Future Englishes

English is currently the most successful human language, and in terms of users, the most successful human language of all time up until now. This thought raises another: was there a time when everyone used the same language, i.e. the ancestor of all spoken languages? Or, did spoken language appear several times in different places, so that there are or have been languages completely isolated from each other?

This is not what I’m going to go on about today, although it’s interesting to consider the related matter of how English will disappear. This may come up. I’ve written a novel on that very subject, after all, so you think it might. One day English must die out, maybe because it develops into something else, or maybe because the community using it will disappear. It could, for example, fall from grace for political reasons, but if that happens it’s likely to become detached from the original Anglosphere and be replaced by a more global impetus. Or, it could just become incomprehensible to present-day speakers and other users, as it has done in the past.

Linguistic communities are defined by mutual comprehensibility. That is, if two people with no knowledge of other languages are guaranteed to understand each other, they are using the same language. One-way comprehension isn’t enough. This is a 1989 translation of the Lord’s Prayer into Dutch:

Onze Vader in de hemel,

uw naam worde geheiligd,

uw koninkrijk kome,

uw wil geschiede,

op aarde zoals in de hemel.

Geef ons heden ons dagelijks brood

en vergeef ons onze schulden

zoals ook wij anderen hun schulden hebben vergeven,

en stel ons niet op de proef

maar verlos ons van de duivel.

…and this is a translation of the same into Afrikaans:

Onse Vader wat in die hemele is,

laat u naam geheilig word.

Laat u koninkryk kom,

laat u wil geskied,

soos in die hemel net so ook op die aarde.

Gee ons vandag ons daaglikse brood,

en vergeef ons ons skulde,

soos ons ook ons skuldenaars vergewe.

En lei ons nie in versoeking nie,

maar verlos ons van die bose.

A Dutch speaker won’t have any problems understanding both, but an Afrikaner might well struggle with the Dutch version, although both are in fairly simple language because of the nature of the prayer. Getting back to English, this can mean that speakers (I’m going to use that word for now although there are good reasons not to in some contexts) of certain registers would find it easier to understand the English of other eras, and speakers of the past would be more likely to understand later examples of the language than the other way round.

If I approach English naïvely, and this has to be a guess because of having reached the “unconscious competence” stage in German and earlier phases of English itself, I would guess that the cut-off point for spoken English comprehensible for someone who learned it in the late 1960s would probably be about 1500. The written version is misleading because our spelling is notoriously conservative, and earlier writings are easier to follow, although they also contain many false friends which give the reader the illusion of being able to understand them. For me, the iconic feature of English pronunciation which would obscure the language is Middle English long A. There are still accents which pronounce the long A as /ɛ:/, close to the vowel in RP “air”, but in 1500 that pronunciation would’ve been /æ:/, and to my mind that’s too big a difference for it to be readily understood to twentieth-century ears, let alone today’s. Nor would it be the only difference. However, someone in 1500 probably wouldn’t have the same difficulty understanding how we speak today, particularly away from the English home counties and the Southern Hemisphere, although the omission of “thou”, the use of the present continuous and the incessant use of “do” would be hard to handle. A speaker in 1400, though, wouldn’t be able to understand how we speak today. This takes us practically back to Chaucer’s time, when we’d have to handle something like this:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licóur

Of which vertú engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye,

So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

And specially, from every shires ende

Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

That looks pretty close to present day English written down, but reading it aloud reveals how much the language has changed. Thus, if the average rate of change in the English language in the next half-millennium is the same as it was in the past one, we could expect people to be speaking a different language by about 2600. But it’s quite an assumption to suppose that the average rate of change will be the same.

The history of English, like that of many other languages, is divided into three periods: Old, Middle and Modern. However, considering that languages have different lifespans and rates of change vary over their history, this means that the divisions between them would occur at different times. For our tongue, the boundaries occur at the fairly arbitrary stages of 449, when the West Germanic tribes arrived in Britain, 1066, when the Norman invasion led to the oppression of English, and 1485, when the Battle of Bosworth Field occurred and is often used to mark the end of the Middle Ages in this country. Given that each division lasts about five centuries, we’re due for another phase in the history of our language.

