Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Future Imperfect

XKCD Cartoon
From a recent XKCD, via Language Log, comes this concise observation on the future history of the English language. (Don't forget to go to XKCD and do the mouse-over.) Over a somewhat longer time scale - but just how long is very hard to say - the spoken English of the future will become unintelligible, with the written language following at (perhaps) a slightly slower pace. There's at least one online speculation about 'Murrican in the year 3000, though the website is currently down.

Given how widely it is spoken, I can readily imagine future English dividing into an 'Anglic' family of languages, as Latin fissured into the Romance languages. I seem to recall Arthur C. Clarke arguing that none of this would happen, because sound recording would freeze the language. He was wrong; apparently even the BBC no longer uses 'classical' BBC English.

The rate at which this might happen is not known. There have been suggestions that language change, like genetic drift, is random in detail but happens at statistically predictable rates. But the known rates of language change vary widely. English has changed beyond intelligibility in the last thousand years*; Islandic Icelandic [oops!] has changed only slightly, and I've read that classical Greek is about as accessible to modern Greeks as Chaucer is to us.

* Written English artificially exaggerates this, because Old English had very different spelling rules, but the spoken language would still be unintelligible. The biggest change wasn't all those French words the Normans brought, but the near disappearance of the Germanic grammatical case system - probably already fading from the spoken language before 1066.

In any case we can only speculate about future English; we cannot predict it. For story purposes, however, we might want to evoke it. Inventing new slang words is an ever popular trick, though it is more common (and more interesting) for familiar words to acquire new meanings, as 'text' has now become a verb.

Over longer time periods the rhythm of speech changes, which ultimately brings changes in grammar. 'Yoda I am' is a familiar example, long since beaten to death. Firefly used a mix of invented curse words and some subtle shifts of speech rhythm to effectively convey a different era. I once played around with using a pseudo 18th century diction to represent 'Standard English,' used in the 28th century as medieval people used Latin; a character trying to come on to communicate with a girl in a foreign station describes a trade starship as an Indiaman.

Over longer time periods recognizable features would disappear, and a future language can only be represented by tone. The challenge then is a familiar one, equivalent to people in a fantasy novel speaking an invented language, or Marcus Didius Falco speaking a slangy, streetwise Latin.

Related Post: My last look at language speculated about communication with aliens.


Milo said...

As long as people keep talking to each other, this will tie their languages together - Latin followed a single course in the Roman Empire (though it did change over time), but when Rome fell, Latin quickly fractured into the various Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, etc.). Today, communication is easier than it's ever been during the Roman Empire. The internet is leading to increasing degrees of globalism, giving people - and not just a few diplomats, but everyone - a serious incentive to continue speaking the same language. There are differences between British and American English, partially holdovers from their separate histories before communication became this easy, partially because of some remaining non-global tendencies, but I doubt they are on a permanently diverging path.

So while language might keep changing significantly - though it's hard to say yet what effect, if any, the modern information-continuity technology will have - it'll probably diversify less and less over time. What I mean is, while 2500 AD English might not be mutually comprehensible with 2000 AD English, 2500 AD English and 2500 AD American quite likely will. 2500 AD English and 2500 AD Mimasian, or even 2500 AD Solarian and 2500 AD Rigellian, however, might differ wildly, depending on how significant communications barriers are. If communication is possible but difficult/slow - as in the Middle Ages - then a common language will exist that diplomats and scholars use, but the uneducated rabble wouldn't know it and would only speak the local tongue.

If you have a FALL OF EMPIRE, then you'll most likely follow the Roman example, with numerous separate languages suddenly sparking up. (You don't need to have an imperial collapse. Communications could simply be too difficult for a large empire to have ever taken hold in the first place, in which case language diversification would have happened more gradually as humanity expands, rather than all star systems suddenly getting in on the act at once.)

Thucydides said...

Counter forces include regional chauvinism, the desire to create barriers (professional argot and jargon is a good starting point) and separation.

