The Future of English

19:13 Thu 17 Apr 2008
[, ]

Is the success of English as a global language going to effectively kill English as we know it? That’s one of the fates suggested by this New Scientist article. Despite recently reading a friend’s criticism of New Scientist articles, I think that this one is still interesting (even though I’m not sure the article is “science” per se, just interesting speculation).

The idea that English is used more by non-native speakers to communicate with other non-natives speakers in the absence of another common language strikes me as quite weird. I don’t doubt that it’s true, but… it’s odd. The claim that it’s the non-native English speakers who control the future direction of the language seems profoundly disturbing—I love the language, and love its quirks and subtlety, and the idea that through success as a lingua franca it’s going to be dumbed-down to facilitate simplified communication is rather disheartening.

A major flaw in the article, however, is that it doesn’t refer to, or analyze the effects of, the English-speaking world’s media dominance. As long as Hollywood keeps pumping out movies in (what is now) standard English, and aims primarily at the domestic market, English will have a de facto standard that’s extremely accessible, something that Arabic, Latin, and Chinese did not have when they splintered. I think that could make a significant difference to its future evolution. And in a way I hope it will, because I want the language to retain its complexity.

On a related note, the French are trying to figure out whether the semicolon needs saving.

« (previous)

2 Responses to “The Future of English”

  1. Lev Says:

    To be fair, I enjoyed this particular New Scientist article. But it did fit into the pattern of highly speculative and/or sensationalistic cover stories that have soured me to New Scientist. A pity, as by working in the science journalism trade I’ve rediscovered how amazing improbable and cool real science can be.

  2. kevintel Says:

    Languages die when they are no longer spoken (used as a form of personal communication); Cornish is a recent and well-known example. Or go into a form of stasis, such as Latin. However, what you are describing is evolution of the language, which is an entirely different thing and has been happening constantly with every language. How many people know that English only 400 years ago, while comprehensible as a written language, sounded so different as to make it incomprehensible? If we were to hear Shakespeare’s plays spoken as they would have been then or somewhat earlier, we wouldn’t understand much of it. Wikipedia, has a remarkably informative article on the Great Vowel Shift of English (and German and Netherlandic, to an extent – all three languages are very close, but have diverged over time).

    American English and UK English are already dialects of a standard form; in England, there are many dialects which border on being different languages altogether. It’s an interesting subject, but to say that English will die is a bit off the wall.

    I note that the author of the post, while familiar with some of the changes of English and German, isn’t as aware of Netherlandic (Dutch, to the man on the street); with my knowledge of it, Chaucer is actually much easier to follow since back then both languages were much, much closer than today. But that’s old news…

Leave a Reply