Why English Changes More Slowly Today Than It Did A Thousand Years Ago

Illustration for article titled Why English Changes More Slowly Today Than It Did A Thousand Years Ago

As languages acquire new speakers, spread to new geographic areas, and mingle with other languages, they change. But is that change happening as quickly as it once did?

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Top image: A 15th century edition of Recuyell of the Histories of Troy from Brandeis University's Special Collections

Linguist John McWhorter joined us today to answer questions about the kinds of changes we might expect to see in languages in the future, as well as some of the changes we'd already seen. Several questions focused on a single issue: What might a future version of English look? Perhaps not quite so different from the version we see today — and we owe that to the widespread growth of the written word.

Z128

Now that we have the internet, are we ever likely to see major languages change much over time aside from such changes associated with intermixing existing languages?

John McWhorter

Change is retarded by print, indeed. The spoken language still champs at the bit — but much more slowly than before. Which means that, indeed, the "sexiest" change on view today is mixture and new languages that can come from that. English in 500 years will still be English, to an extent that it was not in 1500 compared to 1000.

Faux Rich

Since languages continually evolve, how long might it take for today's "English" to appear as largely undecipherable as Old English does to most readers today. In other words, Future English may be, will probably be, quite different from today's.

John McWhorter

But not as different — print holds change back by always holding a "model" over our heads of what is "correct." That model didn't exist when Old and Early Middle English were spoken since most people were semiliterate and didn't go to school and there was no media to speak of.

You can read the whole Q&A right here.

DISCUSSION

Sort of, but I'm not entirely convinced.

For one thing, a common written language doesn't necessarily keep everyone from eventually drifting apart into separate spoken languages. Witness Latin in the latter days of the Western Roman Empire. Or the modern Arabic-speaking world, where Moroccan Arabic is only vaguely intelligible to an Iraqi. Or China, where the spoken varieties of the so-called "Chinese" language (such as Yue/Cantonese and Mandarin) are as distinct from one another as the Romance languages in Europe are.

Additionally, spelling reforms can mess with the written form as well. A relatively easy (though minor example) is British English vs. American English (colour vs. color, centre vs. center, etc.). But there's also Simplified Chinese vs. Traditional Chinese or Malaysian Malay vs. Indonesian Malay. And until 1946, Japanese kana (the syllabic alphabets used by the Japanese alongside Chinese-derived logoraphs) were used in pretty markedly different spellings than they are today (spoken Japanese was similar to what it is today, but the written form was different). And it all gets messier when you consider transliterating one language into another (Wade-Giles vs. Pinyin for Mandarin Chinese or the innumerable varieties of romanizing Arabic).

It's not all inconceivable that any of the above could shift English's comprehensibility over the next few centuries. A spelling reform in particular wouldn't be all that surprising, considering how bizarre and obsolete a lot of English's spelling rules are.