Conservative and innovative language

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In linguistics, a conservative form, variety, or feature of a language is one that has changed relatively little across the language's history, or which is relatively resistant to change. It is the opposite of innovative, innovating, or advanced forms, varieties, or features, which have undergone relatively larger or more recent changes. Furthermore, an archaic form is not only chronologically old (and often conservative) but also rarely used anymore in the modern language, and an obsolete form has fallen out of use altogether.

A conservative linguistic form, such as a word or sound feature, is one that remains closer to an older form from which it evolved, relative to cognate forms from the same source.[1]: 87  For example, the Spanish word caro /'karo/ and the French word cher /ʃɛʀ/ are both adjectives meaning dear or beloved that evolved from the Latin word cārum /'ka:rum/. The Spanish word, which is more similar to the common ancestor, is more conservative than its French cognate.[1]: 87 

A language or language variety is said to be conservative if it has fewer new developments or changes than related varieties do. For example, Icelandic is, in some aspects, more similar to Old Norse than other languages that evolved from Old Norse, including Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish, while Sardinian (especially the Nuorese dialects) is regarded by many linguists as being the most conservative Romance language.[2][3][4][5] Recent studies regarding the stability of modern Icelandic appear to confirm its status as "stable".[6] Therefore, Icelandic[1] and Sardinian are considered relatively conservative languages. Likewise, some dialects of a language may be more conservative than others. Standard varieties, for example, tend to be more conservative than nonstandard varieties, since education and codification in writing tend to retard change.[7]

Writing is generally said to be more conservative than speech since written forms generally change more slowly than spoken language does. That helps explain inconsistencies in writing systems such as that of English; since the spoken language has changed relatively more than has the written language, the match between spelling and pronunciation is inconsistent.[8]

A language may be conservative in one respect while simultaneously innovative in another. Bulgarian and Macedonian, closely related Slavic languages, are innovative in the grammar of their nouns, having dropped nearly all vestiges of the complex Slavic case system; at the same time, they are highly conservative in their verbal system, which has been greatly simplified in most other Slavic languages.[9] English, which is one of the more innovative Germanic languages in most respects (vocabulary, inflection, vowel phonology, syntax), is nevertheless conservative in its consonant phonology, retaining sounds such as (most notably) /θ/ and /ð/ (th), which remain only in the Germanic languages of English, Icelandic and Scots,[10] with /ð/ also remaining in the endangered Elfdalian language. Sardinian, the most conservative Romance language both lexically and phonetically, has a verbal morphology that is somewhat simpler than that of other Romance languages such as Spanish or Italian.

In the 6th century AD, Classical Arabic was a conservative Semitic language compared with Classical Syriac, which was spoken at the same time; Classical Arabic strongly resembles reconstructed Proto-Semitic,[11] and Syriac has changed much more. Compared to closely related modern Northeastern Neo-Aramaic, which is not necessarily directly descended from it, Classical Syriac is still a highly archaic language form. Georgian has changed remarkably little since the Old Georgian period (the 4th/5th century AD).[citation needed] A roughly analogous concept in biology is living fossil.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Trask, Robert Lawrence (2000). The Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. London: Routledge.
  2. ^ Contini, Michel; Tuttle, Edward (1982). "Sardinian". In John Green (ed.). Trends in Romance Linguistics and Philology 3. Mouton. pp. 171–188.
  3. ^ Pei, Mario (1949). Story of Language. Lippincott. ISBN 03-9700-400-1.
  4. ^ Jones, Michael (2003). "Sardinian". In Harris, Martin; Vincent, Nigel (eds.). The Romance languages. Oxford University Press. pp. 314–350.
  5. ^ Alkire, Ti; Rosen, Carol (2010). Romance Languages: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
  6. ^ Friðriksson, Finnur (19 November 2008). "Language change vs. stability in conservative language communities. A case study of Icelandic" (doctoral thesis). Archived from the original on 26 September 2017. Retrieved 26 September 2017.
  7. ^ Chambers, J.K. (2009). "Education and the enforcement of standard English". In Y. Kawaguchi, M. Minegishi and J. Durand (ed.). Corpus Analysis and Variation in Linguistics. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  8. ^ Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman and Nina Hyams (2010). An Introduction to Language. Cengage Learning.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ Hewson, John; Bubeník, Vít (2006). From Case to Adposition: The Development of Configurational Syntax in Indo-European Languages. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 90-272-4795-1.
  10. ^ Russ, Charles (1986). "Breaking the spelling barrier: The reconstruction of pronunciation from orthography in historical linguistics". In Gerhard Augst (ed.). New Trends in Graphemics and Orthography. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 164–178. ISBN 978-3-11-086732-9.
  11. ^ Versteegh, Cornelis Henricus Maria "Kees" (1997). The Arabic Language. Columbia University Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-231-11152-2.