McWhorter on the global linguascape of 2115

« previous post | next post »

John McWhorter has an ambitious article in the Wall Street Journal for 1/2/15: "What the World Will Speak in 2115:  A century from now, expect fewer but simpler languages on every continent." The article covers a lot of ground and includes much daring prognostication along the way.  I won't attempt to summarize everything in this rich essay, but — so far as Mandarin goes and so far as one is willing to make predictions about the future based on current circumstances, trends, and available data — I think that McWhorter is right on the mark.

Some may protest that it is not English but Mandarin Chinese that will eventually become the world’s language, because of the size of the Chinese population and the increasing economic might of their nation. But that’s unlikely. For one, English happens to have gotten there first. It is now so deeply entrenched in print, education and media that switching to anything else would entail an enormous effort. We retain the QWERTY keyboard and AC current for similar reasons.

Also, the tones of Chinese are extremely difficult to learn beyond childhood, and truly mastering the writing system virtually requires having been born to it. In the past, of course, notoriously challenging languages such as Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Arabic, Russian and even Chinese have been embraced by vast numbers of people. But now that English has settled in, its approachability as compared with Chinese will discourage its replacement. Many a world power has ruled without spreading its language, and just as the Mongols and Manchus once ruled China while leaving Chinese intact, if the Chinese rule the world, they will likely do so in English.

That's a remarkable statement for McWhorter to make, but I have long felt pretty much the same way.

The following picture is worth a thousand words:

It shows a Chinese teacher conducting an English class at an elementary school in Gansu province (July, 2013).  Gansu, in the far northwest, is one of the poorest provinces in China, and is notorious for the backwardness of its education and low literacy rates.  Yet look at what they're emphasizing here.

The teacher is explaining the following sentence that he has written on the board:  "All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue [them]."

It's a perfectly good English sentence written with a clear, steady hand.  In a way, it echoes the sentiment of the Chinese on the banner above the board:

lìzhì dǔxíng zìqiáng bùxī 励志笃行 自强不息
("be dauntlessly determined and earnestly persevere; improve yourself unceasingly")

The English sentence is particularly interesting because it is about making dreams come true, and the phrase Zhōngguó mèng 中国梦 ("Chinese Dream") has been promoted by CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping as a slogan exhorting people to better themselves and join in the revitalization of the nation.

On the young teacher's T-shirt is written mèngxiǎng jiēlì, quánxīn quányì 梦想接力,泉心泉意 ("carry on the dream, with an outpouring of heart and soul"), where the second phrase ("spring / fountain-heart spring / fountain-thought") is homophonic with quánxīn quányì 全心全意 ("with all your heart and with all your soul" — "complete heart complete thought").  The two phrases together are an elaboration of the aspiration implicit in the name of the team of teachers:  mèngquán 梦泉 ("spring / fountain of dreams").

On the right hand side of the board is a list of the classes for the day:

Xīngqíyī 星期一 ("Monday")

shùxué 数学 ("mathematics")

Yīngyǔ 英语 ("English")

yīnyuè 音乐 ("music")


yǔwén 语文

tuòzhǎn 拓展 ("development") — I think this stands for sùzhì tuòzhǎn 素质拓展 ("character development")

ānquán 安全 ("safety")

It turns out that the teacher is a volunteer from China University of Petroleum in Qingdao (Shandong Province in the east) who went with a group of his classmates to teach in this remote elementary school in Huìníng 会宁 County of Gansu Province for ten days.

Incidentally, the most (in)famous alumnus of China University of Petroleum is Zhou Yongkang, the former security chief of the PRC who is now under indictment for abuse of power and corruption on a grand scale.

By an incredible stroke of good luck, I was able to find a video shot in the same classroom. Not only did the video confirm my reading of what was written on the banner above the board, it also confirmed my reading of the schedule of classes for the day on the right hand side of the greenboard.

But what really hit home were the three words written in huge letters at the top of the blackboard at the back of the room (which you can see at 4:20):  I Love English.  In this setting, that is worth ten thousand words.


  1. JS said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

    No comment on how 泉心泉意 is now an illegal turn of phrase? :P

  2. JS said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

    It seems obvious that over the last few millennia, the number of living, viable languages in the world has been decreasing by leaps and bounds and will continue to do so. On the other hand, traditional comparative method reconstruction begins from the assumption of multiple "daughters" of single "parent" languages. Am I correct that the only way to reconcile these two facts is to assume that 95% (or what have you) of the linguistic diversity of 3000 BCE has disappeared without a trace (or trace trivial enough not to affect the basic validity of the assumptions underlying reconstruction?) This does not seem terrifically satisfactory.

  3. Sili said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

    By an incredible stroke of good luck,

    Doesn't that rather suggest there aren't a great many classrooms publicised like this? Or did you mean that it was lucky to find among such a vast selection?

    Anyway, that's a far nicer hand than I have ever had as a native in the Latin alphabet (and now a teacher to boot).

    We retain the QWERTY keyboard and AC current for similar reasons.

    What's the argument against AC?

  4. D.O. said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 2:06 pm

    I don't want to be cynical, but the photograph and the video look like a propaganda material to me.

