October 26, 2016

Put a little English on it: A new spin on the world’s most spoken language


Yes, but not the one you're thinking of.

Yes, but not the one you’re thinking of.

There may be no bookstores in the future, perhaps no books at all, or perhaps just books full of emojis (Britain’s fastest growing language). But you can bet that the English language will endure.

Today, English is the most-spoken language on the planet, but it is far from a monolithic entity. A whole two billion of those speakers are non-native, and linguists say that a whopping 80% of the conversations that take place in English on this big blue marble are between non-native speakers. If you take the Babel of regionally-inflected English and add to it the fact that even native speakers morph the language over time, it’s easy to imagine that the English of just a hundred years from now could sound much different from today’s.

In an article for the Audible Range—a website dedicated to the intersection of culture, technology, and the spoken word—Michael Erard gathers some of the theories about how the language will come to sound. One overarching idea is a type of Darwinian theory — that whatever helps English spread its seed will eventually stick in the language. He writes:

Jennifer Jenkins, a linguist at Southhampton University in the UK, has studied the communication breakdown between non-native speakers of English to see what pronunciations they stumble over. These provide a clue as to how English may change. The aspects of English pronunciation that promote intelligibility would tend to spread, she has said, while those that promote misunderstanding would wither away.

If, for instance, dropping a hard consonant at the end of a word (imagine “best” pronounced as “bess,” Jenkins says) facilitated English-language conversation between new non-native-speaking groups, then those practices might stick. In a globalized world where English often serves as a lingua franca, native speakers would eventually drop that consonant as well.

Do yourself a favor and check out the Audible Range article, which compares recordings of the introductory paragraph to Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities translated into Old Englishin its original Modern English, and in a conjectural future English, a brave new tongue that may be only a century away.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.