The Story of English, Part IV: Looking Forward, Looking Back
In 1877, Oxford linguist Henry Sweet predicted that in a century the speeches of England, America, and Australia would be mutually unintelligible. Thanks to revolutionary leaps forward in communication and travel, that did not pan out. To some extent, the story of the past century has been one of homogenisation. In postwar America, the horsemen of apocalypse for regional accents arrived in the forms of geographical mobility and the nightly news. Counterintuitively, today’s national standard has its roots in the heartland (apparently the Iowa accent tested best with audiences nationwide), rather than the country’s Northeastern nerve center. Distinctive accents survive in New England, New York, the entire South, and some other places, but higher education or moving to a new place often erases them. The old Boston Brahmin accent, a somewhat artificial register once taught to young poshoes at Ivy League universities, was a tragic casualty of this trend.
American English is probably the dominant variety worldwide- notably, pop artists worldwide tend to sing in American accents- but the “British” accent has a definite cachet. What non-Britons typically mean by that label is Received Pronunciation, the accent spoken by around 3% of English people (concentrated in the South East around London) who dominate the upper stratum of British politics, business, and society. Accent, being as it is the clearest marker of class and regional identity, has greater weight in the UK than anywhere else in the Anglophone world. The chance that Northerners, much less Scots, will adopt the accent of London news anchors any time in the next century is virtually nil.
The other nations of the United Kingdom, having given up their Celtic languages, jealously guard their accents. Some consider Scots a separate language, which it definitely is not, but somewhere in the Highlands daily speech does hit the point on the continuum where it can be legitimately be considered a distinct dialect- likely the only one English still has. When people ask just how different various dialects of languages are, I refer them to YouTube to listen to the jaunty Jacobin anthem Cam Ye O’er Frae France- with subtitles, of course.
Over the seas, new accents sprung up as the seeds of commonwealths and germs of empire put down roots. A hundred years ago there was no such thing as Australian English, but now there is. New Zealand and South Africa have their own accents, while Canada is more interesting for not having one. There is little better proof that language can supersede politics than the fact that the speech of loyal and rebellious American colonists never diverged. India and Singapore, where most people speak English as a second language, nonetheless proclaim national standards. The BBC even launched a service in African Pidgin English, which is worth taking a look at.
As far as linguae francae go, the world could have done worse. Centuries of linguistic invasions have seeded it with a superior lexicon to other languages. English has around 200,000 words in common use, compared to German’s 184,000 and French’s mere 100,000. That enables English speakers to express themselves with a level of precision and nuance impossible in other languages. English has relatively straightforward grammar, with none of the tones or declensions that would prevent even a poor speaker from making himself understood. It is the only European language that does not arbitrarily assign gender to inanimate objects. The multiplicity of standard registers also makes the phonology a bit more forgiving. It borrows readily from other languages. It uses the Latin alphabet, free of diacritics. Much of its vocabulary is Romance, which makes things easy for hundreds of millions of speakers of French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Critically, it is also the language of computer programming. And we should not discount the non-linguistic factor that its commercial and cultural ubiquity makes it easy, enjoyable, and profitable for anyone to get exposure to it. Mandarin does not hold a candle.
Looking into the future, the only certainty is that English will continue to change. The first, most obvious way this happens is the introduction of new vocabulary. Thanks to a complicated history, English speakers, unlike those of other languages (notably the French) pick up new words with gusto. These range from “whiskey” (Celtic) to “chocolate” (Nahuatl, via Spanish) to “chemistry” (Greek, via Arabic, via Latin) to “tycoon” (Japanese) to “taboo” (Tongan). A globalised world presents an overflowing marketplace for new words, though the fact that so much innovation and international contact is now in English cuts the other way.
Even in living history, English has a rich heritage of new words formed of native stuff. I once read a newspaper article from the 1950s that derided “seafood” as an uncouth Americanism. “Okay” started as a joke in 1840s Boston (an acronym of “oll korrect”), but was catapulted to global prominence because President Woodrow Wilson liked to use it to approve documents, and today may well be the most international word in the world.