One of the reasons I spell "colour" with a U while Americans don't is a deliberate policy by Americans after the revolution to differentiate spellings in early dictionaries so they would not be "British".

Even invented languages like Ilaksh or LOJBAN will probably devolve as rocket jocks develop their own argot and doctors and lawyers invent technical terms. Lojban speakers on Miranda will have their own regional accent and be looked down upon by Lojban speakers in the rest of the Uranus system.

English may survive in some weirdly mutated form simply because the language and culture adapt and adopt new words from other cultures much ore readily than others adopt english words.

kedamono@mac.com said...

Lojban is the sister (or daughter depending on who you ask) language of Loglan. So it's already schismed into to different branches.

The RPG FTL:2448 uses Loglan as the universal language, and I wrote about that in my blog, Lost Worlds of FTL:2448, in my posts,New type of character for FTL:2448: "Le Ractua" and "Coi hu sanbatmi tie logli".

Also, English is not a dominant language in 2448, Brazilian is, thanks to the Lawless Years, which should be starting soon according to the game's timeline.

Add in alien languages with words or concepts that humans can pronounce or get their minds around, and human languages can change radically.

One feature to go would be gender. (Remember, words have gender, people have sex.) With aliens that have 3 or more sexes, the language would lose such things like "him" or "her", everyone would be "it".

Milo said...

Gender is a language feature that many current people are cursing, as it's considered "politically incorrect". It's probably on the way out if current social trends continue, but essentially language hasn't "caught up" yet, because social standards are shifting faster than language.

There's certainly no limitation for language to only have two genders/noun classes - in fact, many real languages have more, whether they're just male/female/neuter or something completely unrelated to biological gender. Some languages have more than ten. So I don't see why, say, sentient bees in their native language... sorry, some of their native languages... couldn't have separate "genders" for queen, drone, and worker. Of course, those bees would have trouble figuring out what to call us...

Milo said...

Another observation: Older terms tend to be more, well, fossilized or arbitrary, than newer ones. Today, no-one except linguists remembers the etymology of the word "gun", even though it does have one. As far as most people are concerned, a gun is simply a gun, and the word is a completely arbitrary lexical unit with no visible derivation. Meanwhile, many newer concepts like "starship" still have visible etymologies, since it's hard to just come up with a random catchy term on the spot - you need an actual history for "unitary" terms like "gun" to develop.

Of course there is a degree of randomness to how fast words can fossilize. "Destroyer" has an immediately obvious English etymology while "frigate" does not, even though today both refer to practically the same type of ship.

There is a visible intermediate stage where etymologies are still known, but ignored. Most English-speakers today still know that "bitch" technically means "female dog", but you won't ever hear anyone using the word that way unless he's making a pun.

In the far future, though, technologies that we now see as new and radical (for example space travel and internet) will have already been mature for centuries, long enough for their associated terminology to fossilize. A galactic empire's word for "starship" won't simply be their word for "star" plus their word for "ship", nor even recognizably close to it.

gwern said...



Citizen Joe said...

There's also the typical softening of consonants that can make some speech unrecognizable just one border over. Space environments may change things even further. For example, I had suggested using Helium as a buffer gas on microgee ships (rather than the heavier nitrogen). This would make spacers sound really squeaky and language my change to mitigate any problems that may cause.

Milo said...

You're using helium to save mass? I doubt air is going to be the heaviest part of your spaceship...

Even at some quite low estimates of spaceship density, they still have around 20 times the density of nitrogen (which is in turn around 7 times the density of helium).

Mink said...

This is a problem of particular concern to writers, because the old standby of using slang terms and neologisms and 'different' or 'cryptic' words -- c.f. Original Galactica, "frack" made it to NuGal, "felgercarb" didn't! -- has become rather worn about the edges and is seen as gimmickey, without pulling the curtain up to show what's backstage at least a little. One of the most grievous offenders, and which made the book not-well-received, (though it was a good story) was Neal Stephenson's Anathem. Even The Peshewar Lancers which draws from historical terminology can fall into this trap, since sometimes the phrases and terms that are not immediately familiar to the reader are sprinkled throughout the story. This made both stories actively hard to get through and many saw it as a gimmick to 'strangify' the worlds. The use of alternate terminology needs to be handled carefully.

