How English Is Changing.

Michael Erard has an Audible Range piece on how English is developing:

You might think of English, which is spoken by the largest number of people on the planet, as a mighty, never-ending river, full of life and always churning and changing. If you speak the language, it’s natural to wonder where this river is headed. And who will shape the sounds that bubble out of it in the future — 20, 50, or even 100 years from now?

Feeding the river are two tributaries that determine its direction. One of these carries the influence of the estimated two billion people who speak English as a non-native language. They are influential not just because of their number but also because the majority of interactions in English in the world occur between non-native speakers — as many as 80 percent, according to linguists. This is English playing its role as a global lingua franca, helping speakers of other languages connect with each other.

The other tributary carries the changes that English has been undergoing for hundreds of years. Between the 12th and 16th centuries, for example, English underwent the “great vowel shift,” which shortened some vowels, like “ee” to “aye,” and pushed others up and to the front of the mouth, so that the Middle English vowel pronounced “oh” is now pronounced “oo,” as in “boot.”

In the mid-20th century, linguist and English historian at the University of Michigan Albert Marckwardt argued that English wasn’t done changing and that the momentum of the past would carry on into the future.

There’s discussion of how non-native speakers change vowels, consonants, and intonation patterns, and audio links to the start of A Tale of Two Cities read in Old English, modern British-English, and “what English might sound like in 100 years.”

Comments

  1. Wow, that reading from A Tale of Two Cities in a century was a shocker! Do they really see the language going that way by extrapolating current trends? What dialect is it based on? Do linguists really see /e/ evolving into /a/? Or /ɔ/ into /o/?

  2. George Grady says:

    The future version of A Tale of Two Cities sounds like it was read by Tia Dalma from the Pirates of Caribbean movies.

    In any case, it sounds well within the range of modern English already.

  3. I think the idea is an absurd conceit. There is no evidence that any of the L1 (“inner”) Englishes are being significantly affected, except in lexis, by any L2 variety; immigrants use the local L1 by the second, or at most the third, generation. There is also no evidence that the different L2 varieties are merging either, except perhaps in India, where L2 English speakers mostly learn from other L2 English speakers. (I could be wrong about Europe: is there a single European L2 variety emerging, Europeans, or can you still easily tell who’s from where by their English?)

    Of course it’s possible that the L1 Englishes (including for this purpose Indian English) will diverge enough to be called separate dialects or even separate languages, but even that I doubt within so small a period as a century.

  4. January First-of-May says:

    I suspect the best linguistic version of “English in a century” is the one produced by Justin B. Rye as a prelude to his “Futurese” (i.e. “English in a millenium”) article (as seen over here – the “century” version is under “Early American”).

    Realistically, of course (as played with by JBR in a different work), in a century, technology will probably advance to the point where the question of accents, or perhaps even language itself, might not have much, if any, relation to what’s going on today.

  5. Eli Nelson says:

    @Bathrobe: According to Geoff Lindsey, for many British speakers, [ɔː] has already evolved into [oː].

  6. Century is a long time and it’s hard to make accurate predictions.

    In relatively near future, say within a a couple of decades, I expect mass introduction of systems which can read subvocalizations and send them as text messages going directly to analog of Google Glass of the recipient or as voice messages to be be played in recipients miniaturized headphones.

    The result will be a development of functional telepathy for human species, likely followed by abandonment of speech replaced with much faster subvocalized text messaging.

  7. @ Eli Nelson

    I was actually referring to the transformation of /wɔz/ (‘was’) into /woːz/.

    For /ɔ/ and /oː/, my pronunciation is almost the same as contemporary RP, but /wɔz/ is still identifiably /wɔz/, not /woːz/! It seems like a strange direction of change.

  8. (I could be wrong about Europe: is there a single European L2 variety emerging, Europeans, or can you still easily tell who’s from where by their English?)
    I can broadly tell where people come from by their L2 accent, i.e., Scandinavians, Baltic, Russians, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch/Flemish, though with very good L2 accents I often miss.

  9. /ɛ/ has been trending downward in both American and Southern British English, so something like [a] isn’t inconceivable there – but I don’t see how NORTH-FORCE words could plausibly move toward [ɑ], when the trend there has been in the opposite direction. (Maybe they’ve mistakenly associated those sets with the declining American THOUGHT vowel?) And the use of [woz] and [av] seems pretty strange, especially given that both of those take [ǝ] except when stressed.

