English on the Edge?

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 12:54 AM

Imagine if fifty or a hundred years from now those living in your hometown spoke a tongue alien to yours. It is, in my estimation, something extremely possible in the United States.

I think back to the language my distant ancestors must have spoken. Anglo-Saxon is as alien to me as perhaps American might be someday. It is not until well after the Norman invasion that the dialect of well connected London (which was absorbing the Normans' Latin-based French) that things start to be readable. For instance, I can understand:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of march hath perced to
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…
You Know the Source, Don't ya?
But I cannot process this nearly as easily, although I can assemble the meaning, despite it being written approximately the same time:
SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye, Þe bor brittened and brent to bronde and askez,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wrot
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe….
10 Points to the Person who knows what this is.

While I'm taking the long way around here, it is all aimed at a simple point: presently, we have a massive immigration into this country from Mexico. Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, we are not being “invaded,” but we are having a major influx of people who speak a Latinate language come into this country. These days, it isn't unusual to be walking around a store and hear people some speaking Spanish rather than English.

I suspect it will soon be hard to do business without knowing some Spanish (something I really should learn one of these days). Eventually, one of two things could happen: (1) Spanish could supersede English completely or at least among the lower and lower-middle classes; or (2) we could end up with a hybrid language. I tend to think the latter is the most likely, considering that English speakers who learn Spanish for the sake of communicating with the increasingly large non-English speaking minority would take English syntax and phrases with them and mix them in common dialogue.

This could be a good thing, considering that English has been rather stagnate in the last 500 years compared to the 500 prior to that, although as a whole I think it is a sad scenario to consider (with no offense intended to my Spanish speaking friends). English is — I admit bias here — beautiful partially because of its simple, mostly inflection free system of grammar. It is something different. It is not, by any means, the most technically elegant language, but none the less, it serves its purpose well. It is odd to think that someday not that far from now people might have trouble reading this message, much less any of the classical English works.

Is the US alone in this? No, not at all. Consider the massive immigration of Muslims to Europe. At the rate it is going, the day is not far away when the continent, and likely the UK as well, will have more Middle Eastern Muslims (the majority of which would probably prefer their native Semetic and Iranian languages over the Romantic and Germanic ones) than Europeans. I'll lay off on bets as to the longevity of languages in Europe, but I tend to think we are on the cusp of a massive change.

Alas poor English, I knew it, Horatio.

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8 comments posted so far.

RE: English on the Edge?

Your prediction of a hybrid English/Spanish language has been coming true in Southern Florida. The local Cuban et al. population is merging into a “Spanglish” dialect that’s still more recognizable as Spanish than English. It actually developed from a need for them to learn a handful of important English words over the year, which then simply replaced the Spanish equivalents, even though the pronunciation of these made-up words is still very Latin. Go figure.

My wife is part-Cuban from Miami and speaks fluent Spanish. My handful of visits down there were big-time culture shock. In most public places near her home, I was not able to function, only speaking English. Even fast-food restaurant chains in parts of Miami speak Spanish ONLY. It was hard to imagine not being able to order at a McDonald’s in the United States because I “only” spoke English. Not any more. I learned quite a bit after those vistits. Like how to assimilate. Strange. Why am I, who was born and raised in the U.S. with traditional American culture and speaking only English, having trouble assimilating in a city on U.S. soil?

Like I keep saying, we’re going to all end up in Canada and Australia. I’m no socialist. I choose the latter.

Posted by Bryan Williams - Nov 23, 2004 | 1:23 AM- Location: Minnesota

RE: English on the Edge?

Who would have thought English was doomed to go the way of the Gaelic tongues, or Frisian (which is actually rather close the English)? Our advantage is the printing press, which froze the spelling and syntax of modern tongues, and change is now glacial compared to the Middle Ages and before. At the same time, English was displacing almost every other tongue as the — ahem — Lingua Franca for quite some time.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Nov 23, 2004 | 1:01 PM- Location: Rural SE Texas

RE: English on the Edge?

I concur that a mixture of English and Spanish would be a sad mixture, and should be discouraged. The fact that most Hispanics in the U.S. are not very good Spanish speakers themselves (for most of them Spanish is their second language, i.e., they speak an indigenous language as a mother tongue) does not bode well for the quality of the mixing.

In my opinion, the U.S. should declare English as their official language, and perhaps recognize Spanish as a national, but not official language, and a minimum level of English proficiency should be required for citizenship purposes.

I have more to say on the regard; but for now this will have to suffice… I’m swamped.

Posted by Eduardo - Nov 23, 2004 | 2:59 PM- Location: Asunción, Paraguay, South America

RE: English on the Edge?

Bryan, you may very well be right… I hope not, but I suspect you might be eventually. BTW, welcome to asisaid!

