Predicting the future of the English language is rather easy, in the short term. The odds are, over the next few decades its New World dialects are going to gain increasing global dominance, accelerating the demise of thousands of less fortunate languages but at long last allowing a single advertisement to reach everybody in the world. Then after a century or two of US dominance some other geopolitical grouping will gain the ascendancy, everyone will learn Chechen or Patagonian or whatever it is, and history will continue as usual. Ho hum. But apart from that… what might the language actually look like in a thousand years time? For comparison, the English spoken at the turn of the last millennium looked like this:
|1000 AD:||Wé cildra biddaþ þé, éalá láréow, þæt þú tǽce ús sprecan rihte, forþám ungelǽrede wé sindon, and gewæmmodlíce we sprecaþ…|
|2000 AD:||We children beg you, teacher, that you should teach us to speak correctly, because we are ignorant and we speak corruptly…|
(From the Colloquy of Aelfric.) So how far will another
thousand years take it? I've already got pages about
time travel and
languages in SF, plus a
conlang of no very specific origin; this
addition, vaguely inspired by the precognitive Darwinism of Dougal
After Man: A Zoology of the Future, should
fit in nicely. It has also now acquired companion pages titled
LANGUAGE SF – Futurese Bibliography
LANGUAGE CHANGE – Progress and Decay
LANGUAGE TRENDS – Causes and Effects
INTERMISSION – Notation and Terminology
EARLY AMERICAN – 2100 AD
MIDDLE AMERICAN – 2400 AD
CLASSICAL AMERICAN – 2700 AD
LATE AMERICAN – 3000 AD
EXAMPLES – Words and Phrases
2013 POSTSCRIPT: for its tenth anniversary (we're one percent of
the way there already, folks!) I have finally updated this page to
use Unicode for its phonetic symbols instead of 7-bit ASCII
workarounds. It has taken until now for browsers to support
stacked diacritics at all reliably, and the results can
still be rather ugly! In the process I have changed my
notation slightly to take advantage of some of the more appropriate
glyphs now available.
Before I start developing a
future history of my own I'll
run through a quick survey of the existing literature. It's a
bit sparse, though, since academic linguists know better than to
try, and nobody else has ever shown much interest –
except of course the supporters of language-planning projects like
Esperanto or Basic English, which are a bit
off-topic (though they did inspire George Orwell to produce one
famous vision of the language of tomorrow). Most genre
Science Fiction ignores linguistic barriers between centuries just
as it does all the other kinds – reasonably enough,
since they get in the way of the plot – but a handful of
stories can be picked out as featuring representations of
A Clockwork Orange(
viddy this, my droogs) – and even he didn't introduce any grammar or pronunciation shifts to go with the new
Nadsatvocabulary items. Heinlein took a more reader-friendly approach for the Loonie dialect in
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; it gives a good impression of being slangy and futuristic, but when you stop and look at it there's nothing there but a few loanwords and telegraphese mannerisms.
Riddley Walkerdeserves a mention as another SF novel written entirely in an imaginary dialect; this time it's a more generally mangled form of post-nuke English, though it's still closer to the modern standard language than plenty of books written in real UK dialects!
Anglicor less often something like
Galach. The name tends to be as much as we learn, unless the footnote is bulked out with a claim that some other present-day language contributed a lot of vocabulary items – Russian, Spanish, and Japanese being popular choices.
The Transfinite Choiceis the only one I can think of where the temporal language barrier is illustrated with a few sentences of vaguely credible future (British!) English – for instance, the displaced hero is referred to as an undrowda.
Let me get one thing clear: there's nothing wrong with languages changing over time.
