Johnson: Simpler and more foreign


R.L.G. in The Economist (via Tunku Varadarajan):

SEVERAL weeks ago, Johnson discussed his debate with Nicholas Ostler about the lingua franca of the future. Johnson thinks that English has a very long run ahead of it. Mr Ostler sees English’s time as coming to an end, to be replaced by machine-translation tools that will remove the need for people to learn to speak, read and write a lingua franca. But we agreed that whatever the long run might look like, the next few decades are set. No language has anything like a chance of displacing English.

Interestingly, about two-thirds of English-speakers are not first-language speakers of English. To put it another way: English no longer belongs to England, to superpower America, or even to the English-speaking countries generally. Rather, English is the world’s language. What happens to a language when it becomes everybody’s? Shaped by the mouths of billions of non-native speakers, what will the English of the future look like?

A look into the past can give us an idea. English is of course not the first language learned by lots of non-natives. 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. Contrary to educated people’s stereotypes, the tiny languages spoken by “stone-age” or isolated tribes tend to be the world’s most complicated, while big ones are less so, by this metric.

What Messrs Lupyan and Dale found through a statistical look at thousands of languages, John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, found in a detailed study of just five. In his 2007 book “Language Interrupted”, he asked why certain big, prestigious languages seem systematically simpler than their ancestors and cousins. English is simpler than German (and Old English); modern Persian is a breeze next to Old Persian and modern Pushtu; modern spoken Arabic dialects have lost much of the grammatical curlicues of classical Arabic; modern Mandarin is simpler than other modern Chinese languages; and Malay is simpler than related Austronesian languages. 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.

What, then, can we predict English will lose if the process goes on?

More here.