One World, One Language?

One World, One Language?

Robert A. Hall, Jr.


Extraído de: Linguistics and Your Language. Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York. 1960. Segunda edición y versión de Leave Your Language Alone, 1950.

Parte IV: What Can We Do About Language. Capítulo 13.


Ever since Biblical times, people have been wishing that all mankid might talk the same language, so that —they've hoped— misunderstandings and quarrels and wars might not arise through failure of man to get what his neighbor is saying. We all know the myth of the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament, according to which all mankind did talk one language from the time of Adam until Nimrod presumed to build a tower to reach Heaven —and, to impede the project's completion, the Lord created diversity of speech among all the different peoples working on the tower. That myth is very significant from a number of points of view, especially (as we pointed out before) because it recognizes the basic role of language in human cooperation; it is interesting with regard to the universal-language problem, too, because it symbolizes the old human desire for a single language. This desire has always been present in human speculation; in the last two or three hundred years, not only has there been renewed talk of a universal language, but many plans have been made to bring one into existence.

There is a very good reason why interest and plans for a universal language have been intesified in modern times. We are decidedly worse off in this respect than were the Middle Ages. In those days there was one, and only one, language used all throughout the West of Europe by intellectual men, for their thinking, writing, and communication: Latin. This was of course the Latin of the Church, not exactly like the Latin of Cicero in "purity" or "correctness," but nevertheless kept artificially alive by many generations of scholars and grammarians. Not all the inhabitants of Western Europe knew and used Latin, in fact very few did —the members of the clergy, the lawyers, and a few other intellectuals. And Latin had an intellectual tradition back of it, an extensive literature in religious and profane subjects of then current interest, which kept its use alive. Under these conditions —and only under these conditions— it was possible to keep Latin "alive" long after its popular developments, in the Romance tongues, had changed so far as to become independent languages. But for such artificial preservation of a dead language, two things are necessary: 1) a very small, highly trained number of users, with a conservative attitude and opposed to change more of less as a matter of principle; and 2) a literature and intellectual tradition to keep interest in it going.

A number of people in modern times have looked back to the Middle Ages with regret and yearning, and have wished that we might have a revival of Latin as our international language. Some enthusiasts have worked for revival and use of Latin as such; others, realizing that Latin is rather different in structure from our modern languages and that many speakers of modern languages find Classical Latin very complicated and difficult, have tried to make a simplified form, called Latino sine flexione ("Latin without inflection"). But these efforts have not succeeded, and more or less naturally, since in modern times the two conditions we just mentioned as necessary, are no longer present: a small number of conservative and meticulous users, and a body of literature to arouse and hold interest. The number of people who would use such an international language, even if we restrict it to the intellectuals (literary men, scientists, etc.) alone, would be far too great and too varied a psychological make-up to permit of keeping the language underchanged; and everything dealing with topics of modern interest is written in languages other than Latin. These projects for reviving Latin have fallen through, more or less of their own weight, and have not commanded much popular support.

The chief alternative to use of a dead language is the adoption of some modern language as an international means of communication. Two or three hundred years ago, from about 1650 to 1750, France was the dominant nation of Europe politically and intellectually, and the fortunes of French as an international auxiliary language followed the fortunes of France. This was not due to any particular merit of French as opposed to other languages, but purely to non-linguistic considerations; later on, after French had risen to a dominant position, myths began to arise about its being especially "intellectual", "clear", "precise" and the like. English seems to have gradually been taking the place of French during the last two hundred years, due to first English and then American leadership in commerce, industry, and science. This kind of development is the natural way in which languages become predominant and widely used; people adopt the language out of whose use they can get the most benefit. But in the last hundred and fifty years, there has been another factor in the situation, working against English, French or any other real language: modern nationalism. From the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the feeling of self-centered, ingrown, parochial nationalism has been growing ever stronger in almost all nations, large and small, and the people of each country have tended to use their own language as a symbol of their own nationality, the simbol to which they are perhaps more attached than any other, and which they are least willing to give up. So opposition to English or any other real language has grown steadily stronger, until people have tended to abandon almost entirely the aim of universalizing any specific national tongue.

