The Future of Language

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(IMAGE © SHUTTERSTOCK)

How technology and globalisation are changing language as we know it

Text Oliver Jarvis

In our everchanging lexical world, where languages twist and turn, and sometimes bend over backwards or die out to suit trends, cultural changes and technology, the future of the spoken and written word is difficult to predict.

Around the World

The influence of globalisation is operating in quicker and more complex ways, and creating a more connected world than ever before. This multi-cultural epoch that we live in affects language in significant ways, for wherever we go, we bring our language with us.

As the impact of the major global languages increases, it continues to pressurise local languages into adapting, and year by year we are seeing more languages bowing out. The extinction of many of Taiwan’s indigenous languages – from Ketagalan to Siraya – is a direct reaction to the spread of Mandarin in the country, and presents a hard-hitting reality for many local languages that this may also be their fate.

Young Burmese students dancing during their school break (Image © Shutterstock)

But could this extinction of local tongues follow suit on a global scale? Linguist, educationalist and communications professional Teresa Tinsley does not believe that the world will return to a ‘pre-Babel’ state where we all speak one major language. Some linguists suggest that either English or Chinese will form the world’s lingua franca. In fact, many of the major languages inter-breed with the local colloquialisms and create a variant form of that language.

To understand the future of our global languages, one must trace back through pre-modern Europe’s history to take note of the rise and fall of Latin. The success of the Roman Empire propelled Latin throughout Europe, and kept Classical Latin alive as the standard written medium for the continent – long after the fall of Rome. But the Vulgar Latin used in speech continued to change and form new dialects. That, in time, gave rise to the modern Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian – languages that emerged in their own right and became mutually unintelligible.

Singapore English

Today in Asia, there are similar examples of language evolution. Step forth Singapore’s street language, Singlish, a colloquial brand of English with words plucked primarily from English, Malay and Chinese, and tossed into a straight-to-the-point syntactical structure. Singlish is widely used by the locals and can be almost incomprehensible to Western English speakers – one can almost draw a parallel between it and the early development of the Romance languages. It is interesting to note that, despite the Singapore government’s strong encouragement that its citizens  speak standard British English through the national ‘Speak Good English Movement’, Singlish has only continued to thrive. In fact, some Singlish words like ‘blur’, ‘wah!’ and ‘shiok’ have become so commonplace that the highly-respected Oxford English Dictionary has added them to its lexicon!

Computer Age

The Internet is the virtual backbone of modern culture. It has changed the way people communicate, from acronyms in WhatsApp messages to fresh neologisms – like ‘selfie’ – on Facebook. Style and form are out the window, traded in for speed. The information era is moving fast, and language is constantly adapting to keep up with the race.

We’re now getting used to the idea of rapidly-developing technologies changing what we can do and how we do it, and the way we communicate is no exception. World-famous linguist David Crystal points out that neologisms and acronyms spread like ‘wildfire’ throughout the various social media platforms – and when they do, they become part of our everyday language.

During a recent trip to Lombok, an island in Indonesia whose inhabitants speak a localised Sasak language,
I was surprised when my guide asked if I wanted a ‘selfie’ in front of a waterfall. It’s moments like this when you clearly see how technology has left its mark on all languages. We both understood what he meant by ‘selfie’, and it showed that Internet users are creating their own form of communication.

An elderly woman selfies and emails while sitting in a traditional rice paddy (Image © Shutterstock)

Technology has always affected language, from the introduction of the printing press (1476) to the birth of the automobile (1768), it has brought new words, and changed existing semantics. The Internet alone has brought new meanings to words such as ‘post’, ‘stream’ and ‘troll’. There are also linguists who suggest that instant technology has made our everyday conversations less formal, with instant messaging throwing standardised grammar out of the window.

Many casual conversations that we have today would have little meaning for someone from a previous century who spoke the same language. Imagine asking your great-grandfather if he has “posted his relationship status on his wall”! In the future, there will be so many more examples like this as technology develops even further.

Keeping to Tradition

But for many, language is crucial to identity: the click consonants of tribal families in Africa, the poetic flow of Shakespearean meter, the subtle differences in tone in many Chinese dialects are affirmations of culture. Crystal suggests that, out of pride in the uniqueness of their own language, speakers will attempt to maintain its distinctiveness, even if it might be more economically favourable for the country to adopt a major language.

Alongside the rapid expansion of the big global languages such as Chinese, Spanish, English and Arabic are movements set up to revive, strengthen and protect local languages – there are strong linguistic forces at work to keep languages ‘pure’. But change within language is an age-old process that is impossible to control. Technology and globalisation will only aid in this continual mixing and creating, making a prediction of the future of language beautifully volatile.

For more stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 120.

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