When looking at a biological
family tree (such as the
evolutionary history of the horse), the general public insists on
seeing any movement as intrinsically
advanced designs. Yet
somehow when looking at the linguistic equivalent (such as the
development of the Romance languages from Vulgar Latin) they see
exactly the reverse – any change is proof that the
language is in decline. In reality they're just as wrong both
The attitude is perfectly understandable; membership of a
linguistic community is an important social marker, so people
often get neurotic about the way they speak, and cling to the
security blanket of vaguely remembered schoolroom mandates,
despising those barbarians who split infinitives or mispronounce
shibboleth. Ironically, it's this same
group-membership effect that's responsible for many of the
changes (see below), but the degeneration the
purists warn against is an imaginary danger anyway. English
has gone from being a minor Germanic tongue on Europe's fringe,
with a vestigial system of inflections signposting case, mood,
gender, and so on, to being a much more weakly inflected language
dominating the global landscape. Every step of the way, old
fogeys moaned that it was going to the dogs; but although the
noun-gender system of Old English has crumbled away entirely, it
turns out not to have been a structural support in the first
place… and the simplifications have been balanced by
increased complexity in other places, such as in the sheer size of
Changes can occur in every aspect of a language:
who, but on the other new constructions arise like
y'all ain' gonna-hafta.
properbut endangered and the other
wrongbut spreading (such as
excetera); but in fact the most significant changes are the ones that happen to particular sounds right through the dictionary, like dropping aitches or lengthening stressed syllables.
These different types of language change don't happen in isolation – the blurring of word-final sounds erodes grammatical features, the development of new ways of stringing syllables together triggers shifts in pronunciation, and so on. Nevertheless, my futurological efforts will be based purely on projected sound changes, since they tend to be astonishingly regular and thus offer the easiest opportunities for mock-ups of Futurese.
There's a widespread popular assumption that modern technology
(gramophones, cinema, CNN etc.) will stop languages changing in the
new millennium, because these days everybody knows what everybody
else's accent sounds like. But accents such as Cockney never
did arise because working class Londoners were unaware of
how the aristos talked. They knew perfectly well; but that
wasn't the accent they grew up with, and there was no reason to
want to imitate it when their own accent was a badge of
solidarity with their peer-group. Nothing has happened to
reduce the allure of a distinctive way of speaking as a badge of
in-group membership; and the more positively people identify with
some particular accent, the more likely that high-status speech
variety is to drift, as social climbers refine their vowels while
the native speakers react to being imitated by innovating
further. Linguists studying modern
find that it has several regional subvarieties, which are
diverging rather than converging.
That's not to say that technology has no effects. For a
start, when the global media bring linguistic communities into
contact with one another, that can have all sorts of unforeseeable
results – for instance, we loaned the Japanese the words
man, and got them back compounded. The
opportunities for interactions like that will inevitably increase
as the number of non-native speakers of English continues to rise.
Over the centuries, language change has been affected in various
minor ways by innovations such as the printing press (there were no
spelling-based pronunciations such as
there were misleading standard spellings), and of course Chaucer
didn't have a word for
helicopter. It's easy to
imagine other technological developments that might have
further-reaching effects in the future:
world statewith an anglophone bureaucracy of artificial intelligences, ANSI-standard English could function as a sort of unnaturally preserved lingua franca even if the human native speakers died out.
I'm going to have to leave possibilities such as this for another day – not only because they raise questions about the real likelihood of 3000 AD Earth being inhabited by hominids that still bring their young up to speak a traditional wild-grown language but also because they don't make the language's future form any more predictable.
On the other hand, some factors do show long-term directional
influences. An obvious one is ease of use: people won't
bus will do, or
environment when their friends are getting away with
emviromment. But another factor is that the language
has to work as a language; any change that impedes communication
spurs the development of workarounds – so, for instance,
people who pronounce
soon start talking about
ink pens. And a third, less
obvious influence is ease of learning. Children forming their
initial mental model of how English works don't want to believe
it's a mess of random idioms; any regularities they notice (like
past tenses end in -ED) are extended by analogy as far as
their peers will let them (
bended). All these
trends in language change make prediction more
feasible, or at any rate, less obviously hopeless.
