December 24, 1999
There Will Always Be an English
By STEVEN PINKER
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- What will English be like a hundred years
from now? No one has ever observed what happens when a
language is used for a century in a global village. Will MTV
and CNN infiltrate every yurt and houseboat and drive out
all other languages? Will regional accents go extinct,
leaving everyone sounding like a Midwestern newscaster?
Some language lovers worry that e-mail and chat rooms will
influence writing <italics on> & F2F (face-to-face) lang.
& leadd it 2 loose it's grammer spllng etc. :-(. <italics off>
Predicting the course of language over long periods of time
is about as easy as predicting the weather. But here are some
*English will not drive other languages to extinction, and
may not even survive as the world's lingua franca.*
Today one out of five earthlings speaks some English, and
many of the rest want to learn it. But the fate of Latin
reminds us that the reign of English may be short. English is
dominant not because it is inherently superior but because it
is the main language of science and technology, of the
Internet, of popular culture and of international business
Any language, however, can be adapted to modern needs. In a
few decades, Hebrew went from a language of scripture and
prayer to a language used by designers of high-tech fighter
planes. The convenience of English trades off against pride
in the local language, as we see in Quebec, where the
language police have confiscated Dunkin' Donuts bags and
forced delicatessens to rename themselves "charcuteries."
The Internet is becoming polyglot, and with improving
translation engines, English will not be indispensable much
longer on the Web. Sensitive to local tastes, CNN and MTV
now produce programming in other languages.
*Regional accents and dialects will persist.*
English speakers will not all sound like television
announcers because children do not learn their accents from
television announcers. (When was the last time you met a
baby boomer who sounded like Walter Cronkite?) Children
acquire accents from other children, and usually keep them
a lifetime. Though some dialects have died and others have
changed (Brooklynites no longer say "Toity-toid" ), the major
American accents are going strong.
*Internet communication will not ruin the language.*
The typo-infested, acronym-speckled epistles that fill our
electronic mailboxes will not fatally infect speech and
writing. A century ago, the telegraph did not lead people to
omit prepositions from their speech or end every sentence
with "STOP." People adjust their language depending on whom
they are addressing (children or spouses, friends or
strangers) and how they want to sound (casual or official,
orotund or businesslike).
*English will change, but not deteriorate.*
Plaints about the imminent demise of the language are made
in every century. But there is usually nothing inherently
wrong with most changes the purists deplore. Young
Californians' uptalk (sentences that sound like questions)
is no more pusillanimous or noncommittal than Canadians'
Dropping prepositions in phrases like "let's hang" or "he
caved" is no lazier than dropping the preposition "to" from
the framers' phrase, "attained to the age of." The Gen Xers'
drawn-out vowels in "Neh-oh weh-ay, dih-ude" are no more
phlegmatic or affected than F.D.R.'s "nothing to fe-ah but
Even seemingly defensible complaints can, in hindsight, be
seen to have missed the mark. An old edition of William
Strunk and E. B. White's style manual, justly concerned
about bureaucratese, said "Never tack 'ize' onto a noun to
create a verb. . . . Why use moisturize when there is the
simple, unpretentious word moisten?" Had Strunk or White
consulted with someone who actually used moisturizer, their
question would have been answered. Moisten means "put water
on X, making X moist for seconds." Moisturize means "rub
viscous fluid into X, making X moist for hours."
Their prescription, if followed, would have impoverished the
language. Central planning of language, as of so many other
endeavors, is bound to be less responsive to human needs
than the collective genius of millions of minds making
individual decisions based on local information.
*English will continue to change, eventually beyond
recognition.* As the centuries pass, our descendants will
find our writings quaint, then difficult, then unintelligible
without a translator. If you find this depressing, remember
that it is the price we pay for the certainty that our
descendants will have a complex, articulate language. A
language is not a finite resource or precious artifact in
need of vigilant protection lest it wear away, fall apart or
get used up. It is constantly being renewed, and therefore
changed, by living speakers, with all their cleverness,
pride and insatiable need to communicate.
Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, is the author of "The Language
Instinct" and "Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language."
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company