Ed: You have a point too, although since Colonial times, we (that is, English speakers) have not really displaced other languages so much as caused the usage of English, as you note, as a lingua franca. I think I see the current progression as something much more likely to lead to the dramatic transformation of English in the United States, at least (which is especially bad since other English speakers don’t spell things right ;-)). If population forecasts for Europe are true as well, English will likely fall out of fashion eventually in the UK too — leaving the Aussies and Canadians — and the global telemarketing and support center (formerly known as India) — as the English speakers of the world.

Eduardo: That is interesting. So we’ll end up with a lot of people that don’t speak anything well… wait! We already have that… it will just be a language no one else understands that we don’t speak well.

I’d tend to agree with your assessment about an official language. Certain realms of political thought are going to the other extreme at the moment and insisting on providing Spanish schooling, etc., in public institutions for the illegal immigrants. Even hinging citizenship on English probably wouldn’t solve the current situation unless we can stop our leaky borders (which neither political party cares to do). Nonetheless, insistence on English as the official language might move us in the right direction.

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Nov 23, 2004 | 11:48 PM- Location: MO

RE: English on the Edge?

I kind of think it is important to give everyone good education in a language, including immigrants - illegal or not - in their first language. Having at least one language that you can use well in reading and writing is the key to democracy and independence, and I don’t think people should be rejected that.

Oh, and that was Chaucer’s Canterbury tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, if I’m not mistaken? :)

Posted by Flip - Nov 24, 2004 | 4:44 AM- Location: Sweden

RE: English on the Edge?

Flip: Well, I think most of us who reject the Spanish-language teaching don’t really object to everyone (legal or not) getting a good education… the thing is, it should not be the responsibility of an English speaking country to teach Spanish, IMO. It should be in English, that way we are preparing for the next generation of people that can live productively in the United States. Practically speaking, a country with as many immigrants as the U.S. cannot aspire to provide everyone a good language education in their first language… you’d have to have too many different teachers of too many languages at each school.

You are right on both accounts, Flip, concerning the quotes. I expected someone to guess Chaucer, in fact, I think I’ve quoted the beginning of the Prologue on here before… but I was not expecting someone to properly guess an untranslated form of Gawain. Excellent job! :-)

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Nov 25, 2004 | 1:07 AM- Location: MO

RE: English on the Edge?

I’ve always liked Chaucer, and Gawain I recognised from a book we’ve got about the English language and its development :)

Regarding Spanish, though, I’m not saying a country should provide language education in every language of its immigrants (Sweden tries too, though, by letting one teacher teach in the same language at several schools), but Spanish is hardly a small minority language in the US. Besides, the fact that US does have so many immigrants would make it a lot easier to find good teachers in every language. Another aspect is also that the better they learn their first language, the better they will probably be at learning good English, which in the end is will enable them to “live more productively in the United States” as you say. That said, I don’t know very much about the details of the politics in this matter.

Regarding the influence of different language groups on English and other European languages, I don’t think that it is something you can or should, even, avoid. Today’s English would not be what it is without the influences from French, and French would not be what it is without the influences from Latin. Languages are in many ways the reflection of the cultures that live in a certain area, and to “freeze” a language in time will eventually kill it instead, I think.

On a sidenote, the Spanish spoken in Mexico, is an older and more conserved Spanish than that spoken of the Spanish today, and since the Spanish (if I recall correctly) largely colonized the Americas before the English and the French did, perhaps it is you who speak an “upstart” language :)

Posted by Flip - Nov 26, 2004 | 3:46 AM- Location: Sweden

RE: English on the Edge?

That’s pretty good, Flip! Gawain’s a pretty good read, I think… personally, it might sound heretical, but I like it better than the Canterbury Tales.

You do have a point about Spanish. Politically, it would be suicide, done in anyway that would accomplish something meaningful. Instead, it is being done in a way that essentially trains them to continue to speak Spanish and not English, from what I hear.

I agree that influence is good — to an extent, I’m excited about the possibilities of an improved English. My fear is that English will be superseded or seriously mutilated by Spanish, rather than merely being influenced. It sounds even worse considering Eduardo’s comments on the quality of Spanish being spoken here.

An even worse situation would be if you had two groups that didn’t speak each other’s language in this country for the long term. An alternate scenario to current events could be that the “elite” continue to speak English and those doing low-paying jobs would speak Spanish (that already is happening — if you go into a buffet restaurant around here, you usually can’t ask the kitchen workers any questions, they don’t know English and keep in mind, Missouri is about half way to Canada from Mexico, so I’m not in a border state). This would resemble the English court after the Norman invasion, only in reverse, which I don’t think would be a good thing (or the two caste system in India around 2000 B.C.). Either way, that is not good for the people or the stability of the society.

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Nov 26, 2004 | 12:38 PM- Location: MO

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