'Cloud Atlas' Sheds Light on English's Possible Future

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'Cloud Atlas' Sheds Light on English's Possible Future
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In the futuristic sections of the novel "Cloud Atlas," by author David Mitchell, there are a few clues to tell readers that those parts aren't set in our own times. There are those perfectly human clones, for example. In the movie based on the novel, which comes out Oct. 26, there's a flying snowmobile that shoots lasers. But one of the central, if less flashy, ways that the novel takes its readers through time is through changes in the English language.

With the movie coming out this week, TechNewsDaily wanted to know whether the future language changes Mitchell predicts are possible. They're probably very inaccurate, said Anthony Kroch, chair of the linguistics department at the University of Pennsylvania. But that's okay, he added. "Holding the author to the standard of, 'Well, this is an unlikely change' isn't reasonable," he said. 

"I actually thought that the author didn't do too bad a job," he said. "I think what he did was he picked up on some fairly obvious things and he invented some things that might happen and that would attract the reader's attention."

The depiction of future language in "Cloud Atlas" illustrates some interesting points about language's evolution over time. The depiction also reveals how Mitchell created a futuristic, exotic atmosphere while keeping things understandable for those of us following the action at home. [SEE ALSO: Languages Lose Vocab to Science and Spell-Check

Fancier words for the past, simpler words for the future

In the novel's far future, most human knowledge has been destroyed or forgotten. Few people are literate. Zachry, one of the book's main characters, opens the section with a story about meeting the devil. "So gimme some mutton an' I'll tell you 'bout our first meetin'," he says. "A fat joocesome slice, nay, none o' your burnt wafery off'rin's …"

Zachry's speech looks strange to readers, but it's not as strange as the future English language really might be. A postapocalyptic English would likely be unintelligible to people today, Kroch said. After all, even without an apocalypse, English has changed so much over the last 400 years that modern people find Shakespeare hard to follow, he said.

Yet authors can't make their books too difficult for readers to understand, so they need to write in a way that appears futuristic and exotic, but actually hews closely to language today.  "You can only use things that are currently available in the language. Otherwise, people wouldn't understand you," Kroch said.

One way Mitchell does this is by using highbrow language in the earlier sections of book, but simpler-sounding language in later sections of the book, Kroch said. "We have this intuition that fancy words are old-fashioned and common, short words are lower-class and contemporary," he said. "There is an idea that in the past, people spoke in a more elevated way than they do now."

That's not actually true, but people get that impression because the only samples of language that survive from previous eras are well-preserved written pieces, Kroch said. Political treaties, noblemen's letters and literature for the upper classes naturally have more sophisticated language. Shakespeare's plays still live on, but recordings of ordinary people chatting in the streets of Elizabethan England don't exist.

Mitchell gets around that problem by making the older chapters in "Cloud Atlas" excerpts from the letters and diaries of well-educated people.

A dialect for the eye

Another way Mitchell made future language in "Cloud Atlas" look more exotic is by changing capitalization rules, eliminating the spaces between certain words, and otherwise changing how words look on the page. The language is basically the same, however, and might not even be noticeably different if read aloud. [SEE ALSO: 'Hunger Games' Exposes Myth of Technological Progress]

In Mitchell's postapocalyptic far future, for example, the characters talk about "huntin'n'shootin'." While that's not how modern English speakers would write "hunting and shooting," it's not much different from how they might say the phrase aloud. "In ordinary, everyday language, we routinely run words together and that's not some kind of laziness or special, extreme way of using language, but it is absolutely the ordinary way of using language," Kroch said. 

Linguists call such changes "eye dialect," Kroch explained. Eye dialect uses spelling and other writing tricks to suggest a dialect, but doesn't always accurately match the dialect it's trying to mimic. American readers may be familiar with eye dialect from the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, or from Mark Twain's books. 

Real possible changes

It's difficult to predict future changes in the English language, Kroch said. Historically, some words have changed dramatically over time, while others have drifted, only to return to their original form. "You can't be at all confident that [a change] will spread or be reversed," he said. 

There are several changes Kroch thinks could happen in a post-apocalyptic world if the English language lost many of its books and illiteracy is rampant. Without writing to remind people of a standard, the mispronunciations of childhood could get ingrained in a language, Kroch said. While "Cloud Atlas" has people say "mem'ryin'" for "remembering," Kroch thinks a more likely change is the use of "member" for "remember," a common toddler mistake. The people of the future could drop other prefixes, too, Kroch said. "Treme" might replace "extreme"; "tend" might overtake "pretend." 

Grammar could remain as complex or even gain complexity, Kroch said, but without dictionaries to remind people of the hundreds of thousands of words in standard English, the language is likely to lose much of its vocabulary. English vocabulary has been partially shaped by writing, which allowed it to grow beyond any human's capability to remember. 

The rarity of books and of reading in Mitchell's far future is a sure sign of just how bad things have gotten, Kroch said. "It's a very interesting question. What would happen to English if it were disconnected from its literary tradition?" he said. "It would take an unbelievable catastrophe." 

This story was provided by TechNewsDaily, sister site to LiveScience. You can follow TechNewsDaily staff writer Francie Diep on Twitter @franciediep. Follow TechNewsDaily on Twitter @TechNewsDaily, or on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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