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For Who (Sic) The Bell Tolls: Why Future English Will Be Simpler

As languages expand, historically, they've also simplified. What rules will English shed as it becomes entrenched as the world's lingua franca?
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although some, um, investment banks, speculate that the language of the future is going to be French, the smart money remains on English. It's got the weight of the world's biggest economy (for now), the legacy of world's once-biggest empire, and the internet, birthed by the two, heavily biased in its favor.

A recent article in The Economist (don't forget to add “lots of media” to English's plus side), explained what we can expect will happen to English if it remains the world's lingua franca. While some believe that the future is all Babel Fishes and instant, perfect translation, the article cited studies that found that the Future English that wins out might be a simpler and easier language than the one you're reading right now.

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From The Economist:

When languages spread, they also change. And it turns out, they do so in specific directions.

For example, a 2010 study by Gary Lupyan and Rick Dale found that bigger languages are simpler. In more precise terms, languages with many speakers and many neighbours have simpler systems of inflectional morphology, the grammatical prefixes and suffixes (and sometimes “infixes”) that make languages like Latin, Russian and Ancient Greek hard for the foreign learner.

The article goes on to explain how this happens, as the Columbia University linguist John McWhorter's work comparing big modern prestige languages with their more esoteric cousins and ancestors, discovered.

Mr McWhorter’s conclusion, in simple terms, is that when lots of adults learn a foreign language imperfectly, they do without unnecessary and tricky bits of grammar. (Most languages have enough built-in redundancy for grammars to be more complicated than they have to be.) Modern Mandarin is a perfect example of a language almost completely devoid of inflectional morphology, all those prefixes and suffixes. All languages have their complexities, but Mr McWhorter believes that Mandarin, English, Persian, Malay and Arabic dialects are all clearly simpler than they used to be.

So we may have a slimmed down, slicker English in the future. And the first rule on the chopping block? The Economist anticipates the end of “whom.”

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"Whom" is already, basically, a dead word walking—a vestige of a time long ago, when all English nouns carried suffixes to indicate which part of speech they were functioning as. Even though it seems easy enough to remember the rules for “He v. Him,” and it's only slightly more difficult to remember the rules of “I v. Me,” but there's basically no hope for “whom.” Its usage has been dropping since 1826, and many didn't project “whom” lasting very long even amongst people who learn English as a first language.

Speaking of which, do any native English speakers understand the damn subjunctive verb tense? I sure don't, and I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't learned French I wouldn't know that it exists. Despite the best efforts of a whole Dodge Caravan worth of French teachers, I never learned how or when to use the subjunctive tense in French either. If English were simplified, the subjunctive would be gone and no one would miss it. The verb tense's only hope is an influx of people from a language that actually uses and cares about the subjunctive, but, to be honest, it's hard to picture a world in which people coming to a language are more worried about their former grammar than communicating clearly in their new language.

However, there is already a small test case where this is actually happening: in the corridors of the European Union. The large number of people who are new to English speaking in Brussels has mutated English itself, away from being readily identifiable as British or American English, or anywhere else. It makes sense—English is always importing and Anglicizing words from elsewhere; and it seems like people are opting for the cognates with their mother tongue, There are enough people writing in really idiosyncratic English to the point where, the Economist explains, the EU Court of Auditors published a style guide that's not really designed to help new English speakers write in a more conventional way, but instead is a Rosetta Stone to help native English speakers figure out what is being said in ostensible-but-incomprehensible EU English.

In addition to explaining what someone might be talking about when saying “fiche,” the style guide also hints at English rules that trip up new speakers—areas that are ripe for disruption.

One distinction that could be bound for the dust-bin of history is the one between “countable” and “uncountable” nouns and how that impacts the articles that accompany the nouns, and whether one uses “fewer” or “less” with them. While it's a pretty easy rule once you apply my simple rhyming method—“fewer pieces, less pie, fewer muggings, less crime”—the rules that govern what is a countable noun and what isn't vary across languages.

If ever those rules served to clarify anything, they don't seem to now. Would it matter if we had less rules? On a visceral level, I'd have to say 'yes'—because writing that sentence like that sent a shiver up my spine.

That said, English is changing; it changes all the time, pedants such as myself who don't like it should consider how easy we've got it, with the rest of the world coming to meet us, rather than forcing English speakers to learn another language, and thereby sparing us the pain of having to consider the subjunctive case.