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 2:47 pm

    There's a tension between two of McWhorter's claims – if there aren't, e.g., going to be substantial new populations learning Mandarin, how is "average" spoken Mandarin going to get creolized/simplified? And if the world is going down from 6,000 languages to 600, the 5,400 at risk of going missing are probably collectively spoken by a single-digit percentage of the world's population, so are their current speakers (plus their offspring) really numerous enough to change the character of the larger languages into which they are predicted to be assimilated? (Or at least to change it in any substantial and predictable way.)

  6. Michael Rank said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 3:23 pm

    "Huìníng 会宁 County of Gansu Province". X County of Y Province – Chinglish is catching!

  7. D.O. said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

    According to Ethnologue (I think, they are going for counting more rather than less languages if there is an uncertainty) there is about 400 languages with 1,000,000 or more (native) speakers collectively spoken by 94.2% of humankind. So yes, if it's only smallest languages that are going to die, it's not clear how they will change the bigger ones. Or maybe Mr. McWhorter thinks that minority languages will give way not to a standardized version of one of the major languages, but to a creole. That would be strange with the possibilities of current education system.

  8. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 5:32 pm

    Can anyone parse EXRTMAE on the kid's back? Something about skateboards? There's also a "tumbling E" eye chart on the wall on which I can pass at about 20/150. I'm amazed that anyone can read the characters over there or on the teacher's shirt.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 5:33 pm

    @Michael Rank

    The Chinese are indeed fond of this construction, but it's also common in North Korea, South Korea, Iran, Turkey, Kenya, Poland, Ukraine, and many other countries, so you can't really call it Chinglish, unless you think that Chinese English has also infected the English of those places too.

    Bandar Abbas County of Hormozgan Province…/0fcfd50fe2a954ea23000000.pdf

    Neka county of Mazandaran Province,

    Sari county of Mazandaran province

    Artova County of Tokat Province

    Hwaseong County of Gyeonggi Province

    Çıldır County of Artvin Province

    Ko-ryong county of Kyungpook province

    Siaya County of Nyanza Province

    Malazgirt county of Muş province

    Naein County of Isfahan Province in central Iran

    Wiwon County of Jagang Province and Chongnam District of South Phyongan Province…/20141112-16ee.html

    Dangjin County of Chungcheongnam-Do Province…/snapshot.asp

    Krosno county of Podkarpackie province

    Novozybkov county of Chernigov province

    I could have spent the rest of the afternoon and evening gleaning these things from the web.

  10. Michael Rank said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 6:02 pm

    You have certainly proved your point that this isn't a purely Chinglish construction but I was a bit surprised to see it used by a native English speaker!

  11. Eidolon said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

    McWhorter's arguments remind me of an earlier LL post that expressed basically the same idea: Chinese won't replace English, except the premise there did not regard China ruling the world as a possibility. I also don't think it's a possibility, but the thought experiment requires a great deal of additional elaboration than the analogy with the Manchus/Mongols, for while it is the case that those peoples were never able to spread their language to the Chinese, another group of Eastern nomadic conquerors – the Turkic speakers – were quite successful in doing so in Central Asia and the Near East. Even Anatolia, a continuous seat of civilization, was effectively Turkified in the last ~1,000 years. The languages thus displaced, including branches of Afroasiatic and Indo-European, were not especially harder to learn than Turkish, and with respect to writing, the Ottoman Turks ended up writing their language in Arabic and then switched to the Latin alphabet in the 20th century, a wholly different system than the Aramaic runes used for the Old Turkic language. This process shows what we already know: oral and written language are not joined at the hip, and there's no cause to believe that Mandarin and the Chinese writing system are two halves of the same package.

    To this end, I don't think McWhorter is correct to say that, were China to literally rule the world, their linguistic legacy has to be in English because Chinese orthography is too difficult and tones are too hard to learn. The former is irrelevant in case this 'global Mandarin' uses an alphabet, and the latter is only a hiccup, not an insurmountable barrier, as seen in the case of speakers of various toneless languages learning Mandarin. As to the argument about existing education & media being in English and the enormous effort it takes to switch from a lingua franca that got there first, that's just using the present to justify the future, which as seen in historical cases, is not necessarily wise. All that Sanskrit literature and learning did not prevent English from becoming an official language of India, after all, and the very term lingua franca indicates a similar case in continental Europe.

    Of course, I don't see it happening because I don't see China literally ruling the world, and I don't think it's especially useful to pretend that anyone presently does, despite the great influence exerted by Anglophone countries. But were they – or any other country – to actually do so for a prolonged period of time, then there's no telling what the linguistic situation is ultimately going to be. Lest we forget, China itself is the best example of a language family – in this case Sinitic – converting ~20% of humanity over the course of a few thousand years. Where there is a will, there is a way.

  12. Eidolon said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 6:11 pm

    Sorry for the double post, but I ought to have been a bit careful in the last paragraph: *Indo-European* is the best example of a language family that converted 50% of the world to its embrace, boasting ~3 billion modern day speakers by a few counts. Sinitic is second.

  13. DaveK said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 6:59 pm

    Taking up what JS said–that most ancient languages have vanished without leaving descendants, it seems that what's really destroying linguistic diversity is not the age-old process of one language replacing another but the fact that big, supra-national languages like English and Spanish aren't breaking apart into local languages the way that Latin did in Europe, for example.

  14. ThomasH said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

    @ Brewer,
    If WcWhorter is right about simplified Mandarin, it will be through "friction" with other Sinitic languages spoken in China.

