Hay Festival 2012: "English will die out like Latin", leading linguist claims

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neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 17:16
Spanish to English
+ ...
Yeah right Jun 7, 2012

"Dr Ostler, who speaks 26 languages" reminds me of a joke I heard once: "My father speaks several languages... but nobody understands him". It sounded better in Spanish and in context, honest.

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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:16
Hebrew to English
Leading Linguist? Jun 7, 2012

I've never heard of him. If this is the kind of drivel he is spouting I hope I never do again.

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Werner Maurer  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 08:16
Spanish to English
+ ...
The new Latin Jun 7, 2012

Quite the opposite: English is the new Latin. Latin may have died out (albeit only kinda sorta; it survives in 20-something languages that are descendants of it in varying degrees of directness, with influences from other languages some of which also no longer exist),

But in a few or a few more centuries, if the world lasts that long, English as we know it today may very well no longer exist, just as Shakespeare's English "no longer" exists (emphasis on the quotes). However, all of its present-day variants, viz. South and East African, Indian, North American and its regional variants, Caribbean, Aussie, and so on and so forth, not to mention Scots, Irish, Yorkish, Kentish, Cornish, Cockney and what have you, will have evolved into a somewhat interrelated family of very distinct languages in their own right, and will continue to evolve. Eventually, millennia down the road, one of those will be the new English, which in turn will have been the new Latin, which itself became the new Greek, which in its time had been the new whatever, and so on.

[Edited at 2012-06-07 18:15 GMT]


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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 17:16
Italian to English
A matter of life and death Jun 7, 2012

Werner Maurer wrote:

Eventually, millennia down the road, one of those will be the new English, which in turn will have been the new Latin, which itself became the new Greek, which in its time had been the new whatever, and so on.



Perhaps we should look at the question through the other end of the telescope.

Communication is possible where participants share both ground rules (the "classical" form of a shared language) and wiggle room (generative mechanisms that can embody new concepts).
Languages are only dead when no one uses them and they can no longer evolve.


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:16
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Everything dies Jun 7, 2012

Everything dies - eventually. So will English - but not for a while yet.

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Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:16
French to English
+ ...
In fairness Jun 7, 2012

Ty Kendall wrote:

I've never heard of him. If this is the kind of drivel he is spouting I hope I never do again.


Trying very very hard to be fair here, part of the drivel may have come from the Telegraph journalist.

For example, putting the phrase "die out like Latin" in the headline is clearly designed to be sensationalist and does not actually reflect the linguist's opinion: there's clearly no way that "cease to be the dominant lingua franca" means anything like "die out".

The comparison with Latin is largely spurious in any case-- the situation of English and the situation of Latin and the Romance languages are really quite different.


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 00:16
Chinese to English
Journo hype aside... Jun 8, 2012

I actually thought some of the ideas were quite interesting!

1) English's day in the sun will pass - this surely isn't very controversial? He's suggesting sooner rather than later. Fair enough.

There is an interesting point here about how language will change. I've seen a suggestion that the invention of sound recording will actually change the way language evolves. If we keep going back to music, lectures, movies from the 20 century, then that may prevent major changes in pronunciation and grammar. Don't know if that's true; be interesting to see if any historical linguists have looked at it.

2) There'll be no lingua franca in future.

He makes the assumption that automatic translation will succeed, i.e. become reliable enough for everyday casual use. I'm not so sure about that, but we can grant it as a basis for argument. If everyone has a Star Trek communicator, will they then not bother to learn languages in order to talk together?
I find this pretty dubious. Language does so much more than just get meaning across: it conveys emotion and encodes ideology. I think people will always want to talk directly in the same language. But it's interesting to think about why that's the case.

(And it's interesting to think about what that means for translation: as I see it, a translation which carries meaning but doesn't carry the ideology/affective message is defective. It's a big issue in Eng/Chi.)

3) Universal translation will help support minority languages

Again, it's a nice utopian idea, but I think it misses problems of ideology, participation and ownership. Say you speak a minority language in India. As the *language of politics* evolves, are you going to be willing to be a bystander, separated from the action by your Siri translation unit? Or will you want to get involved?