    There’s also the [a] in ‘epoch’, which seems to have collapsed into the same massive phoneme that’s swallowed up /ɛ/; in either an Estuary pattern or a Valley Girl pattern, we’d expect that one to move back and/or up. The conservative [u] in ‘foolishness’ is weird too, given that that vowel gets fronted to some extent pretty much everywhere.

  10. I think the idea is an absurd conceit.

    Well, in detail, sure, but it’s fun to talk about!

  11. matematichica says:

    Old English doesn’t quite seem like the appropriate comparison here–as the fine print says, they translated it and then had someone read it from the IPA. But the article is really mostly about pronunciation change, and those changes are rather hidden by the translation process. It would have been nicer to go back less far. Maybe Early Middle English would be a better choice, if we could see the Great Vowel Shift. Even Early Modern English has some nice contrast with present pronunciation.

  12. I would say that yes, to a native speaker of a Nordic language it is usually very easy to identify another Nordic from their English alone. Exceptions of course for people who have been immersed in English-speaking cultures.

    Anecdotal evidence: I was sat next to a young woman on the train today who was speaking English with her (Swiss) friends – – this is in Stockholm — and I was 99% sure she was Danish. I was delivered of the quandary whether to ask — speaking to a stranger would be a terrible faux pas if that stranger was actually Swedish — because she overheard my Danish-accented Swedish on the phone and asked me first 🙂

    Turned out she was a linguistics student from Copenhagen taking a course about some aspect of English at Stockholm — a short but wide ranging conversation ensued leaving her friends totally in the dark. Their verdict: Swedish can sometimes sound a bit like certain regional varieties of German and allow them to pick out a few words at least, but Danish — forget it.

  13. Eli Nelson says:

    @Bathrobe:

    I was actually referring to the transformation of /wɔz/ (‘was’) into /woːz/.

    Ah, I see! That explains the absence of length marks in your original post. And yeah, it does seem strange to extrapolate the raising in that way.

    @Lazar:

    The conservative [u] in ‘foolishness’ is weird too, given that that vowel gets fronted to some extent pretty much everywhere.

    Maybe the idea is that [u] is fronted in all contexts except before /l/. That seems to be consistent with current pronunciation for some people.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    Lars: I would say that yes, to a native speaker of a Nordic language it is usually very easy to identify another Nordic from their English alone. Exceptions of course for people who have been immersed in English-speaking cultures.

    Yeah, and not only between the Nordic languages. With the same obvious exception, one can discern the part of Norway a speaker is from from the accent in their English.

    I moved to Bergen when I had just turned thirteen, after four years of English in school. It was weird to hear my teacher say to the class that it’s easier to speak good English with a Bergen accent than an eastern one, since the English of my classmates sounded distinctly accented to me.

  15. speaking to a stranger would be a terrible faux pas if that stranger was actually Swedish

    Does that mean it is a social error to speak to unknown Swedes in any case, or merely a social error to speak to them in Danish, or something else altogether?

    My guess is that the vocalism of the future-English sample has nothing to do with ongoing L1 vowel shifts, but is an attempt to assimilate English to a simple /a e i o u/ vowel system as much as possible, as of course many L2 speakers do.

  16. Talking to strangers is not the done thing in Sweden, at least not in Stockholm. Tourists get an exemption, of course, but otherwise you’re met with polite bafflement that someone they haven’t known since kindergarten is trying to establish friendly relations.

    It’s the leading cause of expat talent loss for Stockholm companies — their families are frozen out and give up.

  17. 1-I quite agree with John Cowan: the same imbalance of power, whereby English is the global lingua franca and not French or Chinese or Hindi, means that globally L2 speakers of English lack the prestige whereby any feature of any L2 variety of English might spread thence to L1 speakers (leaving aside the occasional lexical items or the like). The same is true of economically/socially peripheral L1 varieties of English, of course.

    More broadly, people (even educated ones) find it difficult to accept, or indeed even to understand, that the demographic profile of the L2 users of a language, on the one hand, and the amount of foreign influence upon said language, on the other, typically fail to match.

    Thus, there are more non-European than European speakers of English, today, but the impact upon English of non-European languages has been quite trivial and superficial compared to the impact upon English of European languages: many people seem to believe that the two statements cannot be true because they somehow contradict one another.

    2-The L2 English of a European francophone and that of a Canadian francophone are quite dissimilar, and on the basis of their L2 English accent it is quite easy, even for non-linguists, to tell the two apart.

