Author/s

Rebecca Haynes

How will language evolve in the future?

Recently I read an article on the rise of Sheng in Kenya, which is a fascinating blend of Swahili and English (the name is a portmanteau of the two languages - Swahili and English), the two official languages of the nation, and its impact on the use of older, more traditional languages in Kenya.

While it’s hard not to admire the way Kenyans, particularly younger Kenyans, have combined the two major language influences in their lives into a dialect that they can identity with more closely, it seemingly comes at a cost, as there’s less interest in older languages.

But does this Kenyan example reflect what’s going to happen in the future for other languages?

Some scholars refer to Sheng as a creole, and there are plenty of other examples of creoles being used across the world – over 100 languages by some counts. And these aren’t necessarily small, niche languages – Haitian Creole has over 10 million native speakers, and Tok Pisin has around 4 million speakers.

So, is the future of language a hybrid? In my opinion, yes and no.

It’s readily apparent that English has an influence beyond any other language – it’s the language of most pop culture, it’s the language of the vast majority of the internet – but even as English has seemingly dominated the world, there are also signs that maybe that’s about to change.

The rise of China can’t be ignored, and it’s been achieved by ignoring the western norms in some key areas. For example, for most of the world, Facebook is the dominant social platform; in China where Facebook is banned, WeChat is the dominant social platform. For most of the world, Amazon is the online shop of choice; however in China it’s Alibaba’s Tmall site.

That level of influence is only going to grow, and it won’t be long before elements of Chinese culture starts to make serious inroads into the west. For example, there are already some big budget Chinese films appearing on Netflix across the globe such as The Wandering Earth. As this level of pop culture influence increases, words and phrases from one language get used in another. After all, that’s largely how English became so widely used across the globe.

And look, this isn’t a radical idea – the cult-favourite sci-fi TV show Firefly predicted this, with random Chinese words being sprinkled through the dialogue and set direction.

But while I think we’ll see Chinese influence continue to spread, it’s also not the only influence I see happening. If you think back even just a generation ago, there are plenty of words used today that are either brand new, or have new context – influencer, texting, hashtag, trolling, spam, meme. With the pace of the internet only increasing, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’ll continue to greatly influence language.

Let’s not forget that we’ve always adopted words from other languages – café came from France, rucksack came from German, glitch came from Yiddish, plaza came from Spanish, anonymous came from Greek; cartoon came from Italian. We’ve always had other cultural influences, and it’s only made the English language more comprehensive.

There are some who think that this constant integration of other words into our language will eventually create a monoculture of language, where everyone essentially is speaking the same language, albeit with some regional variations. I don’t see that happening – there will always be some who are too attached to their country and their culture, and while we’ll continue to have a global culture of mutual influence, I think a true global language is centuries away at best.

Even with all this said, one thing seems to be clear – the language we’ll be speaking in one hundred years will feel as outdated as the language of 1921 seems to us today. But it could also feel a lot more foreign too.

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