Lo! Ye Olde Metafiltere! How is English likely to evolve in the future?
October 10, 2007 11:25 PM   Subscribe

OK, so as I understand it, first there was 'Proto-English' which evolved into Old English, which apparently morphed into Middle English and then eventually became Modern English. Here bygynneth my question! How is the written English language likely to change over the next century or so?

I've started to become very interested in the evolution of the English language and while I have found much which discusses how the English language developed from what was 'proto-English' through to modern English, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of discussion on the future evolution of the language.

This might be down to the simple fact that we don't have a DeLorian and can't travel into the future to see with any certainty on how the language will change, or it may just be that my google skills suck.

But surely there must be some sort of debate 'raging' in the academic community about how the language could or should evolve as we move into the future.

Has this been discussed? Can you lead me to any specific examples of this discussion somewhere on the web, or examples of how future English may look compared to modern English?
posted by Effigy2000 to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Did you see The Evolution of English over at slashdot?
posted by sien at 11:39 PM on October 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I find this endlessly interesting as well, but I haven't seen any academic debate that really wowed me as being terribly insightful. I've seen a few articles that amount to "In the future everyone is going to use IM-speak," based on looking at what teenagers are doing, but I don't find such things particularly convincing. Plus, there have been lots of shorthand systems and attempt at linguistic/writing simplification in the past, and it's a grindingly slow process.

Personally, I think that the language will become more splintered as more people can talk to each other, and can restrict their interactions to those that they share common interests with more completely. That's to say, in the past, you had a 'circle' of people you communicated with, most of whom you didn't have a lot in common with. This encourages standardization of language. But if you look at people who spend a lot of time in a closed environment, they develop their own little dialects. Although increased communication encourages standardization to a point (because it increases the size of your 'circle'), I think at some point it actually encourages dialect formation, because it lets you find more people that you share interests and background with, and communicate with them at the expense of people you have less shared background or interests with. So you develop lots of little communities each with their own jargon.

I'm not sure how you'd measure that, though, or if it's really even a significant change in the language as a whole. I honestly expect that in 100 years, the language will have changed, but it'll be the same kind of evolution you notice if you read a book written in 1907.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:40 PM on October 10, 2007

The changes happening in American pronunciation (Northern Cities vowel shift, for example) are a part of it. After hearing people say things like "ow, hat!" for "ow, hot!", "seeeeandstone" for "sandstone", and "tan pieces" for "ten pieces" and not immediately understanding what they meant, I worry that by the time I'm 80 I won't be able to understand anyone anymore...
William Labov seems to be studying some of the changes in American English, at least.
And this one isn't a very academic source, but I found it interesting anyways.
posted by flod logic at 12:10 AM on October 11, 2007

Given that technology has been a driving factor in the evolution of language, I can't really see how this can be determined accurately. We don't know what will be invented and as a consequence, we don't know how language will evolve.

All I can guess at is further homogenisation. The more connected we are, the greater the need for a single language.
posted by seanyboy at 12:10 AM on October 11, 2007

I'd guess that as more and more non-native speakers around the world learn English and use it to communicate with other non-native speakers, we'll see some of the cultural emphasis in the language that began in Britain and America perhaps ebb a little in favor of a more textbook-ish (for lack of a better word) variety of English words and phrases.

Imagine a Latvian on vacation in Egypt, or an Indonesian setting up a business relationship with a company in Greece - English is almost certainly going to play a part in the communications in both of these situations. And while it's conceivable that some of the people using English to communicate might use a word like "kerfuffle" or "hassle", it seems more likely (though I am certainly not a corpora researcher!) that they'd just use the word "problem" or "issue" instead.
posted by mdonley at 12:34 AM on October 11, 2007

The idea has been explored in science fiction, which is, as far as speculation and prediction goes, as good as anything else.

Some examples:

The TV series "Firefly" (Chinese influence) and A Clockwork Orange (book and movie) (Russian influence) both imply that a new superpower emerged in some indefinite past, causing language shifts.

William Gibson's novels have the idea of society fragmenting and new dialects heavy on specialized terminology emerging as a part of that.

