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    Future of the English Language

    Hi there!

    This post isn’t really about libraries, but it DOES involve language and linguistics, so I feel that it relates somewhat.  Recently, I was grousing like a crotchety old man about the decline of the English Language in modern American society.  The truth is, I honestly don’t think that the English language is declining. In fact, I think it’s never been stronger.  Before I get into any of this, bear in mind that I have NEVER taken a formal Linguistics class. I’ve taken classes in the History of the English Language, but never the kind of intense Linguistics where we study things like glottal stops and bi-labial fricatives.  So I might be completely off base here. Linguists in the audience? Please let me know!

    First, a little history …

    A few years ago, I was flummoxed by a library patron who politely asked me if we had any translations of King Lear. Because, she informed me:  “These books are all in Old English“.

    You could probably hear the tendons snapping in my neck as I struggled to keep my jaw shut.

    Those of you who have studied Beowulf in its original language doubtlessly know what I’m talking about.  Old English is not about “prithee”s and “Thou”s, and “yea verily”s.  Real Old English looks like this:

    “ac hine se modega  mæg Hygelaces
    hæfde be honda;  wæs gehwæþer oðrum
    lifigende lað.  Licsar gebad
    atol æglæca;  him on eaxle wearð
    syndolh sweotol,  seonowe onsprungon,
    burston banlocan.  Beowulfe wearð
    guðhreð gyfeþe;  scolde Grendel þonan
    feorhseoc fleon  under fenhleoðu,
    secean wynleas wic;  wiste þe geornor
    þæt his aldres wæs  ende gegongen”.

    … and with that, Beowulf didst dispatch the creature Grendel liketh last week’s coffee grounds.  Mmmm, good stuff.

    Old English, or Anglo-Saxon if you please, is much closer to its Germanic roots, and therefore looks much more … German.  In the Middle ages, as the Christian Church gained prominence, elements of Latin began to seep into Middle English.  The reason for this was that many schools and universities were run by the clergy.  Since Latin was the language of the Church, English morphed into something resembling German with Latin rules of Grammar.  This is where we start to see a split between the English of the “common folk”, and the English of the nobility.  The low-born people would use words such as: “smart”, “moon” or “water”, which are Germanic.  The educated, high-born folk would use words like: “intelligent”, “lunar”, or “aqua”.  As a result, the Latin-derived words just sound “smarter” than the Germanic, to modern ears.  This is also from where we derrive our “curse-words”.  When discussing such impolite topics such as “excrement”, or “fornication”, we use the Latinate words, which sound much more polite and clinical. You most likely already know the Germanic forms of those words.

    Middle English is a little easier to grok.  For the most part, it uses words with which we’re all familiar.  Following is my favorite scene from The Miller’s Tale:  (because I am apparently 12 years old)

    This Nicholas / was ri{s}en for to pi{ss}e
    And thoghte / he wolde amenden al the Iape
    He sholde ki{ss}e his ers / er |þt|/ he scape
    And vp the wyndow / dide he ha{s}tely
    And out his ers / he putteth pryuely
    Ouer the buttok / to the haunche bon
    And ther with / spak/ this clerk/ this Ab{s}olon
    Spek swete herte / I noot noght wher thow art/
    This Nicholas / anoon leet fle a fart/
    As greet/ as it hadde been a thonder dent/
    That with the strook/ he was almoo{s}t yblent/

    This bit of text comes to us courtesy of the late 1300s.  Old, Middle, and Early Modern English were very flexible forms of communication, and therefore constantly in flux.  The language doubtlessly went through many transitions between Gardena in Geardagum and that Aprill with his shoures soote.  But what will happen to our English of today?

    Common wisdom holds that in a few hundred years hence, people will no longer be able to understand the English of today.  Likewise, Future English will most likely be unrecognizable to speakers of Modern English.  Since language is constantly changing, our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will form their own twisted version of the English of our forebears.

    Really?

    I understand why the English language changed so much between 700 c.e. and 1380 c.e.  Speakers of English would simply change the language as they went along.  It was like a game of telephone.  Each generation would speak a little differently from the previous generation.  Regional accents probably figured into this.  A Medieval villein from Cornwall might not even have been able to understand someone of equal rank speaking in Northumberland.  Small towns and shires would be crucibles of local dialect.  As long as Bob the Baker could understand Bill the Farmer in your local town, it wasn’t important to obey strict rules of grammar.

    But in our enlightened modern age, communication isn’t limited to localities.  We have global communication networks now.  A suburban librarian in New Jersey might have every reason to communicate with a teacher in California.  That person might use the word: “Dude” a few more times than I, and complain that I jam my words together quickly in a sentence, but the basic English is the same.  When children learn English for the first time, of course they will be modeling their speech on the English used by mummy and daddy.  But they’ll also be mirroring the speech of Anakin Skywalker, Clark Kent, and even SpongeBob.   The cultural tongue is defined by mass media, every bit as much as it is by our peers.  Yes, we will still have slang in the future, but slang is always used alongside proper speech.  When my peers used the phrase: “Totally Radical” in high school in the 80s, it never replaced the word “great” in common parlance.  Even well-used words like “cool” have assimilated their way into English without ever replacing proper English grammar.

    As for “new words for new things”, I do understand that we’ll need those too.  No one used the word: “Internet” 25 years ago, because it didn’t exist as we know it today.  Words like “telephone”, “computer”, and “fiber-optic” are newer words, but they describe new things.   Words like “chair”, “sugar”, and “esophagus” are not likely to change in the future, for the simple reason that we’re not going to have an army of Normans simultaneously conquer all of the English speaking peoples of the world.

    Are we finally seeing the solidification of the English Language? Has our mother tongue reached an equilibrium, where our 29th Century ancestors will speak something close to the same English that we do today? Yes I realize that they’ll be watching SpongeBob on a 3D neural virtual interface projector thingy, but will the language itself have changed much?

    and will teenagers still write the contraction for “you are” as y-o-u-r? [fumes]

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    One Response

    1. I think language drift is inevitable. We’ll keep adding words like cool, La-Z-Boy, and OMG and average people will stop using words like splendid, chaise, and awestruck. I don’t think we’ll experience another radical change, but the language will hardly stagnate. Language is changing all the time everywhere, especially as new things are invented and new ways of thinking come about.

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