Is it ethical to predict the future of English?

It was a big Monday for me this week.

To understand how big, you have to know that I am fascinated by World Englishes; Why do most Americans pronounce the “r”, while most Brits don’t? How many more fun words will Australians come up with? Is “Euro-English” a thing? How do people respond to Dutch English? (That last one is what my master’s thesis was about.)

When it comes to World Englishes, British and American English are the Big Two, and the person who literally wrote the book on the differences between them is Lynne Murphy. So when she posted a tweet talking about signing up to more newsletters1, I suggested mine with quivering knees.

She responded, and of course I started gushing like a schoolgirl trying to impress teacher:

And then I embarrassed myself:

But, as they say, failure is the best way to learn, and my embarrassing Twitter conversation led to me reading up on the ethics of predicting the future of English.

Wait, who’s predicting the future of English?

I am. Or, well, I was planning to write about other people’s predictions.

For my newsletter, I’ve been making lists of websites, blogs, podcasts, journals, and people that publish about the English language. The first one is done, the others are in the works.

While doing this, I have noticed the absence of a subject I am interested in: the potential future of English. As a sci-fi nerd, this is something I like to think about.

Great, I though, that will be a good subject for my own blog, then.

But it turns out perhaps it isn’t.

Ethical considerations when predicting the future of English

A 2017 paper by Sandra Jansen notes the following considerations for academics planning to speculate on the future of a language:

1) There is no good scientific way to make predictions, and they are usually wrong

I have not been able to get my hands on the book chapter that Jansen cites for this claim, plus digging into it is rather a lot of work, so for now let’s just assume she is right in this.

(This 2015 paper seems to argue predictions are at least somewhat possible, but I haven’t read it properly yet.)

(Also, you could argue that AI models will allow for better predictions soon. AI could make the “predictions are usually wrong” point moot, and introduce new ethical considerations all at once. Fun!)

2. Academics speculate very carefully, but journalists distort the message to fit their own agenda.

In 2016, journalists from The Sun gave a ridiculous anti-immigrant conservative spin on a speculative report commissioned by HSBC, a UK-based bank.

The report mentioned that “‘Multicultural London English’ (…) incorporates pronunciations from Englishes spoken by people from ethnic minority groups, particularly from the Caribbean, West African and Asian communities.

The Sun changed this to “Cockney and other dialects set to ‘die out by 2066 because of immigration’

Yes. That’s pretty bad. On the other hand, tabloids gonna tabloid, right?

3) Laypeople don’t understand language change, and take predictions as fact

If you are reading this blog, you probably know this, but just in case you don’t: languages change all the time. It is a natural process that we couldn’t stop even if we wanted to.

But it is human nature to be bothered by language change, just take the anger that people feel about “supposebly” and “irregardless”. It seems most people wish English would stay just as it was when they were in their teens and twenties.

Jansen therefore makes the point that academic linguists should focus on getting the message across that language change is okay, rather than assuming the public knows this, and diving into language predictions. Predictions will just get lots of people’s backs up, and create more antipathy for academics.

4) ??? you tell me!

The three arguments above are from Jansen, but I can think of a few more.

Academics could use predictions to further their own agenda, speculating in a direction that they know will get them attention/ grant money/ a better desk in the shared office. Science needs to be rigorous, but speculation is far more flexible.

Speculating on social justice linguistics (pronouns, for example) can cause more harm than just annoying some people on Twitter.

A language prediction could go viral and cause itself to come true, giving future etymologists a headache or a thrill, depending on their predilection.

Any others? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

So, Heddwen, are you going to change your plans and not write about the future of English after all?

No, but I’ll be more aware of the way I am doing it.

I am not planning on doing any predictions myself. I am not a researcher. I am planning to look into what has been said and written about the future of English, and summarize and collect that here on this blog for the amusement of my followers. (I’d also like to interview people, but I need to get my two toddlers through Christmas, first.)

I will not be as biased as the journalists from The Sun, and my audience does not consist of laypeople, but instead of people with a strong interest in the English language.

I’ll keep the ethical considerations in mind, though. So thank you to Lynne Murphy’s trepidation for making me aware of them!

Heddwen Newton is an English teacher and translator. She is fascinated by contemporary English and the way English changes. Her newsletter is English in Progress on Substack.

Follow me on Mastodon or Twitter

1I was actually only on Twitter to check if Elon hadn’t deleted my account, which mentions my Mastodon handle. True story.

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