English Die Soon

Global web geeks are killing the Queen’s English. Good riddance.
by Annalee Newitz, from San Francisco Bay Guardian
November-December 2008
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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 New Scientist (March 29, 2008), the language will fragment into many mutually unintelligible dialects.

Still, some underlying documents will supply the grammatical glue for these diverse Englishes, the way Koranic Arabic does for the world’s diverse Arabic spin-off 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 English speakers, 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 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 idioms. It’s usually also free of the more cumbersome 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 nonnative speakers already say it. It’s also the way many popular languages like the several dialects of Chinese express tense. The whole practice of changing the meaning of a word by adding barely audible extra letters—well, that’s just not going to last.

When I read about the way English is changing and fragmenting, it has the opposite effect on me from what you might expect.

Although I am the daughter and 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 1,000 years ago, and I realize how much my language has already changed.

My glee in the destruction of my own spoken language isn’t entirely inspired by knowing language history, though. 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’ 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 nonnative snipes at native customs. (My favorite: My 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. In other ways, they make us all more intelligible to one another.


Annalee Newitz wrote her final Techsploitation column this year and now edits the science fiction blog io9.com. Reprinted from San Francisco Bay Guardian (April 2, 2008); www.sfbg.com.

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Post a comment below.


Tamara SM
7/30/2009 1:06:40 PM
Hear, hear! Darren and hear, hear! Mr. Hanscombe. Beautiful. I have a couple of reactions to Analee's essay: 1) I would not call Chinese "popular" simply because so many people speak it. If it were so easy to pick up, we'd be learning Chinese instead of the other way around. Thus, I would not lift it into a grammatically "higher" category just because it doesn't use tenses in the same way (I have a degree in Chinese language by the way, so I do know what I'm talking about). 2) I agree language always changes over time, and that you can't really dictate that change. However, I think we can certainly agree that it isn't evolving, but devolving. The more we speak with our thumbs by texting, the less we will be willing, and eventually able, to say. We've become an incredible shallow species.

Norman Hanscombe_1
11/29/2008 2:08:48 AM
APOLOGIES - I'M AN I.T.INCOMPETENT: HERE'S THE CONTINUATION By the 19th Century improved transport and communication meant the sparsely populated Australian continent (which had been settled fairly recently) was able to eliminate virtually all regional spoken differences as well. Class differences continued, but by the second half of the 20th Century these too were becoming less significant. Australia had achieved a degree of standardisation earlier educationists would have seen as a utopian dream. It was advances in technology which made all this possible, and the result was viewed in positive terms --- until recently. What changed? We became obsessed with “progressive” notions that all language forms "had to be" equal. This at the very point in History where we were better placed than ever before (thanks to modern technology) to slow down the drift apart the different forms English waqs taking --- the same sort of drift which caused Latin to become a dead language. This "progressive" approach has led to an increasing uncertainty about what the words we say and write mean; but this loss continues to be defended on the spurious grounds that it's what is “supposed” to happen with a "living" language. Fortunately this approach isn’t adopted in medicine, or we’d have “progressive” doctors singing the praises of cancer cells. After all, cancer cells are living cells, so although the rapid changes associated with them may lead to the patient's earlier death, we mustn’t attempt to slow down the living process, must we? We have to encourage this living growth, with the same enthusiasm “progressive” educationists (sic) now show for rapid (un-necessary) changes to the living English language.

Norman Hanscombe_1
11/29/2008 1:56:26 AM
There’s a growing number of people like Analee who reject the importance of high-level language skills; but for anyone hoping to go beyond understanding pumpkin pie recipes, high-level language is important. Our Latter Day flight from excellence in language is part of the reason so many students nowadays need lowered standards if they are to ‘pass’ their various courses. Of course English is and always has been a living, changing language; but our current obsession with speeding up the process has a negative effect on our ability to think --- and it isn't necessary. In modern times, one of the English Language’s finest features was the manner in which it standardised so much of its form, and developed a logically consistent grammar. It’s true the spelling might be simpler than it is, but even our weird spelling sometimes adds to the richness of English. The success of English lay in the fact that the standards it developed made it an ideal tool for the production of both high-level literature, and the undertaking of high-level analysis. Not everyone was able to cope fully with the language’s more demanding features --- but those who could benefited immensely. Even those who lacked the ability and/or interest to take on its more demanding features still had a language suitable for their ordinary needs, including a reliable means of communicating with fellow speakers of English. I’d suggest that's a lot to lose --- especially when it's being lost at a far faster rate than is necessary. Until technological innovations such as printing helped standardise the written word, a common, reasonably stable written language wasn’t possible for the Germanic tribes which settled the relatively small land of England. Those early technological breakthroughs made a coherent, consistent written language a reality. By the 19th Century improvements in transport and communication meant the sparsely populated Australian continent (which had been settled fai

11/21/2008 5:29:43 PM
Maybe your friend wouldn't laugh at your sparkling word play,except out of politeness,anyway. Your selfless relinquishing of the English language to some future utopian Babel is touching but simplistic. Language is more than just communication. It helps to dictate the depth of that communication. Who cares if we can converse with a more diverse and greater community if the conversation isn't worth having?

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