Modern English as an archaic dialect

Voltaire is said to have described etymology as a science in which vowels count for nothing, and consonants for very little. The line’s provenance is questionable, but the point holds. Over time, vowels shift and so do consonants: words may transform radically. If people are around in a few centuries’ time, we won’t just be using lots of new words: we’ll be using old words that sound different.

I haven’t seen this treated much in science fiction, despite the genre’s reliance on time travel and future scenarios. But I came across an example last weekend in the Ursula K. Le Guin–edited Nebula Award Stories of 1975. Joe Haldeman’s story ‘End Game’ is a futuristic military drama that refers briefly, on a few occasions, to phonetic change and to language change more generally:

(1) Language, for one thing, was no small problem. English had evolved considerably in 450 years; soldiers had to learn twenty-first century English as a sort of lingua franca with which to communicate with their officers, some of whom might be “old” enough to be their nine-times-great-grandfathers. Of course, they only used this language when talking to their officers, or mocking them, so they got out of practice with it.

(2) Most of the other officers played chess, but they could usually beat me – whenever I won it gave me the feeling I was being humoured. And word games were difficult because my language was an archaic dialect that they had trouble manipulating. And I lacked the time and talent to master “modern” English.

(3) He said a word whose vowel had changed over the centuries, but whose meaning was clear.

No dialogue or descriptions provide any details of the form to which English had changed in four and a half centuries, but that may be just as well, as it leaves it to our imagination and avoids suggesting something a linguist might object to. It’s nice to see the subject addressed at all, and so explicitly; the sociolinguistic reference to mockery is an especially good touch.

19 Responses to Modern English as an archaic dialect

  1. John Cowan says:

    Note that “End Game” is a section of Haldeman’s 1974 war novel The Forever War.

    Here are some excerpts from L. Sprague de Camp’s classic 1938 essay “Language for Time Travelers”, in which he demonstrates how sound-change might affect comprehension:

    Gradually, the rainbow flicker of light died away, and Morgan Jones felt the tingle leave his body. The dial read 2438. Five hundred years! He opened the door of the compartment and climbed out.

    At first, he saw nothing but fields and woods. He was evidently in a farming country. Nobody was in sight- No, here came a rustic along the road, trudging through the dust with his eyes on the ground in front of him.

    “Hey there!” Jones called. “Could you give me some information?”

    The man looked up; his eyes widened with astonishment at the sight of the machine. “Wozza ya sth?” he asked.

    Jones repeated his question.

    “Sy; daw geh,” said the man, shaking his head.

    “Now Jones looked puzzled. “I don’t seem to understand you. ‘What language are you speaking?”

    “Wah lenksh? Inksh lenksh, coss. Wah you speak? Said, sah-y, daw geh-ih. Daw, neitha. You fresh? Jumm?”

    Jones had an impulse to shake his head violently, the same feeling he always had when the last word of a crossword puzzle eluded him. The man had understood him, partly, and the noises he made were somehow vaguely like English, but no English such as Jones had ever heard. “Inksh lenksh” must be “English language”; “sah-y daw geh-ih” was evidently “sorry, don’t get it.”

    “What,” he asked, “is a fresh jumm?”

    “Nevva huddum?” said the rustic, scorn in his tone. “Fresh people, go ‘Oui, oui, parlez-vous français, va t’en, sale bête!'” He did this with gestures. Then he stiffened. “‘Jumms go’—he clicked his heels together—’Achtung! Vorwarts, marsch! Guten Tag, meine Herren! Verstehen Sie Deutsch?’ Fresh from Fress; Jumms from Jummy. Geh ih?”

    “Yes, I suppose so,” said Jones. His mind was reeling slightly—

    De Camp points out that realistically French and German would have changed too, but that would be too hard for the monolingual reader to decipher. Here’s another mini-story from a different future, where there has been a general vowel shift rather than general reduction:

    Hero: Beg pardon, but could you tell me—

    Cop: Hanh? Did jue sy samtheng?

    Hero: Yes, you see—

    Cop: Speak ap; kent mike it aht.

    Hero: Well—

    Cop: Woss thowse fanny clowse? P’ride?

    Hero: I’m sorry, but—

    Cop: Downt annersten ja; kentcha speak English?

    Hero: Yes, of course—

    Cop: Woy downtcha, thane? Luck loik a spicious kerracter; bayter cam ‘lohng to the stytion. Jile for you, me led!

    More of the same story, but set in yet another universe with massive assimilations leading to morphological restructuring:

    Magistrate: Wahya, pridna?

    Hero: Huh?

    Mag: Said, wahya?

    Hero: You mean, what’s my name?

    Mag: Coss ass way I mee. Ass wah I said, in ih?

    Hero: I’m sorry. It’s Jones, j-o-n-e-s, Morgan Jones.

    Mag: Orrigh. Now, weya from?

    Hero: You mean, where am I from?

    Mag: Doh like ya attude, pridna. Try to be feh, huh woh tollay dispecfa attude. Iss a majrace coh, ya know.