  15. Jeff W said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 7:41 pm

    From the article:

    …the very things that make these languages so fabulously rich also makes it hard to revive them once lost…

    John McWhorter points to clicks and tones in making his point.

    But what I think of, when I think of languages being lost, is this, from an earlier Wall Street Journal article by Lera Boroditsky:

    About a third of the world's languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes. They perform navigational feats scientists once thought were beyond human capabilities.

    [emphasis added]

    If those languages are among the 90% of existing languages are lost, we lose something more than “richness”; we lose real-life examples of a greater range of human capabilities—skills like navigation that are not even linguistic—than were previously thought possible.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 7:42 pm


    That's a good way to put it, and that's exactly what I was about to say to J. W. Brewer, though I wouldn't have used such an apt expression.

    @Michael Rank

    I was born in rural Stark County of Ohio State (haha!) and grew up there till I was 18, only leaving the state two or three times all the while, then went to New England for college, where I majored in English literature and did very well (wrote a thesis on Chaucer), after which I probably only spent a few weeks in my home state until now.

    I have lived a total of around twenty years in about a dozen countries scattered all over the world and have travelled extensively in roughly fifty others. So I guess that you could say my English has become rather global in nature, since I've picked up aspects of the Englishes (and of the indigenous languages) of all the countries where I have lived and stayed for extended periods of time.

    Many are the occasions when I want to say something but can't figure out how to say it in my "native English", in which case I just say it in the most comfortable variety of English or even of some other language that comes to mind. For example, I find myself quite naturally often saying "good on ya", which I actually picked up from my brother who spent months hiking around Australia, from my son who lived there for a year, and from my many Australian friends (though I only rarely put "mate" at the end). Another favorite expression of mine, which I really love, is "ciao", which I picked up in Austria, though I know that it is derived from Italian. Even though I have only lived in Japan for a total of about a year, Japanese expressions often pop up in my mind and sometimes even spill out into my speech. I'm also rather addicted to Hobson-Jobsonisms. And so forth and so on. Consequently, because of all the languages with which I have been in close contact for the last fifty years of my life, I no longer consider my English to be purely "native". Rather, it is some kind of hybrid, maybe even something like the global English that McWhorter was hinting at.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 8:09 pm

    Eidolon paraphrasing McWhorter:

    "…were China to literally rule the world, their linguistic legacy has to be in English."

    What McWhorter really said:

    "…if the Chinese rule the world, they will likely do so in English."

  18. Dave Cragin said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 11:20 pm

    McWhorter has some extremely interesting linguistic courses on CD & DVD. Notably, his teaching style is such that starting in 9th grade, my son was totally into his lectures (and my son had no previous interest in linguistics).

    McWhorter offers a perspective I hadn’t considered regarding threatened languages: when a speaker has never seen their language written down, never heard it on the radio or seen it on TV, they may think its not a “real” language that needs to be saved. In addition, languages from isolated areas tend to be very complex and particularly hard for adults to learn (and as a result hard-to-save).

    Davek – Yes, McWhorter would agree with your statement. Isolation is generally needed for a language to break apart into different languages. In today’s highly connected world, this is not likely for a language like English.

    Last year I spent time in Ireland and I was surprised at the number of idioms I thought of as “American” that were readily used. While our accents were clearly different, language usage was closer than I expected.

    His Ted talk on "Is texting killing language?" is worth a look:

  19. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 11:36 pm

    Two years ago I published the linguistic and non-linguistic reasons that led me to believe that Chinese will NOT replace English as the new global language (in 'Chinese as a Global Language?' in "Chinese History: A New Manual," 2nd revised printing, Harvard, 2013, section 1.4). McWhorter makes some of the same points as me, but here I only summarize a few additional ones from my book:

    1. Mandarin or Standard Chinese (Putonghua 普通话) is only spoken by about half the population of China (McWhorter seems to think that all the 1.4 billion people of China speak Mandarin. However this is not the case. After 60 years of efforts, the other half still does not speak it. This bodes ill for spreading Mandarin to the rest of the world if they cannot even succeed in spreading Mandarin to 700 million people in China itself).

    2. Nevertheless Mandarin is already the largest mother-tongue language in the world and the number of its speakers will probably continue to increase as more and more younger generations in China learn to speak it. But outside of China, there are no closely related languages whose speakers would find it easy to switch to Chinese. English on the other hand belongs to the Indo-European language family which is by far the largest in the world. It is relatively easy for many of the members of this family to pick up English.

    3. Another difference between English and Chinese that affects their attractiveness as world languages is that the alphabet used for writing English is the same as used in hundreds of other languages all over the world, including three of the world's top 10 languages, Spanish, Portuguese, and German. The Chinese script (quite apart from its well-known difficulties), on the other hand, is mainly used inside China.

    4. The international expansion in the use of a language depends on a number of factors of which non-linguistic ones are also extremely important. Countries whose first or official language is English constituted about 33 percent of global product in 2012. This compares to Mandarin first-language speakers, who accounted for about seven percent of world GDP that year (both figures are in purchasing power parity terms). The speakers of the other ten main world languages, Spanish, Hindi-Urdu, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Punjabi, German, and Javanese, account for relatively smaller shares of the world economy (the largest share goes to Japan, with 5 percent). For this reason alone these languages are unlikely to emerge as world languages capable of replacing English. However, if we project forward 20 years the shares of the world economy held by China and India will grow enormously and the shares of the United States and of Europe will continue to decline. But the per capita income there will remain higher than in China and India and therefore the prestige of English as the language of the rich and powerful will probably still survive intact. Chinese will gain in influence as a second language as more of its domestic population learn to speak it and a few million foreigners learn it. In India, on the other hand it is probably the second language, English, that will get an additional boost, not Hindi-Urdu.