Nonetheless, futurology is a mug's game, and I
don't expect my
predictions to come true. My
methodology consists of nothing more rigorous than applying some of
the kinds of changes that are commonly seen in historical
linguistics and seeing what further development patterns they
suggest; it's just a bit of fun, intended to dramatise the way
things might plausibly end up if things go on the way they always
have. You could come up with something completely different
and at least as plausible by extrapolating from the
Northern Cities Chain Shift…
I've mentioned the two commonest misconceptions about language change – that it's a bad thing, and that it has stopped; but a few other odd assumptions seem to be more widespread than I'd realised, so perhaps I'd better deal with them here so I can avoid doing it in email.
It's changes in vocabulary that matter.
All changes can be traced back to the influence of other languages.
cross-contaminationbetween neighbouring languages is the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, it's rare for changes to have obvious
English is a pidgin.
creole, the kind of language that's formed when a pidgin becomes a mother-tongue. However, the trace of truth in this myth is that being used as an auxiliary language often seems to trigger languages to become more
I'm hoping not to turn this section into a
Myths FAQ – that would be a lifetime's work, and
nowhere near as interesting to read as
I've delayed defining some of this glossary stuff in the hope of suckering people into reading this far, but if you want to follow the next few sections it's important to understand the difference between…
bad grammarthat's really just non-standard spelling and punctuation).
trivialarticulatory features that aren't used to distinguish words from one another – necessary because languages vary in their opinions about what counts as trivial and what sounds form natural sets.
building-blocksof a particular language and ignores the irrelevant details. Compare my own key to my pronunciation of English (though that accent isn't directly relevant here).
(If you're wondering where the brackets are, sorry: it'll be because your browser doesn't support CSS…)
Bored already? If you can't be bothered with all this you can always just take my word for it and skip to the end where I give examples of the final result. Otherwise here are definitions of a few phonological terms I'll be using to get there:
AH), while consonants involve marked narrowing (or temporary closure, as in
K) of the vocal tract.
Ninterrupt the escape of air through the mouth, fricatives like
Zmake the flow turbulent, and approximants like
Wonly modify it slightly.
Mand its oral twin
B. The same can also happen in vowels, though that's never distinctive in twenty-first-century English.
CHetc.), which involve serious constriction, are grouped together as
obstruents, while the highly resonant approximants and nasal stops (
vowel/consonant, since vowels (or at least semivowels) can be nonsyllabic, and consonants (or at least sonorants) can be syllabic; examples include the initial
L-sounds in waddle.
OOsound (or maybe only an
OHsound); unrounded ones aren't.
AYis a half-close vowel, pronounced with the tongue quite high in the mouth; raising it gets you the close vowel
EE, while lowering it results in half-open
EHthen fully open
nucleusof a syllable is its main syllabic element (i.e. the vowel, usually); any sounds that come before the nucleus are the
onset, and any that come after are the
The last thing I ought to say before I switch from
documentary mode to
speculative fiction mode is this:
if you aren't familiar with Comparative Reconstruction then my
predicted sound changes are bound to seem wildly unlikely. If
I'd shown Julius Caesar a schedule of the changes that were to turn
Latin into Italian (
PS: beware the Ides of March) he
wouldn't have believed a word of it either. And yet languages
really do behave this way, with
mutations in the system of
sounds adding up to new accents, new languages, new family trees of
descendant tongues… witness this Wikipedia entry on one
big-name sound change, Grimm's Law.
Ye knowe eek that in forme of speche is chaunge
With‐inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem, and yet thei spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do
(Chaucer, circa 1385)
I'm using a gerrymandered starting point here: please note that the phonology described below isn't precisely that of any major present-day US accent (although it is close enough for plausibility – close enough indeed that this section is essentially a summary of existing trends). Instead it's just one of the accents that will be current in a century or so: the one that happens to be ancestral to the thirty-first-century language.
flappingcontext never triggers vowel breaking – bitty and biddy are pronounced identically.
breakingbefore (phonemically) voiced obstruents, becoming generally longer and more lax; thus for instance pick is pɪg while pig is pɪɪ̈g. See below for details.
tongue-bunchedʊ˞ or ɚ to a full ɹ̴̩.
