Ooh, this combines two of my favorite things: languages and the future. John Scalzi’s grammar bitch of the day (granted, that day was a while ago) touches on one of those small spelling differences, specifically ‘alright’ vs ‘all right’. While I disagree with Mr. Scalzi on this point (‘alright’ is usable as that Lichtenstein art he has up, though I’d ask somebody “Are you all right?”), it’s something to think about when discussing the differences between English spellings. I’ve spent all day today trying to explain to Japanese eight-year-olds why I say “zee” and my co-worker says “zed.”
Garance wonders if the proliferation of an unedited Internet might not bring about a return to the writings of previous centuries, when men wore hose and words were spelled phonetically:
As blogs move us into a less heavily copy-edited world, I sometimes wonder if we’re moving back into a more 16th and 17th century form of writing, where the idea of correct spelling was less important than the communication of meaning — which, in reality, can be accomplished just as well with incorrectly spelled words and homonyms as with a more perfect language. And also: as we move ever deeper into this new world of speech-like writing, will the perfect, formal language of the page one day seem as antique and elaborate as Victorian silverware?
What say you all? I’m a stickler for spelling and grammar (though I muck it up a fair bit), but I can definitely see a return to a more homonymic age. (funny, lowercase ‘internet’ doesn’t pass my spellchecker, but ‘homonymic’ does just fine)
(image from lolcats, of course)
7 thoughts on “The future of English”
Great post, Jeremy – this is one of my fave little topics too. Have you read the early David Zindell novels (before he decided to follow the money and do cookie-cutter fantasy epics)? Space opera with extra maths and Nietzschean philosophy set in a post-literate society … and that’s a gross oversimplification …
But back on topic, yes. I think that we’ll not just return to a phonetic mode, but a mode where the percentage of literate people declines. I don’t see that as an entirely bad thing – and not just for selfish reasons, either.
That dude’s a Nazi. The French have (or maybe had) a government organization for preserving their language. Ya know what? They FAIL. Language evolves. It’s inevitable. The proliferation of education and the printed word might have slowed the process, but now that the internet has become littered with user-generated content we can see it happening.
In regards to his specific gripe, I would say, “Alright, it’s time to go”, but never, “All right, etc”. I would also never ask someone if they were alright.
I have Nazi-ish language tendencies too, but I wish we would switch to phonetic spelling. It would most definitely still have to be standardized so I could still correct people like my mother, but I’m pretty sure if phonetic spelling was done right, a person wouldn’t have to be aware of all the standards to spell correctly.
French has the same problems that English does. An archaic spelling system that was artificially frozen (or at least considerably slowed down) centuries ago. The French did it by government-appointed committee, English did it by societal pressure and dictionaries.
Where we’re going is the big question. Personally, I don’t think we’ll move to completely phonetic system in our lifetime, not unless nanobots start keeping us alive for centuries. Our archaic system means that there’s a history to every word, and it’s often visible right there. Not to mention, the moment English switches, we immediately fracture into several dialects that may not be completely mutually intelligible. We’ll wind up a globalized version of Italian and diverge from there.
I’ve never red Zindell, might have to add him to the stack.
Rodney wrote: “… but I’m pretty sure if phonetic spelling was done right, a person wouldn’t have to be aware of all the standards to spell correctly.”
What would we use to replace spelling as a quick and easy way to estimate someone’s literacy and education?
There’s also the problem of who gets to decide the appropriate phonetic spelling.
I think we see “alright” because of the tendency of English toward agglutinization plus parallelism with “already”. A preference for either spelling has nothing to do with phonetics as neither form is more or less phonetic than the other. If you do prefer one form over the other, you’ll need to look deeper into your reasoning than pronunciation.
I’m not crazy about a strictly phonetic approach to written language. I don’t want to pick up a novel by a an author from Australia, for example, and try to decipher the meaning from region-specific pronunications. Same goes with authors from other exotic places, such as Britain, South Africa, and Boston. The Chinese ideograph system has survived so long because it is a useful link between the many dialects of Mandarin and Cantonese. It is even used in Japanese and Korean. People who don’t speak the same language can get some ideas across in writing. I think a writing system based solely on sound is not as workable as the systems we currently see. And maybe that’s why we see it only rarely (like in Hebrew for example, but even there you have to deal with the diacritics). Spanish is often touted as an example of a phonetic language, but I have strong reasons to disagree with that…. but I’m wandering off the topic now.
Some good thinking here, folks – thanks for all chipping in.
Oh, and Jeremy –
“… the moment English switches, we immediately fracture into several dialects that may not be completely mutually intelligible.”
Have you ever travelled in the UK? I only have to take a six hour train ride to see my mother for the local dialect to be nearly a foreign language! 🙂
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