    3-What Lars wrote about Stockholm isn’t a purely Scandinavian matter: I lived in Victoria (British Columbia) for a year, and in Victoria too it seemed (to me and to others who had arrived there as adults) well-nigh impossible to get to know locals whom one had not gone to elementary school (or MAYBE high school, though that was pushing it) with. It seems, in North America, to be a social feature of the Northwestern coast (leaving aside areas with heavy Scandinavian immigration/influence, such as Minnesota): what I have subsequently heard about the “Seattle Chill” sounded very familiar. I later spent a month in Stockholm (after I had lived in Victoria) and definitely felt that, nine time zones away through the two cities are, the two are very close, sociologically speaking.

  18. One linguistically interesting but otherwise sad consequence of the exclusionary mentality of Swedes is that the excluded have developed their own variant of the language, known as suburb Swedish. Find anything on Youtube where Zlatan Ibrahimovic speaks to hear it. Even a Dane like me only needs to hear two or three Swedish words, literally, spoken by a person I can’t see, to know if they identify as part of folkhemmet or not.

    This is in contrast to Copenhagen where I can’t hear any difference whatsoever between the speech of my own family and friends and ‘second generation immigrants’ (as they are so charmingly known) of similar age and aspirations. And I pay attention exactly because the contrast with Stockholm is so striking.

    God knows that Danish immigration and welfare politics are a sordid mess, and that there still are large racist and xenophobic segments, but at least integration works on the linguistic level. And I take that as a token that everybody who wants to is actually allowed to be Danish in a meaningful way.

  19. Funny to hear that Norwegians can hear differences among parts of the country in terms of L2 English accents. I can usually tell if a Romanian is from Transylvania, Wallachia or Moldavia based on their English (following mostly on the same phonetic quirks that would allow me to readily identify where they were from if they spoke Romanian), but I’ve never heard other people talk before about English differences at anything lower than a country-wide level.

  20. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    their own variant of the language, known as suburb Swedish
    Though not a connoisseur of the genre myself, I think it’s also the variety of the language used in Swedish rap. One example is the song “Efter Solsken” by Panetoz at Melodifestivalen 2014 (the feeder show/competition for EuroVision).

  21. @Stephen, exactly so.

  22. @Lars: “you’re met with polite bafflement that someone they haven’t known since kindergarten is trying to establish friendly relations.”

    I’ve heard the same about the Swiss. It must be hell to be stuck with the same old bastards from the cradle to the grave.

    “It’s the leading cause of expat talent loss for Stockholm companies — their families are frozen out and give up.”

    On the other hand, as far as Switzerland is concerned, Geneva seems like a pretty accepting place.

  23. I did a little investigation of the Seattle Freeze, and there are several interesting facts around it (and a great deal of dubious stuff, too). One is that around 1910 immigrants to Seattle were primarily Nordic and Japanese, both places that rank very high by world standards for the number of introverts. Another point is that Seattle is on an archipelago, which makes hyperlocalism very easy. A third is seasonal affective disorder: most of the introvert-heavy nations are in the far north, which triggers the winter blues in people who wouldn’t otherwise have them. A fourth is internal segregation: Seattleites don’t just freeze out strangers, but also their neighbors who belong to a different race, ethnic origin, political affiliation, and even type of employment.

  24. Very like Stockholm, John, though one interesting fact is that Stockholm has about as many hours of sunshine in winter as Copenhagen even though the day is an hour shorter at solstice — lots of nice stationary high pressure systems here while the concomitant cyclones march merrily over Denmark. And the snow stays white which helps too.

  25. “On the other hand, as far as Switzerland is concerned, Geneva seems like a pretty accepting place.”
    It may be now that it is very cosmopolitan. When I lived there many years ago, there were the Genevois, and foreigners employed by the 150-odd international organisations, and few other resident foreigners.

    My impression then was that the true Genevois were very difficult for a foreigner to get to know. I was told the reason was that international civil servants generally stayed only a couple of years before being posted abroad, and the Genevois had got tired of making friends only for them to disappear quite soon.