    Hero: You mean, this is a magistrate’s court? I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but—

    Mag: Weh, maybe in yooh faw. Eeah ya fahna, aw nah righ melly. Sodge, lock im up. Gah geh mel zannas dow ih, to zam is satty.

    Hero: But look here, I don’t need a mental examiner to examine my sanity—I’m all right mentally—

    In the next universe, our poor hero is exposed to the results of extreme holophrastic tendencies or, not to put too fine a point on it, headlinese:

    Hero: Welcome to my cell, gentlemen. Your names please?

    1st Expert: I Mack.

    2nd Ditto: I Sutton.

    Hero: Delighted; you know my name, of course. What do you want me to do?

    Mack: From?

    Hero: What?

    Mack: No what, from.

    Hero: Now, let’s get this straight. You want to know where I’m from? That’s easy; Philadelphia.

    Sutton: No hear.


    Sutton: No mean no hear you; hear plenty. No hear Philadelphia.

    Mack: Such place?

    Sutton: Maybe. Ask more. Continent?

    Hero: No, it’s a city.

    Sutton: No mean no. Philadelphia no continent, Philadelphia on continent. Six continent. Which?

    Hero: I see—North America.

    Mack: No North America Philadelphia.

    Sutton: Crazy. Too bad.

    Mack: Yes. Word-crazy. Too much word.

    Hero: Say what is this? You two sit there like a couple of wooden Indians, and expect me to understand you from one or two words that you drop, and then you say I’ve got a verbal psychosis—

    Mack: Proof. Escape. Fingerprint. Check, sanitarium.

    Sutton: Right. Interest. Health. Too bad. (They go out.)

    And finally, yet another universe where the problems are with syntax and lexis, despite the aid of a local who thinks he knows 20th-century English:

    Savant: Morning, Mr. Jones. I’m Einstein Mobray, who is to symbiose you for a few days until you hoylize yourself.

    Hero: I’m sorry—you’re going to what me until I what myself?

    Mobray: I mean, you’re going to reside with me until you adapt yourself. “Symbiose” is from “symbiosis,” meaning “living together”; “hoylize” is from “Hoyle,” as in the old term “according to Hoyle,” “in conformity with the prevailing rules.” I’ll try to avoid terms like that. I have a surprise for you: another man from the Early Industrial Period—about 1600. Ah, here he is— Come in, Godwin. This is Morgan Jones, who I was telling you of. Mr. Jones, Godwin Hill.

    Hill: Verily, ’tis a great pleasure, Sir.

    Mobray: Mr. Hill haved a most markworthy accident, whichby he was preserved from his time to ourn. He’ll tell you of it, some day.

    Hill: Faith, when I awoke I thought I had truly gone mad. And when they told me the date, I said, “Faugh! ‘Tis a likely tale!” But they were right, it seems. Pray, how goes your trouble with authority, Einstein?

    Mobray: The cachet’s still good, but I’ll get up with the narrs yet. What happened, Mr. Jones, was that I was gulling my belcher—

    Hero: Your what?

    Mobray: Oh very well, my aerial vehicle propelled by expanding gasses, like a rocket. I was coasting it, and getted into the wrong layer, and they redded me down. The cachet means an upcough and thirty days’ hanging.

    Hill: ‘Sblood, do they hang you for that?

    Mobray: Not me, my silk. I mean, my operating permit will be suspended for thirty days, and I’ll have to pay a fine. But I hope to get up with them.

    Hero: You’ll get up with them? Do you mean you’ll arise at the same time they do?

    Mobray: No, no, no! I mean I expect to exert influence to have the cachet rubbered.

    Hill: You—your???

    Mobray: I mean, to have the summons cancelled.

    Hero: Oh, I see! Just like fixing a ticket!

    Hill: What, Mr. Jones? Does that not mean “attaching an admission card”?

    Mobray: I’d never neured that he meant, “repairing a public conveyance.” What did you mean, Mr. Jones?

    Hero: Well, in my time, when a cop pinched you—

    Mobray: (dials the portable telephone on his wrist) Quick, send up six dictionaries and a box of aspirin!

    Hill: Aspirin? You mean “aspen”? There grows a tree by that name—


    The joke about hanging reminds me of a bit from one of Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock novels, in which the hero has fallen into the hands of some Early Modern English-speaking elves, who are going to deal with the threat he represents by magically putting him to sleep for all eternity. He says, “You’re going to put me into suspended animation?” The chief elf, shocked, replies, “Nay, nay, thou’lt not be suspended!”

  2. Roger says:

    Re etymology as a house of cards — yes, though it looks good for as long as it stands there.

    Re Voltaire: he wouldn’t have known William (Proto-Indo-European) Jones, fl. 1780s onward.

  3. “I haven’t seen this treated much in science fiction” – Anne McCaffrey used it as a minor feature of one of the books in her Pern series, fwiw.

  4. marc leavitt says:

    Given that we can still understand a lot of Middle English without a dictionary, and occasionally, even some Old English, I imagine we might be able to figure out more than a bit of the lingo five centuries hence.

