I'm sorry to sound like a marginal actor in 'Allo 'Allo! but zere is no easy way to say zis: at some time in the not too distant future, we English-speakers may no longer be pronouncing our "th".
It's been integral to the language since Old English times but linguists believe it's on the way out, a victim of English's global popularity and the difficulty for non-native speakers, and indeed many in the regions of the British Isles, to get their tongues around the two letters that initiate the language's definite article and its main demonstrative pronouns. In its place might be a "z", or a "d", or an "f", or a combination of these. "As you go around the world, an awful lot of people do have some difficulty pronouncing 'th'," says David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University and an authority on the future of English. "If these numbers start to build up as they seem to be, and most of the English-speaking world doesn't use 'th', then 'th' will gradually be felt to be rather dated and conservative and slightly archaic in Britain, and in a couple of generations might go out altogether."
Crystal is a consultant to Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices, a major exhibition at the British Library which opened this month and runs until April. He points out that the 400 million native English-speakers in the world are now outnumbered five to one by those who speak it as a second or foreign tongue, leading to profound changes in a language that has never stood still.
The "th" sound itself was once a Germanic novelty. "The Anglo-Saxon scribes had to invent new letters to express it because the Roman alphabet wasn't up to it. So they invented two Old English characters, the thorn and the eth," Crystal says. "[Modern] Germans trying to speak English typically replace it with a sibilant. 'Zis is ze important zing.' The French tend to replace it with just a 't'." Some American and Caribbean English-speakers replace the "th" with a "d", while in the East End of London they have been "finking" and "fanking" for hundreds of years. "It wouldn't be surprising if the 'th' eventually disappeared amongst a lot of foreign learners who find it difficult and eventually maybe amongst the majority of [native] English speakers too," Crystal says.
Even the rhythm of English is changing. Crystal notes that the sedate, stress-timed "tum-ti-tum" of British Isles and North American speakers contrasts with the syllable-timed "rat-a-tat" English that is spoken in the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean, causing a shift in emphasis in British cities. "One hears younger people beginning to use a more syllable-timed articulation than would have been likely a generation ago."
But one feature of the exhibition which might come as a shock to younger visitors is that much of the modern street slang has its origins in the argot of the British shires in centuries past. For example, the transposition of the letters "s" and "k" in "asked" to form "aksed" is mimicked by comedians such as Catherine Tate in order to reflect the contemporary language of British urban teenagers. Yet go to the British Library exhibition and you will hear the voice of Dick Gilbert, a farm labourer from the village of Weare Giffard in deepest Devon, saying that "you should ha'e aksed the boy to send something before". Gilbert is no youth, having been born in 1879 and recorded speaking in 1958 as part of a survey of English dialects conducted by Leeds University.
"The responses for over 300 locations across England confirm that 'aks' was sporadic in the North and Midlands, quite rare in East Anglia and the South-east, but very common in the West Country and South-west," says Jonnie Robinson, a sociolinguist at the British Library. "It was dying out in mainstream English but lots of features in Caribbean English are a result of how English was being spoken when people arrived there in the 1700s and 1800s. 'Aksed' survived in the Caribbean and has come back to the UK in the voices of speakers of Caribbean English and been adopted by white kids."
When I wrote in this newspaper 13 years ago about changing patterns of English in inner-city schools, a team of researchers from the University of Bergen had identified the spread of an urban Creole, with verbs being omitted and the expression "innit" being grafted on to sentences, whether questions or not. "It is absolutely spread across ethnic backgrounds," Gisle Andersen said of the trend. "Not only Jamaicans, Indians and Pakistanis... but also people with an Anglo-Saxon background."
Other studies at that time pondered on the emergence of an "Occupational English", a homogenising movement based on the fear that regional dialects were a hindrance to job prospects. The trend was, it was suggested, influenced by identikit local radio presenters who avoided clipped tones but spoke with a similar accent and vocabulary no matter which part of the country they were broadcasting to.
