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BGS student wins prestigious essay prize

Congratulations to Upper-sixth student Rosa, who has been awarded First Prize in the Gonville and Caius College Schools’ Prize Competition in Linguistics. For this challenge, students were asked to imagine how English might change in the next 500 years and Rosa approached this task in a particularly original and creative way: rather than submitting an essay or commentary, she instead chose to write in the voice of a twenty-sixth century academic reflecting back on changes to what she calls late Modern English during the 21st Century. Her writing is very much evocative of the epilogue to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the appendix to George Orwell’s 1984, or a short story by Jorge Luis Borges as she engages not only with what language change might look like in the age of the internet, but also with the wider political landscape of the future — of Russia after Putin, of the rise of Arabic as a language with global influence, and even of the nature of language change itself. It is a truly remarkable piece of writing — ludic and ingenious.

Peter Forster, BGS Head of English

You can read a piece of Rosa's winning essay below.


200 years after the collapse of the last aristocratic dynasty, linguist and historical international relations professor Katya Ivanova looks back

Language and History: an unlikely pair
One of the questions most commonly posed to me by students and fellow researchers alike is how I deal with a lack of evidence, particularly in the first half of the 21st century (a date which is of course significant in marking the rise of the internet). Here, many of my students query how they are expected to deal with reduced physical evidence, and almost no credible sources. My answer is usually two-fold. Firstly, issues the internet presents are also the periods greatest blessing. Secondly, when physical sources fail you, there will always be language. It’s one of the few things we can take as guaranteed. Returning to our example of the internet, having lost many of the servers and many posts which have replaced written sources throughout the last half a century, how can you construct a clear and supported argument? Well, the loss of short vowels illustrates the increasing use of ‘text speech’ and evinces the widespread nature of internet usage. In fact, Newman argues (A Basic Timeline of the English Alphabet, 2514) that, although Arabic influence did play a major role in the reduction of vowels, it was text speech that set the precedent without which this change could not have happened. Whilst this was somewhat polemical, Newman is completely right.

With the inseparable link between history and language in mind, I shall return to consider the most dramatic changes in several key areas of English so far this millennia, and their origins. These are:
• In English grammar – the reduced usage of prepositions
• In English words – changes to spelling and the reduction of unnecessary sounds (although this can, and should, be argued to be not a new change but a continuation of already occurring changes since the beginning of Modern English)
• In written English – the loss of short vowels as unique characters, and subsequent adoption of diacritics

Prepositions, cases and Russian instability
Each of these changes can be paired with a combination of historical events. The first traces of New Modern English (for the purposes of this article Modern English is recognised to have begun just before the 14th Century and New Modern English is recognised as beginning shortly before the 22nd century) coincides with a tumultuous moment in Russian History, the instability brought about after the death of Vladimir Putin. However, we must first understand the context to this. The rift between Putin and Razman Kadyrov, began to grow unstoppably towards the end of Putin’s life, as he became more dependent on those around him. This both angered Kadyrov, and gave him what he perceived to be his opportunity to gain power, and although the Chechen rebellion proved ultimately unsuccessful, it both unhinged the economy and unmasked Putin’s façade of strength. This is the background required to understand the instability that followed Putin’s reign, and proves that it is not the result of an uncharacteristic lack of forward-thinking as so many have argued.

The twenty years of governments in name only that followed did little to give an impression of order, nor curb the subsequent years of civil unrest, and Russia’s influence and status began to crumble, giving several Middle Eastern countries a chance to become a more major world players (I will return to Arabic later). Eventually however, the Dubrovnik dynasty emerged, and although Nikolai Dubrovnik found power balances had shifted dramatically during this time, Russia once again, thanks to its size, quickly become a superpower. However, for the first time Russia was not just a superpower, but also benefited from free speech and consistent internet access. As such, Russia became influential not just in politics, but also in the day to day life of other people, and the language began to make itself present in English for the first time. Although on average English levels in Russia were high, remarkably few people were completely fluent, and as such mistranslations, based on Russian grammatical structures, became commonplace online. This manner of speaking – referred to as ‘soviet speech’, temporarily became a trend used to create a specific tone (much like phonetically written Scottish, Kawaii Japanese, and abbreviations such as ‘u wot m8’ had before it) that went hand in hand with views of Russian aesthetics at this time.

This was eventually reflected in one of the three major changes to English, the loss of prepositions. Although the Russian language at this time did feature a large number of prepositions, meaning was mainly conveyed through a complex 6-case system. Nowadays, it is very rare for all 6 cases to be used in Russian, however four (the accusative (usually indicated by the suffix a), dative (indicated by the suffix e), instrumental (indicated by the suffix m, (em after a consonant)) and genitive (indicated by the suffix o or ov)) appear in English with Slavic-inspired endings.

Spelling, sounds and linguistical subtleties
The second of the changes to English can be explained far more simply, but is impossible to pinpoint in time. Since before the beginning of Modern English spelling, spelling and language have evolved to become more concise and phonetic, with some sounds that are unnecessarily long, or difficult to pronounce, being cut out of language. However, this process has been especially distorted throughout the last 400 years, due to two conflicting influences. On the one hand, increased standardisation has occurred, an effect which has been exacerbated by the accessibility of online dictionaries, on the other hand, growing global literacy rates and increased L2 English speakers have allowed for the development of more diverse dialects, and escalated the speed of development. The most prominent sounds to have disappeared from English over the last half a century have included, ‘th’, ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘ough’, and the sound ‘r’ (distinguished by the specific tongue curling movement that is only found in english), is now said in the same way as many other languages, with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth.