Linguistically speaking, accent and word borrowing are pretty surface-level. But even some more meaningful shifts are occurring during our lifetimes. The ancient auxiliary verbs “shall” and “ought” are on the way out; “can” and “should” are doing fine. Everyone uses “him” correctly, but for some reason “whom” is going the way of “thee.” We used to say “I am come,” (as Germans and Frenchmen still do), but now we are arrived at a different way of speaking. Avoiding split infinitives and prepositions on the ends of sentences, rules grafted from Latin, were once pillars of good style, but today relatively few outside persnickety writers of linguistics articles are even aware of them.
One particularly interesting trend is the use of “they” as a third person singular pronoun. The initiative has parallels in other European languages. Progressive Swedes have invented a new gender neutral pronoun, hen, on the model of han, “he,” and hon, “she.” A feminist Spanish speaker might write of a friend as a compañero/a (I like to just use compa), while in French a generic musician might be a musicien·ne. These constructions are difficult to translate into spoken language, and always spark controversy (in 2017, liberal PM Édouard Philippe banned the use of gender neutral French in official documents); “they” has the further challenge of already being a plural pronoun. Strictly speaking, to refer to a single gender neutral person one should use the singular conjugation, i.e., “they is,” but I have trouble imagining that will catch on. It may be better to devise an entirely new word, q.v. Swedish.
(Artificially manipulating language to further political ends is a relatively new idea, an unfortunate side effect of the systematic study of language and the realisation of how critical it is to society. Newspeak, the creation of the totalitarian regime of George Orwell’s 1984, was modelled on the schemes of real world totalitarians. For example, the Soviet regime named the state newspaper Pravda, “truth,” while the Nazis narrowed the meaning of Volk, “the people,” to include only Aryans. In Revolutionary France, addressing someone as monsieur rather than citoyen could land you on the scaffold.)
Of course, this is not to compare present-day gender activists to their linguistic forerunners, and the new pronoun may well catch on, especially since it builds on a preexisting colloquial trend. But outside Orwell’s Oceania, language change does not flow from political diktat. A key area to observe English organically changing before our eyes is that of strong (i.e. irregular) verbs. To say “I runned” sounds nonsensical; a generation or two ago, “swelled” would have been just as wrong, but today it is probably more common than “swoll.” The past tense of “climb” used to be “clomb.” It is clear that I “drive,” “drove,” and have “driven;” I “strive,” and “strove,” but have I “striven?” If I “dove” in the past, what have I done?
Irregular verbs like these are the casualties of English’s success. The three genders and five cases of Old English faded away because Viking and Norman learners could not be bothered with them. My family, at least on one side, have been speaking English for nearly a thousand years, but it is entirely possible that my grandchildren will say “I have dived” because that makes sense to Indians. Accents may homogenise, or diverge further. We will probably get lazier with grammar: black Americans often casually omit the verb “to be,” as in “we cool,” just as late Romans forewent Latin’s complex case system and sowed the seeds for modern Romance languages. If the experience of Latin tells us anything, over centuries simplified versions of words (e.g. “y’all”) may win out, and vernacular words could replace correct ones (in Vulgar Latin, testa, “jar,” replaced caput, “head;” the slang yielded French tête). “Dog” was originally a slang word for “hound.” As risible as it may seem today, “to lol” may one day be a generally-accepted verb.
In 1962, the last governor-general of Tanganyika prophesied that, “When the British Empire finally sinks beneath the waves of history, it will leave behind it only two memorials: one is the game of Association Football and another is the expression ‘Fuck Off.’” He was wrong. Like Latin, English will long outlive the empire that cast its seeds to the four winds. Britons no longer hold dominion over palm and pine, but English does. It will definitely change, perhaps so much as to render it practically unrecognisable- after all, it has done so before. Whatever may become of England or the great Anglo-Saxon empire of today, English will not sink beneath the waves.