If a national language, no matter how important, is going to arouse hostility when used as a means of international communicatiom then —some have reasoned— why not get a language that will not cause antagonism on that score? If a dead language like Latin cannot be revived, then —it has been said— let's create one of our own. For the last hundred years or more, many people have been fascinated by such an idea, and it has been estimated that over a hundred such artificial languages have been invented —averaging something like a language a year. Their inventors have given them all kindes of names, like Interlingua, Kosmos, Occidental, Parla, Spokil, Universala, and so forth. The three most successful to date have been Volapük, Esperanto, and Ido, of which the best known of all ia undoubtedly the second. Volapük was invented by a Bavarian pastor named J. M. Schleyer, and first appeared in 1879; it was meant to serve as a world speech, and in it Germanic words appear simplified so as to be (supposedly) more easily pronounceable by all. For instance, the world Volapük itself stands for "world speech," and America appears in the form Melop, the letter r (and here it is a question specifically of letters) being replaced by l, since r is reserved for prefixes. Volapük achieved some fame and a number of adherents, but by no means as many as the language invented by a Polish physician, Dr. Zamenhof, which he called Esperanto (to the root esper- "hope") and made known to the world in 1887. Esperanto has a vocabulary and a grammatical system based essentially on those of Latin and the Romance languages, with a few words taken from Germanic and other sources. Its grammatical system is very much simplified over that of any real Romance language, all nouns, for instance, being made to end in -o and all adjectives in -a. Later, an international committee of Esperanto adherents recommended some changes in the language, which the inventor, Dr. Zamenhof, refused to accept; so the Esperantists split into two groups, the conservatives holding to the original Esperanto, and the progressives using a modified form which they called Ido.

Esperanto and similar languages have essentially failed to catch one, however, for much the same reasons we pointed out for Latin. In the first place, as soon as they come to be spoken by any sizeable number of people, they automatically start to change —wheter unintentionally, due to the influence of the native language of each speaker and to internal organic charge, or intentionally, as in the case of the reform by the Idoists. There are by now a few people who are actually native speakers of Esperanto, having been brought up by Esperantist parents and using Esperanto as the normal family language from their earliest childhood; and in these people's usage, changes have already begun to take place. But by and large, the speakers of Esperanto are native speakers of some other language, and use Esperanto only by intention and with conscious effort; and in this fact lies a further difficulty. There are so few native speakers of Esperanto that they are not enough to serve as a standard for usage. And there is no body of material, oral or written, to serve as a canon, such as there is in classical Latin or Greek, or such as naturally grows out of the situation for any living language.

Recently, another group —the International Auxiliary Language Association, or IALA— has begun an ambitious program for the construction of still another auxiliary language of this kind. A number of competent linguistic analysts have aided in the work, by studying the types of concepts that are most frequently found, by analyzing the frequency of occurrence of the most important wordroots of the European languages, and so forth. The Iala language, when made available, may have a slightly more scientific basis to its choice of material than Esperanto or Ido; but, so far as can be told at this stage, it will still be the same kind of pick-and-choose affair, essentially consisting of selections from familiar languages, without any more authenticity than its predecessors.

Another objection to all the artificial auxiliary languages that have been constructed so far, is that they are essentially designed by and for West Europeans. A language like Esperanto, although supposedly simplified from our point of view, still keeps the essential parts of speech (noun, adjective, verb, etc.) of Indo-European, and the concepts and categories of meaning that our languages have made us familiar with. A speaker of —say— Chinese or Telegu or some American Indian language would have as much difficulty with the sounds, forms, and thought pattern of Esperanto as he would with those of French or English or German. And the more we study and describe the various languages of the world, the more different arrangemente of linguistic material we find. To find a common denominator of linguistic material for all the languages of the world —that is, using only sounds and form-classes and constructions and meanings that would be familiar to every human being— would be a well-nigh impossible task, although it has repeatedly been tried even by such outstanding linguists as Trubetzkoy. And yet, to base one's artificial language on any particular language type —Indo-European, Semitic, or other— implies inevitably a value-judgment of some kind, whether reflecting supposed cultural superiority, or mere numerical preponderance, or something else.

