Will English Dialects Become Languages?

The Anglophone World

The Anglophone World (Wikimedia)

It’s a fair question to ask if English dialects may eventually split off into separate languages.  This has happened before, of course, Latin being perhaps the most notable example. And while I find it a compelling question, I think we’re a long way off from this split becoming a reality.

Some clarification is necessary. ‘Dialect‘ and ‘language,’ after all, are not easily separable phenomena. Italian, Chinese and Arabic are languages with ‘dialects’ that can seem like very different languages. The former Yugoslavia, on the other hand, has a number of ‘languages’ that sound an awful lot like dialects of each other (in my opinion). There are obviously subjective factors in the division of these two concepts.

One might argue, in fact, that such splits have already occurred in English. After all, the globe is dotted with numerous creoles derived from English. Yet when people wonder if English will eventually ‘split,’ I don’t think they have creoles in mind. Rather, many seem intrigued by the possibility that British English might split from American, Northern American English from Southern, or Australian from everywhere else.

I see several large barriers to English dialects becoming separate languages in our lifetime:

1.) Literacy. I realize that written and spoken language are different. But reading and writing do impact speech, and in ways more profound than many give it credit for. My own speech is affected by the way I write, and I in turn affect other people’s speech when I talk to them.  Despite frequent complaints about the English-speaking world’s crumbling educational infrastructure, literacy is far more widespread than it was when Vulgar Latin was spreading across Europe. In my mind, it’s a huge impediment to the production of separate languages.

2.) Lack of geographical isolation. People simply move too much. Media is shared by too many countries. The rest of the world is too accessible. Nobody lives on a (figurative) island anymore, or some remote part of the empire accessible only by ten days’ journey on horseback.  People are much more exposed to other varieties of English than they were even sixty years ago.

3.) Strong accents are not languages. When an American hears a Cockney accent (or a Cockney hears an Minnesota accent), it’s easy to get the impression of entirely different languages: they sound so different.  But when you compare what people are actually saying to one another rather than how they say it, most mainstream dialects of English are not even close to splitting into languages as disparate as Spanish, French and Italian.

Of course, at an earlier date, such splits seemed more plausible. England still has various traditional dialects that are indications of a language that, from Middle English onward, may have been primed to diverge radically.

Along with many other factors, industrialization hampered this process. I don’t believe technology will erode the existence of separate languages. Nor do I think technology prohibits the creation of unique dialects, within certain limitations. But I do think advances in media and transportation will make it increasingly difficult for entirely new languages to develop.  It is perhaps only in the least technologically advanced parts of the globe that English may produce offspring.

But will English eventually go the path of Latin, giving birth to a number of great national mother tongues? Maybe, but I believe it would take some fairly catastrophic, revolutionary or wildly unforseen events for that to happen soon. As things are now, this ‘split’ seems a long ways off.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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26 Responses to Will English Dialects Become Languages?

  1. Dw says:

    Well, the UK doesn’t have much of an “army and navy” these days
    :)

  2. Charles Sullivan says:

    Perhaps it won’t happen until space is colonized. Marsglish.

  3. Nick says:

    It depends whether we get a phonetic spelling that tries to encompass as many accents as possible, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA_for_English tells non-rhotic speakers to ignore many Rs and Americans to ignore many yods, or if we implement dual standards. If H2O is spelt “wahder” in one system and “wawta” in the other, it won’t take too long for them to become different languages.
    (If this were to happen tomorrow, Australia, NZ and South Africa would all side with the UK but if it’s too far in the future, Australia could conceivably side with North America as t-flapping, yod-dropping and vowel nasalisation are becoming more acceptable with each generation.)

    • dw says:

      I very much doubt that English will ever split into separate spelling systems.

      Consider Arabic and Chinese: both languages/language families with far more variation between their component dialects/languages than the Englishes, yet each still with (afaik) one standard orthography.

    • Andrew Luimes says:

      English could easily split into seperate languages just as Latin did. Latin split after the Roman Empire fell into today’s Romance languages, and if a similar collapse happens to the West, as I believe it will (every culture has), English will split into different languages.

  4. zbiggy says:

    as long as English is THE international language, used in science, trade and culture, I don’t think this can happen. There will always be a need to learn quite common English for everyone so what mechanism could force ones to create their own language?

    But on the other hand, if in a 100 years time our greatgrandchildren will learn Chinese as the world language, most songs will be sung and movies played in Mandarin, who knows?

    • trawicks says:

      Off-topic, but I’m one of those who strongly doubts Chinese will become the next great world language. China has no history of large-scale immigration, has a negligible colonial legacy, and even in its home turf, Standard Mandarin is often a second language. Despite the country’s rise as an economic powerhouse, I don’t feel the conditions are there for the emergence of a new lingua franca.

