English in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Asia

Simon Horobin, Writing for
Episode #522

The Future

Given this narrative of constant expansion, language mixing, and new dialect formation, we might wonder what the future is for English in the twenty-first century. Will its continued spread lead to further fragmentation, so that future speakers of English around the globe will no longer be able to understand each other?

Despite the efforts of the Singaporean government, Singlish continues to flourish. As new generations grow up preferring mixed tongues like Singlish in the home, the playground, and on the streets, so these varieties will begin to supplant Standard English in the more formal and prestigious domains. While Standard English retains an important international function in Singapore, Singlish plays a key role in the establishment of a national identity and in negotiating and maintaining interpersonal relation- ships. The displacement of Standard English in official use in its former colonies would inevitably lead to greater divisions between the English of the Inner Circle and that used in the Expanding Circle. Would such varieties remain mutually intelligible under such conditions?

Linguists have detected the emergence of a variety known as World Standard English in use throughout the globe, which may lend qualified support to such a theory. Although not a single, fixed variety, World Standard English appears to be operating as a regionally neutral and increasingly uniform standard, available for use by English speakers of any nation. In its written form, this standard draws upon American conventions of spelling; in chemistry we find sulfur rather than sulphur, in computing we find program not programme, disk not disc. In the spoken language it remains unclear whether the British prestige RP accent or the General American accent will come to be recognized as a single agreed standard. A further possibility is that it will be neither British English nor General American that will be selected, but rather a kind of compromise variety that draws on both, and potentially other, Englishes. A possible model for this is the ‘Euro- English’ that can be heard within the European Parliament among representatives from throughout the European Union. Predictions about the break-up of the English language into distinct languages are not new. Writing in 1877, the linguist Henry Sweet (the inspiration behind Bernard Shaw’s Henry Higgins) asserted that in a hundred years: ‘England, America, and Australia will be speaking mutually unintelligible languages.’ While Sweet’s confident forecast warns us against attempting to predict the future, it also reminds us that gloomy prophecies about the end of English as we know it are not new, and do not necessarily come true. 

Adapted from How English Became English by Simon Horobin with permission from Oxford University Press USA.  Copyright © 2016 Simon Horobin and published by Oxford University Press USA. (www.oup.com/us). All rights reserved.


About the Author

Simon Horobin, Writing for Grammar Girl
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