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How Immigration Will Affect American English in the Coming Decades

If American English was a bastard language to begin with, how much more can it be bastardized?

by Mike Pearl
Apr 4 2016, 10:59pm

Illustration by Natalie Moreno

According to a Pew study from late last year, thanks to immigration, the US is going to change quite a bit over the next 50 years. One in three people will be an immigrant or a child of immigrants instead of the current one in four. The population will also be eight percent more Asian and six percent more hispanic. That sets the scene for a lot of changes in the way people will talk.

When people show up and start having their way with the local language, pidgins—or hybrid languages—form, typically remaining isolated, like Louisiana French Creole did. And as the linguist William Lavov pointed out in the 60s and 70s, regional dialects aren't wrong; they're just part of the natural changes that happen to every language over time.

French Creole never really made it into American English, but Ilan Stavans, an Amherst College English professor, lexicographer, and linguistics pundit, suspects that some of the Spanish being spoken in the US will cross over into the mainstream in the next few decades. Some of what will creep in, he thinks, will be some of the more common words derived from Spanglish—which isn't a language, but a term for various English-Spanish hybrids. I chatted with him to find out what kind of changes are in store for the American way of speaking, despite President Trump's best efforts to stop them. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: Hi Ilan! How do you see English changing in the next 50 years?
Ilan Stavans: DuBois called the 20th Century the century that was going to be defined by the color line. I think the 21st Century no doubt is the century that's going to be defined by the immigration line.

What kind of changes will come about from immigration in particular?
It's hard to predict exactly how people are going to be speaking 50 years from now, in terms of how the sentence is going to be built. But we can speculate. People usually hesitate to ask me what's going to happen in the future, and when they do, I generally answer that the future is difficult to tackle, but let's consider the present a form of the future, because Spanglish is so widespread today. I think in 2056, the language is going to have absorbed a lot of neologisms—terms that come from African languages, Asian languages, Spanish and Portuguese, through immigration, and through other strategies.

Right, but Spanglish in my experience varies from city to city. Do Spanglish terms end up in the general lexicon?
The word "Washateria" is a word that started in New York to describe laundromats, and now it's found in Miami and in Texas in neighborhoods that are Spanish-speaking or Spanglish-speaking.

Are you sure the Spanish language will be the most powerful driver of change, considering Mexico no longer dominates in terms of immigration like it once did?
The number of Mexicans has decreased because more Mexicans are leaving the country than entering the United States, but I don't think that establishes a pattern of less Mexicans wanting to come north. It's just that the economy has been down mostly in the last few years, but the "allure of the north" in Mexico remains as strong as ever. I think in 50 years you're going to see a lot of elements that are from Spanish in the English language in a much more emphasized fashion.

You've also looked at the effects of Chinese immigration on language. Do you think words from hybrid languages like so-called "Chinglish" will show up in American English?
Asian parents are much more conservative in allowing their children to switch language. The thing where you switch languages at home is not as accepted as it is in Latino families. There is not a cultural or political force behind it in the way that there is for Spanglish.

What kinds of Spanglish terms are already on the verge of entering English?
Two or three years ago, something very interesting was published by McGraw-Hill. They released a dictionary of Spanglish for construction purposes, for Anglos to use to communicate with the people working construction who only speak Spanglish. You can see words that really are only used by the folks that are doing the building, and now gringos need to absorb them. There are also words like "registrar" [a new Spanglish verb]—these might sound obvious to you, but certain words come from English and in Spanish you can't use them: "Registranse," and "grincard" [for "green card"]. I think "la chota" [for police] and "la migra" [for the border patrol] are words that are likely to enter the English language.

Apart from Spanglish words creeping in, will the language change in other ways?
The grammar and syntax of English will change as a result of the high number of latinos in the United States. You don't build a sentence in the same way in Spanish as in English. English is a Germanic language, and Spanish is a Romance language, but with the growth of the population, you can sometimes have expressions, or build sentences where, for instance, objects have a gender. A chair is feminine. Sometimes I have heard people referring to a "the" as a "she."

That would really be weird. Do you think we might see something as drastic as people using an adjective after a noun in English?
Absolutely.

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