Three different processes can be identified in the change of the English language. The first can be attributed to language change in general, so for example we can expect initial H to be dropped because that happens often in other languages. A Spanish dictionary I had as a child referred to older Spanish speakers pronouncing the H weakly and younger speakers having dropped it, and the initial H of Latin was also dropped many centuries before that. The second concerns distinctive English trends. The Great Vowel Shift comes to mind, and I’ve already alluded to that. Finally, there are the external influences on the language, such as the fact that it ceased to be the official Crown language for several centuries after 1066.

The first trend is easy to anticipate. The grammar of languages tends towards isolation. That is, they go from complex inflections of words – amo, amas, amat; amamus, amatis, amant – to simpler – j’aime, tu aimes, elle aime; nous aimons, vous aimez, elles aiment. In this case the spelling lags somewhat behind the pronunciation but even in writing the number of different forms has fallen from six to five at the cost of introducing an obligatory subject pronoun. Likewise in English we used to have different forms which have levelled to fewer, notably in the area of strong verbs, so that for example “help” and “climb” are now “helped” and “climbed” as past participles rather than “holpen” and “clomben”, and this process is continuing today with, for example, “thrived” rather than “throve” and “thriven”. Afrikaans has taken this trend further and now has no strong verbs at all. It also only has “is”, a development I can easily imagine happening in English too. Most verbs in the present indicative have little to lose nowadays, since most of them only vary in the third person singular – “she takes” rather than “she take” – although that development could occur.

As I’ve said, the Great Vowel Shift is the most obvious distinctively English trend, although similar processes have occurred in other languages. This has been blamed on the Black Death and the subsequent movement of people from Northern to Southern England. For this reason, vowels in English accents are often described in terms of their Middle English ancestors. The biggest changes are in the long vowels: A, open E, closed E, I, open O, closed O and U. Of these, long I and U (now spelt “ou” or “ow”) have changed the most, now being pronounced “eye” and “ow” as opposed to “ee” and “oo”. Their changes left a vacuum into which the other vowels were then able to move without creating ambiguity and confusion, A becoming “ay”, closed E and open E merging as “ee” in most accents, Irish being the main exception, closed O becoming “owe” and open “aw”. This shift is most pronounced in Australia and New Zealand and less so in North America than in RP. The short vowels are less affected. These shifts are somewhat paralleled in High German with the change from long I to “ei” and long U to “au”, although the rest haven’t been affected as much as in English, in the opposite direction in the merging of French “an/am” and “en/em” to the more open form followed by the alteration of “in/im” to what used to be the position of “en/em” (though with a consonant), and in Greek with the change of eta to an “ee” sound.

Initial consonant clusters have also tended to disappear, such as “kn-” and “wr-“, and a similar process occurred with “wh-” merging with “w-“, which has happened in my lifetime.

The third process would be the external influence on English. One of these is the spread of literacy, which has led to pronunciations falling somewhat more into line with spelling. For instance, “often” no longer has a silent T and “again” tends to be pronounced with a diphthong rather than short E. Another possible change could be wrought by the use of English as an international auxiliary language between people neither of whose mother tongues are English. In the Far East, it’s possible to encounter a form such as “I hear a smell”, which I imagine is influenced by a language which uses a more general verb for certain sensations than our separate “smell”, “taste” and “hear”, although for some reason I’d still expect “see” to be different. This might come to alter two particular idiosyncracies of English, namely the two separate verbs “do” and “make” but the single verb for “know”, which tend to be the other way round in at least many European languages if not others.