Cambias said...

L. Sprague DeCamp wrote an essay called "Language For Time-Travellers" back in 1938, discussing how English might evolve in the future, with some very useful suggestions for writers.

The trouble is that it's a doomed game. A writer who does create a way of speaking English that's different from how we speak today winds up with characters who "sound funny" to his readers. But if he makes them sound okay to his contemporary readers, then fifty years later they "sound funny" because they're so dated!

Cambias said...

Also, of course, there is the issue of "which English do you mean?" Even within the same town you have people speaking different dialects based on social class and race. In America the tendency has generally been for local dialects to vanish, but also for new ones to be introduced. There are vanishingly few people with a "true" Boston Irish accent, but an increasing number of Americans from India with a "Desi" accent.

Glaurung_Quena said...

From Chaucer to Marlowe and from Marlowe to the 20th century are both around the same span of time (using Marlowe because his writing was more ordinary and less fancy than Shakespeare's).

Looking at the differences in those two jumps, it seems to me that increased literacy and the printing press have indeed severely slowed the pace of change of English, because there's a much bigger difference (not just in spelling and vocabulary but in structure) between Chaucer and Elizabethan English than there is between Elizabethan English and modern English.

Which is why I think Clarke wasn't all that far off -- obviously English is still changing despite technology, but the pace of change with just the printing press has been much slower than without it, that it makes sense that the internet is going to slow things down even further.

OTOH, spoken language continued to evolve quite a bit from Marlowe to now... so my best guess is a future world where English-speaking people can still easily read materials from our time, but have a great deal of trouble understanding our movies without subtitles.

Milo said...

Written language is often more "formal" than spoken language, hence why it may be affected less by change.

On the other hand, the increasing amount of text communication on the internet is threatening this distinction, as we're more and more using written language as casually as people in the past used spoken language.

Regarding the "still evolving but slower" thing, I tend to think of language as not so much fixed as it's tied down by a rubber band. You can always tug just a little further, but unless something happens to cause the rubber band to snap, you can never move more than a certain distance from where it's anchored.

Anonymous said...

English is changing; it's slowly starting to homogenize! In a century or three, all English speakers probably will be sounding the same as all the rest...Now, the English spoken at Sol might be different from the English spoken on Terra Nova in the 4th Millinium, but it may be that the star travellers of the 4th Millinium all speak the same language as a matter of necessity, but colonies experiance language drift and wind up evolving distinctly new languages.


Thucydides said...

Ferrell, English is not starting to homogenize.

When I was in Afghanistan, the people I had the most difficulty understanding were the British (with their wildly varying regional accents encompassed in a nation where you can practically throw a rock into the Ocean from any direction) and the Americans (who at least have a continent to explain their regionalisms...)

Weirdly, the easiest people to understand were Eastern Europeans, who all had these "Classic" BBC English accents (an artifact of their language training). This made the underlying strangeness of mangled tenses and rather surreal conversations as they mentally translated from Romanian or Bulgarian even greater, if you know what I mean.

Another language story involves the Province of Quebec, settled as "New France" in the 1500's with people largely drawn from Normandy, Brittany and so on. The British conquered New France in the 1700's, and the people and language were isolated from trends in the French language, including the edict by the Revolutionaries that Parisian would be the "official" dialect of French. Today movies made in Quebec need to be subtitled when shown in France since Quebec French has diverged so much since the late 1700s.

A colony settled and staffed by Californian aerospace engineers will certainly sound strange to everyone else in a generation or two (maybe even faster as language busters like texting become more common and influence the language).

Rick said...

Welcome to a couple of new commenters!

