English as She is Spoke in a 100 years.
March 3, 2020 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Linguists: based on current trends, what would you expect 2120 English to sound/look like?

Thinking from a sci-fi world-building perspective, what changes would seem plausible or likely based on what's happening with language around us right now?
posted by signal to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

These may be obvious but

-One of the biggest influences on languages is other languages with more economic power. So this depends on who is ascendant in the world you’re writing there will be a lot of lexical influence. I’m not big on sci-fi but I remember in Firefly they would periodically break into Mandarin.

-A huge ongoing influence on languages is online communication (there’s an interesting sounding book about it i think called Because Internet) like people saying “sigh” or using acronyms in speech.

-Things people find arbitrary and onerous to learn in school sometimes disappear. Whom probably won’t exist in 100 years and neither will the subjunctive.

I guess one thing though is that 100 years isn’t a long time in language terms and there might not be as much change as you’re imagining. The Great Gatsby was written about a hundred years ago. The language sounds different but not sci-fi different, right?
posted by less of course at 5:27 PM on March 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

less of course: "The language sounds different but not sci-fi different, right?"

Absolutely, that's the kind of subtle change I'd like to come up with.
posted by signal at 5:28 PM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would love to think that singular "they" would be pretty common in 100 years.
posted by DingoMutt at 5:35 PM on March 3, 2020 [15 favorites]

I think also there's a micro-to-macro borrowing thing that sometimes goes on where people will use a feature of another language or a dialect they encounter directly because it's useful and then it becomes more standard ("y'all" from southern English doesn't sound very marked from non southern mouths these days and meets the need of an unambiguous second person plural; something like unconjugated "be" to mark habitual action from AAVE seems like something that could go from "potentially offensive because the non-native user's intent is unknown" to "that's how languages change.")
posted by less of course at 5:56 PM on March 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I’m not a linguist but for some reason I have a firm belief that articles are gradually dropping out of English. I think it’s in part because in my area of Toronto there is a lot of signage written by non-native speakers without them.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:00 PM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

The current vowel shift will be complete, so everyone will say words like wary like weary.
posted by scruss at 6:02 PM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

So something interesting is already happening with accents and dialects and I bet it's going to intensify.

In general, what variety of English you speak depends on (1) who you have a chance to hear, and (2) which of those people you most identify with. That first dynamic gets you the thing where identical neighboring towns in Northern England can have different accents, and the second gives you the thing where people who value education converge on a way of Sounding Educated, or where gay men all over the US have a similar idea of what "talking really gay" means.

Well, the first dynamic is changing, because now almost everyone has a chance to hear almost everyone. People travel, people listen to the radio and watch TV, now people use a lot of video-based social media. And so accents that are purely based on region are fading. But the second dynamic is still going strong. Accents that are based on things like race, class, gender, or subculture are still very, very real, and highly subculture-specific accents like "Valley girl" are proliferating.

It used to be that here in the Boston area your accent signaled which part of the metro area you lived in. Now it just signals general vague Eastern-New-England-ness. And maybe in the future it will just signal general vague Northeastern-ness. But meanwhile, it's kept sending strong signals about race, class, and education, and it's started signaling things like "jock" or "nerd."

So, I dunno. If travel and media keep going the way they're going, maybe the future is "I can tell you're a radical socialist furry by the way you talk, but for all I know you could be from anywhere on this continent."

(A slight complication is that the second dynamic can keep regional accents alive if people identify strongly enough with the region. This is, for instance, why people in Southern Ontario and Michigan talk differently — they hear each other a lot, they travel back and forth, some of them are in the same radio market, but the Ontarians still identify with Canada and the Michiganders still identify with the US. So maybe in the future a few hyper-local accents will survive in places whose hyper-local identity runs deep.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:12 PM on March 3, 2020 [12 favorites]

People will say “it has electrolytes!” more often.

But seriously, I’m not sure if there will be that many changes. Mass communication tends to standardize languages. It’s hard to have regional mutations when everyone is reading and watching the same stuff.

The comment about loanwords from other languages is probably right - look at what’s happening in French now that a lot of newer words are being coined in English. I would bet the same thing happens to English as China becomes more powerful.

I kind of expect spelling to become simpler, although maybe not. There used to be a benefit to “thru” instead of “through”, both in analog and digital contexts. Digital will be more important, and increasingly it doesn’t seem that the extra bits it takes to spell “through” are actually costly.

Business buzzwords will probably continue to infect the language, alas.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:46 PM on March 3, 2020

There's a whole lot of minor changes going on at any time that are pretty much below the conscious notice of non-linguists until about 20 years later.

One of those at the moment is that a lot of people have shifted, in a variety of dialects of English including the "inner circle dialects" in the UK, USA, Australia, NZ, to using "the" and "thi" differently. It used to be the case (in most dialects anyway) that "thi" was used before vowels and "the" otherwise. People are using "the" before vowels pretty often now. Some kids are doing it 100% of the time (even after the age where they are just making lots of language mistakes). So I expect we'll probably have universal "the" or retain "thi" just for emphasis, or something. In the same populations (although I don't know if the changes are 100% correlated), people are shifting from using "an" before a vowel to using "a". This isn't quite so common yet, i.e. I don't know that anyone is doing it 100% of the time. So we might lose "an".

These are two changes that my linguistics colleagues and I sometimes talk about around the lunch table, but I haven't seen any publications on it to point you to.

