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The Future of English?

Brian’s post — and Roboseyo’s comment appended to it — reminded me of a subject I haven’t yet posted about but have sometimes thought of discussing here. That is, the way SF authors imagine the future of the English language. This is a subject of particular interest to me, since I’m kind of working my way over to looking at SF in non-Anglophone societies, where the role of English-as-medium and English-as-culture impacts what non-Anglophones do (or don’t do) with SF as a literary genre.

Of course, for a long time, many Anglophone writers simply assumed that the dominance of America and of the English language would go hand in hand. If you look at a lot of older SF, you see that assumption — hand-in-tentacle (or choose another member, if you prefer) with the assumed dominance of white males — runs deep within the genre.

Even there, of course, there was some projection about the future of the language. As far back as the days of Gernsback’s pulps, authors have been throwing neologisms into the mix. (I’m not so sure about before that, though you can see it is a fair bit less common in, say, the works of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.)

Neologism — the coining of new, imaginary words for new, imaginary things — is a major feature of contemporary SF, but the thing is, when you sit back and think about it, it’s not used to convey linguistic change of the kind that actual linguists talk about. Like, for example, the Great Vowel Shift? That sort of thing is totally filtered out of most SF, so that when linguistic change actually takes center stage, this fact becomes starkly apparent. The best known example of this is Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, a novel set in a post-nuclear holocaust Britain, millennia after the final war, where civilization has collapsed completely (and language along with it). Here’s the opening of the novel, taken from a comment by Hoban himself on how he came to write that way:

On my naming day when I come 12 1 gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing Ue that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrd he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then. Him on I end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, ‘Your tern now my tern later.’ The other spears gone in then and he wer dead and the steam coming up off him in the rain and we all yelt, ‘Offert!’

The woal thing fealt jus that littl bit stupid. Us running that boar thru that las littl scrump of woodling with the forms all roun. Cows mooing sheap baaing cocks crowing and us foraging our las boar in a thin grey girzel on the day I come a man.

It’s not so rough when you read only a few paragraphs, but after a while you start to feel like you’re reading Middle English. It’s parseable, but just barely. This makes the book a very unusual specimen: most SF novels don’t actually fictionalize the extrapolation of linguistic change in this way. People ten thousand years from now, and aliens, are often depicted speaking modern English, but with other stuff thrown in.

This is mainly for convenience, though in cases where people from the deep future — say, time travelers — speak perfect 20th century American English once they’ve arrived in the past, it’s a cheap, lazy, and annoying oversight. But in the majority of cases, people would not be willing to read a book with all the dialog written in a barely understandable language, so authors rarely have any other choice (or inclination), and where the story is set in the deep future, or even the near future, it’s actually quite natural to tell it in modern English, with changes thrown in where appropriate. (It’s as natural as rendering conversations held in a foreign language in English when speaking to Anglophones.)

The point, though, is that neologisms in such stories actually punctuate points of difference from the (real-world) present time. In other words, it’s kind of like how Westerners in Korea will throw in words like ajumma or soju without stopping and explicitly explaining their meaning as they tell stories about Korea… or, how writers like Kipling made a habit of tossing in a few non-English words to color the setting and give the story an exotic flavour. (No mistake, mentioning Kipling, as his effect on early SF was arguably significant. There’s even an anthology of Kipling’s SF out there, though I haven’t gotten my greedy hands on it yet!)

One of the most neologism-heavy books ever written is John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, a fascinating novel by an amazing British novelist. (Brunner is often credited as the guy who seems first to have envisioned computer viruses, if you can imagine that, in another novel titled The Shockwave Rider. He calls them something “worms”, actually.) Anyway, I remember reading a paper on neologism in Science Fiction Studies years ago, which broke down the usage of neologism in a group of novels. What it found was unusurprising: the overwhelming majority of neologisms in SF are for nouns, especially objects (as opposed to people and places). Hail, Gernsback: they’re often gadgets. A familiar example from Star Trek is the “dilithium crystal.” What is a dilithium crystal? It’s a whoozit whatsit gadget. A future-object in need of a (scientific-sounding) name.

Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, though, took this trend to a new height, using the biggest pool of neologisms including nouns for people, nouns for places, verbs, and adjectives (if not adverbs — I can’t remember, and I can’t find the paper online at the moment). A couple of examples mentioned in the book’s page at Wikipedia include:

“codder” (man), “shiggy” (woman), “whereinole” (where in hell?), “prowlie” (an armored police car), “offyourass” (possessing an attitude) and “mucker” (a person running amok). A new technology introduced is “eptification” (education for particular tasks), a form of mental programming.

I really wish I had the paper on hand, as there are some fascinating charts indexing the use of types of neologisms and so on. Granted, some of Brunner’s coinages don’t quite ring true —  they don’t sound, to my 80s/90s-raised ears, like words people would actually fall into using — but they do paint a really vivid image of a world stretched to the seams. (And a book that is outstanding for more than just this: its use of the “Innis Mode” of jumpcuts between characters in a huge cast, its constant quotes from the very entertaining (fictional) books of Chad C. Mulligan, and the quality of intensity, storytelling, and imagination behind it all make it a masterpiece.)

In more recent work, a few more interesting discussions of the fate of English itself come to mind. One is more common, and has appeared in a number of books, though perhaps because of its (acknowledged) indebtedness to Stand on Zanzibar, David Brin’s Earth comes to mind. Again, I haven’t got the book on hand, but I recall that in an early scene, a major character is talking to a minor one in a dialect of English that is called “Simglish,” for “Simplified English.” The notion is that, in order to facilitate the learning of English, a consciously modified form of the language, with greater regularization and simplification, is developed in order to make its acquisition by nonnative speakers easier.

Which, again, is something Roboseyo mentions specifically in his comment. He links it to the decline of American power in a world where English has achieved enough penetration or standardization as the lingua franca to drown out any incentive that might exist in promoting another language — say, Mandarin Chinese — to displace it, the way English did French. (And there are SFnal futures where Mandarin does become the new lingua franca, or at least the language of the elite. I seem to remember skill at Mandarin being an important part of elite life in the Chinese-dominated world of Maureen McHugh’s brilliant China Mountain Zhang. Not that Americans can’t/don’t speak English anymore, but if you want to get a good education, you need to go to Beijing, and for that…)

Another alternative, though, is that English languishes on into the future as it is. This is something I see more easily happening, since I foresee a lack of incentive to simplify English on the part of both Anglophones and non-Anglophones. That is, Anglophones would probably feel just as uneasy about this as people from other cultures would feel about meddling Anglophones coming in and “fixing” their languages to make them easier to learn, while the English-capable elites in non-Anglophone countries actually value the difficulty of acquiring the English language; it’s one of those things that keeps them on top, at least in certain societies, Korea among them. (Can you imagine the reaction of Korean elites if Simglish were to supplant English on the college entrance exams?) So I really don’t think any substantial, “official” form of simplified English as a global auxiliary language will emerge, though creoles and dialects (like those we see in India or or the Caribbean) certainly could.

In such a world, though, there’s another, gloomier possibility, which is that English, in languishing on, is impacted by its role as a global language. In Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire — which, like the other novels mentioned above, is among my favorites — there are two interesting things I remember. One is the impact of political correctness on English, wherein somewhere along the way, Anglophones have stopped using our old-fashioned Anglophone names for countries and started using the native terms used by people from those countries. (In other words, we’d be calling Korea “Daehan Mingook” or “Hangook” instead of “South Korea” or “The Republic of Korea.”

Then there’s the effect on English itself of its role as lingua franca, most stunningly put forth in a comment by a poet of Eastern-European origin (I can’t remember which country he’s from) about how there’s no more poetry written in English, because of how “all the poetry simply fell out of the bottom of the language” (or something like that — this is a paraphrase) as a result of its being the lingua franca for so long. I really wish I could quote the line, but I haven’t got the book here in Korea with me. (Though if someone gives me the line, I’d be happy to edit it in here. Same for any other quotes you might want to work in.)