    5. To conclude: English is mother or official tongue in at least 12 nations scattered in every continent. Mandarin on the other hand is strong at home and the number of its domestic speakers is growing steadily, but it is weak abroad. The share of world product of countries whose native language is English will decline in the next 20 years. Nevertheless, if global technologies continue to develop, they will contribute significantly to the increased dominance of a single global language and for both linguistic and non-linguistic reasons, that language is likely to continue to be English, not Chinese.

  20. Jonathan Badger said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 11:43 pm

    In the 18th and 19th centuries, French was the common international language (at least among Europeans). But that's not what the British used when they ruled the world. Or Americans for that matter after WWII. The idea that international English will outlive the political power of the nations that use it natively seems a bit naive given the fate of French.

  21. the other Mark P said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 12:17 am

    French was the common international language (at least among Europeans)

    Among a tiny elite only. It was the language of diplomacy but not actually a language of trade or general discourse.

    It's not like the average German in the 18th century spoke or read any French. Whereas the average German now has quite reasonable grasp of English, certainly to read it. Seventeenth century sailors in the Mediterranean didn't burst into French when they met each other.

    Latin well out-powered French. It held on as the language of learning for over 1,000 years after anyone spoke it as native tongue. Newton wrote Principia Mathematica in Latin, not French.

  22. Sam said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 2:31 am

    Really interesting scenario to frame a nice piece, thanks! Just one little thing, I believe 拓 is usually pronounced tuo4 in the pairing 拓展. The ta4 pronunciation is for inscriptions such as in 拓本.

  23. reader_not_academe said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 3:32 am

    AC current was actually not there first: DC was. AC has several advantages over DC (more efficient to transmit, easier to convert to different voltages), but Edison held patents related to DC and had a stake in keeping it as the standard.

    There's no third kind of electricity so there's no challenger to AC.

  24. reader_not_academe said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 3:39 am

    I am also fascinated by how new languages are born, and I have the impression the old idea of a single base language branching out into more and more descendants is not the way sociolinguistics prefers to think about it. Creolization and other forms of interaction between languages that come into close contact seems to be proposed as a more realistic story, one which goes against the idea of neat language "family trees."

    I wish I could cite literature, but I cannot. In fact, I wonder if Prof. Mair or someone else on here can?

  25. Victor Mair said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 7:42 am


    tuò vs. tà 拓

    Fixed now. I actually briefly and subliminally thought about that problem as I was making the post, but in the rush of all the other details and discoveries, I forgot to attend to it.

    Thanks for the correction and for your appreciation.

  26. Rodger C said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 8:07 am

    Is the China University of Petroleum the descendant of the Hochschule at "Tsingtao" in Borges' "Garden of Forking Paths"?

  27. AB said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 8:50 am

    @t'other mark
    What language *would* seventeenth century European sailors, merchants etc. likey have communicated in?

  28. languagehat said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 10:33 am

    AB: Lingua franca.

  29. /df said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 10:35 am

    @J.W.Brewer, @VictorMair, @ThomasH
    >how is "average" spoken Mandarin going to get creolized/simplified?
    Surely also, as exemplified regularly here, through interaction with English?

    Nowadays high power semiconductors make DC voltage conversion practical and DC possibly better for high voltage transmission than AC .

  30. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 10:35 am

    @AB — Most likely Mediterranean Lingua Franca. "Language of the Franks" but about three-quarters Italian. I wonder whether Papiamentu is similar to Lingua Franca. Lexical pitch is something that Papiamentu shares with Mandarin that makes it hard to learn to speak well.

  31. Mark Mandel said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 10:45 am

    @AB: Whatever language they had in common, as happens now when people of different L1s meet. The other Mark P was replying to Jonathan Badger, who said "In the 18th and 19th centuries, French was the common international language (at least among Europeans)." As I read toMP's post, his point is not that JB named the wrong general common tongue, but that French was not a general common tongue, and except for tiny elites — scholars, clerics, diplomats — there probably was no such thing.

    Yet another Mark

  32. Apollo Wu said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 11:18 am

    This article reflects the evolution of language changes in the world. Its predictions are very rational and highly possible. The interactions between speakers of different languages tend to simplify the original language. After using English for all these years as a Chinese translator at the UN Headquarters in New York before my retirement, I learnt very late about the difference in meaning between the two phrases: "the member states of the UN", and "member states of the UN", with the first phrase means 'All' member states of the UN, while the latter phrase means only some member states of the UN. Diplomats probably were misled by the Resolution 242 of the Security Council which stipulated that Israel must withdraw from territories occupied during the Six Day War. The missing of the article 'the' before territories was intended to mean 'some territories' rather than 'all territories'. Maybe Chinese expressions would be much clearer in that regard. Also, the adding of 's' for the third person singular verbs was a puzzle to me until I found out rather late that the sentence 'He go' is a commandment which means 'He must go'. From a Chinese point of view, a future direction of English simplification will be to stop adding -s to all present tense verbs. How simple would be for us to say, he go, she go and we go!! – Apollo

  33. Jonathan Badger said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 11:53 am

    @The Other Mark P
    Latin certainly lasted a long time after the Roman Empire — but that's a little different from using a national language as the fact that it was nobody's native language was kind of the point. Even so, it was kind of dying by the 18th century — Linnaeus wrote his biological works in the language (because not many people would have read them in his native Swedish), but that was kind of the last hurrah of the language beyond classical interest.

