Futurology blog: what’s the next trend that’ll disrupt our world, financially, socially or just pointlessly?

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Get ready for a new world language

Given the enormous adaptability, flexibility and learnability of English, it seems unlikely that it won’t remain the lingua franca of the world. But that expression ‘lingua franca’ must be a big red flashing clue. French used to be the leading language in Europe, Africa, Asia-Pacific and parts of America. Today? It’s fallen down the international language list - behind English, Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese. (I’ve arbitrarily decided that Mandarin, Hindi, Bengali and Russian are regional rather than international languages, OK?)

Sure, French lost its place because, one, the French Empire disappeared and, two, there’s a whole bureaucracy devoted to keeping the language ‘pure’, meaning it simply can’t adapt to the modern world of gigabytes, tacoburgers and collateralized debt obligations.

With English, the political empire has disappeared but the British/American cultural empire is still supreme, led by Hollywood, Wall Street, Harry Potter, pop music and the internet. And English is utterly remarkable for the speed at which it adds new words and expressions, as well as new meanings and uses for existing words. Three noteworthy examples from the last few months would be ‘credit crunch’, ‘deleverage’ and ‘skiing’ (spending the kids’ inheritance - the logical result of the first two examples.)

So why would such a useful language lose its top dog position?

Well, just take a look at how fast new slang (‘epic fail’ for example) spreads on the internet. Check out Lolcats (at icanhascheezburger.com) to see how freely grammar is being subverted purely for the hell of it. Up to now the ‘establishment’ has always been strong enough to drop a wet blanket on such deviance, or assimilate it if necessary. (No matter how people talk on the street, the mainstream media and bank statement speak tend to keep us toeing the line in business environments and at dinner parties. This is also why none of the synthetic languages like Esperanto or, er, Klingon, have got very far.)

But one day the latest slang may just get completely out of hand and set off on its own uncharted course, diverging further and further from the mother tongue. Especially as the ‘establishment’ is becoming more and more distant in terms of age from the people pioneering new language use.

On the internet, a ten year old’s user generated content is as valid as anyone else’s. You no longer need a PhD to sound off on what’s right and wrong. And remember, going against the grain is an end in itself for the young.

Add to that the fact that the centre of gravity of the internet is moving Eastwards. Eastern Europeans and Asians are all adding their voices – and words. And that the developing world has an enormous ‘youth bubble’ reaching the age of defiance.

They’ll be holding the keys to the world economy soon – and may just assert their power with a new language. 


Bill Chapman said...

I think you are underestimating Esperanto. It is still a relatively young language (120 years old) with a relatively young speaker population.

Take a look at www.esperanto.net

Swan Chef said...

Who knows? If the world was looking for a universal second language to teach everyone alongside their own language, Esperanto would probably be the winner. But I just can't see it ever becoming 'cool' enough to spread on its own, unless some insanely hip cultural icon produced all their work in it. Maybe I'm wrong, but I suspect Esperanto doesn't lend itself to the humour and subversion that's needed to turn something viral nowadays. I wouldn't mind being proved wrong, though, Esperanto's easy to learn by design, it's unlikely that any spontaneously arising language would be as user-friendly.