Yes, I meant 'Icelandic,' and have duly fixed the spelling on the front page.

Writing is traditionally conservative, but at some point people may realize that the language they're writing is no longer a decent approximation of the one they speak - thus the relatively abrupt rise of writing in the Romance vernaculars. They were also favored for new styles of literature, hence the many meanings of 'Romance.'

In the current era mass media favor standardization, or more precisely the development of a shared koine. This blog is one example; half my readership is in the US, with the rest divided about equally between the non-US Anglosphere and the rest of the world. But in future eras a different dynamics might favor the localization of speech communities.

kedamono@mac.com said...

Well, it's my opinion that what has been driving the homogenization of 'Merkin English has not been TV or the written word. It has been mobility.

After WWI, mobility of the average American went up. With the Great Depression, whole communities picked up and moved to other regions of the States, commingling and intermingling the different dialects.

This really accelerated with the creation of the Interstate Highway system. It has become so cheap to move, that a family in Atlanta, Georgia, can for a relatively modest sum, move to Seattle, Washington.

Dialects only survive if there is little or no influence from other dialects. And it's a two way interaction.

Jus' list'n to that varmit what's on the boob tube a talk'n, tain't change thu way we'un talk 'bouts heyah.

It's when a whole passel of them varmits move in next door and serve you coffee or hamburgers at the Burger Barn, that you start losing the local dialect. But in turn, those varmits are losing their dialect as well.

Eventually, the dialects even out, but they will be different, based who are the interacting partners.

Anonymous said...

My wife grew up in Alabama and I grew up in Oregon; when we first got married, we would both regularly ask each other to repeat what the other said, fairly often, but now we sound more like each other; Kedamono had it right and that's where I got my idea of the homogenization of the English language. As more and more English speaking people listen to each other talk more and more often, the more they will pick up each others terms, words, and cadences...the process is slow; it takes many generations, sometimes centuries for this process to even to become noticable; the level of intercommunication that I'm talking about has only been in effect for barely one generation, if that, so the effect is only slight and scattered, only noticable in one or two words and a nearly imperceptable shift in cadence and certain phrases. We are at the begining of this trend, so it won't be readily noticable for several decades or a couple of generations more, at least.


Winchell said...

Obligatory Atomic Rocket link,
especially this.

Carla said...

Written English may develop in a different direction from spoken English in part because of the influence of the English-language internet, perhaps. E.g. you mention your international readership on this blog; the chances of everyone here experiencing each other's spoken language must be vanishingly small, but all the contributors experience each other's written (typed) English at every visit. 'Net English' may develop into a sort of international language distinct from national or regional variants of English.

In story terms, representing future language is exactly the same problem as fantasy writers have with invented language or historical writers have with past language, as you say. There's a balance between making it sufficiently similar to contemporary English to be accessible to contemporary English-speaking readers and making it sufficiently different to convey a flavour of a different time, place or culture. I doubt there's any hard and fast rule as to where to strike that balance.

Milo said...

If typed and spoken language evolve differently, then accents will probably diverge more than grammar. I can read which words you typed and in what order, so I will absorb those sentence patterns, but I can't tell how you're pronouncing those words.

The idea of two languages that have practically the same grammar, yet sound so different that they're mutually unintelligible without a translator, is intriguing...

"I doubt there's any hard and fast rule as to where to strike that balance."

For the language the actual story is written in, I think it's best to stick to English-as-the-readers-know-it, changing only parts directly pertaining to the culture and technology level of a setting (i.e., don't use metaphors/similes based on technologies that haven't been invented yet in-setting, and do give the characters convenient jargon for technologies that have clunky names today but are commonplace in the future).

If you want to actually make up your own language, Tolkien style, then you can go much further and should aim to not make your language resemble English too much (unless it actually is a future derivative of English). However most of your readers won't be able to understand this reader, so unless you want to write a book with a very limited audience, you have to translate the characters' dialogue to English in the actual story.