    I agree that the common German peasant didn't know French, and that only the diplomatic and scholarly elite knew it, but to say that French wasn't the common international language then would be like saying there was no such thing as literature either because most people were illiterate.

  34. Iamaom said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

    I think English will remain the world's language for quite sometime. Yes, other lingua franca's have come and gone, some even lasting hundreds of years, but times have changed so much in so little. English makes up over half the internet (, which is an information repository that dwarfs (microscopes?) all other information storage that came before it. The world is now so global with instant communication and English is everwhere, its almost impossible to avoid it. The entirety of texts written in Latin, Sumerian, Sansrkit, French before the internet could probably fit on a couple hard drives worth of space.

    Like others have mentioned, Mandarin is mainly confined to asia where English is universal. I just can't see millions of people giving up English to learn something (arguably) harder and less globally and culturally friendly* just because china gets a few more GDP points.

    *I mean that Mandarin is inseparable from China culture wise. English is spoken everywhere and associated with any culture.

  35. Sally Thomason said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

    The trouble with McWhorter's scenario about languages getting simpler if they're learned by non-native speakers is that there's a lot of evidence against the hypothesis. Modern English morphology (word structure) is simpler than Old English morphology was, but English syntax is hardly simple. Nobody has come up with a satisfactory measure of overall syntactic (sentence structure) complexity for English or any other language — because, for one thing, no complete syntactic description of any language exists. Language contact is a universal of the human condition; simplification under language contact definitely isn't, and that includes language shift situations, where non-native speakers learn a target language: some such changes do lead to overall simplification, but others don't. One salient example: Russian (like English) has been learned by many, many non-native speakers over the centuries, and Russian morphology has not gotten simpler as a result of all this second-language learning. Another example: in the aboriginal Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and neighboring Canadian provinces, multilingualism was the norm, much of the language learning was done by non-native speakers of the various target languages, and these languages had and have some of the most complex morphological systems in the world. And a partial answer to reader_not_academe's question about family trees vs. sociolinguistics: family tree models have been constructed for a great many language families all over the world, and the results of efforts to reconstruct undocumented prehistoric parent languages have led to a great many successes in the form of testable hypotheses about family-specific language changes. But historical linguists have always known that family trees can tell only part of the story of a language family's history: the Comparative Method (by which family trees are constructed and parent languages reconstructed) identifies anomalous data, but cannot provide explanations for anomalies — other methods must be used to explain anomalies, most notably methods from contact linguistics. Modern sociolinguistics is providing wonderfully rich insights into processes of language change, but it remains true that the ultimate results of language diversification, in all but a handful of cases, turn out to fit into family trees (with reconstructable parent languages and testable historical hypotheses). The handful of family-tree-less cases include pidgin and creole languages, as well as bilingual mixed languages.

  36. Jeff W said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 7:23 pm

    From a Chinese point of view, a future direction of English simplification will be to stop adding -s to all present tense verbs.

    I’ve often felt that if English were “Sinicized” just a bit, it might be, to use McWhorter’s term, “lightly optimized.” (I say that as a native speaker of English.) It might be happening in any case.

    Maybe Chinese expressions would be much clearer in that regard.

    I wonder if the Chinese of 2115 might incorporate some features of English (even more so than it does now)—it’s hard to imagine that it won’t—and, if it does, what features would be on that list. (That’s just a rhetorical question.)

  37. Eidolon said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 7:24 pm

    "…if the Chinese rule the world, they will likely do so in English."

    I must admit to going further than the substance of the statement in my earlier comments, but this is a circular argument at its core, built on the basis of English being the ascendant language today, and therefore the likely language of global administration regardless of who becomes the administrator. Yet the final linguistic outcome of a global hegemon is not at all obvious simply from its initial precondition. A scenario in which China – or whoever else – rules the world for a prolonged period of time economically, culturally, and politically is liable to result in the national language of that country becoming ascendant over English by virtue of prestige. The best arguments against Mandarin becoming the global language are one and the same with why China won't rule the world. Lingua francas are not detachable from the historical environments in which they rose.

    @Endymion I agree with your other arguments, but the ease of language learning, even to the degree that matters for distant members of the IE family, was never the primary cause for English's ascendancy. Politics and socioeconomics are central. Iran, El Salvaore, and Venezuela, despite being IE countries, are towards the bottom of the list when it comes to English proficiency, while Singapore and Malaysia, despite being from completely different language families, are towards the top. Where there is sufficient political will and socioeconomic incentive, people find a way. A world in which Mandarin replaces English is difficult to imagine precisely because it is also difficult to imagine a world in which China eclipses the West in political, socioeconomic, and cultural clout. But pretend, for a moment, that Hollywood was in Mandarin, that the overwhelming bulk of scientific research was done in Mandarin, that the world's biggest international companies and investors all speak Mandarin, that the internet's hottest fads all generally start on the Chinese side of the internet, etc. In that environment, Mandarin replacing English is no longer so strange.

