Look to the future

Posted by on September 29, 2010

What is the future of the English language, I wonder? As arguably the pre-eminent linguistic force on the globe, where does it go from here?

David Crystal and Stephen Fry discussed the future of English in a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, whilst language experts have been meeting to discuss the fate of the world’s dying languages, many of which fall victim to speakers’ desire to better themselves by learning the dominant language of the region.

English is the third most-widely spoken language in the world (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish), but it’s widely recognized as the language of the Internet, the media, international communications and travel (consider that English is the lingua franca of aviation, regardless of who or where you are).

Like other powerful languages, English attained its position through conquest and colonization; the US was home to many different languages prior to the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, and the same can be said of places like Australia and India. Once the colonists arrived, however, things began to change; English became the language of power and wealth and local languages gradually found themselves relegated to a subordinate position that reflected the status of their speakers. With the advancing tide of language, came cultural change, both reflecting the altered world view that comes with speaking a new language – expressing concepts and attitudes that don’t exist in the native tongue, for example – and further cementing it.

The correlation between power and linguistic dominance continues to this day; Crystal and Fry made the point that whether English retains its position in the future will depend on the relative power of those who speak it. (The converse, of course, being that as long as people continue to see dominant languages like English as the key to social advancement, minority languages will face extinction, which I think is a huge shame.)

It’s also true, though, that English is something of a ‘mongrel’ language, featuring elements from Germanic and Romance languages, as well as those colonized over the years (hence our popular What’s your English campaign!). And, of course, nothing is static. English itself is constantly changing, not least with the rise in recent years of ‘Globish’ a ‘decaffeinated’ version of English designed to provide a common – but easier to manage – language for non-native, but differing-L1-speakers (L1=first language).

To my mind, though, the likelihood is that English will continue to hold its position of dominance, while Globish will take up the ‘second class’ position, pushing native languages even further down the tree. Unless we all – native and non-native speaker alike – begin to use Globish, I think ‘proper’ English will hold onto its top spot, and all the power that comes with it.

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