Yet half a generation later, that thinking has been revised. Although there has indeed been a levelling-out in the South-east of England, accents elsewhere have become more pronounced. Joan Beal, professor of English language at the University of Sheffield, says performers such as Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys have benefited from using local dialect in their work as an assertion of civic pride. "The idea that dialects are dying has been around since the 19th century – they thought the dialects were dying then because of the railways; nowadays, they think it's because of the media," she says.
The Liverpool accent has been most resistant to assimilation and Crystal notes that ethnic variations now include Jamaican Scouse, Chinese Scouse and even Italian Scouse. "It's brilliant but impossible to imitate, I'm afraid," he says. "The point is that it's a myth that Estuary English is sweeping the country and making everybody speak in the same way."
In fact, the term Estuary English "could equally be applied to the Mersey estuary", Robinson says. "Liverpool has such a strong identity that the accent remains very robust and is arguably spreading out of Liverpool on to the Wirral and northwards to places like Southport." Furthermore, he says that the glottal stop may have first appeared in the Glaswegian dialect, "and nobody is saying we're all sounding more Scottish".
Although Estuary English isn't sweeping away strong regional identities, it is leaving a mark. Jane Stuart-Smith, a reader in English language at the University of Glasgow, looked at the impact in Scotland of the media, and especially programmes such as EastEnders. Stuart-Smith and her colleagues found that some avid viewers of the soap made subtle variations to their speech. "Features which are typical of southern British English – Cockney, if you like – were found as far north as Aberdeen and certainly in Glasgow," she says. Instead of the traditional Scottish vernacular for mouth ("mooth"), some Scots might say "moof", a nod to the Cockney "marf".
In many respects, the media have shored up regional accents rather than flattened them out. Smaller channels have seen regional accents as a means of highlighting their brand in a crowded market. "We have 10 distinct channels that have a voice that matches their output," says Matt Scarff, head of creative at UKTV. "I don't know if it's the Gavin & Stacey effect but I feel I'm hearing more Welsh on television every day. Gone are the days when announcers had to speak BBC English." The BBC is increasingly anxious to advertise its commitment to the nations and regions.
In advertising, clients see commercial benefits from embracing regional voices. "Northerners are quite popular because they're seen as a bit more friendly," says Alex Lynch-White, managing agent of the Earache voice-over agency in London. "RP [Received Pronunciation] can sound a bit like they're telling you off."
As Evolving English explains, RP arrived in the late 1700s with the first grammar and pronunciation manuals and Dr Johnson's dictionary, published in 1755. "Correctness was becoming the watchword," Crystal says. "This was the beginning of the British Empire and that RP accent was put into the public schools and produced the civil servants and senior officers that took the language around the world. RP became the voice of English."
Many now believe that such "correctness" is misguided. Dan Clayton, a research fellow at University College London, exploring the way that grammar is taught in schools and encouraging teachers to incorporate informal language, points out that "one person's polite use of a non-sexist term is another person's example of 'PC gone mad'." He draws my attention to a comment on a newspaper website from Mick from Scunthorpe, complaining about a story on British urban slang. "Keep talking like that and see were [sic] it get's [sic] you," Mick wrote. "Muppets no wonder some kids are thick as to [sic] short planks."
According to the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, there is little point in trying to police the English language. "I always describe the English language as like the weather; we know it's there, we argue about it and we know it's the weather, but it just keeps bloody changing." Zephaniah takes issue with those who see the greatest global tongue as a tool of cultural imperialism. "I completely disagree," he says. "People want to use it because it's a natural international language."
Whether English, with its two billion global speakers, continues to be the language of international discourse, is unclear. "Predicting the future of a language is to predict the future politics of society," Crystal says, noting that, in various scenarios, Chinese, Spanish or Arabic could become the global language.
What is certain is that English will continue to evolve, and that accents will survive as regional pride continues to manifest itself in language. Slang will invent new words and reinvent others from our distant past. And although English may lose its "th", we should not fink of zis as da end of t'world. It will still be English.