The Future of Language

Recently, in the December 2015 issue of Popular Science magazine, there was an amazingly interesting article by John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University. In the article, McWhorter talked about how languages are changing–and being lost–due to technological advances and the way cultures have so much access to each other now. It was an eye opening discussion, where McWhorter claimed that of the six or seven thousand languages in the world today, in the next 100 hundred years, that number will drop to about six or seven hundred.  Wow.

More common languages will absorb the ones spoken in remote areas of the world, and instead of people needing to learn languages when they travel, McWhorter believes there will be instant-translation apps where people speak into their devices and the translation will be instantly communicated to listeners. That sure would make traveling a lot easier for people. But does it make us lazier?

You might think that the English language will become the dominant language spoken throughout the world, but this linguist claims it won’t be…not exactly.

“It’s going to be this weird language that originated from tribes drinking blood out of skulls somewhere in Denmark a very long time ago. That’s what we’re speaking now. The Chinese will be running the world, but they’ll be doing it in English, simply because English [got there first].”

John McWhorter

The emergence of a simplistic texting language on our phones is evidence enough for McWhorter to believe that our languages will also be reduced to less formal, and more creative versions of what we know now. Will that translate into how people speak, also? It will be interesting to see if that’s what happens.

To listen to more about this topic and the evolution of language, you might want to watch this fascinating TEDtalk by McWhorter from 2013.

Endangered Language

Distribution of language families and isolates...

Distribution of language families and isolates north of Mexico at first contact. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Most of us probably never think about the language we speak, unless we’re visiting another country and find it difficult to communicate.  But what if you spoke a language that had slowly died out with all of the people who ever knew it, until you were the only person who could still speak it?


Even worse…what if there was someone else who also knew the language, but refused to speak to you?


This isn’t such an improbable scenario.  In Mexico, for example,  there are many indigenous languages that are slowly fading away as the population ages.  One such language is called Ayapaneco—spoken in the town of Apaya, Mexico for generations. Unfortunately, the language is about to disappear as only two men still speak it…and they refuse to talk to each other.  Linguists have stepped in and are trying to convince the men to converse with each other so that the vocabulary, diction and accent may be recorded and studied, in hopes of preserving it. But the men just don’t seem to get along.


It’s not clear why the men refuse to talk to each other…maybe a feud or maybe they just don’t have a lot in common…but if no one is able to get them chatting, Ayapaneco is just one of many languages that will probably disappear in this generation. There are probably similar languages in the area, as is common with indigenous peoples, and linguists might be able to piece together some aspects in order to preserve parts of it. But it would be much easier if they had a little help, of course.


One might argue that the English language has evolved and changed so much through generations (and is still changing), that it might be hardly recognizable to someone who spoke it 500 years ago, let’s say. The advent of computers and the use of spell check and short forms and the like has certainly changed the written form. Could massive changes to the spoken word be far behind? Could it be that someday, someone will be lamenting over the loss of English?  It seems unlikely, I know, but it makes you stop and think about communication and language in a new way when you hear stories like this.  You can read more on the story of the Mexican village and the men who are willing to let their language die out, right here.


Would YOU refuse to talk to someone if you were the only two people who knew a language?


Whilst I’m thinking about it….

Recently, I read a book by an author who doesn’t like to use punctuation. I won’t go into specifics, but she has written several books and even won some prizes for her writing! Sentence after sentence without commas or semi-colons makes for some confusing reading, I tell you. The book was very good–once I got past the punctuation problems–but I still wonder if style should be placed on a higher level of importance than proper grammar. It doesn’t make for an all-round enjoyable reading experience, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

I’ve read several articles complaining about the poor writing in Fifty Shades of Grey, particularly the use of words that are too formal. That being said, it didn’t stop people from reading.  I sometimes wonder if authors think they need to use BIG language in order to make their work seem more literary. Let’s face it, Fifty Shades is not a literary piece, so why does this author (and others) use words like “whilst”, “thus”, and “heretofore” in her dialogue? A modern setting just doesn’t call for embellished language such as this. It draws a reader out of the story and makes  books clunky.

Is it “bad writing” then, to use long words when a simple word would convey the same thought and move the story along better? Does proper punctuation (or lack of punctuation) make or break a work?Should story trump all? If recent publications are any indication, it would seem so.  What do you think? Is story more important than language?

The “F” Word.

Yes, that “F” word.

Watching TV the other night, I started thinking about the fact that the majority of television programs don’t allow the use of the word.  And do you miss it?  No. You still know when a character is angry or frustrated.  You can still tell that something bad has happened and someone is upset. But the lack of the word doesn’t make the conversations sound any less realistic, as far as I can tell.  Or maybe we’ve just become used to a Pollyanna version of life?

While literature can span the gamut of clean speech to text riddled with swearing, once again, it isn’t needed. So why do we hear it used so often in everyday life? (Okay, I’ll admit, I  probably go a few days without hearing anyone utter the word, but you get the point.) Why do we develop these types of words in our language and what purpose do they really serve?  Are they just words that undereducated people use? Hardly.  So, why do they even exist?

The F-Word has been around since the 15th century, in a variety of versions. The taboo nature of the words make them powerful, but it doesn’t explain why people use them in everyday conversation, especially when a strong moment isn’t needed. However, linguists believe people use them when speaking to one another (especially friends) to give some intensity to their conversation.  We get the point when someone says ” That was a great concert.”   But, it has no emotion.  Pop in the “f” word, and it becomes description that gives more emphasis to the sentence. If someone is willing to cross acceptable social boundaries to use the word, their idea must be important, right?

But then, how do they get around not using it on TV?  We’ll probably hear it pop up as time goes on (it seems that TV becomes more “realistic” all the time), but for now, they’ve proven we don’t need it. And there are many substitute words that work just as well.

Do you think the F-word would just phase itself out of our world if we didn’t use it?  Or would we just come up with something else instead? Does it matter?  Is it an important word, or just a word that needn’t be discussed?  I haven’t decided yet. 


Once again, it’s time for the top words of the year. 2010 was another year full of brand new words and words we’ve just never heard of before. Politics and environmental disasters generated quite a few of these words, but they’re still being used in conversation.

Here is a sampling of some of the top words used in 2010:

Spillcam — the underwater camera used to monitor the oil spill

Refudiate — “refute” + “repudiate” — a word coined by the ever interesting Sarah Palin

Guido — from the popular tv show Jersey Shore

Snowmageddon — after the record snowfall in the US and Europe last winter

Vuvuzela — the horns used in the World Cup Soccer stands

As expected, “twitter”, “H1N1”  and “Obama” were also top contenders.  You can see the whole list and more on language used around the globe at the Global Language Monitor.  There’s also lots of fascinating information on words in general so look around the site.  Maybe you’ll find a word you can start using in everyday conversation.  Go ahead, start a trend!

Are you deepooperit?

We often don’t think about funny words that we use in our day-to-day language, but we certainly use them.  Author Adam Jacot de Boinod has just penned his second book of weird and wonderful words called The Wonder of Whiffling and Other Extraordinary Words in the English Language, the follow-up to The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words From Around the World.


In each book, he explains the origins of many of the world’s strangest words, the likes of which will make you giggle.  You might want to check out his interesting and amusing blog as well, where you’ll find fascinating explanations of words from around the globe.

I took the fun quiz that was offered here, based on words from his book and got the fabulous score of one out of ten. (The site called me a jobbernowl….a blockhead…but I refuse to be offended.)  I think I’ll get out my dictionary and do a little studying before I take another quiz like this one, but it was fun anyway.