A still further solution is one that has been put forward in recent years —to recognize that a wholly artificial language is not likely to win great favor, and to try to make a simplified version of some national language already spoken. This is what happens without benefit of any philosophical or philological guidance whenever speakers of different languages come in contact with each other and evolve a reduced version of the langages, often with many borrowings from the other; the resulting "minimum language" is called a pidgin. Pidgin languagees have developed in great number, especially those based on Portuguese, French, and English; just to limit ourselves to Pidgin English, there are varieties of Pidgin spoken in China, West Africa, Melanesia, and Australia. Most people have the idea that a pidgin language is just a jargon, a hash, a "corruption" without any rules or grammar, spoken the way an ignorant American might try to talk to a Chinese laundryman. This is a wholly mistaken idea. Pidgin English, although reduced in grammar and vocabulary from its base, has nevertheless a true linguistic structure of its own and is a language in its own right —but one which has gone its own way. Careful study of a pidgi language is something which ought to repay anybody trying to construct a simplified version of a major language, to see along what lines the simplification might well be made.

Melanesian Pidgin, for instance, has taken the English word fellow and has made an adjective suffix -fela out of it, so that "big" is in Melanesian Pidgin bigfela, "this" is disfela, "three" is trifela, and so forth. Likewise, the users of Melanesian Pidgin made the object pronoun 'im into a verbal suffix, indicating transitive meaning of the verb (the presence of a direct object): rait "write" refers simply to the activity of writing, as an intransitive verb, but raitim, means "write it," and has to be used whenever there is a direct object either expressed or implied: mi raitim means "I write it," and if I want to say "I write the letter" I have to say mi raitim pas. Interesting changes of meaning have taken place, and some words have been greatly extended beyond their original English use, in a way which is perhaps superficially amusing to speakers of English, but which has its own logic and sense. Thus, we're likely to be amused at first when we find that "hair" is expressed by gras bilong head, literally "the grass of the head" (bilong is a preposition, meaning "of" or "for"). But, when we consider that the natives knew the words gras "grass" and hed "head", it was the most logical thing in the world to compare the hair to grass growing out of the head, and easier to make the phrase gras bilong head than to learn a completely new and separate word for "hair". In the same way, in Melanesian Pidgin the word ars, originally "buttocks," has had its meaning extended to cover any kind of "bottom" —for instance, ars bilong diwai means "the bottom of the tree"; and, in transferred meaning, ars also means "reason" or "cause": em i-ars bilong trabal means "he is the cause of the trouble".

But makers of reduced versions of modern major languages do not seem to have wanted to bother with pidgin languages, perhaps because of their low cultural and intellectual standing, and have instead sat down in their armchairs and excogitated their reduction on a priori philosophical principles, with little attention to reality. The results are usually far from what they are cracked up to be. The best known of these reduced languages is of course Ogden and Richard's Basic English. This language is strictly limited in vocabulary to 850 words, chosen by the sponsors of the language, plus 18 special auxiliary verbs or "operators" such as ge, do, be,, etc. Ordinary English spelling is used, and little attention has been paid to the phonetic side of the problem; apparently it was assumed that foreigners' difficulties in learning English nouns were of little or no weight, and the language seems to have been envisaged primarily as a means of written communication. Although the number of individual words is limited to 850, the number of compounds and combinations in which they may be used —in ordinary English patterns— is enormous; so, as Basic English uses the separate words fancy, dress, and ball (in all the different meanings which standard English attaches to those words), it is permissible to use also the combination fancy dress ball. Hence, despite its professed limitation to 850 words, the actual number of possible combinations, and the range of meaning covered by Basic English vocabulary is very great, and all according to the patterns of standard English.

