The future of English

BBC Radio Four’s language podcast Word of Mouth looked at the future of English. How will English change over the next 50 to 100 years? Languages are in a constant state of flux. When it comes to words the rule is simple; the more a word is used, the less it evolves. Language evolution is about errors. When errors are made in speaking common words, they may tend to be corrected, precisely because they are so common and so important for communication. On the other hand rarely used words may well not be corrected, because they are infrequently heard. That allows the mutant form to get purchase. Words that tend not to change so rapidly, whereas adjectives will change more quickly

In the podcast they spent a lot of time analysing modal verbs. If you are unfamiliar with this grammatical term it refers to auxiliary verbs which are used to indicate modality – likelihood, ability, permission, and obligation. The modal verbs are: can, could, may, might, will, would, must, shall, should and ought to. Both dare and need also have a modal use. In the programme they talk about the evolution of these verbs. There are already changes that have taken place and this process may well continue. One example is the distinction between shall and will, with the former being used to express intention, and the latter volition. T This distinction has now all but disappeared with will taking on both roles. This kind of simplification is typical in language evolution. For the pedants amongst you here is an old joke about the use of will and shall:

A foreign tourist was swimming in an English lake. Taken by cramps, he began to sink. He called out for help:

“Attention! Attention! I will drown and no one shall save me!”

Many people were within earshot, but, being well-brought up Englishmen and women, they honoured his wishes and permitted him to drown.

I teach my students to use shall for offers (Shall I open the window?) or suggestions (What shall we do now?). For the rest of the time they should use will.  However, I do make them sign a contract which states that I will (or is that shall?) not be held responsible for any aquatic accidents.

Changes may reflect societal changes. There has been a reduction in deferentiality. This can be seen in the use of may. That old distinction – You can leave the table, but no you may not – is no longer valid.  I am a bit more sceptical about the claim that must is disappearing because it is too authoritarian.

Another linguist looking at the future of English is one who regularly appears in my posts – John McWhorter. In a Wall Street Journal piece called What Will the World Speak in 2115? McWhorter argues that English will remain the world’s lingua franca in a 100 years’ time. He predicts that English will become more widespread, and while it won’t be the sole language on the planet, thousands of other languages will die out.

People will speak their local language in their own environment but will use English for communication beyond. What about Chinese? China may well become the world’s economic superpower and it will still have the world’s largest population. But I don’t see Chinese as the world’s lingua franca. Not because of some magical qualities of English or the fact that the Chinese writing system is almost impossible to learn if you weren’t born into it. Rather, it reflects the reality that English, like the QWERTY keyboard, got there first. As McWhorter points out it has become so deeply entrenched in print, education and media that switching to anything else would entail an enormous effort. Of course there have been other lingua francas; languages such as Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Arabic, Russian and Chinese itself have been spoken by vast numbers of people. But I don’t see Chinese knocking English off its perch. The Mongols once ruled China without needing to eliminate the Chinese language. If we are going to live a new age of Chinese pre-eminence, it is probably going to be in English.


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