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    I think that historically the analogy to Latin is false. When Latin morphed into its constituent languages(of which there are many more than the “majors”(French, Romanian, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish), autochthonous populations were virtually isolated for centuries:. No radio, no TV, no internet, no jet planes. International communication was carried out in the lingua franca of the west, which remained Latin. Moreover, the literacy rate was ridiculously low by modern standards. That said, if you learned German in college, go to Switzerland, sit down at a cafe, and try to eavesdrop on a pair of Swiss-German speakers. You’ll know it’s German, or like German, but you’ll only understand one word out of ten at the most. The same is true of Quebecois. If you learned French in college, you’ll have a hard time understanding or making yourself understood. Are Swiss German and Quebecois languages – or dialects – or creoles? You decide.

    • boynamedsue says:

      You’re right about Swiss German, but Quebecois is ridiculously close to standard French, considering the degree and length of their isolation. Metropolitan French speakers think they can’t understand it, but the moment they need to understand it, it becomes crystal clear.

      Yes, they often subtitle Quebecois programmes in France, but only one word in 20 changes, along with couple of little colloquialisms which can usually be deduced from context, but are replaced with their European alternatives anyway. That’s no more different than standard US and UK Enlish.

      • trawicks says:

        I think the greater difference between Quebec and Metropolitan French is pronunciation. Just one of the most prominent of these features is the presence of lax vowels. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it: imagine if Brits pronounced the phrase ‘sip it a little bit’ as if it were ‘seep eet a leetle beet.’

  6. Speranza says:

    Well, for one, I think the distinction, say, Latin—>Italian is OFTEN simplified. Why, one may say Italian is new Latin (‘neo-Latin’), or as I prefer, that Latin is “Old Italian”! But excellent blog, thanx for sharing!

  7. Ed says:

    trawicks has mentioned the Survey of English Dialects several times. I doubt that this man would’ve been able to understand this man, so you might say that there were different Abstantsprache back then.

    Recently there have been many complaints in the UK about young men’s using “gangsta rap” language from America. Meanwhile I keep hearing young women say things such as, “I was like, ‘Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!'” I can’t see how we’re moving apart: we seem to be converging. The reason why there are so many British articles that complain about American language is because American usage is spreading to young people in Britain.

    • trawicks says:

      I actually don’t buy into the argument that ‘gangsta rap’ language is invading the British Isles. Multi-cultural British English does indeed seem to be on the rise, but I don’t see much overt American hip hop influence there.

      • Rhys says:

        A lot of people who speak ‘multi-cultural British English’ are heavily influenced by American hip hop culture. Most working-class people in Britain are more interested in American culture than contemporary British culture – the BBC, indie music/fashion, etc is seen as the twee and pretentious preserve of the middle classes.

        The traditional working-class culture is dying but middle-class culture isn’t accessible or attractive to young people so they adopt aspects of American culture as it is more glamorous and less pre-occupied with class or snobbery.

        • boynamedsue says:

          But if you actually listen to the people concerned, ‘urban’ Britons whatever their ethnicity, you’ll hear more features from estuary, Cockney and the Carribean than the US. It’s actually the middle-middle and middle-upper classes (English meaning of middle) who show most influence from US English.

          The traditional working and lower-middle classes might use occasional American words, but their accents and intonation are more resistant to American influence than the next rung up.

      • Ed says:

        I’ll explain what I mean by the recent discussion of “gangster rap” language.

        There has been much discussion in Britain about comments by a historian about the language of young people. He should watch his language himself, as he misuses the word “literally”.

        A much-publicised BBM from a rioter was f*** the feds! This has to be American, since Britain is not a federal country.

        • boynamedsue says:

          I don’t think anyone disputes that American words are familiar, and to a lesser extent used by all sectors of British society. But the attatching of the label “gangster rap” to this development is just an example of the silly moral panic that has come from the riots (see the idiocy talked about “gangs” at the time). Urban Britons might listen to American rap, as might suburbanites, but they listen to other styles as well: the gangster rap thing is always siezed upon for rather predictable racial reasons.

          The example quoted above is interesting because the word “feds is not particular to AAVE, and I don’t think it is particularly prominent in hip-hop. In fact it may not even be used in the rap sub-culture, it certainly doesn’t appear in the hip-hop vocab database linked below, where words deriving from “federal” have entirely positive connotations. I don’t personally think that the “fcuk the feds!” quote comes from anything other than watching American crime shows on tv.

          http://www.hiphoparchive.org/hiphop-lx/hiphop-language-database/f/alphabetical?page=1

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