Noor Khamis/Reuters
A girl walks past a school in Nairobi's Kibera slum May 9, 2014. Both Swahili and English are official languages in Kenya, but many youth in Nairobi speak a creole slang known as Sheng.

What will the English language look like in 100 years?

Since the British Empire's dispersal of English to different parts of the world, the language has taken on many forms. With all of these existing varieties, what's in store for this global language?

You don't have to be a globetrotter to see that the English spoken in India doesn’t sound the same as the English spoken in England. And the English in Nairobi really doesn’t sound the same as the English in New York.

Where is the English language headed? To answer that, we must first look at where it came from.

Modern English, with origins in the 5th century as a Proto-Germanic language, began to spread around the globe in the 1600s. 

“Historically, British adventurism, expansionism, as well as slave trade and Christian evangelism led to the global spread of the English language and its diverse forms,” Joseph Osoba, English Linguistics professor at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, tells the Monitor.

As the influence of the British empire recedes, English speakers around the globe are now left to find their own way.

In the past, says Ganesh Devy, language scholar and head of the People's Linguistic Survey of India, "there's been a great fascination among Indians for 'pure language.'"

"Several generations of Head Masters have spent their lives instilling in the minds of students that speaking the ‘Queen’s English’ was the ultimate in educational attainment,” Devy tells the Monitor.

But now Indian English is becoming less monolithic: the variety of English spoken in New Delhi differs slightly from that spoken in Bangalore. While the former is primarily influenced by Hindi and often goes by the name "Hinglish," the latter is influenced by Kannada, the local language of Bangalore, and goes by "Kanglish."

“There are several varieties of English in use within India,” Devy says. “All of these are closer to the British English than to American English ... However, in recent years, the younger generations have started showing an increasing slant towards Americanisms.”

Is that even English?: Pidgin and creole languages

Indian English, despite its variations, is still undoubtedly English. But in some parts of the world we've seen the emergence of what may be called "Englishes."

Both English and Swahili are official languages in Kenya. But also widely spoken in urban areas, particularly Nairobi, is a creole slang known as Sheng. With strong ties to Kenyan popular culture, Sheng emerged as way for urban youth to communicate in code. For example, in Sheng, the word for trousers is “longi," derived from the English word "long."

Jamaican Patois, a creole language, developed after slaves from Western and Central Africa nativized the English being spoken by their masters, members of the British ruling class. That Jamaican Patois has native speakers – more than 3 million of them, according to Ethnologue – classifies the language as a creole as opposed to a pidgin. Though English-based, Patois vocabulary and pronunciation is remarkably different from its ancestor: ‘the women went to town’ sounds more like ‘di ooman did guh a town’ in Patois.

Nigerian Pidgin is estimated to be the native language for several million people, but is yet to receive the title of creole as well as any sort of official status in the country.

“It began as an incipient pidgin being used for trade contact …” says Dr. Osoba. “But its use among multilingual Nigerians after independence led to the evolution, growth, and development of Nigerian Pidgin, a distinct language.”

Nigerians have long embraced the use of Pidgin, also known as Brokin, as the mixed tongue is often the common language for urban dwellers from diverse backgrounds.

“The multiplicity of languages in Nigeria makes [Pidgin] more appealing because of its inherent nature of political neutrality. [It’s] the only language without ethnic affiliation,” says Osoba.

Britain's style of colonial rule may have also fostered this development of different English varieties like Nigerian Pidgin.

“The fact that each colonial territory was allowed to use the English language the way they would or could, without any policy of cultural assimilation and an English Academy to ensure that the native English was spoken within its colonial territories, became a significant factor in its diverse forms,” Osoba says.

Although the paths English has taken in places like Nigeria and India are distinct, the reason behind the emergence of various Englishes may be the same.

“In countries that have a strong tradition of a language or languages other than English, it is natural that the country-specific variety of English emerges over a time,” Devy says.

The future of the English language

With so many constantly evolving varieties, the possibility exists that English will look different in the not-too-distant future. So what might be in store for the English language?

“In Nigeria or elsewhere, I think, as far as America remains the world’s number one superpower, the English language will attain the status of a true and sole international or global language," says Osoba. "It will still be the language of science and technology, international educational research, including space research, and international diplomacy. It will still remain the most dominant and enduring international language, though with more local varieties.”

In this scenario, this international standard variety of English will be the common factor, or what allows for mutual intelligibility among all its smaller varieties.

“By then, no one will be able to claim the sole ownership of the English language," Osoba says. "It will have become a common property of all to be called World English or Global English.”

Devy's view on English’s future isn't too different from Osoba's, but Devy envisions a clear impetus: the move away from writing as a common cultural practice.

“If we have moved to an entirely digital medium for communication and knowledge acquisition, the Englishes of the world may emerge in the form of a new mix which has a reasonable global ability to communicate effectively but has stronger local inflections,” Devy says.

These local inflections could be emerging partly as a result of the sheer size of the English language. Counting the number of words in a language is notoriously difficult, but linguists generally agree that English has far more words than other comparable languages, likely due to its absorption of words from Latin, French, German and other tongues.

The Global Language Monitor estimated just over 1 million words for the English language in 2014, and Oxford Dictionaries estimated at least a quarter of a million distinct words. At the same time, estimates for the number of French words come in around 100,000.

“As it happened to Latin in the past, as also to Sanskrit, when a language reaches its peak carrying capacity, it enters a phase of a slow breakdown,” says Devy. “[English] is governed by the same principle and is likely to respond to the stress in exactly a similar manner.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean English will follow the same path as Latin, though, where the language itself dies but a number of descendants live on. Latin declined with the rise of feudalism and, later, the nation state. But the English language has evolved to become functional around the globe as well as in smaller localities, Devy says, and could continue this way.

“A situation where the language is neither ‘one’ nor ‘many’ but both at the same time,” says Devy. “But, we will know this only when we get to the future.”

This is the third installment of a series on global language evolution. The first installment looks at the possible drivers of language extinction and consequences of less language diversity. The second installment explores the reasons behind the high level of language diversity on the African continent.

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