Basic English has received a great deal of attention —especially due to the "plug" which Winston Churchill gave it in a speech at Harvard in 1944— and has made a number of converts, some of whom have gone about spreading the new doctrines with more enthusiasm than understanding. Unfortunately, the basis on which Basic English is established is not of the soundest, and, as a reduced version of English, it is definitely unsatisfactory —much less satisfactory han, say, Melanesian Pidgin English or Chinese Pidgin English, both of which are quite serviceable auxiliary languages. The choice of the 850 words of the Basic English vocabulary is quite arbitrary, and includes such a relatively unimportant term as sticky, while omitting others that would be far more serviceable. The meanings, both literal and transferred, are simply those of ordinary English vocabulary, without regard to the fact that for speakers of most other languages, our range of meaning for any particular word would be quite unheard-of: the speaker of Russian, for instance, would never find it natural to speak of the leg of a table or the foot of a mountain. Similarly, our combinations of words into compounds and set phrases with specialized meanings could never be accepted as normal, without considerable explanation, by speakers of any language but English; a phrase fancy dress ball would be quite meaningless to a speaker of, say, Spanish or Hungarian. The auxiliar verbs or "operators" constitute one of the hardest parts of Basic English, since such words as get and do are among the trickiest things in the English language. In short, Basic English is quite without the ease and simplicity that has been claimed for it, and has been put together naively and without realization of the linguistic problems involved.

Well, then, what is the answer, after all? A dead language won't work; nor will a completely artificial one, nor an artificial language made up like a hash out of various elements of different modern languages; nor will a naive and unskillful reduction of a major language. We might perhaps think of making a better job of reducing a major language, taking lessons from Pidgin English and trying to see in what way our language could be reduced and simplified to make it usable by people of other speech. The trouble is, we would have to not only simplify it phonetically and grammatically —with true simplification, not pseudo-simplification like that of Basic English— so far as to reduce its phonemes, forms, and constructions drastically, but also change the rage of meanings of its worlds, in such a way that it would be almost unrecognizable to speakers of English itself, and incur their hostility and rejection in much the same way that Pidgin English does. There's no way out along that path, either.

When we get to an impasse of this kind, it is always worth examining the matter anew and seeing whether, perhaps, the problem has been approached from an unproductive angle to begin with, and put in unfruitful terms. When we look at the whole quest for an international language, we notice one thing above all others: the desire for ease in learning, and ease greater than that of learning an ordinary major language. This has been the avowed force behind the international language movement; in the words of Otto Jespersen, the great Danish linguist, one of the backers of the Ido movement, "The best auxiliary international language is that which in all points offers the greatest ease to the greatest number of people." But this assumption is questionable, at best; it seems likely that ease of acquisition can be gained only at the cost of impoverishment of form or of content. Althought a pidgin language is a perfectly workable and usable form of communication, and you can convey in Melanesian Pidgin, say, any idea that you can in standard English, it often takes longer to do so just because of the limited means; what you gain in simplicity, you lose in richness and directness of expression. A major living language is of course a complicated affair; as Herman Collitz, one of the great American philologians of the first part of this century, pointed out, "They [living languages] may be compared to an armory or a big store in which everybody may find the kind of uniform or suit just to fit him, and a different suit for every occasion." Slang, jargon, humorous words and turns of phrase, and even everyday expressions like kids, cop, stag party, all contribute their share towards not only accurate denotation but also delicate shading of connotation; and, as Collitz pointed out, cutting down the abundance of a living major language to reach the level of an artificial language "would amount to nothing more than moving from a palace into a poorhouse."

