English Die Soon

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Image by Chris Dickason

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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