  38. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 7:52 pm

    @Mark Mandel and others: Surely, to be a lingua franca a language does not have to be spoken by everyone, but only by those involved in cross border communication.

  39. JS said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 8:06 pm

    @Sally Thomason "the ultimate results of language diversification, in all but a handful of cases, turn out to fit into family trees (with reconstructable parent languages and testable historical hypotheses)"

    This doesn't seem right to me — recent descriptions of Tibeto-Burman (Van Driem's [2005] "fallen leaves") and Austro-Asiatic (Sidwell 2009), for instance, to large degree abandon the idea of internal branching. We don't have such a structure even for the young Sinitic family (Mandarin, Hakka, Yuè, Gàn, Wú, Xiāng, perhaps etc.); to the contrary, consensus seems to be that contact, borrowing, etc. render such a description impossible and, more to the point, meaningless.

    I think the phenomenon of language contact has played a more important role in linguistic history than does simple inheritance and that the cases where family tree models are instructive (IE, AN) are exceptional. The problem is that the former process is not amenable to historical reconstruction.

  40. hector said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 9:25 pm

    "English makes up over half the internet " — given that the Internet is about twenty years old, this has questionable predictive value. A lot can change in fifty years.

    The basic assumption being made is that present-day civilization will substantially persist. But what if the global warming shit really hits the fan? What if the widespread water shortages predicted for the coming century are not somehow avoided? Human civilizations have collapsed before, there's nothing to say the current global civilization won't join them.

    On a less dire note, we are currently in the midst of an enthusiasm by global elites for free trade amongst nations. What if political/economic winds shift and protectionism and isolationism become popular again?

    Anything which tends to isolate societies is likely to strengthen language diversity. It's very hard to predict the future.

  41. Dave Cragin said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 9:30 pm

    In the 18th and 19th centuries, French was the common international language, but the situation was somewhat akin to that mentioned by Endymion regarding Chinese in China, i.e., one estimate is in the 1700s, only half the French population spoke French.

    A French colleague had noted that in 1900, there were still many languages in France and his mother’s 1st language was Breton. Wikipedia notes that in 1900, ½ the Breton population spoke ONLY Breton ( ). Hence, even within France, French had a less dominant position than English does in English speaking countries today.

    Another reason for continued dominance of English is its preference for use in many situations by non-native English speakers. I’ve often been humorously surprised when non-native English speakers complain about the lack of English signs or speaking skills in various non-English speaking countries.

    While in Brussels, my Flemish speaking Belgian friends say the 1st language they use is English. They explained that if they spoke Flemish, they’d get terrible customers service from French-speaking Belgians. One noted, if he used Flemish with a French speaking cabbie, the driver might just drive away. ….i.e., the value of English to them is something I wouldn't have guessed….

    The ready use of English by many non-natives and the highly connected world of today makes the decline of the Latin & French languages less relevant in predicting the future of English.

  42. Jeff W said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 11:59 pm

    I agree with this from Eidolon:

    The best arguments against Mandarin becoming the global language are one and the same with why China won't rule the world…A world in which Mandarin replaces English is difficult to imagine precisely because it is also difficult to imagine a world in which China eclipses the West in political, socioeconomic, and cultural clout.

    That occurred to me also. The article seems to assume that the entire incentive structure remains unchanged and technology has stood still—the only thing that’s changed in 2115 is that China is now ruling the world.

    McWhorter says this:

    Also, the tones of Chinese are extremely difficult to learn beyond childhood, and truly mastering the writing system virtually requires having been born to it.

    But no one knows, for example if, given the incentives, parents around the globe would routinely send their kids to Chinese language immersion schools (or if it would even be optional—it could be required, for all we know)—in which case kids would have learned the language during childhood. No one knows if something like “Ruby characters on demand”—or some technology we can’t even imagine—would become commonplace or if the use of pinyin (or, again, something better) would become standard. (Thirty years ago, could most people have imagined the input systems we have now?) None of that means that Chinese would become the global language if China ruled the world—it just means, to me, that some of the barriers that McWhorter is assuming will exist in 2115 might very well not exist to the extent he is seeming to assume.

    I think McWhorter is trying to get at the idea that a dominant China would not necessarily ignore whatever advantages English has over Chinese (listed by Endymion) but conceivably would try to leverage them. I’m not sure what he means by “rule in English” but I took it to mean something like English would “coexist” with Chinese in a China-dominant world to a far greater extent than people might otherwise think (or maybe than what McWhorter thinks people would think).

  43. languagehat said,

    January 28, 2015 @ 9:50 am

    But no one knows, for example if, given the incentives, parents around the globe would routinely send their kids to Chinese language immersion schools (or if it would even be optional—it could be required, for all we know)—in which case kids would have learned the language during childhood.

    My grandsons (with no Chinese background, genetic or cultural) are currently attending such a school and have been doing so for their entire educational experience to date; I doubt they'll be serving to advance Chinese global dominance, but they do serve to illustrate your point. (Bonus, from their point of view: they can converse without their parents understanding them.)

    I'm old enough to remember when the pundits were convinced Japan would be taking over the world a few decades back, so I take all this dominant-China talk with considerable amounts of salt.

  44. GeorgeW said,

    January 28, 2015 @ 10:29 am

    Zbigniew Brzezinski has argued that China does not offer a political and cultural model as enticing as the west for the rest of the world to embrace or aspire to. But, a hundred years is a long time in fast changing world.

