What is cyclic language change?

Linguistic cycles are regular, recurrent patterns of language change taking place in a structured manner. They have inherent direction, typically involving the loss of a particular linguistic item and its renewal by another, but also in some instances changes internal to a given item or construction.

Probably the most widely known example of a cyclic development is the so-called Jespersen Cycle, which has been observed in many different languages at different periods. Here, an item functioning as a marker of standard negation in a given language (for example Old French preverbal ne) is first optionally accompanied by an additional marker in certain contexts (for example postverbal pas/mie in Old Fr). Eventually, the newer marker becomes obligatory, and the older one starts to drop out, and may disappear completely. The newer marker may then move into the slot that used to be occupied by the older marker in some or all contexts (thus, pas has become preverbal in infinitival clauses). Schematically:

  • ne Verb > ne V (pas) > ne V pas > (ne) V pas > V pas > pas V

In other cases, the original negative marker merges with the newer one (for example Old Latin ne + oenum ‘not one’ > non). Several cycles may be completed within the same language or across a mother and a daughter language, as has happened across Latin and French.

While it has been known since the early 20th c. that cyclic developments can be found at the level of (morpho)syntactic change (≈ grammar), recent research has revealed that cycles also occur in the domain of semantics and pragmatics (≈ meaning), at hitherto unsuspected levels of granularity. Thus, for instance, both the by now obsolete Old French adverb/conjunction ainz and the Modern French adverb plutôt have successively undergone change from expressing temporal anteriority (‘earlier’/’sooner’) to expressing subjective preference (‘rather’), and from there to expressing correction.