Since the British Empire’s dispersal of English to different parts of the world, the language has taken on many forms. Today’s English is the result of hundreds of years of evolution, so why would we not expect it to keep changing? Here’s what it might become by the 22nd century.
One way of predicting the future is to look back at the past. The global role English plays today as a lingua franca – used as a means of communication by speakers of different languages – has parallels in the Latin of pre-modern Europe.
You don’t have to be a globetrotter to see that the English spoken in India doesn’t sound the same as the English spoken in England. And the English in Nairobi really doesn’t sound the same as the English in New York.
Where is the English language heading to? To answer that, we must first look at where it came from.
English is a West Germanic language that originated from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain in the mid-5th to 7th centuries AD by Germanic invaders and settlers from what is now northwest Germany, west Denmark and the Netherlands.
The Old English of the Anglo-Saxon era developed into Middle English, the language as spoken between the Norman Conquest and the late 15th century. A significant influence on the shaping of Middle English came from contact with the North Germanic languages spoken by the Scandinavians who conquered and colonized parts of Britain during the 8th and 9th centuries; this contact led to much lexical borrowing and grammatical simplification.
Early Modern English – the language used by Shakespeare – is dated around 1500. Significant pronunciation changes in this period, which affected the qualities of most long vowels. Modern English, similar in most respects to that spoken today, was in place by the late 17th century.
English has been undergoing changes for hundreds of years. Between the 12th and 16th centuries, for example, English underwent the “great vowel shift”, which shortened some vowels, like “ee” to “aye”, and pushed others up and to the front of the mouth, so that the Middle English vowel pronounced “oh” is now pronounced “oo”, as in “boot”.
In the mid-20th century, linguist and English historian at the University of Michigan, Albert Marckwardt argued that English wasn’t done changing and that the momentum of the past would carry on into the future. It’s true that some vowels seem durable; the pronunciation of “ship”, “bet”, “ox” and “full” have been the same for centuries. But Marckwardt argued that some vowels are still going to shift. For example, the word “home” — pronounced “heim” in Germanic, “hahm” in Old English, and “hawm” in Middle English — might someday be “hoom”.
Another 2010 study by Gary Lupyan and Rick Dale found that bigger languages are simpler. That is, languages with many speakers and many neighbors have simpler systems of inflectional morphology, the grammatical prefixes and suffixes (and sometimes “infixes”) that make languages like Latin, Russian and Ancient Greek hard for the foreign learner. Contrary to educated people’s stereotypes, the tiny languages spoken by “stone-age” or isolated tribes tend to be the world’s most complicated, while big ones are less so, by this metric.
Experts predicted that English will lose if the process goes on. An easy choice seems to be “whom”. English was once heavily inflected; all nouns carried a suffix showing whether they were subjects, direct objects, indirect objects or played some other role in a sentence. Today, only the pronouns are inflected. And while any competent speaker can use I, me, my and mine correctly, even the most fluent can find whom (the object form of who) slippery. So, “whom” might disappear completely, or perhaps only survive as a stylistic option in formal writing.
Another gilded-lily complication of English that foreign learners struggle with is the tense-aspect system, including three present-tense forms, I live, I am living and I do live, plus compound forms like I will have been living. These are tricky for speakers who don’t have them in their native languages. While these different tenses and aspects focus on different things, the differences are often not crucial. In the very long run, as English is spoken by more people who have learned it as a foreigner, some simplification of this system would not be surprising.
What about pronunciation and dialect? Predictions that English would become a single undifferentiated mass in the age of mass communication have been shown wrong. Indeed, scholars see new dialects developing. William Labov, an American linguist, has identified a new “Northern Cities Shift” in the vowel system. And linguists see British dialects moving and changing, but not disappearing, as we reported here. Perhaps more relevantly, there are already recognizable accents, vocabulary and, to some extent, grammatical differences in dialects spoken in non-English-native territories like India and Singapore. New dialects will appear wherever English makes greater inroads into daily life—say perhaps Scandinavia, where children are learning English at younger and younger ages.
The future of English…
With so many constantly evolving varieties, the possibility exists that English will look differently in the not-too-distant future. So, what might be in store for the English language?
In this scenario, this international standard variety of English will be the common factor, or what allows for mutual intelligibility among all its smaller varieties.
These local inflections could be emerging partly as a result of the sheer size of the English language. Counting the number of words in a language is notoriously difficult, but linguists generally agree that English has far more words than other comparable languages, likely due to its absorption of words from Latin, French, German and other languages.
All this assumes that English will remain as dominant as it has been, even as it diverges into multiple “Englishes”, each one carving its own meandering path towards the sea.
Did you know that …
- A Columbia University linguist predicts 600 languages will remain by 2115
- This will be due to the movement of people and to parents not teaching their children ‘native’ languages used in certain parts of the world
- Dr. John McWhorter says languages will also likely become more simple
- Translating tools will not be enough to preserve linguistic diversity
- He said that a scenario where only one language remains is ‘impossible’