“[English] is spreading because it is expressive and useful." — The Economist
In the ongoing state of modern globalization, language has become a barrier that cannot be ignored. At a point in recent history, some believed that Chinese might become the language of the future, but today China exists as the world’s largest English speaking population. English communication is thriving with some of the world’s largest and most disruptive companies based in English-speaking countries, so it is no surprise that international communication is highly dependent on English being a common ground.
So it is official, English is here to stay. But that doesn’t mean we will be able to recognize it 100 years from now.
The English language is a dynamic organism that has undergone many instances of transformation, and will continue to do so. As English becomes more and more recognized as being universal, it will undergo changes to better suit its role as an international language. The implications for other cultures are great, but the implications for the English language itself are also radical.
What Can the Past Say About the Future?
Historically, English has been simplified time and time again so that what we formally write and speak today does not look much or sound much like the traditional Anglo-Saxon form. The language has continuously taken on new characteristics mainly derived from the fact that the majority of the English speaking population is not native to it. By 2020 it has been predicted that only 15% of the English speaking population will be native English speakers.
This has never been lost on linguists. In 1930, English linguist Charles K. Ogden developed what he called “Basic English,” comprised of 860 English words and designed for foreign tongues. While it did not stick at the time, it has since become a strong influence for “Simplified English,” which is the official dialect for English technical communications, such as technical manuals.
There are a number of reasons why Simplified English is essential to technical communications. In considering the benefits of content strategy, one must consider the significance of content reuse. Reuse, as it turns out, is also beneficial to the process of translation.
Translating content is no small cost, but companies can drastically reduce this expense through reuse. In reuse, content is run through translation memory systems (TMSs) which identify content strings (text) that have already been translated. This pattern-matching greatly reduces the scope of the process and is referred to as an aspect of “intelligent content”. Accordingly, reducing the language and restricting the words used will also lead to savings in time and cost when it comes to translation, especially using these TMSs. An unavoidable consequence of Simplified English is the plain and repetitive language within the content; albeit constructive repetition, but boring just the same.
In Managing Enterprise Content, Charles Cooper and Anne Rockley advocate for the advantages of “consistent structure, consistent terminology, and standardized writing guidelines”. While these benefits are undeniable, it is an active shrinking of the English language, at least within the context of communications.
The frighten question then becomes, what will English look like in the future? Is this the death of the English language?
The Enrichment of a New English
The English language is currently being shaped by foreign speakers, and our need of communication with them. A deep study of five languages conducted by John McWhorter suggested that when a large number of foreign speakers learn a language imperfectly, the doing away with unnecessary bits of grammar is a key element in shaping language. Thus, the dialect they speak can be thought of as a simpler version of the language.
However, McWhorter also notes that simpler or “different” is not synonymous with “worse”. In a lively TED Talk, Txting is Killing Language. JK!!!, he branched away from the discussion of what non-native speakers have done with the language, to direct attention towards what technology has done to the language. Texting, he argues, is evidence that youth today are “expanding their linguistic repertoire”.
Describing this as “fingered speech”—something altogether different from formal writing—McWhorter states that what we are witnessing through this phenomenon is actually an “emergent complexity” of the English language. This argument positions simpler English (which texting can easily be defined as) as the polar opposite of a decline. Instead, it is enrichment.
For McWhorter, the dialect of texting represents a new kind of language with an entirely new structure. Isn’t this what we are witnessing with Simplified English as well? What McWhorter significantly points out is that there is more than one aspect of modern life that is altering the English language, but its dynamism can be a positive thing. He goes so far as to call texting a “linguistic miracle”.
McWhorter is not the only one who sees this transformation in a positive light. Returning to the concept of a universal or international language, The Economist argues that while language may simplify because it is spreading, “it is spreading because it is expressive and useful”.
The Global Implications for the Future of English
Founding editor of The Futurist magazine wrote in 2011 that the concept of a single universal language is a great one with wonderful opportunities for business relations, but the reality is that the cost of initial training would be absurd. Yet, it does not seem so far-fetched that the transformation of the English language might helm a natural advancement towards an accepted single language. And it may well be an English that we would no longer recognize in the centuries to come. Perhaps George Orwell’s concept of Newspeak is actually on the horizon.
But the notion that only one language would be spoken does not account for the different ways that non-native speakers adjust to English. For example, the EU Court of Auditors has gone so far as to publish a style guide to address the problematic EU-isms when it comes to speaking English. The guide features a sub-section in the introduction titled “Does It Matter?” that writes:
The European Institutions also need to communicate with the outside world and our documents need to be translated—both tasks that are not facilitated by the use of terminology that is unknown to native speakers and either does not appear in dictionaries or is shown to them with a different meaning.
In response to this guide, The Economist noted that misuses of language that are still being used and are understood overtime are no longer misuses, but a new dialect.
As The Economist pointed out, “languages don’t really decline”, but they do change. Without a doubt English is changing, and for a number of valid reasons we may be better off to accept it rather than to fight it.
What is clear is that the need for coherent cross-cultural communications supports the desire to transform, and even simplify, the language. This does not necessarily represent a regression, but rather a progression as we further embrace modern globalization.