This writing marks the 100th post in my Fun Facts About English series on the Kinney Brothers Publishing website – a goal I set almost two years ago. I thought it worth sharing this personal milestone as one of my monthly posts.
Out of the world’s approximately 7.9 billion inhabitants, 1.35 billion speak English as a first or second language. Natively, English is spoken by about 360 million people with the vast majority being in the United States. In addition to being widely spoken, English is also the most commonly studied foreign language in the world. Today, for every native speaker of English there are five non-native speakers. In fact, the global spread of English, a language once considered useless outside the shores of Britain, is unprecedented in the history of languages. Who could have predicted that English, an amalgamation of European languages, would one day become the lingua franca of the world?
Modern, or Present-Day English (PDE), has many dialects spoken in countries collectively referred to as the “anglosphere.” These dialects include American English, Australian English, British English (containing English English, Welsh English, and Scottish English), Canadian English, Caribbean English, Hiberno-English, Indian English, Pakistani English, Nigerian English, New Zealand English, Philippine English, Singaporean English, and South African English.
Non-native speakers of English take the learning very seriously. Adults and children all over the world invest years of time and money studying English as a second language. English is the official language of maritime and aeronautical communications. English is the international language of science, business, and the hyper-connected web of global trade. In almost any international education environment, English is the central language. A 2013 Harvard University report found that English skills and better income go hand-in-hand and lead to a better quality of life, a fact not lost on citizens in developing nations.
We are increasingly moving toward a time when no one will be able to claim sole ownership of the English language. It will have become a common property of all, a Global English, albeit with many varieties. A World English will be the common factor that allows for mutual intelligibility among its localized varieties. Unlike most major languages in the world, English has no regulatory agency overseeing its use. Attempts have been made to create a standardized international English protocol, but no consensus on the path to this goal has been achieved. And yet, the language continues to spread.
As languages are prone to do, these Englishes are also continuously evolving. With so many varieties, the possibility exists that English will look different in the not-too-distant future. What’s in store for the English language is anybody’s best guess. Our crystal balls have shattered making it impossible to divine a clear message. Looking at the history of English, once a reliable way of making predictions, is not going to give us a blueprint for the future of a language unleashed to the rest of the world.
With native speakers clearly in the minority, the course of the English language may well be dependent on the billion people speaking it as a second language. This influence is not just because of their number, but also because the majority of interactions in English occur between non-native speakers. As Modern English moves into its global lingua franca role, changes are inevitable and could happen out of the purview of its native speakers.
When looking at how a language may change among differing populations, look no further than the pronunciations most often stumbled over or difficult to differentiate to provide clues as to how English may be adapted. The aspects of a language that promote intelligibility tend to spread while those that promote misunderstanding wither away.
There are linguists who believe that we aren’t finished yet with the Great Vowel Shift. Though some vowels may seem durable, e.g., “ship,” “bet,” “ox,” and “full” have been the same for centuries, other vowels are certainly going to shift and drift. The word “home” was once pronounced “heim” in Germanic, “hahm” in Old English, and “hawm” in Middle English. Someday, it may be “hoom.” Consider the regional pronunciations of the word “tour” in both England and North America.; variations include /toor/, /too-uh/, and /tew-r/. Americans and Britons alike increasingly make less distinction between the pronunciations of “pour,” “pore,” and “poor” or “Mary,” “marry,” and “merry.” These shifts in pronunciation, while subtle, can indicate the direction the language will change in the future.
There may also be changes ahead for consonants. Consider how often the “th” of “this” and “that” are dropped and replaced with either “s” and “z” or “t” and “d.” The soft “l” of “hotel” and “rail” are sounds that can be particularly difficult for second-language speakers to hear. Some clusters of consonants will simplify, surviving in the beginning of words, but vanish at the end of words; e.g., “best” may become “bess” and “accept” could change to “assep.”
Spelling and Grammar
The third person singular (such as “she runs” or “he writes”) is the only English verb form with an “s” at the end and is often dropped by non-native speakers. Simplifying verb phrases also occurs, saying “I look forward to see you tomorrow” instead of “I am looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.” In my own distinct Midwestern American dialect, we Iowans often drop the cumbersome “to be” in passive sentences, such as “the baby wants fed” instead of “the baby wants to be fed,” or “the cat wants let out” rather than “the cat wants to be let out.”
Mass and count nouns are another difficult aspect of the English language that non-native speakers might simplify, opting for “informations” and “furnitures” rather than be encumbered with object/noun agreement. While such “grammatical errors” have a negative ding in any native speaker’s ear, it’s more efficient for non-native speakers negotiating across their own cultural borders.
Technology, slang, and popular culture will continue to have enormous influence over language. Where changes may have occurred more slowly in the past, today they are happening at the lightning speed of satellite connections. Abbreviations and acronyms, once the provenance of military and business cultures, are now the language of tech-savvy youth who text, sext, and share with friends all over the world. Zoom meetings, Facebook groups, and other popular platforms are the virtual trading posts of language. Given one’s field of expertise, there is undoubtedly a long list of acronyms and industry-specific vocabulary that must be known to communicate among global colleagues.
Though the lack of oversight and the changes incurred by non-native speakers may seem off-putting to native speakers, this is English playing its role as a global lingua franca, helping speakers of other languages connect with each other. New dialects, slang, expanding lexicons, and linguistic variations will evolve. Some will stick and others will die out. Walter Raleigh’s expeditions in the early 1600s saw American English take root within a matter of days, with newly encountered Native terms such as ‘wigwam,’ ‘pecan,’ and ‘skunk’ becoming a permanent part of the American dialect. Likewise, it’s imperative that we nurture an adaptability and willingness to adopt new language that will most efficiently serve our communicative needs.