An interesting example of a rather different lingua franca appeared in the film Code 46, where the standard language is basically English, but with a mishmash of other languages ground deeply in. (Wikipedia lists “English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Italian, Urdu and Mandarin,” for the record.) On some level, I thought this “global pidgin” was more about styling the film, but there is at least a little reason for it: the film describes a world where globalization has been carried to its extreme in a number of different ways, including scenes of all white (ie. European-descended) factory workers in China and strict emigration rules because of global health management concerns.

In the longer term, the visions tend towards the leveling of language as a medium for communication. Just as literacy goes out the window in Holy Fire (the neo-young protagonist marvels at the idleness of youths sitting around and reading paper books in Europe), in the long run technology trumps the inefficiency of language, as foreign tongues can be either uploaded into minds, or acquired at great speed, or, in my favorite imaginings of the future by Greg Egan, technological retooling of the human species makes the universalization of language possible, for example in Diaspora where the uploaded consciousnesses and computer-spawned AIs are all speaking the same language as a matter of course.

Sure, in the same novel, differences of language between homo sapiens are nothing compared to the differences of language and difficulties of communication between different self-modified clades of posthumans. Diaspora has a fascinating little section on the diversity of human subspecies and how communication between then, as a matter of communication between radically different minds in radically different brains, requires intermediaries who bridge those psychobiological differences. But in other texts by Egan, the universality of language as a medium for communication is assumed — once we’re uploaded, language translation and language access become trivially easy unless one consciously attempts to make it difficult. (Say, by confessing love in the form of an obscure mathematical analogy.)

The elimination of all barriers to communication is, of course, a powerfully utopian vision, though one that feels particularly white/western to me: for many people in our world, language is an important part of their identity, and the crucible of their culture. If language barriers are leveled, what happens to culture barriers? Or subcultural barriers, for in Egan’s postbiological worlds we find a profusion of different sects, groups, and other organizations who sometimes go so far as to retool their own consciousnesses to believe, behave, or think in specific, and nonstandard, ways. The “universal” is something that any well-trained reader immediately looks warily upon: is the universal simply the “naturalized” white, Western value set? Or are cognitive-cultural constructs integrated into the “universal” language so that they are immediately comprehensible to all? Or does temporary (or permanent) self-modification become a part of what it means to speak and to hear others’ “languages”?

To Egan’s credit, he doesn’t quite simplify these things: he postulates that “languages” or voluntary states of thought will differ so radically — much more radically than is possible among humans with the same basic hardware — that communication will only be possible when easy, quick self-modification is possible. (Something akin to installing a plugin on your mind so you can understand what some deeply self-modified mind or group of minds is thinking.) He doesn’t whiten or simplify things, and in fact, in some ways, he recomplexifies them by showing just how much more pronounced differences can be once humans are in conscious control of their cognitive and biological hardware. (Another example, in Schild’s Ladder, involves what amounts to the complete and total on the fly customization of human sexual reproduction, so that partners voluntarily, and unconsciously, self-modify so as to fit one another perfectly, but in a way that makes traditional notions of “sex” and “gender” quite, er, inapplicable.) But this is an awareness and sensitivity I think is perhaps less pronounced in other works where communication across languages is automated.

In any case, this discussion of the future of English in science-fiction is far from exhaustive. What are some of the futures of the English language that have surprised you most in SF novels you’ve read? Or, if you’re an English teacher and not an SF fan (or are both) what do you think the fate of English is going to be in the next century or two? This is one of those cases where the SF and the Korean/TEFL sides of my blog can actually intersect, so I’m quite curious about what various readers will have to say!

And by the way, I’m aware that I’ve left out another fascinating branch of SF, which is, tales in which alien languages are learned by human beings. It seems tangential here, but it is nonetheless fascinating. If you’re interested in that, then as a starting point I recommend Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. (No, the link is not to the story, which is not available free online, though a few others are. But hell, buy the book, Ted deserves the royalties!) Oh, and if you prefer reading it in Korean translation — or giving one of the best SF collections of the last ten years to a Korean you think will like it — it’s available here, too. (A good translation, as well, says Lime.)

If you’re too cheap for that, you [redacted], you could always try H. Beam Piper’s short story “Omnilingual” which is free in many formats here.

But wait, before you go off, really: share your thoughts on this topic!

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