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Gaia Vince celebrates the newcomers in our evolving linguistic landscape.

Every year humanity loses 30 to 50 languages. Of the roughly 7,000 languages we still have, just 10 account for half of the world’s speakers. It seems inevitable to me that eventually the world will use one single language – Spanish, perhaps, or Mandarin or English.

But even as the number of natural languages has fallen, many people have tried to create entirely new ones.

Volapük, invented by a German priest in 1880, was one of the first attempts at an artificial universal language. Conferences were held in Volapük, and periodicals and books were published in the language, which, in its prime, claimed over a million speakers. It was usurped at the end of the 19th century by Esperanto, another universal language, which was made up by a Polish Jewish ophthalmologist and claims 2 million speakers today.

Various attempts were made to stamp out Esperanto – surely the most reliable sign of a ‘real’ language. The most aggressive attack came from the Nazis, who hated it because it had been invented by a Jew. It was still taught illicitly in concentration camps, by prisoners who told guards they were teaching Italian. In the end, however, Esperanto’s failure to become a universal language came down to the same pressures that threaten the rest: the handful of languages that are truly global.

Some languages are invented for artistic reasons rather than political ones. J R R Tolkien wrote songs in his made-up languages for elves and dwarves, while today there are many human speakers of Klingon, as heard on Star Trek. It has its own language institute (which, until recently, published a quarterly journal), and several works of (terrestrial) literature have been translated into Klingon. More recently, languages such as Dothraki have been developed for the TV series Game of Thrones.

In science, too, there are times when only a made-up language will do. Syntaflake was invented to investigate the benefits of learning a second language devoid of any existing cultural reference points. Taking ‘pseudo-words’ from a previous study of 18-month-old children, the researchers created just enough grammar around these sounds to be able to describe snowflakes with them. As it was only needed for one snowflake-related task, that’s all this particular artificial ‘language’ can really do – yet.

Speaking of identity...

Languages evolve constantly, and even as tongues succumb to extinction, new pidgin dialects – word and grammar hybrids of pre-existing languages – emerge. Kiezdeutsch originated in Turkish migrant communities in Germany, but has now become a common way of speaking for young people who otherwise speak perfect German, including those with no Turkish origins. Like British teens talking ‘Jafaican’ (or Multicultural London English) – a melange of Jamaican patois, Los Angeles rap-speak and south-London slang (so perfectly satirised by the comedy character Ali G) – Kiezdeutsch is strongly tied to identity and how the speakers see themselves in society. If elements of that language community appear glamorous or cool, then people – especially teenagers – will adopt the dialect regardless of their ethnic or social background.

These new hybrid dialects cannot offset the enormous number of languages and dialects that have been lost in recent decades, though. As programmes such as MTV are broadcast internationally, English speakers across Europe modify their accents as well as their vocabulary – even if English ends up as the one global language, it won’t be “the Queen’s English” that everyone is speaking.

Meanwhile, the variety of accents in Britain, which in the 14th century rendered someone from Kent incomprehensible to someone from Norfolk, is homogenising. Across England, from the North to the West Country, more people are starting to sound as though they come from the South-east. Since the southern accent is associated with affluence, this is essentially a modern version of the type of linguistic prejudice that George Bernard Shaw depicted in Pygmalion. But we all modify our language and our accents according to the people we are talking to or the situation – the language we use to talk to someone is often very different from how we write to them, for example.

Calculated or unconscious, such attempts to appeal to the social group you are talking to have seeped into the mainstream. Privately educated politicians like George Osborne give speeches in the ‘Estuary English’ of poorer classes – a reversal of Eliza Doolittle’s attempts to talk herself up a class. Even the Queen is not immune – she has lost some of her poshness over the decades, so for example no longer pronounces “very” as “veddy” or “poor” as “poo-er”. And if she can’t be relied upon to speak the Queen’s English, then who can? 

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