08 November 2007

Inglish av dha Fyuwchrr

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour
—Geoffrey Chaucer

English has changed a lot in the past 600-odd years. None of us will (probably) know how much it will change in the next 600. But I think it's fun to make guesses.

I had an idea once for a way to get an idea of how the sounds of English might change if current trends continue. It was based on the observation that spoken language changes much faster than written language (which is one reason why English is spelled so horribly—the phonology has changed a lot, but we still spell things as Shakespeare might have pronounced them). The basic concept would be to do something like this:
  1. Record native speakers, Group A, reading a list of words and phrases out loud. Some of the words should be fictitious, but plausible according to the rules of English phonology and spelling (such as they are).
  2. Use a phonetic or phonemic system to write down how Group A pronounced the list.
  3. Have another group of native speakers, Group B, read the lists based on Group A's pronunciation. (Note: people in this group must be unfamiliar with the phonetic or phonemic system, and preferably unfamiliar with the study of phonology in general.)
  4. Extrapolate patterns from the differences in the two groups' pronunciations.
Basically, Group B would be doubling the current disparity between the written language and the spoken language. As an example, the list might provide the word "pight", which someone in Group A might pronounce as /phaIt/. Someone in Group B, seeing that transcription, might pronounce it as /feIt/ (i.e., "fate"). Then we could extrapolate a p → f trend (which, indeed, already happened in English's cousin, German) and a movement of front diphthongs upward (continuing the work of the Great Vowel Shift). Not a terribly streenge frediction.

Of course, it'd be silly to think that this would be an accurate way of divining the future. Even if it did reflect past trends continuing, that's not always how language evolution works. But it might be a fun exercise to try, nonetheless. We already have reconstructed languages; why not preconstructed?


  1. Preconstruction of the next millennium of English.

    BTW, the dialect of Liverpool (Scouse) has recently copied the High German sound shift, turning /p t k/ into [p͡ɸ t͡s k͡x~x] (and, incidentally, producing the perhaps only attested example of a bilabial affricate). Hook comes out as [uːxː].

  2. Whoah, fascinating page.

    Did not know that about Scouse. Vindication! (Hehe.)