Grammaticalization: A Process of Worn Down and Developing Words

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Human languages are always changing to provide new meanings and pronunciations of words. How does grammaticalization contribute to the process of weeding out old and adding new words that affect various aspects of a language?

Vintage toned handwritten note.
Language has a cycle of wearing down free words into grammatical words. This happens with prefixes and suffixes, too. (Image: LiliGraphie/Shutterstock)

Worn Down Free Words

Grammaticalization takes free words and wears them down into grammatical words or just appendages to other free words. Those appendages often gradually wear away or lose their meaning. But there are always new things coming along like a cycle which happen with prefixes, suffixes, and various other aspects of language.


Language doesn’t wear down to the core, because of something called rebracketing. Rebracketing happens when speakers have a different sense of where the end of one word and the beginning of another is, than was originally the case. For example, the word for my in English used to be mīn. In German, it’s mein, mein Herr, My Sir, mīn.

If a name begins with E, we might say something like, “My Francesca, please thatch the roof.” If the word is mīn, and we’re talking to Ellen, “Mīn Ellie, why don’t you go churn the butter?” If we’re talking to Edward, “Mīn Edward, why don’t you pick the lice off of that thing over there?” So, mīn Edward, mīn Ellie became my.

The word that is possessive, in the first person singular, is my. So, it’s my house, my beach ball. That means mīn became my after a while, so mīn Ellie, mīn Ed—my Ellie, it may seem that if the word is my, that means the person being spoken to is not Ellie, but Nellie. My Nellie, my Ned. That’s how those nicknames started.

Learn more about the language ability of humans.

Developing Words

That’s a kind of rebracketing. Hamburgers— we might vaguely sense there was Hamburg, a town in Germany, and then there was hamburger and nowadays there are fish burger, sawdust burger, eggplant burger. Burger is a patty of something and that’s what we think. The word used to be hamburger steak. The idea was that this brown, chopped-up, unhealthy meat that tastes good was something that had been come up with in Hamburg which was hamburger steak. So here is a whole new noun.

For example, speaking an unwritten language, nobody would remember that there was something called hamburger steak and burger would be a word happening all the time. That’s why there can be a fish burger, which would have made no sense to someone back in the 19th century who was still thinking about hamburger steak. That is another way that we develop words.

Learn more about how sounds evolve, exemplified by the Great Vowel Shift in English.

Pronouncing Words

Venn diagram shows some similar alphabets in Greek, Latin and Cyrillic with different pronunciation.
There is a different way of pronouncing a word in parts of the world, though in language they may have the same meaning. (Image: Watchduck (a.k.a. Tilman Piesk)/Public domain)

For a word like alone, it can be, “He was the lone dissenter.” Then a thought comes, “Alone must be like abubble or a-going, or something like that. But that’s not how things happen, why would the a be there? Actually, alone started as all one. Pronouncing them together, often, we get one word: all one with allowances made for how those words are actually pronounced.

All one became alone. But there’s no lone, the word doesn’t trace back to earlier forms of English. Lone is something we perceive because that’s how the word sounds.

Languages of Mistakes

Languages are full of what in essence are mistakes. For example, habeo kludging to the end of amare like that is laziness of tongue. It’s the same thing with hamburger. Nickname began as roughly ickname because that word ick, was actually eke, passed out of the language. So, an ekename became a nickname.

Looking in the American Heritage Dictionary where those strange words came from. The history of a language is in its way a chaos.

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Study of Language Change

It is a hard time processing change in our lives. Only written documents or careful deduction could show us how natural those things were. There are the Chomskyans, but there’s another thriving subfield called historical linguistics, or diachronic linguistics, interested in how we got from there to here. People are interested in it because how we got from there to here can shed light on how we speak. Some people want to study how we got from there to here for the simple fact that it might shed light on our psychology, or sometimes on our cultural history.

Lean more about how language mixture applies to words.

Picture of Noam Chomsky
Modern linguistics is considered to have a strong influence from Noam Chomsky. (Image: Augusto Starita/Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación/CC BY-SA 2.0/Public domain)

History of Modern Linguistics

The study of grammaticalization is one of the exciting parts of modern historical linguistics. Historical linguistics used to be much more fashionable in linguistics than it is.

It was the heart of the field when modern linguistics was established in the 1800s and since then has been somewhat eclipsed by more Chomskyan-oriented paradigms. There remains a number of people in the endeavor. That’s grammaticalization and that is rebracketing.

Common Questions about Human Language

Q: How is language changing?

Language is always changing to provide different meanings and pronunciations. Grammaticalization takes free words and wears them down into grammatical words. There are always new things coming along like a cycle which happens to various aspects of language.

Q: Can language change be controlled?

Language change cannot be controlled as new words are constantly introduced, which are then used by everyone. The old ones are sometimes altered which is a kind of recycling process. That is what happens with grammaticalization.

Q: Why do words change over time?

Due to the ongoing development in languages, new words are introduced and old ones are sometimes altered to give them a different meaning.

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