If you read through the journobabble, there's debates to be had. What do you expect from the Telegraph? It's not a bad paper (politics aside) but it does process all information into shouty journo factoid format.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:16
Hebrew to English
Beam me up Scotty! Jun 8, 2012

Yes, it's unfortunate it's come via the Telegraph, I would have liked to have been there in person to see what evidence he has for statements such as:

Dr Ostler said English is already in decline


As it stands in the article, I find his entire argument hinges on the assumption that we shall all imminently have Universal Translators, Star Trek style (based on Google Translate and Siri...it's hard to feel threatened by that! If Star Trek UTs were based on these technologies I suspect Captain Kirk and Picard would have had a few more diplomatic incidents with surly forehead aliens) but for the sake of argument, let's say we do, I don't believe the consequences as he envisions them would necessarily be those to unfold.

Sadly, I do agree with him when he says:

“It means the learning of a foreign language will become a specialist endeavour but it already is in this country,"


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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 17:16
Italian to English
Universal translators Jun 8, 2012

Ty Kendall wrote:

As it stands in the article, I find his entire argument hinges on the assumption that we shall all imminently have Universal Translators



The sooner the better. I can't wait to take this fish out of my ear


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Giovanni Guarnieri MITI, MIL  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:16
Member (2004)
English to Italian
yes... Jun 8, 2012

probably got drunk in one of the many Hay-On-Wye's pubs before speaking...

Edited for misspelling Hay-On-Wye! Shame on me!

[Edited at 2012-06-09 07:36 GMT]


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Gennady Lapardin  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 19:16
Italian to Russian
+ ...
In how many languages does he think? Jun 8, 2012

Dr Ostler, who speaks 26 languages

[Edited at 2012-06-08 16:14 GMT]


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Sian Cooper  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 17:16
French to English
+ ...
I think it's the other way around (for a while) Jun 11, 2012

Obviously, times change, economic and cultural dominance changes over the centuries, and so on; one day, English (in whatever form it has evolved) will no longer be the dominant language.

But I think there is more to it than that (translation machines to one side). I believe that the introduction of social and shared media will change the evolution of common language so that no one language will become dominant, but a new world-wide lingua franca will evolve, which is not any one of the current known languages (or an evolved form of it), but rather a new language evolved out of many/all. In fact, eventually we should return to pre-Babel state!

And on that basis, since at present English (with dominant US form) is continuing to spread and gain influence (the amount of English used in everyday French, especially amongst the young, is increasing rapidly, for example; without the speakers necessarily being at all aware that it is English); since the youth-oriented media (especially the music industry, but also films) is predominantly English-dominated, I believe that the future lingua-franca will in fact have a solid basis in English, or at least will have adopted a high-level of English-based vocabulary. At the same time, it will also include vocabulary from many different languages (again, thinking of French, there is a strong Arabic influx into the language too). This is of course how all languages have evolved, but they have been geographically isolated: now there will be global sharing.

That is at a vocabulary/phrases level. It will be interesting to see what script becomes dominant - I am not convinced that the Chinese will dominate there; I believe this script will remain dominant, with high levels of phonetic use (which is of course linked to vocabulary growth).

Grammar and semantics are a completely different issue, of course... I believe there will be a massive simplification in them, leading to some poverty in the ability to communicate, which will then be enriched through other linguistic means, either yet to be invented or by adopting methods used in non-English or non-European languages. Chinese is likely, in that instance, to have a major influence.

Shall I go and do a doctorate now?


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:16
Hebrew to English
Illusion of "simplification" Jun 11, 2012

I would just disagree with your ending arguments. Languages in their evolution have a tendency to economize in some ways, which if often mistaken for "simplification". In addition, when most people talk about languages becoming simplified over time, what they are referring to is a loss of declensions/inflections. This too is not necessarily a sign of "simplification". In language, the "simplification" of one area of language is usually accompanied by the "complication" of another which ends up balancing the books. For example, take case endings in English, morphologically they have been "lost" (for the most part), but the rules of syntax which stepped in to fill the gap more than make up for it.

Finally, I disagree that "simplification" if you must call it that will entail "poverty in the ability to communicate". This is a classic argument which has been thoroughly debunked.

[Edited at 2012-06-11 11:53 GMT]


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Hay Festival 2012: "English will die out like Latin", leading linguist claims

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