Anonymous said...

Carla said...
"E.g. you mention your international readership on this blog; the chances of everyone here experiencing each other's spoken language must be vanishingly small, but all the contributors experience each other's written (typed) English at every visit. 'Net English' may develop into a sort of international language distinct from national or regional variants of English. "

So..."Netish" is the linga franca of the future?


Rick said...

Or people may use two variants of language. I understand that spoken Arabic varies widely. Historically it has been kept from fracturing into a language family by the religious importance of classical Arabic, sort of like Latin on steroids.

I gather that now, due to cable TV, most Arabs are familiar with a semi-formal spoken Arabic, while using their local forms at home. Which may or may not be stable - language use is in a new environment now, global village or global cacaphony.

Thucydides said...

The idea of two languages that have practically the same grammar, yet sound so different that they're mutually unintelligible without a translator, is intriguing...

Mandrin Chinese and Cantonese are spoken in such different manners they seem totally unrelated, yet they share a comon written form which any educated Chinese can read...

Rick said...

I am thoroughly uninformed about the relationship of spoken Chinese 'dialects' to each other and the written language, but I've gotten the same impression.

Language Log discusses this fairly regularly, but I don't know enough to fully understand the discussion.

Lazertalon said...

Looking at things across the globe, there are other languages currently picking up english loan words enmasse. In addition to following SF I have been one of the many in the US that have been influenced by the advent of anime brought into the US. In japanese there are many words now that have been taken from english(and other languages) that have been integrated into daily life. Even though there was an original word for it, news (Nyu-zu) is now a daily occurance. Even that is not the limitation of post occupational change. There are many words that are coming out such as light novels(raito noberu) and such. Cultural impacts from one part of the globe (or significant future events from elsewhere) can greatly influence the change in languages. Even overlaps such as the american use of manga come into more daily expression. These changes are happening at a rapid pace in comparison to some of the more classical eras. Homogenization of language seems to be inevitable on earth as communication internationally is increased. That having been said, local dialects will exist for local purposes. The adaptation into mainstream text/language will depend on thier cultural(or financial) impact.

Rick said...

Welcome to a new commenter!

The word 'anime' itself has had a fascinating journey - from a Latin root to English, then Japanese, and now back to English. There's also a story to be told about the samurai and ninja invasion of 'Murrican pop culture.

'Small' languages may be in trouble, where 'small' means without enough speakers to support a media culture. Languages that can support a media culture are more likely to hold their own, as a marker of regional identity.

Turbo10k said...

It's agood thing you bought up Arabic. We have one form-written form-that is conserved 'as it is' due to religious reasons, while the other, the 'spoken form' that everyone uses.

Written arabic is hard to write, slow in formation, with complicated grammar and a 'heavy' style to it that makes it disagreeable to read quickly. Spoken form has no regulation, yet is used by everyone, so it has:
-Important regional variations (I can't understand some of Egyptian, and Lebanese in quite incomprehensible)
-A very flexible grammar (You can make several mistakes in a phrase yet due to the interchangeable nature of the language, you can pretty much understand anything the other guy is saying)
-A changing vocabulary (Very important point. In North Africa, you'd be surprised by the number of french and englsih words used. Wordbuilding is hard with arabic, so regular speakers just take shortcuts; they take the whole word from another language and use it as such. Take 'internet' for example. It is pronounced as you would, used the same, and has the same meaning, but to hell if I know what the official, written form arabic name is for it. Probably something like 'information network')
-Funny situations arise as people try and use arabic phonetics to transcribe imported words into written form.

In the future, we could have a written, 'Loglang' type language which is conserved in the ship's computer and allows interstellar communication between colonies. This would be like everyone owning Windows. We could then have a spoken, mutating and constantly diffracting english or such that combines whatever vocabulary and grammar the crews have for mutual understanding inside a ship, with the most popular forms being exported through shuip crews. Imagine an english population and a chinese population are cooped up in a single space hab for months on end for a mining job. They'd make up their own language that would be conserved with the miners as they return back home or start another job...