A couple of things are going on right now which could influence the future of this language. One is Brexit. English is used as a lingua franca in the rest of Europe, in its Commonwealth variant. If we leave the EU and stay outside it, it’s possible that we will fall more under the influence of American English, which has already been making itself felt since at least the War, and end up using at least an American idiom if not the actual General American accent itself, while the rest of Europe maintains “British” English, perhaps more influenced by Irish English and maybe also Scottish English than before. Another is the rise of other powers than the English-speaking United States, which may lead to the loss of prestige as an international language. A third issue, which we’ve only encountered for rather over a century so far, is that since about 1877 it’s been possible to record the voice, meaning that we hear older ways of speaking more than we used to. I would expect this to slow the change in English pronunciation, although of course listening even to the pronunciation of English English speakers in 1960 and before can sound quaint to us today.

There have been numerous fictional attempts to imagine the future of English, and I plan here to focus on six: Russell Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker’, Will Self’s ‘The Book Of Dave’, Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat, George Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’, David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ and the attempt made in ‘The Dune Encyclopedia’. There will obviously be spoilers for all of these, although it could be said that it’s impossible to spoil a literary work because the plot is subservient to other aspects of the novel.

Russell Hoban imagines Kent two thousand years after a nuclear holocaust. He includes a map of the county as he imagines it then. I expect there’s a lot that goes over my head with this book, although it interests me because it’s set near my birthplace. One of the language’s distinctive features is its use of folk etymologies. It tends to analyse and reconstruct words based on presumed popular ideas of their origin, and these etymologies are often bawdy or risqué, such as “Dunk Your Arse” for Dungeness above and “Sam’s Itch” for Sandwich. This reflects the salvaging of the remnants of advanced technology for new purposes that now constitutes the characters’ way of life. There are some surprising grammatical developments such as “et” for “did eat”, which is a strong verb, rather than “eated”, part of a general inconsistency. Viewed realistically, it couldn’t be expected that the vernacular of two millennia in the future would be even remotely comprehensible to us today, particularly if all records have been destroyed.

Will Self’s ‘The Book Of Dave’ has much in common with Hoban’s, but Self clearly has an axe to grind about sacred texts having unforseen consequences and his novel is largely satirical. An embittered cabbie called Dave has angrily written down his feelings about women in the wake of a messy divorce, printed them on metal and buried them. After a flood destroyed much of Southern England, these are discovered, and by five hundred years later, this has become a sacred text written in a language now known as “Mokni”, largely based on Cockney and text speak. This religion is of course highly misogynistic. This includes quite inventive terms such as “befansemis” (Elizabethan semis) for “houses”, “childsupport” for “dowry”, “cloakyfing” for “burqa” and “dashboard” for “Milky Way”. The general idea seems to be of a restricted view of the world where the unwitting founder of the religion can’t look beyond his own restricted life, such as the dashboard of his own car, to see the wider world or the possibility of other perspectives.

‘The Book Of Dave’ and ‘Riddley Walker’ form a kind of pair, and whereas I haven’t heard this from Will Self, I’d expect him to acknowledge openly that Hoban was a major influence. The form of the language in both is linked to a general idea which extends beyond the usual changes one might expect in English, although the use of F and V for “TH” is to be expected and both are clearly being spoken in future worlds which are no longer globalised, so the influence of other countries is absent. The same is not true of Anthony Burgess’s “Nadsat”, the youth argot used in ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

I’m not sure when the events of Burgess’s novel are supposed to take place, but it’s clearly supposed to be in the near future of the publication date of 1962. The most distinctive feature of Nadsat is its use of Russian vocabulary, such as “horrorshow” for “good”, from the Russian “хорошо”. The name of the slang itself is from the Russian equivalent of the “-teen” morpheme. “Droog” for “friend” is another instance, but there are also other techniques of word formation such as eggy-peggy-type codes and rhyming slang. The idea was partly to create futuristic-seeming slang which wouldn’t seem quickly dated, a common problem with coinages and the use of slang in fiction. I can only suppose that Burgess chose Russian as a reference to the Cold War, and I wonder if it was meant as a sign of naïveté on the part of the youth subculture, kind of mindless rebellion against the establishment as seen in the later real world by the quasi-punk adoption of Nazi symbolism.

