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Mankind’s Mother Tongue in the 24th Century

Richard Oslund
(Language Update, Volume 3, Number 1, 2006, page 17)

If you’ve seen as many science fiction movies as I have, you’ll have noticed that English sci-fi writers usually assume their language will be the only one that humans speak a few hundred years from now.

I personally hope they’re wrong. English is my mother tongue, and I love it dearly. But I just as dearly hope that mankind will come up with a more efficient way of communicating by the time we’re hopping between planets.

The obvious problem with English is the spelling. The principal cause of the lack of consistency is that English is like an immune system, faithfully recording all the foreign influences that it has been exposed to over its lifetime. This is great for students of historical linguistics, but it makes life miserable for people trying to learn the language. Candle, chandler and chandelier are obviously closely related words, so why do they all begin with a different sound? It can provide little comfort to a foreigner learning English to know that the first word reflects French as spoken by the Norman conquerors of England, the second word the speech of Parisians in the 13th century, and the last word the pronunciation of modern French.

And why so many silent letters in English? Why write a letter if you’re not going to pronounce it? The explanation is that almost every letter in English used to be pronounced, even "silent" e. The pronunciation of words evolves over the years, but their spellings basically remain stuck in the late 15th century, when the printing press was invented. The word knight used to begin with a "k" sound, followed by a "nee," then a sound like someone getting ready to spit, and then the final "t." Mercifully, this guttural "gh" has died out in most dialects of English, but we still record it in writing, because that’s how Richard III talked.

Why not just update the spellings to reflect modern pronunciation? Because pronunciation has evolved differently in different dialects. For example, book and buck are pronounced the same in northern England, and cot and caught are pronounced the same in Canada. Who wants to admit that their dialect shouldn’t become the standard?

This last example highlights another big problem with English: it has far too many different vowel sounds. Fourteen in most dialects. Keeping all these vowel sounds separate requires a great deal of effort, and that’s why they tend to merge, as seen above. Perhaps the majority of the world’s languages get by with just five vowel sounds: a, e, i, o and u. Latin had such a system, and that’s why the Latin alphabet that we use to write English has only five vowels "and sometimes y." Over the centuries, different writers have invented different ways to represent the many vowel sounds in English with just six different letters, resulting in the mess that we see today.

Meanwhile, "h" has been dragooned into helping to represent the various English "hissing" sounds that Latin lacked, such as "sh," "th," "ch" and the unlamented "gh." After living in Japan for two years, cut off from my mother tongue for long periods, I found I could sometimes listen to English without thinking of the meaning, and these high-frequency "slurring" sounds made English-speakers sound mildly soused.

Two of these consonant sounds cause foreigners particular embarrassment. These are the first sounds in the words this and think. The overwhelming majority of the world’s languages avoid these sounds, probably because they involve sticking your tongue out at the person you’re talking to.

But even if English spelling and pronunciation were less perverse, English grammar should disqualify it from becoming the world’s native language.

Take verb tenses, for example. When Beowulf was written some 1,300 years ago, English by and large got by very nicely with just two verb tenses: simple past and simple present. Once you had decided between write and wrote, for example, your job was done. But under the influence of the intricate French verbal system imported by the Normans, English developed its current bewildering assortment of tenses. I once sat down and counted sixteen of them, and thought I had found them all. Then a friend pointed out a seventeenth. I can’t remember what it was, but I know I’ve used it.

I was once trying to explain English tenses to some students of mine in Japan. Japanese has only four tenses: simple and progressive present, simple and progressive past. My students simply could not believe that English-speakers need sixteen or more tenses to say what they want to say. My response was that the future perfect progressive tense is like a fire department: you might need it only once in your lifetime, but if you do, you’ll be awfully glad it’s there.

Verb tenses are far from being the only thing wrong with English grammar. English is an inflectional language, but just one ending does most of the heavy lifting. This is the plucky little s, which gets tacked onto verbs, nouns, even prepositions. The s ending indicates the plural in "the dogs run," but the singular in "the dog runs." Native speakers of English may find this logical, but I doubt that anyone else does. Adding an s to a singular noun can also indicate possession, as in "the dog’s collar." In the plural, there is no audible marker of possession, unless the plural lacks an s, in which case the possessive ending is . . . s. And s can be added to prepositions, sometimes changing the meaning, as in besides, and sometimes not, as in towards.

No language that I know of makes one ending do so many different things. Maybe that’s why English often gives s a break by adopting foreign plurals. This is feasible because English is one of the few languages that require native speakers to feign mastery of the classical languages in order to speak their mother tongue. An English speaker is supposed to know that the plural of datum was data in Latin, that the Greek plural hoi polloi doesn’t need an article (since hoi already means "the"), and that ignoramus is actually a verb in Latin, so its plural can’t end in "-i."

So how could English be made fit to be mankind’s mother tongue? Well, the answer to its spelling problems lies in the top row of a standard keyboard. Whether you say "twenty" or "twenny," you can write it "20." And "$" works equally well, whether you say "dawler" like an Ontarian or "dala" like a New Englander. Not only does "$" take up much less room on the page than "dollar," but I bet it registers faster in the brain as well. If we devised a symbol for every word in the language, think how much faster we could read and how much less space an article like this one would take up. And we can solve the problem of ambiguous inflectional endings by doing away with them altogether.

But hasn’t another language already done this? A language whose native speakers outnumber those of English more than three to one?

That’s why I think that, when humans of the 24th century reach planets inhabited by intelligent life, they won’t say "Greetings from Earth!" It’s more likely to be "Ni hao!"