- The rules of spoken and written English (or any other language) are constantly changing.
- English in the distant future, much like English in the Middle Ages, will sound nothing like it does today.
- Maybe English will have died out, replaced by a new lingua franca.
Contrary to what your high school teachers would have you believe, the rules of the English language are not set in stone but constantly evolving. Less than 100 years ago, most people preferred “ought” or “shall” over “need.” “Cooperate” and “zoologist” were spelled “coöperate” and “zoölogist,” while “diarrhea” was written with ligatures, as “diarrhœa.” The capital of Japan was known as “Tokio,” not “Tokyo.”
Some words have stayed the same, but acquired an entirely different meaning in our culture. When your great grandparents were young, “gay” meant “cheerful” and “carefree,” whereas today it is used to denote someone’s sexuality. Likewise, the word “awful” used to have a positive instead of a negative connotation; if something was awful, this simply meant it was “worthy of awe.”
If the English language can change this much in a century, just imagine how much it’s going to change over the course of the next millennium. While the English of 3023 likely will be unrecognizable from the English of 2023 (if it hasn’t died out entirely), it’s worth asking what it will look like, and why. But to predict how language might change in the future, you first have to look at how it’s changed in the past.
Aside from a few runic inscriptions on metal and ceramic objects, the earliest evidence of written English is the law-code of King Æthelberht of Kent, which is dated to 616 AD. The first sentence of the law-code, Þis syndon þa domas þe Æðelbirht cyning asette on Agustinus dæge, roughly translates to: “These are the decrees which King Æthelberht set in Augustine’s time.”
Dutch and German readers stand a better chance at deciphering the law-code than their English counterparts. This is because Old English, in which the code is written, developed from a language family spoken in western Germany and Friesland. Syndon resembles the Dutch zijn or German sein more than the modern English “are,” while dæge ought to be translated to “days” instead of “time,” or dagen and Tagen in Dutch and German, respectively.
Although linguists insist the actual process is more complex, it appears English became more simplified as time went on. Middle English, which grew out of Old English during the 12th century AD, has fewer word endings than its predecessor. Late Middle English, which developed between 1400 and 1500, dropped the complicated declension system that still exists in German, in which the form of a noun can change depending on its function in the sentence.
A more recent example of linguistic simplification is the substitution of “gonna” for “going to,” which began in the early 19th century. Thanks to new technologies like text messaging, simplification — or “erosion” as some linguists prefer to call it — is taking place at a faster pace than ever before. Abbreviations like “LOL” or “OMG” are already being used as frequently if not more frequently than the phrases they abbreviate, namely “laughing out loud” and “oh my god.” And while “gonna” and “OMG” are currently not considered proper English, historical trends suggest their usage eventually will be recognized as correct rather than merely colloquial.
It’s tempting to think of language as a machine that gets routinely updated to make it more efficient. While there’s some truth to this analogy, not all changes are made for the sake of efficiency. For example, the great vowel shift of the 15th and 16th centuries, in which “ee” started being pronounced as “aye” and “oh” as “oo,” did not make words any simpler; it just made them different. Albert Marckwardt, a historian of English at the University of Michigan, proposes the great vowel shift is not finished yet. Just as “boot” used to be pronounced “boht,” so could the word “home,” which still has its oh-vowel, be some day pronounced “hoom.”
As some linguists try to predict future changes in a language by studying historical trends, others look at how that language is being spoken in the present moment — specifically, abroad. English is the most spoken language in the whole world. However, an estimated 80% of all written and verbal interactions take place between non-native speakers. Statistically, these non-native speakers will have a much greater impact on the way English is spoken than native speakers will.
David Deterding, a linguist affiliated with the Universiti Brunei Darussalam in Brunei, spent years studying how spoken English in Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Singapore differs from the U.S. and the UK. Due to phonetic differences between English and their native languages, many people from East Asia emphasize the “t” in words that start with a “th,” like “thing.” They also say “mebbe” instead of “maybe” and “pless” instead of “place.” In a future where the wealth and power of East Asia continues to grow, these “incorrect” pronunciations could well become the new standard.
Each non-English country speaks English differently. In Germany, words like “thing” or “thus” are not uttered with an emphasized “t.” Instead, the “th” sound, uncommon in German, is replaced with an “s” or “z.” (There’s a great joke about this in the video below.)
In the Netherlands, English teachers are often frustrated by their students’ inability to pronounce the “th” sound, which is usually replaced with a “d” or an “f.” Words such as “thus” and “third” become “dus” and “fird.” “Other,” again to the chagrin of teachers, becomes “udder.” As in East Asia, these alternative pronunciations come so naturally to non-native speakers they cannot be hammered out of them, not even through dedicated study and practice.
The same, albeit to a lesser extent, goes for differences in grammar. As Barbara Seidlhofer, a professor of linguistics at the University of Vienna, has noted in her research, many non-native speakers have a hard time distinguishing between second and third person singular as well as mass and count nouns, because such distinctions do not exist in their mother tongues. This means that, in centuries to come, we may say “he run” instead of “he runs,” and “informations” instead of “information.”
The next lingua franca
It’s possible English will not be around 1,000 years from now. As mentioned, the prominence of a language is inextricably tied to the cultural, economic, and military might of the countries that speak it. When these countries withdraw from the international stage, so does their mode of expression.
While there’s a good chance that English will be less prevalent in the future than it is at present, it’s difficult to predict which language might take its place as the world’s next “lingua franca.” In previous decades, Mandarin — spoken by over one billion people — has been repeatedly identified as a strong contender despite its complexity. But as the Chinese economy slows down and foreign relations cool, experts are no longer sure.
Maybe the next lingua franca will be a whole new language as opposed to an existing one. Many developing countries are concerned about the spread of English, which threatens the survival of local languages in the same way English-speaking colonizers threatened local cultures. To address this issue, the Polish ophthalmologist Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof invented Esperanto in 1887. Largely based on Latin with German, Polish, and Russian influences, Esperanto was conceived as a kind of linguistic neutral ground for cross-cultural contact. Currently, it’s spoken by around two million people worldwide.
A third possibility is that there will not be another lingua franca after English but that — due to geopolitical conflict or environmental disaster — the single, interconnected world we live in shall splinter into several smaller, socially and linguistically isolated worlds. Instead of one universally applicable language, there would be multiple lingua francas. In one region of the globe, people would be taught to speak English. In another, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, or perhaps another language entirely.