By this time the language has fallen out of fashion; the phonemic
analysis given here is the one used retrospectively in the
Classical period. The vocabulary shrinks
and is later restocked with borrowings, but many of them are
returns, and the basic core of the language remains Germanic.
brokenvowels as sequences, converting what used to be a feature of the following consonants into a pattern of new distinctions within the vowel inventory.
wantto gain a preceding or following w or j don't if one is already there; weed becomes wid, not wjid. Preceding r or l has the same effect (reed breaks to rid), but h gives way itself (heed breaks to jid).
Contrary to the impression you'd get from a detailed account of the chaos the spelling system goes through early in this stage, the Classical period happens to be one of relative stability in the development of the language as a whole, and one that Late American speakers continue to regard as a formal standard.
shibilantsʃ and ʒ also undergo a phonetic shift towards ɕ, ʑ (technically, dorsal palatals, like Mandarin Chinese sh).
The language represented by the examples in the final section. By this point the Great Wheel of Morphology has come round from a thoroughly analytic to an increasingly agglutinative grammar, but there isn't room here to cover the complexities of Late American verb declensions.
ughat the very back of the mouth). When k or g come in contact with it they themselves become uvular (q, ɢ) and the ʁ may approach a gargled
metathesis) does not occur with heavier consonant clusters or word-finally. Remaining cases of aj become ɛ; otherwise the j is just dropped.
The examples given below are selected largely on the basis of
semantic stability; there's no point using a word like
computer, which means different things from century to
century. It also simplifies things to start with nouns,
which have no confusingly mutable inflected forms. The
spellings used are the closest transliteration I can manage
within the limitations of a twenty-first century characterset;
fortunately by the thirty-first century storing information as
strings of written words is something of a fossil handicraft
anyway (much like calligraphy in the present day), so an
anachronistic font is as good as any.
If you're wondering about the leading asterisks, those are a
slightly warped application of the convention used for
real reconstructed languages like Proto-Indo-European,
where the star in front of *oinom is a warning that it's an
best guess at the PIE for
one arrived at
by deducing the sound-change rules that separate it from modern
REH-ud wed blü
wu(ng) tsü tree fohgh FUH-uv
cease SEH-uv'm ed NUH-a(ng) tsa(ng)
The rough pronunciation guides above have deliberately not been
made too simple – that would risk leaving readers
with the impression that Futurese was just a lazy, garbled version
of Presentdayese. In particular those umlauts should serve to
remind readers that our successors will have different ideas about
what sounds are
easy, and which are
And finally: to give an impression of how much else has been going on besides regular sound-changes, here's a Late American rendition of the Colloquy of Aelfric (as seen previously), followed by a word-by-word analysis. 3000 AD American has metamorphosed into something that is clearly a new language, yet recognisably a descendant of English – sentences even have a familiar stress-timed rhythm.
Mind you, if you've been skipping over the phonetics and only looking at the spellings, you'll get an exaggerated impression of the differences between 2000 AD and 3000 AD, since our present-day standard orthography is basically mock-Chaucerian (for instance, we still write knight the way they used to say it: as nit with extra consonants). As a counterbalance to this, instead of repeating my sample text's 2000 AD version spelled as if it was Middle English, I'll do things the other way round and write it according to Classical American conventions here:
Wi txìldran beg yu, titxar,
|3000 AD:||*Zᴀ kiad w’‐exùn ya tijuh, da ya‐gᴀr’‐eduketan zᴀ da wa‐tᴀgan lidla, kaz ’ban iagnaran an wa‐tᴀg kurrap…|
Us-all, analogous in form to the second- and third-person *yᴀ, *dᴀ.
Kid, obviously enough.
we) and finite verb-stem; a twenty-fifth century slang term, origin unclear.
teacher, now restricted to meaning specifically a language-instructor.
That, as a subordinating conjunction.
gotta) and subordinate verb (
educate– note the preserved form).
Talk; pronominal prefix and subordinate verb.
legaldeveloped the specialised sense
linguistically well formed.