I'm sure there are many more examples.
posted by alexei at 1:00 AM on October 11, 2007

the language that began in Britain and America - well, looks like for one thing we'll be in for more historical revisionism from Johnny-come-latelys if this is anything to go by :p
Agree with mdonley's second point though. Sort of thing you see in the simple English movement. I had a Taiwanese friend who would deal with Japanese businesses and they would communicate very much like this - basic vocab and very to the point.
I agree that technology and ease of interaction are key factors. I'd think if anything wider access to contemporary texts and archives in a more standardised format would have the effect of setting some norms - the kind of effect printing had, I think, leading to standardisation of orthography.
posted by Abiezer at 1:06 AM on October 11, 2007

I've heard it argued that in the future "do you have fire" will be more correct and standard than "do you have a light", based on the number of people speaking English as a second language for whom asking for fire is more natural. (I think one asks for fire in all other European languages, but except for German I really have no idea.)
posted by creasy boy at 1:22 AM on October 11, 2007

Also if we're supposing that non-native speakers will increasingly influence English, then our distinction between simple past (I did) and present perfect (I have done) is fucked. I've hardly ever met any foreigners who grok this.
posted by creasy boy at 1:24 AM on October 11, 2007

Abiezer, I wrote "the cultural emphasis in the language that began in Britain and America", to refer to all the local/regional bits and bobs (ahem) of language that have their basis in the cultures of those two places, unlike something like "will" or "used to", which isn't really based on regionalism but seem more universal and essential to communication. Again - it's just a guess; I assume that as the language becomes more global (which is actually almost hard to imagine, given its amazing ubiquity in so many places already), it will become more a tool for communication between non-native speakers than it is now.

And perhaps we'll see more people unable to clearly word long sentences. :)
posted by mdonley at 1:26 AM on October 11, 2007

More my knee-jerk lack of reading comprehension there, mdonley. I bet that will feature in future global English in no small measure too :D
I was trying to think of any analogous historical situations that might offer a clue, and it occurred that the development of Mandarin Chinese might provide that.
I'm not an expert on this by any means, but I seem to recall that its use as the lingua franca of official business (including by non-native incoming speakers like the Mongols and Manchu) did promote just the sort of simplification we have speculated about in the spoken language - fewer tones and the dropping of various features like glottal stops, etc - but had much less of an impact on the written thing other than adding some loan words.
That may be a bit of a useless comparison given the distance between written and spoken Chinese pre-20th century, though.
posted by Abiezer at 2:11 AM on October 11, 2007

I think if speech-to-text ever becomes truly feasible, we're likely to see bridges broken between the spoken tongue, and its written form, and between readers and writers, such as we haven't experienced since the Dark Ages, when, for the majority of living human beings, written language went into functional obscurity, while the vulgar tongue remained familiar in the mouths of all. But our potential future situation may be considerably different, for a number of reasons.

First, as fewer and fewer people write, in favor of dictating to speech-to-text interfaces, the rhythms of composition/editing/revision become different, I think. For example, letters and memos I dictate for transcription are recognizably different, than those I actually write. I think this is true for many people, because governance of thought processes while we are speaking, seems far different, than when we are writing.

Second, when people become readers, but are only rarely, if ever, writers, I think there is a tendency to gravitate towards the forms of speech, rather than of the written word. Contractions become more prevalent. Sentence length becomes, on average, shorter.

Finally, I suspect that the current decline of the publishing industry, worldwide, is not simply due to the declining interest in books, as a form of idea exchange, but to the many disadvantages the book economy has, up against the Net economy. If speech-to-text becomes yet another multiplier for the Net economy, in ways it really can't in the book economy, the book economy suffers still more. And that further pushes a spiral of fewer book readers, and less patience for book forms, while, at the same time, it becomes a positive feedback loop, for speech-to-text.

The same could be said for other media forms, competing with language forms, for attention. Much of YouTube is unnarrated, and doesn't even include a spoken sound track. Flickr and other photo sites show us millions of images a day, the majority unhinged in presentation from language completely.

