At the turn of the calendar year, we are usually making (soon-to-be-broken) resolutions and speculating about the future. It comes as no surprise that linguists have been exchanging their views on the future of English in the previous weeks, John H. McWhorter in his widely shared article, What the World Will Speak in 2115, and Bas Aarts and Laura Wright, together with an evolutionary biologist, Mark Pagel, in an episode of the BBC’s Word of Mouth, How is English going to change in the future.
To predict the future, as we might expect, the linguists turn to the past and the present changes affecting the English language. They all agree on certain aspects of the future evolution of the language: English is going to be more simplified, informal and regularised.
For a more nuanced description, we can take a look at some of the changes which are likely to occur based on the ongoing developments. As Mark Pagel describes, certain words are changing rather slowly, such as pronouns and numbers, whereas lexical words, such as nouns and verbs are changing considerably more rapidly. Bas Aarts is among the researchers analysing the changes in English through the use of corpora of naturally-occurring language by tracking the increase and decline in the frequency of words and phrases. One such well-described change in the work of the late Geoffrey Leech is the decline in the usage of modal verbs (shall, may, must, ought to) and the increase in the usage of semi-modals (be going to, have to, be to, need to, be supposed to).
As a learner of English as a foreign language, I was taught (almost) never to use stative verbs in the progressive. It seems things are not so straightforward in spoken usage; to be believing, wanting, wishing, and notoriously loving it is on the rise due to colloquialisation and the function of progressives in hedging: “You’re being unreasonable” seems less harsh and face-threatening than “You are unreasonable”.
These examples along with “the doom of whom” do sound quite familiar. Some relatively newly emerging topics also include the development of comment clauses (such as I think) to pragmatic markers, and the perceived change in the usage of present perfect in spoken British English, also known as the emergence of the “footballer’s perfect”,
“They’ve been brilliant, they were absolutely brilliant.” Paul Lambert (manager Norwich Town).
Many of these changes stem from spoken language and are likely to infiltrate written language over time. Whether they “make it” into the written and standard varieties and whether the perceived changes are truly new and widely occurring phenomena, such as the “footballer’s perfect”, remains to be seen.
During my recent stay at the University of Freiburg, I was introduced to a number of studies on frequency effects in language which might offer insights to major processes influencing language change such as obsolescence, grammaticalisation and lexicalisation.
Considering the growing number of studies and interesting findings in this field, one thing is clear, the future certainly does not look boring.