Jim Baerg said...

Re English spliting up into an 'Anglic' family of languages.

It will only happen if english speakers get into geographically (or astrographically)separated commumities with little communication between them.

Poul Anderson wrote a few stories in which that was part of the background eg: the Maurai series set on a post apocalyptic earth with several centers of rebuilding civilization, some of them speaking descendents of English. Several characters remark on how it's still fairly easy to learn the language spoken in western N. America if one knows the language spoken in the British Isles, but there are signigicant differences. In _A Tragedy of Errors_, set centuries after the fall of the Terran Empire in the Polesotechnic future history, shifts in the meanings of words drive the plot.

Milo said...

It occurs to me that one obvious repercussion of a primarily writing-based international language, is that people will tend to pronounce words the way they're spelled. Irregular and illogical pronounciations will tend to get forgotten when you've never heard anyone speak a particular word, only seen it in writing. This will affect rarely-used specialist terminology more than commonplace words, since people will probably still know some spoken English even if it's mainly a written language for them.

This, of course, has rather serious ramifications on English, even if we assume that the many odd-but-consistent rules (like silent letters) get remembered.

Turbo10k said...

"It occurs to me that one obvious repercussion of a primarily writing-based international language, is that people will tend to pronounce words the way they're spelled"

As is the case of anyone trying to learn english from scratch without a fluently speaking companion. Phonetic systems are inefficient today and the amount of work required to learn them and decipher them quickly is much more than the benefit (that is, getting yourself to pronounce correctly, but with a strange, broken accent).

Rick said...

English is notorious for its wholesale borrowing of foreign words. And there is continuing borrowing among varieties of English. In the last couple of years I have learned to use 'kerfuffle,' an Anglicism previously unknown to me.

And once for a wargame I looked up the Greek word for aircraft carrier: aeroplanophoron. My first reaction is that it is a borrowing, which it is, but not by the Greeks.

VonMalcolm said...


If my neck of the woods is any indicator 'seen' will have a major impact on any upcoming 'Universal Language': 'I seen him yesterday;' 'I seen her at the gym;' I hear phrases like these all too often.

Seen you all later!

VonMalcolm said...

NOW I am bookmarking!

Rick said...

In my neck of the woods I don't particularly notice that usage of 'seen,' even in colloquial speech.

Which is why different necks of the woods, if left to themselves over time, can slide toward different dialects and ultimately different languages.

Davyd said...

Just a couple thoughts to add at this late date:

The peculiarities of English spelling are, in no small part, an example of how spoke and written languages evolve differently. Once upon a time there was a sound in English that was represented on printing presses as "gh." Words like "night" had this sound in them.

Then spoken English changed - and written English didn't. Where English is really weird is that so many of our vowel sounds changed, almost none of the old phonetic spellings still work. But written English clings to the classical forms.

As for the homogonising of English: I think it's happening, but slowly. And I think age has something to do with it. I'm over 30, and most people my age seem to have a fairly identifiable accent. On the other hand, most under-22's I talk to sound like they're from California. And knowing more than one person who is actually from California, I do have something to compare it to. It's not universal, and it seems to be stronger in the cities than in the rural areas - head outside of town and there are three different regional accents nearby depending on which way you go - so I think the mobiilty factor mentioned is a big one, too; city folk see more strangers and visitors. But it does seem to be happening.

Rick said...

Revitalizing another old thread!

On English spelling, there is one other oddity - the complete replacement of the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) spelling rules (e.g., 'cwen' for our word queen). For a longish period after the Norman invasion hardly anyone was writing in English at all (in Norman-French or Latin instead). When English writing revived, a new set of spelling rules* was applied.

* Used loosely!

I wouldn't be surprised if urban American English is standardizing as you suggest, but global English might be a different matter. People relocate freely between Boston and SF - to London or Sydney, not so much.