Then there are some that have been published on, for example the almost completed shift to double "is" in constructions like "the thing is is that..." It's starting to make headway outside of this construction too now. We might end up always saying "is is" until that just becomes the default form of the verb.

The shift from "says" to "is like" is pretty near complete now too, after a detour via "goes" and just "is". And recent recordings I've heard from corpora of linguists studying "is like" often have really super contracted forms like "isla" or "is-a" or "slike", so we might end up with a new verb "to say" that derives from one of these. My bet is on "sa" or "sla". If it's "sa" everyone is going to end up thinking it derives from a short form of "says", which will be amusing.
posted by lollusc at 7:02 PM on March 3, 2020 [16 favorites]

The constructed language in a TV show called The 100 is fantastic for this: https://the100.fandom.com/wiki/Trigedaslen

(Among other things it includes 'belike' for the 'says' transformation lollusc mentions, as in "Alice belike where's Bob?")
posted by heyforfour at 7:48 PM on March 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Here's an interesting exercise in constructing a "Futurese" conlang that's as different from modern English as modern English is from that circa 1000 AD, using academic linguistic principles as a guide. The final version is from around the year 3000, but it shows intermediate versions from 2100, 2400, and 2700.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:31 PM on March 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

English isn't one single dialect that mutates over time, it's huge numbers of very different dialects that shift and combine and split over time. There is no more answer to "what will English sound like" than there is to what "what does English currently sound like".

The dialect shifts that occur may well be heavily influenced by migration patterns as well as by cultural shifts e.g. in the origin of popular media and thus the dialects used in it.
posted by quacks like a duck at 11:53 PM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Have a listen to some of the English Language announcements produced by AviaVox systems in large airports around the world. Like these. Note that the English announcements are particularly important in this context since they have to be designed to be comprehensible not just to native speakers - but to the very large number of passengers who are using English as (at the least) a second language. So they need to be simplified as much as possible; at Schiphol the usual announcements to remind passenger x to go to gate a ASAP, add "...we will proceed to offload your luggage". A native speaker of English would probably express that notion in a longer, more conditional and idiomatic manner. You hear this type of English most commonly in places like The Netherlands or Dubai where it is assumed that very many people will not speak the native language.

Even today, British speakers with regional accents tend to converge to something like "received pronunciation" when trying to speak to a wider audience: we "throw the R away" as the Proclaimers said. The future version of RP will be more like the one presented by AviaVox, I suspect.
posted by rongorongo at 1:53 AM on March 4, 2020

I bet the people who write "would of" instead of "would have" will have won.

(Will of won?)
posted by penguin pie at 3:50 AM on March 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm going to suggest that we'll get some interesting changes in pronoun use. The rising generations seem to be quite on board and this means that adopting changes will be a norm, where the older style use of pronouns will be a sign of being old and set in your ways. Merely using the pronouns from our previous century will be a marker of an earlier error, like the correct use of shall and will is now.

However I am not sure that we'll just get to be called by our pronoun of choice, because that would be simply a social change, not a linguistic one. I think people will end up making some changes that make them more comfortable with the social changes, such as a new pronoun for indeterminate people indicating I don't know this individual's gender yet, different from genderfluid pronouns or a-gender pronouns. It could be a specific phrasing, for example using words like "candidate" and "baby" without an article.


She is here
He is here
Ze is here
They are here
Candidate is here

But saying "The candidate is here..." implies that the pronoun is known to the speaker.

I'd also look at what cultural changes there will be in your story - for example regular seasonal climate migrations - and introduce vocabulary that comes from that but as idioms and words being used outside of the context of seasonal climate migrations. So for example "She went all north on me..." would imply that she has stopped being supportive, where the original phrase "going north" would have simply conveyed no longer in the south where we could easily communicate in person.

Another example would be to say that someone had "soybeaned the conversation" because in your story extensive soy farming to cope with climate change had backfired by taking over extensive amounts of arable land and ruining it. So if your friend soybeans you she talks over you and doesn't say anything productive anyway.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:51 AM on March 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

In our 2020 conversations, we need to take care lest we accidentally invoke S*ri. Al*ksa or other computerised deities. We treat them like precocious children. By 2120 (and probably well before) we can assured that any computer with access to a microphone will know what we have said, who we have said it to, where we have said it, if we have said it before, how we felt about what we said, whether our interlocutors understood and how they felt about it. They will have a answer ready for any questions which might arise and a true or false verdict on any statement given. They will have a pretty reliable idea of whether the truth is being told, they may know the personal and commercial value of any information being discussed. If they need to get involved in the conversation then they will be capable of doing so in whatever language, at whatever level of linguistic sophistication, and with whatever level of emotional intonation is required.

We might be comforted about the thought of having access to a computer that would do all this on our behalf and in our personal best interests. Less comforting to think of the same technology being used by an adversary or commercial concern. But, unless there has been some kind of unlikely attempt to ban or heavily regulate it, this technology won't be novel in 2012 - it will be something we grew up with, familiar to our parents and grandparents. We will have had it beside us all our life from our first words to our last.

All of this will change language, I believe. For example it would be normal for somebody to have a conversation with their computer or for the computer to take part in a conversation with a group of others. There will probably be a bunch of syntactic structures which are used by computers for conveying something to us or for us to convey something to them. A computer could probably let us know if it can answer questions or verify assertions visually - so part of the interaction would be on this level of UX "body language". The feeling might be something like that which we have when speaking via a very good live-interpreter.
posted by rongorongo at 6:10 AM on March 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

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