The way British people speak could sound extremely different in the future, a new report has found, as traditional and regional accents start to be replaced by new urban dialects.
Linguists in the UK analysed British language trends over the past 50 years, and have predicted that the next 50 years will see what they call a “homogenisation” of spoken English, due to multiculturalism, new population centres, and the increasing prevalence of technology in our lives.
While the UK has long been known for its broad variety of regional accents – many of which have social class connotations historically – researchers now think many of those distinctive dialects could be on the way out.
The study, led by forensic speech scientist Dominic Watt at the University of York, also suggested that changes to UK society could spell the end of Received Pronunciation – aka ‘the Queen’s English’ – the characteristically upper-class way of speaking, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England”.
“Some of the changes we identify have in fact already started,” the authors write in the report. “For one thing, people tend to like to make talking as easy for themselves as they can, but without making life too hard for the hearer.”
It’s worth bearing in mind that the study hasn’t been peer-reviewed, and was in fact commissioned by British bank HSBC to complement the launch of a new voice print security feature.
In terms of speech in London, the researchers say the simplification trend could turn the pronunciation of “Think” into “Fink”, “Beauty” into “Booty” (which could make for some interesting conversations), and “Mother” into “Muvver”.
Similarly, “Cute” could become “Coot”, “Red” would be “Wed”, and “Trees” – believe it or not – “Cheese”.
While some of those might be harder to swallow than others, the researchers say that their predictions – which they acknowledge are necessarily speculative in part – are based on how English has evolved over the past 1,500 years – and particularly in the last half century.
According to the report, the English language is marked by patterns in pronunciation that tend to repeat, such as shortening and simplification.
For example, a linguistic relaxation called “yod dropping” – where “ew” sounds become “oo” sounds – is “already pretty firmly established in London” the researchers explain, meaning “duke” is commonly said as “dook”, and “news” is pronounced “nooze”.
Words are also expected to become increasingly curtailed, with their ends being cut off to make words easier to say: for example, “text” could become simply “tex”.
The researchers say there are two linguistic movements in London bringing about these kinds of changes. One is the emergence of what’s called Estuary English (EE) – a combination of older London accent features with more standard speech forms.
The other is Multicultural London English (MLE) – which blends pronunciations from Caribbean, West African, and Asian communities in London – and which is expected to spread throughout the UK over the next half century.
Another emerging factor influencing the way Brits speak – and people elsewhere too – will be technology, both in terms of how we adopt things like internet slang and use it in our everyday speech, but also in the very way we communicate with one another, the linguists suggest.
“In the future, our voices will become ever more crucial and we’ll use them to interact with the majority of machines and devices in our daily lives,” says Watt. “Keyboards will have become obsolete and we will become completely comfortable speaking to our cars, washing machines, [and] fridges.”
The researchers say some of these changes are already clearly observable and ongoing – such as the continuing British adoption of American language forms, both in terms of the internet culture stemming from Silicon Valley, and pop culture influences from Hollywood.
“The popularity of ‘box set bingeing’ could be one reason behind the widespread adoption of American catchphrases and newly-minted expressions,” says Watt.
“Comedy shows in particular … have had a significant influence and are likely to impact on British English in the longer run. In just one generation, the sound of our cities, work places and homes will continue to develop and evolve quite audible differences.”
The report is available on HSBC’s website.