistakes in the text; your task is to analyse how it happened and what language processes stand behind the given form.

This article is a more detailed talk about the first question in paper 4 of A level English (9093) from the Cambridge exam board. Click the links to find the articles talking about A-level Paper 3 and Paper 4.