The Future of EnglishPosted: February 12, 2014
The Future of English
Before the 2008 Olympic Games, the language police in Beijing trawled the city looking for street signs written in ‘bad English’. They found plenty of examples. “If you are stolen, call the police at once”; “Super Bowel Party Platters!!”; “Don’t flirt monkeys by feeding.” Several public toilets were interestingly named: “Deformed man toilet”; “Genitl Emen”. And the exhortation to ‘keep off the grass’ seems to have inspired a kind of random poetry: “Tender fragrant grass. How hardhearted to trample them”; “The grass has the life, you keep blue”; “Do not disturb tiny grass is dreaming.”
These may sound amusing to our ears, but Chinglish is just one of many dialects of English that has its own logic, its own rules, and is intelligible to millions. What’s more, aspects of this hybrid, along with other hybrids of English, may well spread across the globe.
Let’s take a moment to peer into our crystal ball and ask, how will English look and sound in twenty, fifty, one hundred years? Of course, no one can be sure, but we do know that English will change – indeed, is changing – and if we want to understand the future of a language, we need to understand its past.
Languages change all the time. They change because societies change. As invasions, migrations and other geopolitical shifts such as globalization occur, languages cross-pollinate. This is why English is a hybrid of French, Latin, Danish and numerous other languages. It’s also why Chinglish and Spanglish exist.
In what ways do languages change? Three main areas of malleability are vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.
Through intermingling with other languages, English has historically picked up large numbers of loan words. From Italian we ‘borrowed’ soprano, piano, pizza; from Dutch: landscape, cookie, Santa Claus; from Arabic: algebra, alcohol, giraffe. The loan words of the future will largely depend on which countries achieve cultural domination in the world. A number of Mandarin words and phrases may slip into the English lexicon as China grows more influential. And if Bollywood ever goes global – it already produces many more movies than Hollywood – we may see a rise in words ‘borrowed’ from Indian English.
One productive source of vocabulary change is technology. Inventions have always led to the creation of new words. Cannon, automobile, and radio were once new. More recently, there have been many portmanteau words, built by combining two old words into a new one (blog, internet, emoticon), and new meanings for old words (icon, chat, tweet).
While no one can predict the neologisms that technology will bring in the future, we know we’ll need new words to describe things that currently don’t exist. We’ll also need retronyms. These are words and phrases invented for things that have gone out of date or been superseded. For example, the term ‘desktop computer’ wasn’t necessary until the invention of laptops (all computers were desktops). No one used ‘First World War’ until after 1939 (no one knew there’d be a Second World War). The same goes for ‘acoustic guitar’ (electric guitars arrived), ‘silent film’, ‘black and white TV’, ‘landline’, and even ‘British English’.
How might grammar change in the future? Certain grammatical ‘errors’ are now so commonly made by ESL speakers that soon they may stop being regarded as errors. Students everywhere say “I listen music” instead of “I listen to music”. They say “discuss about” instead of “discuss”.
The complexities of the third conditional (“If I’d won the lottery, I would have bought a car”) aren’t even understood by native speakers, particularly in the U.S., where almost everyone – including politicians, pundits, and commentators – routinely says, “If I would have won …”. Can this still be called an error? History tells us that languages usually change in order to be simplified. The third conditional is a prime candidate for simplification.
Other ‘errors’ and tendencies are now quantifiable because of corpus data. Corpuses such as the massive Vienna Oxford International Corpus of English, made up of a million words of transcribed spoken English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), have shone a light on the way English is actually used. From this data, we can see which linguistic structures cause problems for non-native speakers, and we can thus extrapolate how the language may be simplified in the future.
Besides the third conditional and tricky prepositions, the third person s (“he goes”; “she swims”) may be endangered. Its disappearance would save students and teachers no end of trouble and wouldn’t hinder communication at all. Indeed, the venerable Michael Swan tells a story about his EFL student who did an experiment and dispensed altogether with the third person s. After a few days, the student reported that his experiment had been a complete success: “Everyone understood me and it was a lot easier!”
We can also expect some uncountable nouns to turn countable: informations, advices, luggages, researches. And auxiliary verbs (do, does, don’t, etc.) in questions and negatives may disappear. Auxiliaries are uncommon in other languages. Word order and intonation are normally used to establish the function of sentences, and so English may end up with “You like bananas?”, which is simpler than “Do you like bananas?”
Intelligibility will rule the day. As Japanese businessmen make deals with Swedish contractors overseen by Brazilian managers, the only question worth asking about pronunciation will be, ‘can you understand me?’ The features that are most important for mutual intelligibility are vowel sounds and rhythm. We can expect the former to move towards some kind of simplified worldwide conformity.
Consonant clusters – parts of words that contain several consonants together – may also become simplified. In Old English, words such as would and knight were pronounced very differently to today (the cluster ght was only later reduced to the t sound, and the l in ‘would’ was pronounced). Various other sounds such as the th in ‘thin’ are difficult for some non-native speakers and might be pronounced f, t, or s.
In spelling, silent letters may go the way of silent movies. SMS language has already rendered some silent letters obsolete (e.g. in the words wud and cud) and more phonetic spellings may become common in other types of writing.
The statistics concerning who speaks English, and therefore how English is spoken, make for interesting reading. Around two billion people speak or read the language, but only about 20% of these are native speakers. No wonder, then, that new varieties of English are constantly emerging.
What does this mean for language teachers and students? Fortunately, nothing drastic. Changes happen slowly, and the English we teach and learn is unlikely to go out of date in the near future. If we were to travel back in time one hundred years, most of our day-to-day conversation would still be intelligible. The grammar has changed little. We’d just have to remember that in that bygone age, a chat was something you had with someone in the same room, and it involved opening your mouth.