Across time, as people have traveled around, they've had to find ways to communicate with people from different linguistic backgrounds. Sometimes, the response to that has been the creation of pidgins, but often, it's been to adopt a lingua franca, or a language that is shared among a diverse community, even though it is not the native language of many - or even any! - of them. Lingua francas generally spread between groups because it's considered economically favourable to know the language in question, although they can also be advanced by nationalistic efforts or empire-building. We discuss a few examples: English, Latin, Nahuatl, and Indonesian. And of course, there have been many more!
Once a lingua franca is out there, it can even survive the loss of the language among its original community of speakers, as Latin did within the church and academia for centuries after it fell out of common usage. However, use as a lingua franca can also cause a language to change, as happened with certain dialects of Malay becoming Indonesian, or with Latin becoming the Romance languages. What about English? Will English also evolve and split into multiple languages? Well...
When it comes to the question of whether English will become multiple languages, due to its widespread use as a lingua franca, we can identify a couple of sides to the issue. One is to say that, well... it already has. For instance, let's take a look at Singapore. Located in southeast Asia in the straits at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula, Singapore was long exposed to a number of different languages, including Malay, Tamil, and Chinese. But historically, before its independence, Singapore had spent close to 150 years as a British colony, and so the administration of the colony had been in English. Because of this, and because of English's world language status, Singapore decided to adopt English as the lingua franca of the nation, to go across the different social groups there.
The official Singapore variety of English had essentially been Received Pronunciation British English, in terms of syntax and pronunciation. But over the course of a few decades, this has started to change, and now a different type of pronunciation of vowels has become more common for Singaporean speakers, distinct from that of the previous accent. For example, there appears to be a growing split in the /ɛ/ phoneme in the language, such that the vowel in [eg] "egg" is becoming distinct from the one in [bɛg] "beg". There are a few other vowel movements, as well, reported in the paper linked above, that are becoming generalized within the local population. So it seems that Singaporean English is becoming more of a dialect in its own right.
More interestingly for our lingua franca discussion, though, is Singlish. This is a Singaporean language, derived from English having gotten around in colonial times to the present, and spreading into other language populations. That combined pidgin language started getting learned by children as a native language, and became a full-on pidgin. Singlish today has a lot of vocabulary and grammar derived from English, but also a lot from the other local languages, as you can see in this online dictionary. Some of its words are just shifts in meaning from English: so, to act blur is to play ignorant or dumb, or standard being excellent or impressive. But we can find words showing up in Singlish from other languages, too, like tang ku, an expression of disbelief originally meaning "long time", or perng tang, someone who can eat a lot at one time, derived from "rice barrel", and both coming originally from Hokkien and Mandarin.
But it's not just the vocabulary that's changed - we can also find changes in Singlish in the grammar, as well. Singlish allows for topicalization in the syntax of just about everything. Whatever's most important, you can put at the start of a sentence - the object of the verb, adjectives, adverbs, and more. And on top of that, you can apply English morphology to anything in the language, wherever it's from. Take the word agak, which comes from Malay, and means to guess or to estimate. If you stick the nominalizing suffix -ation on there, you can get agaration, to make "a guess" or "an estimate". You can stick past tense morpheme -ed on verbs like kope, to steal something small, to get koped, or to tuang, to skip out, and get tuanged. It's got its own thing going on. Like many creoles, Singlish is viewed as low prestige much of the time, and the government has launched campaigns to get people to speak more standardized English, but Singlish still remains as its own language.
So that's one language that's seen some splitting, but perhaps we don't want to go to a full creole. So let's take a look at Indian English. Here again, beyond pronunciation and word usage, there are some places in the syntax where a prominent local language, Hindi, may have influenced English grammar. For example, Hindi can either move question words to the front of the sentence, or not. So a question like When had Kevin scolded Jenny? could be phrased like either like (1) or (2):
(1) Kevin-ne Jenny-ko kab dã:t-aa thaa
Kevin-Erg Jenny-Acc when scold-Pfv be.Past
(2) Kab Kevin-ne Jenny-ko dã:t-aa thaa
Now, that means that since moving the question word is an option, you can find question movement commonly in Indian English. What doesn’t move is the tense - that’s the “thaa” at the end. But in English, that needs to move, too. So in Indian English, that question would commonly show up as When Kevin had scolded Jenny? Here are some attested examples lacking this tense inversion:
(3) What this is made from?
(4) Who you have come to see?
Interestingly, we also find that this inversion does occur... but in embedded clauses:
(5) I asked him where does he work.
(6) I wonder where is he.
And that's the opposite of the more standard American or British English pattern. It may be that this isn't the only way that this can work in Indian English - we'll talk about that more on our Tumblr soon - but it definitely is a strong pattern, and a sign that it's not just the accent and vocabulary of Indian English that's moving away from a British or American standard, it's the grammar as well.
On the other hand, though, there’s some debate about how far the split can go. After all, in the age of the internet, there’s more language being flung around, both written and spoken, than ever before. Increased communication between people who speak different Englishes may well help keep the tides of linguistic divergence at bay. That is, even though local dialects may occur, they'll not split off enough to reach the point where they're really languages in their own right. Of course, as we've discussed before, how far you have to go to be your own language is up in the air. Singlish may be a language in its own right, but what about Standard Singapore English? What about Indian English, which seems to have its own syntax?
From where we are now, there's no way to know how English will work in the future, but it's safe to say that we'll keep seeing it changing, and the more places it's spoken, the more it'll change. Maybe we'll end up with a Standard Global English, like we have a Modern Standard Arabic that's meant to link the wide varieties of Arabic. And maybe we'll end up with more creoles, like Singlish. Or maybe we'll end up with less variation, because of standards from the Internet and global media being imposed. I think we'll probably see more change, rather than less, but it'll be exciting to see what happens!
So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about lingua francas and how they spread and change. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!
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