Furthermore, the difficulty of acquiring another language is something which has been greatly exaggerated, and of which most people have a totally unjustified fear. It is understandable that we should think it almost impossible to acquire a foreign language well, as long as inadequate methods of teaching prevail, and years of student's time are wasted without accomplishing anything. But improved methods of language teaching, with the help of linguistics, have made it clear that any ordinary person can, with proper desire and application of time and energy, acquire a second language, we now see, is something largely illusory, and certainly not worth the price in loss of communicative power as contrasted with a real language.

Then why not all agree on some one language as the language for the "one world" which many of us have yearned for, and everybody learn that language at least as a second language, with the hope that perhaps eventually the whole world might shift to it as a firt language? I confess to having entertained such notions at one time, and to having felt that I would willingly give up my native English for any other language that might be chosen, be it Chinese, Russsian, Arabic, or Malay. Yet it is an impossibility, after all. Even if we could reach some ideal condition where nationalistic feelings did not preclude adoption of some one national language as a world means of communication, we still could never attain world linguistic unity. To attain and keep linguistic unity, the whole human race would have to be much more capable of accepting and following rigid rules —in regard to all aspects of language: sounds, grammar, vocabulary, meanings, and even spelling— than they are or give any sign of becoming. As the chosen language became more and more widespread, it would automatically be differentiated into dialects, since it would be learned in somewhat different form and adapted somewhat differently by the speakers of each different language. These dialects would soon move farther and farther from each other, both through internal organic change and through borrowing from each other, until after a few centuries we would simply have another set of different languages again —and the whole problem of translation, foreign language learning, etc., would start in over again.

Furthermore, hasn't the problem perhaps been ascribed to the wrong causes? Those who advocate an international language usually assume —whether they say so or not— that misunderstandings and international quarrels and wars are caused by differences in language. This is far from being necessarily so, as we can easily see from two kinds of examples. There have been plenty of instances in which people of the same language have fought each other bitterly and long: just think of our Revolutionary War, our Civil War, all the wars between different countires in Latin America in which both sides speak Spanish, or the religious wars in almost every European counrty in the sixteenth century. On the other hand, we can see from the example of Switzerland that speakers of four national languages (French, German, Italian, and Rhaeto-Romance) can live together and get along extremely well, on the whole, in one nation, and in a rather cramped and restricted territory, at that. The Swiss get along together, neither because of nor in spite of their linguistic diversity, but because they have common interests in the economic and political and cultural sphere —in non-linguistic matters, in short— that they are willing to take the trouble to cooperate about. The conditions for peace and harmony are essentially non-linguistic in nature; two people of almost identical speech can hate each other to the point of strife and murder, whereas two people of completely different speech can get along well enough to cooperate wholeheartedly.

The whole international language question, then —the idea that, to have "one world," we must of necessity have one language, and the debate over how to attain and spread that one language— is illusory, and based on an unrealistic assumption to begin with. We do not need linguisitc unity in order to attain world peace; the problems besetting the world as a whole are non-linguistic in nature, and use of a single language would not help solve them in the slightest. First reach an agreement, not so much on actual pints of disagreement, as on attitude towards disagreement itself, and get a willingness to agree; what language you then use to agree is of relatively minor importance. We will sitll continue to need more than one language, both for everyday use in our own communities, and for international use; and the present major internationally used languages (English, French, Spanish, German and —more and more— Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Malay) are perfectly satisfactory for the purpose. Besides, the variety of languages spoken throughout the world is an asset to the human race as well as, or perhaps even more than a liability; for, after all, a language is one way of organizing and classifying human experience, and we certainly have no right to say that our ways of organizing and classifying human experience have reached such perfection that we can afford to throw out all but our own. Multilingualism is with us to stay, in short, and there are good reasons for not regarding it as a curse and trying to get out of it, but, quite the contrary, for accepting it as a blessing and trying to turn it to our best advantage.


Copyright 1950 by Robert A. Hall, Jr.


Regresar a la página principal