Monday, January 05, 2015

The Future of Languages: Fewer and Simpler

Language is an interesting thing. Despite various official and unofficial attempts, nobody really designs languages that are used in real life. Language spontaneously results from the way countless people use it in their individual lives. Once popular words fall out of everyday use as new words come into being and as other words take on different meanings. Grammar usage also changes over time.

To get an idea of how the English language has changed over the past three centuries, try reading chapters from the King James Bible. Originally published in the 1600s, the text was last modernized in 1769. With some study and familiarization, the text is understandable to the modern reader. But will that continue to be the case a century or two from now?

It is easy to see that many of the words in the KJB have fallen out of common use. Comedian John Branyan hilariously demonstrates the steady reduction of our daily vocabulary in his retelling of the Three Little Pigs (video below). He notes, for example that while Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words, modern Americans operate with only about 3,000 words.

Linguist John H. McWhorter opines in this WSJ article what the future holds for the languages of the earth. He says that 100 years from now we will find:
  • English will still be the main language used on the planet. In fact, its use will be more widespread than ever, because it reached the position of global usage first and because it is far more approachable than potential challengers. (We can apparently thank rough spoken Vikings that settled in the British Isles for simplifying English a great deal.)
  • A sharp reduction in the number of languages in use — from about 6,000 to about 600 — as many non-written (most languages are not written) and/or complex languages die out.
  • Simplification of the languages used. It seems that our working vocabulary will decrease further as technology and common experience continue to render some words less useful. We can also expect increasing simplification of grammar. (Consider Megan Garber's take on the death of word "whom" in this Atlantic article.)
  • Many bilingual homes, where an oral language is spoken in the home and in tight communities, while English is used in public and in writing.
Although Mr. Peabody claims that Mandarin Chinese is the language of the future, it is worth considering McWhorter's discussion of why he believes that assumption to be false. He notes that "the tones of Chinese are extremely difficult to learn beyond childhood, and truly mastering the writing system virtually requires having been born to it."

McWhorter suggests that much of the linguistic "streamlining" that will occur over the next century will come via the children of urban dwelling immigrants. These children often develop simplified hybrids of the official language of the area and the choppy way that language is spoken by their parents. This process "nibbles away at such arbitrary features as irregular verbs and gendered objects." Some of the resulting simplified structures snake their way into common usage over time.

Far from being a cause for worry, McWhorter sees a future that retains "a goodly amount of ... diversity" as well as "ever more mutual comprehension." More people will be able to communicate usefully with each other than ever before, even while many will keep the option of communicating more intimately with others that share their base oral tradition.

Of course, only time will tell whether McWhorter's forecasts prove to be prophetic. There is little personal cost in foretelling a future when you won't be around to be held accountable for what you said. Still, McWhorter provides valuable fodder for thought. Unlike some, I'm not fond of constantly living in fear of societal changes. I like the hopeful vision McWhorter paints.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

i feel like Spanish will become a big language in the future, as it is already becoming a big one for us here in the United States.