So, it's hard to answer your question. At the very largest scales, I'd say more drift, and less precision in language, than we've become accustomed to in the last 200 years of the Industrial Age and the book economy.
posted by paulsc at 2:13 AM on October 11, 2007

Harvard scientists predict the future of the past tense
A mathematical analysis of the past and future of the English language.
posted by madh at 3:17 AM on October 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

This article (from "Nature") was discussed yesterday on NPR. Here's the discussion. As someone who studied Old and Middle English a bit in grad school, I thought it was fascinating, too.
posted by nkknkk at 4:12 AM on October 11, 2007

Changes that happen now will happen in an age where nearly all English speakers are literate. This was not the case in the past. I think that will make a difference, but danged if I can say how....
posted by happyturtle at 4:57 AM on October 11, 2007

paging languagehat!
posted by canine epigram at 5:30 AM on October 11, 2007

I think bastardizations of "your" will become acceptable. As in "your crazy", "your wrong", "your really funny". Drives me batty, but it gets used so much by so many people, including journalists, professors and kids, that I think it's going to stick fairly soon.
posted by sociolibrarian at 6:20 AM on October 11, 2007

WTF? IMHO writn Eng. iz already evolvng.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:13 AM on October 11, 2007

Loose and lose will switch meanings through consistent and ubiquitous misuse. I will learn Mandarin and never look back.
posted by dreadpiratesully at 7:32 AM on October 11, 2007

We're dealing with such a chaos-ridden subject that forecasting is pretty silly: that said, "street vernacular" (e.g. "ghetto" speak) is much more prevalent in pop culture than it was when I was younger. And I'm hearing much more of it coming from the mouths of educated people.

For instance, when I was a kid, adults and teachers in my middle-class environment gave you a lecture if you said "ain't" -- even in totally casual conversation. I think there's less of that.

(I think "ain't" is a lovely word. But I have trouble saying it due to all the intense anti-ain't indoctrination from my childhood.)
posted by grumblebee at 7:35 AM on October 11, 2007

In college, I took a class on the history of the English language, and the final exam was to give an argument about what will happen to English in the future. In that course, the professor introduced us to two major theories: 1) English will become more static as we have more resources for ensuring "correct" usage, and English becomes a world-language; 2) English becomes more like a collection of pidgin languages around the world, since different cultures would make it their own in different ways.

It's a question, of course, closely tied to cultural and political issues.

I don't remember, unfortunately, what sources we used for this discussion, so I really don't know if it was just a pet project of my professor's or a long-standing debate.
posted by Ms. Saint at 8:53 AM on October 11, 2007

A lot of the discussion here seems to be focusing on spoken English and not written English. While spoken English will continue to change as long as people speak it and mis-say/mis-hear things, it will continue to change. Written English is a little tricker because it seems to be more codified.
No doubt dictionaries and spell-checkers are going to keep written English more stable than spoken. That is until we all switch to either 1337 or txt tlk.

I know there are lots of people who claim that they will change English orthography to be more phonetic, but even 100 years ago Shaw saw that that would never really happen. We'd need to get rid of the alphabet.
posted by kendrak at 8:55 AM on October 11, 2007

it's all about 1337!
posted by spacefire at 9:09 AM on October 11, 2007

Well, I remember one source: "American English and World Language," which is the last four or so pages in the book, A History of the English Language, Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, 5th Edition.

That small section has a few references to other works, but I've never read any of them. The one that looks most promising from the title is "The Future of Englishes," by David Crystal, in English Today, 58 (April 1999).

(Forgive my citation; it's early, I'm late, and I didn't really want to try.)
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:40 AM on October 11, 2007

While I can't contribute anything academic, in Futurama they all say "axe" instead of "ask" and everyone says "X-mas" instead of "Christmas".
posted by lhall at 10:28 AM on October 11, 2007

Justin B. Rye theorizes how English will become American over the course of the next 1000 years.
posted by Kattullus at 1:25 PM on July 31, 2008

« Older What kind of guitar was it?   |   Sweat out your demons -- refill with H2O Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.