Last year, the Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year was vape. It's relatively new, as far as words go: It first appeared in an article in 1983 in connection with a then-hypothetical device. Other contenders for the Oxford nod included "bae" and "normcore," and, as vapid as they might seem, each of these new words represents a linguistic evolution.
The way we communicate changes rapidly — English is now the language of any business school curriculum in Korea, and in 100 years it might be spoken everywhere. Or it might be wiped out by the language of a new world power. To predict how we'll communicate in the future, we turned Dr. Gregory Guy, who specializes in language variation and change.
How does language typically change over time?
Well, the main thing about language change is that it’s not evolutionary in the sense of acquiring new capabilities. Sound systems change, words turn over, and syntactic structures change without any sense of improvement. So inevitably things will change, but without any sort of directionality.
So the change is arbitrary?
There are a couple of areas in which there are some general principles. So certain kinds of sound change are very common. When you have a sound like p, t, or k between two vowels, the common change is to make it b, d, or g. So you start out with a pronunciation like lit-tle, which is the way the British say that word, and you end up with an American-English pronunciation like lid-dle. That’s a very natural kind of change. Going the opposite direction would be extremely unusual.
The other main structural part of language is syntax, which is more obscure. It’s not clear why you get shifts like in German, where they put verbs at the ends of subordinate clauses. English probably had a structure like that 1,500 years ago, but no longer does. Why did that happen? I don’t think anybody really knows.
Will different pronunciations ever disappear?
I don’t think so, because nobody talks exactly like anybody else, and everybody experiences a wide range of pronunciations. The fact that the human population is diverse and produces sound differently is more or less a guarantee that you’re going to have irregular variability. Irregular variability means that things won’t be entirely stable across time, so there will be change.
People seek to be individuals, and just as you make different choices about what you’re going to eat, how you’re going to wear your hair, and who your friends are, you do that in terms of how you use language. One of the drivers of language change is that people are trying to be individuals. It’s probably true that today, as they did 1,000 years ago, people want to create an identity, and they use language to do it.
How will language change in the next 50 years?
Before modern communication, people throughout history were isolated from others who didn’t speak their language; if you lived in a village in Indonesia, you’d never have contact with anyone from Europe or Africa. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, you can hear the speech of people all over the world at any instant. So the total number of languages in the world is going to go down, and there’s going to be a lot of cross-influencing on those that continue to exist.
For instance, you have fairly great differences between Australian English and the English of India and the United States. So although English might turn out to be a world language, it’s going to be spoken with a lot of different accents.
Right now, it seems like English, Spanish, and Chinese are in a horse race to become the world’s lingua franca. Do we have any guarantee English will win out?
No. A lingua franca comes and goes depending on economics. Latin was the lingua franca during the Roman Empire, but with the fall of the empire, it lost that position. The global dominance of the United States and England is what facilitated the emergence of English as a world language, but if China becomes the No. 1 world economic and military power, then a lot of people will be learning Chinese.
Will regional dialects in the U.S. ever disappear?
Our perception of that is changing. The conventional wisdom used to be that local regional dialects were vital and persistent, because to be influenced by somebody you had to talk to them, and you’d talk a lot more to people who lived in the same region. People in Boston talked more to other people in Boston than they did to people in New York or Philadelphia, so they had a Boston accent.
But most of North America was r-pronouncing—they said “car” and “hair” instead of “cah” and “haih”— and now Boston and New York have become mostly r-pronouncing. They’ve lost this distinctive local characteristic and assimilated to the mass majority of the country, and that’s happening to regional characteristics in a lot of places. On some level, English appears to be getting homogenized.
Do you think the gender-neutral pronoun movement will ever take effect?
I’d say it’s unlikely. Typically you can go for 1,000 years or longer before seeing any kind of pronominal change.
But I do a lot of work in Portuguese, and there have been a couple of pronoun changes over a fairly short time span. The most remarkable is the emergence in the last 60 years of a new pronoun meaning “we.” It was originally a gente, which means “the people,” and it has essentially replaced the original pronoun for we, which is nós. The original word for we is rapidly receding in usage, and for some it’s disused already. Sixty years is awfully fast to change a pronoun. It’s like having a meteor hit the United States — yes, it is possible, but it’s rare.
Well, thank you for your time, and have a great afternoon.
That’s one other thing I should mention — I’ve noticed that the standard greeting of saying “farewell” has changed abruptly. “Good-bye” was pretty much the standard, but the phrase “have a nice day” or “enjoy the rest of your day” has been spreading like wildfire. Now when I get off the elevator I feel weird saying “good-bye” to the people I’ve been talking to.
Maybe it’s because of what’s printed on grocery bags?
That could be. It seems to be happening fairly quickly.
Well, I’ll just say “good-bye.”
I’ll go with “bye-bye.”