    • Roger says:

      I heard lately (so this is second-hand) that a Newfoundland student found phrases and sayings in Chaucer that were still current in her home town or outport. If so, she ought to record them before mainstream English washes them away. Dialects everywhere are endangered, going or gone. Newfoundland speech used to be amazingly distinctive. Less so now, and it’s not just me. A Wiki article refers to the de-Newfing of the speech of Newfoundland’s urban youth. For my ear, their voices used to tell all, now they have to self-identify.

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    No spexting? For shame. :D


  6. Stan says:

    John: Marvellous! Thanks very much for typing up (or, I hope, copy-pasting) these passages. It’s exactly the sort of thing I was wondering about, but my reading in sf is very patchy and I didn’t know about L. Sprague de Camp’s essay at all. The headlinese exchange is very funny, but each episode is interesting in its own way. Thanks also for the clarification on The Forever War.

    Roger: That’s true about William Jones: his philologically famed lecture wasn’t published until a few years after Voltaire’s death. You may already be aware of the online Dictionary of Newfoundland English, but I’m always glad of an excuse to share the link.

    Stuart: Thanks for letting me know; I’ve never read her.

    Marc: Yes, I think so too (again, assuming we’re still here then). But some of our slang might be a source of puzzlement!

    WWW: I’m going to pretend spexting means texting in space.

  7. Ray Girvan says:

    A couple of much older examples:

    HG Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes has a scene where the sleeper finds a cylinder with ” “oi Man huwdbi Kin” written on it – the future dialect form of the Kipling story “The Man who would be King”.

    And there’s Lord Dunsany’s “The Avenger of Perdondaris”, where the hero goes through a time-portal into a future semi-wilderness and is baffled when a man at a stall says “Everkike” to him. He eventually realises he’s in the far-future remains of London, and the man’s saying “Have a cake” is some worn-down Cockney dialect.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for those references, Ray. I read the Wells novel years ago but had forgotten all about that part. The other story is new to me, and is a very nice example of future-dialect.

  8. Alon says:

    An unavoidable, although dated, reference is Meyers, Walter E. (1976). “The Future History and Development of the English Language”. Science Fiction Studies 3(2) [].

    Two prior issues have reviews of Barnes, Myra Edward (1975). Linguistics and Language in Science Fiction-Fantasy. New York: Arno. I’ve never managed to find a copy of this book, though, which is also mentioned in a footnote to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s entry on linguistics []

  9. ASG says:

    Have you read _The Book of Dave_ by Will Self? The central conceit is that a misogynist taxi driver with anger management issues writes a diary as a form of therapy in our day; centuries later, after some apocalyptic calamity, the diary is dug up by the survivors and treated as scripture. The dialect that the post-apocalyptic Dave-worshippers speak has gone through a lot of realistic changes from the English we know, both in syntax and vocabulary. I also think you’d appreciate the fact that there is both a higher and lower register for this future language — I think the higher is called “arpee” (i.e., RP) and is more conservative, thus much easier for the real-world reader to follow than the vernacular, whose name I forget.

    I won’t unreservedly recommend the novel, which has some serious flaws. But as a linguistic experiment it’s really really ambitious and interesting.

    • Ray Girvan says:

      That reminds me of an obvious article I forgot – Russell Hoban’s brilliant “Riddley Walker” – written almost entirely in an imagined future dialect that’s a sort of Mummerset peppered with creative coinages and plausible garblings – for instance, the Archbishop of Canterbury has become “the Ardship of Cambry”.

      They have just one sample of 20th century English – a scrap of a guide to a wall painting in Canterbury Cathedral – and they come to amusing mistaken conclusions about it. A section says “this XVth-century wall painting depicts with fidelity the several episodes in his life. The setting is a wooded landscape with many small hamlets” … and they think “fidelity” is a kind of paint, and “hamlets” are little pigs. But this joke ultimately becomes horrifying when they ultimately manage, through accidental reading of muddled metaphor, to arrive at the formula for gunpowder.

    • Stan says:

      ASG: I haven’t read Self’s book, but you’ve definitely piqued my interest. I find it a lot easier to forgive flaws in a work when the writer (or other artist) is doing something bold and experimental. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Ray: Riddley Walker is amazing, and succeeds completely in what it sets out to do. I hope to return to it properly here one day, maybe after I’ve re-read it. I’ve quoted a passage or two on my Tumblr blog, if anyone is reading this and curious about Hoban’s style in the book.

  10. Ray Girvan says:

    Sorry: article -> example.

  11. […] sobering to imagine modern English as an archaic dialect – how the language might evolve and how our version(s) of it might appear from a position many […]

  12. […] for authors writing about an imagined future – dystopian or otherwise – as Stan Carey has recently pointed out in his blog. All we can be sure about the English of 1000 years from now is that it will be very […]

  13. thnidu says:

    “Say Again, Tower”* is a filk** song about language change and relativistic differential aging resulting from high-speed interstellar travel.


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