Of these sounds which have been lost they have largely been replaced with similar letters, such as ‘f’ for ‘th’, which whilst still understandable for a 21st century speaker has lost the nuanced difference between the two sounds. However, the sound ‘ch’ (and in certain cases ‘sh’ as well) has become replaced with an x, similar to German and Catalan. These changes are best exemplified by the Modern English word ‘through’, which transliterated into New Modern English would be written frُo.

During my research into late Modern English, I encountered many texts, including a Cambridge University linguistics competition that I have translated into New Modern English to better highlight these changes.

ُFr َxَlِnj, yُo nِed َmِjِn َxnjs ِ ngِlsa ِnxt 500 yِersa. Yُo َcn ِdsِed ُfkُos ُssِel grُop (pِeplse sَmlَa mُonِe, ِrِsِdns, pَast) & ُknِtxt ِngِlso. ِ َXmِpl, yُo َcn ُfُks ِ Ngِlsa ِ r ِ ngِls َ ِrov rِsِdnsov. Yُo َcn ِfk
- َxnjs َwya ُwrds َsy
- َxnjs َwya ُwrds rِiِtn

I chose to translate this extract as it exemplifies a level of formality used frequently now and 500 years ago. The original text avoids colloquialisms and is completely technically accurate, allowing the opportunity to communicate subtle details in language. These subtleties include details such as the capitalisation of the word ِ ngِls in one case but not another, (the capitalised version refers to technically-correct written standard english, a concept which did not really exist in Modern English).

I shall now return to the third of the changes to English, the introduction of diacritics as a replacement for short vowels. To understand this, we must first acknowledge the unlikely nature of the absence of diacritics in Modern English initially. The vast majority of other languages, including neighbouring languages, involve the use of diacritics, for example, accents in French and Spanish are used to distinguish between words with otherwise identical spelling but different meanings and pronounciations (such as de meaning of, and dé, the present tense subjunctive 1st person to give). Additionally, Welsh uses a number of diacritics, including the circumflex to mark long vowels. Japanese also use diacritics, for example は(ha, or wa)、ば(ba)、ぱ(pa), and there is even a case to be made for the uses of diacritics in Russian in letters such as ё/е(yo/ye) and й/и(iy/ee), the former of which did not appear as a separate character on digital keyboards. As such, along with perhaps Nguni languages like isiXhosa, English not having diacritics is very unique and as such the change is highly logical.

Throughout Modern English native speakers and language learners alike had to contend with the highly problematic nature of having two words spelt the same but pronounced differently, (eg. read, close and lead). Furthermore, the increase in regional accents and globalisation of English exacerbated difficulties trying to pronounce vowels and as such, after the beginning of the Middle Eastern proxy war an opportunity presented itself.

The fall of the Dubrovnik dynasty, proxy wars and Arabic
The importance of the fall of the Dubrovnik Empire in changes to vowels cannot be overstated. After the death of Ilya Dubrovnik, a power vacuum opened up, that marked the beginning of a bloody transition to democracy. The ensuing proxy war in the Middle East involved no less than 72 countries, divided politics and almost sunk the economy, but most dramatically altered the balance of global superpowers away from the rich European countries who had dominated for so long. It was at this point that English adopted Arabic diacritics. A fatha (َ) dictated an ‘a’ sound, a damna (ُ) dictated an ‘o’ sound, and a kasra (ِ) dictated an ‘ee’ or ‘i’ sound, for example the sound َk is pronounced ‘ka’ (like the Japanese か, Linear B ⊕, Arabic خ , and Zhuyin 丂丫, all of which evince the widespread nature of sounds consisting of consonants combined with vowels)

As dramatic as this change sounds it is important to acknowledge that this was actually already happening. Not only were vowels being lost in text speech, but accents were increasingly used by dictionaries to indicate stress. The first of the three major changes to English involved the use of cases, marked mainly by vowels, and as such the introduction of diacritics can also be interpreted as a natural consequence of this (having less vowels made these endings became more apparent and easier to read.) Finally, returning to the examples of words spelt the same and pronounced differently, you may have noticed that the variation in all of these is based on the pronunciation of the vowels, and so this also served to differentiate long and short vowels (long vowels are written in the same way as Arabic, featuring both the diacritic and the original letter), a natural progression in making English easier to read.

Final thoughts
If I have learnt anything from my years studying History it is that conclusions should present a balanced, but decisive argument. Although acknowledging concessions is important your view must be clearly stated, outlined and defended. I will not do that today. Certainly I have my own opinions as to the most relevant factors in the evolution of language, and whether New Modern English really is more logical or universal than Modern English, but I would not for a second presume that it is the only correct answer, or indeed necessarily correct. Language is fluid. It means something different for each and every person, thanks to their experiences, the books they have read, and conversations they have had. Therefore, if I can leave you with a single thought, it is this. My version of English and yours are not the same, and no analysis of grammar and change can give it meaning, if it is not also your meaning. Without that, no historical analysis is worthwhile.

Katya Ivanovna
The University of Malavicina