  45. un malpaso said,

    January 28, 2015 @ 12:18 pm

    Re: "The best arguments against Mandarin becoming the global language are one and the same with why China won't rule the world…A world in which Mandarin replaces English is difficult to imagine precisely because it is also difficult to imagine a world in which China eclipses the West in political, socioeconomic, and cultural clout."

    Um, this doesn't take into account the fact that China DID eclipse the West for thousands of years, in terms of culture, population, and invention. It exported its culture westward in pre-modern times as powerfully as does America to the rest of the world nowadays… just slowly and by indirect influence (via the Middle East and India) rather than using today's instantaneous technological methods.
    Just because it has lagged in innovation and global power for a couple centuries after the age of exploration and the Industrial Revolution took off in the West doesn't mean that it won't re-assume that position again in the near or far future.
    In fact, World history has always been dominated by BOTH China and the West since the takeoff of civilization, and that back-and-forth is not likely to ever end. But it's also worth remembering that China has a lot of historical foundation for having a stake in their eventual re-dominance of the world.

  46. languagehat said,

    January 28, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

    It exported its culture westward in pre-modern times

    But not its language.

  47. GH said,

    January 28, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

    … or religion. In fact, I'd be curious to hear which aspects of its culture it exported to the west in pre-modern times, aside from mere technological advances. Food? Fashion? System of government? Military organization? Philosophy? Social mores? Literature? Music? Art? Architecture? I'm not denying there could be influence, but I'm not aware of many examples.

    In the early modern age we began to get more cultural diffusion in some of these fields, but that was because European sailors reached China.

    To return to the topic, speculation on the future is only meaningful within certain parameters. We might all get wiped out by an asteroid, or modern society might collapse along with global communication. On the other hand, maybe we'll develop brain implants that let us communicate telepathically, which will mean a radically new form of language. So the question only makes sense if we assume many things stay more or less the same, or change predictably or only in ways that don't really matter to the issue at hand.

    With the naive assumption that technology and society remains about the same as today, just with global power tipped more towards China, the prediction seems reasonable. More realistically, I would think progress in machine intelligence, as well as political developments both in the West and in China, which are extremely hard to extrapolate, will have a huge impact on what the language of the future is.

  48. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 28, 2015 @ 2:55 pm

    Only a century or two ago, members of the intelligentsia in Japan/Korea/Vietnam were likely to possess at least some reading knowledge of Literary Chinese, the way their western counterparts would predictably have at least some grasp of Latin. I expect there's been a pretty dramatic decline in that, which you would want to see reversed as a precondition to any sort of broader geographical spread. But obviously *some* outsiders can and do get functional in Chinese. E.g., the then-teenage kid from Jordan who lived with my family as an exchange student 32 years ago (and who at that point had quite good L2 English on top of his L1 Arabic) has spent most of his adult life living in the PRC doing various sorts of import/export deals between there and the Middle East and I'm pretty sure he can muddle through reasonably competently in some perhaps foreign-accented version (perhaps also simplified/optimized?) of Mandarin, rather than just using English as the mutual L2 for communicating with his Chinese business partners and counterparties. Maybe fancy US/EU westerners can function in China w/o learning the local lingo, but I expect he's working in a different segment of the economy where that's less feasible if you want to succeed. OTOH, it's not like that means that thousands of schoolkids back in Jordan are learning Mandarin now so they can follow in his footsteps.

  49. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    January 28, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

    A century is the "near future" in regard to the age of China or western civilization since the Romans or benchmarks in other civilizations I'm less familiar with.

    I wonder if technology contributes to English dominance and sustains other aspects of linguistic and cultural influence. Do programming languages depend on English or the English alphabet when they're not at the binary level of ones and zeroes? I have no clue as to whether Chinese programmers are using Chinese characters to write code.

    I also wonder if the influence of printing, radio, television and video have been underrated as factors in influencing language. If a language is isolated, then probably there's just not as much cultural baggage to help it hang on. It seems to me that technology is allowing much more back-and-forth. Sure — some American movies have become a common cultural heritage in other English-speaking countries (evidence exists in printed texts, such as genre fiction, that some American culture has apparently gotten embedded in England or New Zealand or other places). But the popularity of Australian slang, "Gagnam Style" or Bollywood movies shows that cultural transmission through technology won't be a one-way stream, even if Americans have pictured it that way.

    My sister, a teacher, has pointed out to me that one of the problems in the U.S. with teaching foreign languages is that there's no universal default to a second language. School districts shift from emphasizing European languages in the 1950s (French, German, Italian, Spanish) to offering more Spanish and perhaps some Russian. It seems like Japanese was another fad. Now, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish seem to be more common, depending on the size and resources of the school district. What influence might having a universal second language in the U.S. exert on change in the first half of the coming century?

    If other countries shift from teaching English as the universal second-language default to teaching some other language, then maybe we'll see the beginnings of a new pattern among dominant languages.

    Major environmental disasters or significant wars, however, could change the language landscape in totally unpredictable ways. Technology could change language preference and language learning. I think we're all handicapped about predicting the future in that respect.

