December 24, 1999

NY Times          

 

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

guesses.

 

*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

and law.

 

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'

habitual "eh?"

 

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

fe-ah itself."

 

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