  26. On the other hand, as far as Switzerland is concerned, Geneva seems like a pretty accepting place.
    I’ve only been on short trips to Geneva, so I can’t say anything about how accepting the local Swiss are, but my impression is that it has a rather high number of expatriates – so that may mean you can make enough contacts to enjoy your life without integrating with the locals. That’s something I’ve heard about Stuttgart and Freiburg (the one in Germany) – people telling me that both are enjoyable cities, but the people you get to know mostly are fellow Zugereiste, i.e. people who have moved to those cities (in the case of Freiburg, mostly students).
    In Germany, ease of contact varies very much from area to area – in my experience and the experience of friends, it’s easy to be accpted in the Northern Rhineland and in Berlin, in Northern Germany it takes a bit longer, and it’s almost impossible in Baden, Schwaben, and the Sauerland.

  27. @Christopher Culver: I think that Curzio Malaparte, in his novel “Kaputt”, refers to a specific Jewish accent which he associated with Romanian Jews speaking French (I think he mentions this in the chapter where he describes the Jassy pogrom of 1941). I have never heard (leaving aside this thread) of any other instance, in French or in English or indeed in any other language, of L2 phonology allowing one to pinpoint a speaker as belonging to a given social class/regional subgroup/ethnic subgroup within a country.

    I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if some such instances could also be found involving L2 Russian. Can any hatter out there confirm or deny this?

  28. Etienne: Sephardi/Mizrahi Israelis speaking English would use a trilled [r], not the [ʀ] that many Ashkenazis do. Is that a good example?

    I’d like to know if Indian English phonologies differ significantly between, say, Chennai and Delhi.

  29. Don’t a lot of Sephardim use the Ashkenazi r these days, though?

    I’ve read that there are some differences in Indian English phonology from one language community to the next, but I don’t have enough experience to attest to them myself.

  30. Lazar: yes, the dorsal [ʀ] is making inroads everywhere. On the other hand the alveolar trilled [r] is rare in common speech among Ashkenazim. It is used in broadcast Hebrew, some singing genres, and the like. It’s not a strict shibboleth. However speakers choose one or the other. The choice carries across to the English accent for speakers who are not good at emulating the native [ɹ].

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Do linguists really see /e/ evolving into /a/?

    Could happen. Many Americans have a partial merger that turns yes into yas and makes Texas homophonous with taxes.

    is there a single European L2 variety emerging, Europeans, or can you still easily tell who’s from where by their English?

    I confirm the latter; it even works within Germany (thanks to, e.g., the Kreat Inderior German Gonsonant Weagening).

    One linguistically interesting but otherwise sad consequence of the exclusionary mentality of Swedes is that the excluded have developed their own variant of the language, known as suburb Swedish.

    The same has happened in Berlin, but not in Vienna. I have no idea why, really.

  32. Could happen. Many Americans have a partial merger that turns yes into yas and makes Texas homophonous with taxes.

    They do? The California shift pushes those vowels counterclockwise – with /ɛ/ becoming a low [ɛ] or maybe [æ], and /æ/ becoming a near-front or maybe central [a] (have I mentioned I’m not a huge fan of the IPA?) – but I’ve never heard of a merger of the two phonemes, full or partial. When people say “yas, queen!”, they’re importing a stereotypically gay (i.e. extremely California-shifted) pronunciation into their own phonology.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    When people say “yas, queen!”, they’re importing a stereotypically gay (i.e. extremely California-shifted) pronunciation into their own phonology.

    There are people in Maryland who unironically say “yas” on the phone and elsewhere, without any “queen” or anything.

    As for Texas = taxes, I know Texans who do this, though I also know at least one other Texan who doesn’t. Alas, the joke of Dallas, Texas = dollars, taxes doesn’t seem to work for anyone.

  34. The same has happened in Berlin — I’ve only been to Berlin as a tourist, but you wrote above that it’s easy to make friends there. Only applies to academics and creatives, perhaps?

  35. I think it was me who wrote about how it was easy to make friends in Berlin, not David. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t ghettoes where people with an immigrant background congregate; e.g. it’s often said that Kreuzberg is the 3rd biggest Turkish City (after Istanbul and Ankara). Kreuzberg is also the stereotypical home of the green / alternative scene, but these two milieus don’t seem to interact much, except for grocery shopping. I have lived in Berlin sufficiently long to see that it’s easy to socialize with Berliners if you’re a white-collar middle class newcomer (as opposed to being a white-collar middle class newcomer in Baden or Württemberg), but from what I read ghettoisation (including self-ghettoisation) is much stronger for people with an immigrant background).

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, that could explain it. There is a concentration of Turks in Simmering and neighboring northeastern Favoriten, but otherwise hardly any ghettoization in Vienna. The Greens rule the faraway district of Neubau and now also Josefstadt, closer to the city center.

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