    In regard to learning tones, what if at some future time a catalog of language skills was developed for a learning program for young children so they could hear and master tones, glottal stops, clicks and a wider range of vocal expression so they would have those skills later in life? Such an instructional program sounds like the kind of thing affluent parents would be interested in, and it might change language instruction or learning preferences in unpredictable ways if it spreads from the affluent to the middle classes, especially if it was universal and could be used around the globe.

  50. James Wimberley said,

    January 28, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

    How come the WSJ published a professionally serious essay?

  51. Jeff W said,

    January 28, 2015 @ 6:50 pm

    In regard to learning tones, what if at some future time a catalog of language skills was developed for a learning program for young children so they could hear and master tones, glottal stops, clicks and a wider range of vocal expression so they would have those skills later in life?

    That gets at what I was thinking but in a much more fantastic way. (I love that idea, whether it would actually work or not. We might as well add navigation skills and perfect pitch to the list.)

    Although I stated the language immersion idea in instrumental terms, in terms of incentives, I actually think that parents will start (and have started) to think of secondary language acquisition as a “behavioral capability” issue, not strictly speaking a “language learning” issue. (There’s probably a term for what I’m saying of which I am unaware.) That’s a normative change that might be a trend into 2115 and beyond.

    Some sort of secondary language learning program for young children might become standard or even be viewed as indispensable, whatever the dominant language(s) is/are, just because nothing else is as effective or efficient in terms of language learning and can’t be later in life. It might be viewed as “deprivation” not to do it. (I’m actually quite envious of languagehat’s grandchildren and all kids in language immersion programs and I don’t envy much.)

  52. bfwebster said,

    January 28, 2015 @ 6:53 pm

    The Web may be only about 20 years old (the internet itself dates back nearly half a century), but it is a classic example of technological colonization/entrenchment, with over 4 billion web pages in existence. It is difficult to displace something like that; you really have to invent something can can be used in parallel and have it outgrow and then displace the older technology (think CDs displacing vinyl, MP3 files displacing CDs, tablets displacing PCs, etc.). Even so, the older standards remain; note the difficulty that Blu-ray has had displacing DVDs. I published an article nearly 20 years ago (1996) entitled "Microsoft Windows Forever and Ever?" In it, I wrote:

    That is the final irony. Like it or not, Microsoft is stuck with Windows for the long haul. Attempts to replace it at some point in the future will run into all the same problems that any competitor would have, except–maybe–having to market against Microsoft. Efforts to change will face diminishing returns. And even a brand new OS, written totally from scratch, would have to support so much of Windows’ behavior that it will be chained down by its legacy. (see

    The dominance of English has coincided with the explosion of digital technology over the past 70 years. Both are entrenched now and not likely to go away any time soon.

  53. Brian said,

    January 30, 2015 @ 2:52 am

    But wouldn't it be interesting to see what happened to English, if Chinese *did* become the global language?

    For a native English speaker, a passing familiarity with bits of French and Latin is a sign of education (or maybe snootiness or pedantry). Most of our learned vocabulary comes from Latin roots, and we have at least some ability to use these roots productively. (I'm imagining a brightly colored tripedal dragon — I just made that word up, don't know if it's in a dictionary anywhere, but I'm confident that readers will know what sort of dragon I mean.) It's true that people don't just drop French and Latin phrases to show off, at least not very often. But certainly these languages have a popular connection with showing off (or elitism, or education, or whatever you like) that comes with former dominance. These languages (or English words derived from them) just sound fancy.

    (Of course I needn't mention that most academic vocabulary comes from Latin or Greek — this just adds to the ivory-tower feel those languages have.)

    Give Chinese a hundred years or so to absorb English as it rises, and see what it looks like then — when English is the language of snobs!

  54. Smith said,

    February 1, 2015 @ 6:26 am

    Rodger C. – Nice to see Borges getting a mention in this string. The hochschule you mention appears to have been the precursor to Qingdao University proper, not the oil school. See Wikipedia: Qingdao University (simplified Chinese: 青岛大学; traditional Chinese: 青島大學; pinyin: Qīngdǎo Dàxué) is a key provincial research university located in Qingdao, China. Qingdao University traces its origin to 1909, when Deutsch-Chinesische Hochschule(German-Chinese College), the oldest predecessor institution of Qingdao University, was jointly established by the Chinese and German governments in Qingdao.

  55. Dave Cragin said,

    February 1, 2015 @ 12:43 pm

    In one aspect I disagree with McWhorter: I don’t think tones in Chinese hold it back as a world language. I think it’s the writing. Mandarin has lots of simple & logical aspects that balance the challenge of learning tones. What do others think? Socio-political issues aside: are tones really that hard?

    Are they harder than memorizing grammatical gender? (I think they are easier). Are they harder to pronounce than trilled “r”s, glottal stops, clicks, etc?

    Are tones in Mandarin harder than learning word/syllable stress in English?

    A speaker on accent reduction noted that the biggest problem she sees with Chinese in regards to making their English understandable is not word pronunciation, but word emphasis and stress within a word. Try to explain the rule for why the following capitalized syllables are stressed (in American English):

    vacCINE, VACcinate, vacciNAtion, PHARmacy, pharmaCOlogy
    or the common BREAKfast not break FAST (as native English speakers, we know “fast” is said almost under your breath).

    Word emphasis can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence when spoken: "I didn't say she stole the book." Stress on any word in this sentence changes the meaning.

    Are tones really the biggest challenge with learning Chinese?

RSS feed for comments on this post