By the time English truly is a dominant language on the planet, it will no longer be English. Instead, say a group of linguists interviewed in a recent article by Michael Erard in New Scientist, the language will fragment into many mutually unintelligible dialects. Still, some underlying documents will supply the grammatical glue for these diverse Englishes, the way Koran Arabic does for the world’s diverse Arabic-spinoff tongues. English-speakers of the future will be united in their understanding of a standard English supplied by technical manuals and internet media.
People like me, native speakers of English, are heading to the ashcan of history. By 2010, estimates language researcher David Graddol, 2 billion people on the planet will be communicating in English, but only 350 million will be native speakers. By 2020, native speakers will have diminished to 300 million. My American English, which I grew up speaking in an accent that matched what I heard on National Public Radio and 60 Minutes, is already very difficult for many English-speakers to understand.
Hence the rise of internet English. This is the simple English of technical manuals and message boards — full of slang and technical terminology, but surprisingly free of strange English idioms. It’s usually also free of the more cumbersome and weird aspects of English grammar.
For example, a future speaker of English would be unlikely to understand the peculiar way in which I express the past tense: “I walked to the store.” Adding a couple of letters (“ed”) to the end of a verb to say that I did something in the past? Weird. Hard to hear; hard to say. It’s much more comprehensible to say: “I walk to the store yesterday.” And indeed, that’s how many non-native speakers already say it. It’s also the way most popular languages, like the many dialects of Chinese, express tense. The whole practice of changing the meaning of a word by adding barely audible extra letters to it — well, that’s just not going to last. It’s a thing of the past.
When I read about the way English is changing and fragmenting, it has the opposite effect on me than what you might expect. Although I am the daughter and the granddaughter of English teachers, and spent many years in an English department earning a Ph.D., I relish the prospect of my language changing and becoming incomprehensible to me. Maybe that’s because I spent a year learning to read Old English, the dominant form of English spoken 1000 years ago, and I realize how much my language has already changed.
But my glee in the destruction of my own spoken language isn’t entirely inspired by knowing language history. It’s because I want English to reflect the lives of the people who speak it. I want English to be a communications tool, like the internet, a thing that isn’t an end in itself but a means to one. Once we all acknowledge that there are many correct Englishes, and not just the Queen’s English or Terry Gross’s English, things will be a lot better for everybody.
I’ll admit that sometimes I feel a little sad when my pal from Japan doesn’t get my double entendres or idiomatic jokes. I like to play with language, and it’s hard to be quite so ludic when language is a tool and nothing more. But that loss of English play is more than made up for by the cross-cultural play that becomes possible in its stead, jokes about kaiju and non-native snipes at native customs. (My favorite: Said Japanese pal is bemused by American Christianity, and one day exclaimed in frustration, “God, Godder, Goddest!”)
For those of us who spend most of our days communicating via the internet, using language as the top layer in a technological infrastructure that unites many cultures, the Englishes of the future are already here. In some ways they make a once-uniform language less intelligible, but in some ways they make us all more intelligible to each other. •
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd whose English is obsolete.
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