By far the most famous example of a future version of English is George Orwell’s Newspeak as used in ‘1984’. Although the main influence on this language’s creation was polemical in a political sense, Orwell also chose to include features he disliked in English as spoken at the time of writing. The role of Newspeak is to restrict thought by reducing the flexibility and variety of language. I used a Newspeak-derived version of English in my short story ‘Kibuco’, partly because the narrator’s first language was Esperanto, which had been used for a similar purpose in the story, and Newspeak and Esperanto share many features although I don’t know if it’s intentional. It’s said that an Esperanto dictionary will only be about a tenth the size of a similarly comprehensive dictionary in another European language because it relies so heavily on affixes. The idea behind this feature in Zamenhoff’s language is to make it easier to learn and acquire a useful vocabulary, but if Orwell is right about the thought-restricting capacity of such an approach, it could also be used for that purpose. Each new edition of the Newspeak dictionary is smaller than the last because words are being destroyed. This is all so well-known it’s probably not worth mentioning.

‘Cloud Atlas’ depicts two different stages in the development of English. The earlier example, ‘An Orison Of Sonmi-451’ is more sterile and restricted, perhaps like Newspeak although not deliberatedly constructed, using many genericised trademarks such as “nikon” for “camera”. This is mid-twenty-second century, and dystopian. This is part of the drift from the high-flown language of the chronologically earlier sections of the novel into the impoverished and commercialised vocabulary of the penultimate setting. After the fall, the second, later version of English is used, in ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rything After’, but although it could be seen as a still more degenerate version of the language, it manages to be much more vibrant and expressive than its predecessor. The commercialised elements are gone. Unfortunately, I found it impenetrable and quite trying, and all the more so because it was the longest section of the book.

All of the above examples could be said to be distorted from the viewpoint that rather than trying to portray the actual future of English. The same doesn’t apply to the same extent to the languages of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ series trilogy, of which there are two: Fremen and Galach. Most of the neologisms in the trilogy are from Fremen, which is a conservative descendant of the Arabic language, but Galach is a development of English and Slavic, mainly the former, although in the narrative parts of the novels it’s hardly explored at all. Fortunately, there is a de-canonised encyclopedia associated with the books which does, and in this case professional linguists have had a go at it in considerable detail. Five stages are distinguished, dating from about the year 9000 CE up until seventeen thousand years after that. The first stage involves the change of TH to F and V, as with several other examples above, “-ing” in gerunds becoming “-in”, along with the Second Vowel Cycle, which is a similar process to the Great Vowel Shift but applied to long pure vowels in present-day English. One of the crucial grammatical changes is the evolution of “of X” into “əX”, replacing the Saxon genitive “-‘s”, the idea being that it’s similar to “man o’ war”. This acts as a precedent to the junction of other prepositions to nouns and the development of an extensive inflectional prefixing case system. In the meantime, pleonastic pronouns begin to be used and are similarly appended to nouns. An example of the language given is the Galach for “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” – “baradit nehiidit beed gwarp tau aubukt”. However, it’s still quite sketchy.

In conclusion, all of this could be seen as rather optimistic because it isn’t at all guaranteed that there will even be people around to speak this language in the case of the mid-twenty-second century onward, or if there are, what kind of world they’ll be living in. This post-apocalyptic thought has been employed in the creation of some of these visions. On the other hand, there’s a strong theme of using changes in language to illustrate certain points, which is to be expected and not problematic. My own vision of English, if there’s anyone left to speak it in the future, it’s likely to have been influenced by non-European languages but sound rather like an exaggerated version of the New Zealand/Aotearoan accent along with a strongly creolised flavour to the grammar like Jamaican patois. That is, if it exists at all.


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