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September 10, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Speaking in Tongues

In pursuit of an international language



If you’ve ever travelled in a non-English speaking country, or—a little closer to home—just wanted to know what a packet of pink gloop at the Asian supermarket is, you’ve probably wondered how much easier life would be if we all spoke the same language.

Throughout history a number of attempts have been made to create an international language; one that would allow two people from opposite corners of the world to speak volumes to one another. Yet despite earnest attempts and good intentions, these constructed languages have, for the most part, failed. 

As our world is drawn ever closer through the advancement of technology, globalisation of culture, and international commerce and cooperation, our need to be able to communicate clearly with people from around the world grows ever more important—but will we ever speak eye-to-eye?

Salient‘s Molly McCarthy investigates. 

A language for everyone

At the end of the 19th Century, growing up in a town that was home to Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews, Ludvig Lazar Zamenhof saw from an early age that the linguistic division between these groups led to “misery”. “In such a town a sensitive nature feels more acutely… that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies.” Zamenhof soon became convinced that the only way forward was to craft a language that allowed all humans to speak as equals, regardless of their native tongue. And so, Esperanto was born.

It took Zamenhof ten years to craft his international language, which is built with influences from a number of different languages. Intended to be extremely accessible, Esperanto features phonetic spelling for ease of pronunciation. There are no pesky irregular verbs, and a limited number of prefixes, roots, and suffixes, which allows speakers to create new words rather than learn a lot of vocabulary. In fact, according to Esperantists, an individual can achieve proficiency with just three hours of learning per week for a year, which sounds significantly easier than learning French at high school.

Today, Esperanto boasts approximately two million proficient speakers worldwide, making it the most successful constructed language intended for international use to date. Yet while this figure may seem reasonably significant, as author Bill Bryson points out, “an Esperanto speaker has about as much chance of encountering another as a Norwegian has of stumbling on a fellow Norwegian in, say, Mexico.”

So, where did it all go wrong? Why does a language that is ten times easier to learn than English only have a mere fraction as many speakers? Well, there are a number of problems. Esperanto has never been the official language of any state, so it is not readily associated with opportunities for business or travel, which are some of the main reasons that individuals learn a foreign language.

Secondly—and perhaps most importantly— the language is, by its very nature, an artificial one. However easy Esperanto’s rules may be to master, the language has limited scope for being developed and picked up organically, because its adherents are spread so sparsely across the globe. Slang, for example, is not common in Esperanto, as regional variations of the language—such as the development of slang and idioms—would make it difficult for the language to be understood internationally.

A lack of incentives for learning a constructed language and its inability to develop naturally are problems that have plagued attempts at creating an international language throughout history. Even sign language, which may seem like a glaring opportunity for the world’s citizens to speak as one, features significant variations from country to country. Almost every country has its own sign language, and some even have a range of regional dialects. Gestuno, or International Sign Language, has faced a similar fate to Esperanto, its oral counterpart. Despite its use at international conventions such as the World Federation of the Deaf congress, outside of these contexts, the uptake of Gestuno has not been as prolific as its creators may have hoped. The simple fact remains— most people would rather speak a living language than an artificial one.

One tongue to rule them all

Where constructed languages have failed, many have turned to the possibility of English becoming the international lingua franca.

“The best hope of a world language lies not in devising a synthetic tongue, which would almost certainly be doomed to failure,” writes Bryson, “but in making English less complex and idiosyncratic and more accessible.”

A lingua franca is a language adopted as a common tongue between speakers who don’t share a native language. Throughout history a number of languages—Latin, French, classical Chinese—have been used as lingua francas in various parts of the world.

English is already well on its way to becoming the international lingua franca of our time. Today there are approximately 340 million native speakers of English, nearly 200 million speakers of English as a second language, and over one billion people learning the language world-wide.

And this linguistic ubiquity is only likely to increase.

But at what cost?

It is no secret that the languages we speak and the way we use them reflect a great deal about our cultures and lifestyles. To that end, many linguists are concerned about the amount of culture that may be lost as a number of languages fall at risk of becoming extinct in the face of our new lingua franca. Over fifty per cent of the world’s languages are currently endangered, which, as Victoria University’s Professor of Linguistics Laurie Bauer notes in Q & Eh, “is far greater than the proportion of endangered birds.”

In addition to languages at risk of dying out completely, even the integrity of the more well-established languages of the world is threatened by the worldwide spread of English. French’s le weekend and Japanese pikunikku (picnic) are prime examples of the numerous English words and phrases that have been adopted into a variety of foreign languages.

Beyond the words themselves, the ways in which we use language also play an important cultural role. It is shown in the titles we use to address each other; reflected in the topics we choose to address, and with whom. It is inherent in the European ability to differentiate between a formal and informal “you”; self- evident in Korean’s seven levels of formality in speech, each with their own nouns and verb-endings. Could it be that these more subtle cultural-specific linguistic features, which affect how we live and the way we view the world, also risk extinction in the face of English becoming the common mode of communication?

But foreign languages might not be the only ones at risk if English continues to grow in its role as the new international lingua franca. As English spreads throughout the world, and is used by more people and in different contexts, it will inevitably be adapted by these new speakers.

Even between New Zealand and Australia, regional differences in accent and vocabulary can lead to confusion between nationals of the otherwise similar countries, as evidenced by the age-old jeer “fush and chups”.

“The last time a language was used over most of the then known world, it was Latin, and it split up into a number of daughter languages whose speakers can now no longer understand one another,” warns Bauer. “We do have to wonder to what extent the fate of English will be the fate of Latin, and the great unifying force of the English language will be lost. This will not happen in our lifetimes, but it will probably happen eventually.”

That being said, English is enjoying its reigning glory in circumstances very different to those of Latin’s domination. We live in a world that is more interconnected than ever before, and this trend is only likely to continue. While the development of regional quirks and dialects of English is inevitable, is its eventual evolution into over twenty distinct languages? Perhaps not. ▲

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Comments (3)

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  1. Bill Chapman says:

    Esperanto is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

    You ask, “where did it all go wrong?” It didn’t. I see Esperanto as a remarkable success story, This language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers and get to know people from a very different cultural background.

  2. Nicola says:

    Just because global companies would benefit more from everyone speaking some homogenous language doesn’t mean people want their cultures erased…..

  3. Molly McCarthy says:

    Hi Bill, You’re absolutely right, Esperanto has done incredibly well and – as you’ve pointed out – has a lot of value. In researching for the article I also read about its uses in learning other languages and building software for machine translation. Incredible!

    However, in this feature I was asking whether we would all ever speak the same language, and it was in that context that I said Esperanto had “gone wrong” in that it  hadn’t achieved the worldwide proficiency that Zamenhof perhaps intended. 

    Thanks for your comment! 

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