8. A partial or a complete solution?

A World Language for Whom?—Restricted or General?—Read and Written, or Spoken and Understood?—A Language for Science—A World Language for All

As we advance into the second half of the twentieth century, we find that the movement for a world language is keener, more aggressive than it has ever been, with widespread recognition of the need for a prompt and satisfactory solution. But we also find that at no time in the past has it been so lacking in unity of purpose and method. It is not merely that there are many clashing ideas and projects, marked by varying degrees of intransigence, with natural, combined, modified, and constructed languages all being actively sponsored by their respective advocates. The rift goes deeper than the choice of one tongue from among the many. There are involved two conflicting philosophies, two adverse ideologies, as was the case from the very beginning.

In the days of Descartes the controversy revolved around the question whether the international language should be restricted to the philosophers and scholars, or extended to the peasants. Today, the physical scientists largely replace the philosophers and scholars of the seventeenth century, while Descartes's peasants are represented by the masses of human beings who are neither illiterate nor overly educated and specialized—tourists and business people, artisans and migrants, manual and agricultural workers, soldiers and sailors and airmen, as well as professors and teachers and students and diplomats and missionaries, who might be expected to follow the old philosophical and scholarly tradition. The big question, though it is constantly soft-pedaled, is whether the international language shall be for all of them, or for a minority of intellectuals. Do we wish, in the matter of language, to apply the democratic standards and procedures that have so much vogue in modern politics, sociology, and education, or do we wish to revert to a policy of education only for an elite?

Before hastening to answer on an emotional basis, it may be well to examine the arguments that are advanced by the restrictionists. The advocates of Interlingua are an excellent illustration of this school of thought. Their language, constructed on scientific principles, is frankly discriminatory, both in its structure and in its aims. Structurally, it considers only the languages of western civilization to be of importance, and discards without mercy all elements, both of grammar and vocabulary, that do not stem from occidental culture. This might at first glance seem to be connected with unpleasant traits of racialism or, to put the best face on the matter, upon assumptions of cultural superiority. But that is not the underlying spirit of Interlingua, which aims to be of service to all mankind. Rather it is predicated upon the firm belief that the age which we have recently entered is one dominated by the physical sciences; that these sciences, having originated in the West, and more specifically in Europe and North America, have perforce taken as the basis of their terminology the words and roots of the western languages, particularly Greek and Latin. All this, of course, is undeniable. From these premises, the sponsors of Interlingua go on to assert that there is no possibility of a change in the status quo within the foreseeable future. The terminology of modern technology is incurably western, and western it must forever remain. Any student of this technology whose native language happens to be something other than the tongues of the West must simply learn the terminology as it stands, even if he wishes to apply it to his own language.

Let us couch this proposition in the words of Interlingua's leading proponent, Dr. Alexander Gode: "Have I told you about my idea that Interlingua should be exploited as a standard for the forms under which technical terminologies are to be developed in minor and 'underprivileged' languages? It would be disastrous for the terminology of nuclear physics, for instance, to be evolved in Burmese and Arabic and what have you after the principles of loan translation rather than in accordance with occidental standards." Dr. Gode goes on to point out that if you write for a group of specialists (doctors, electrical engineers, biochemists, molecular spectroscopists, etc.), you can reach perhaps 55 per cent of them in English, 2 or 3 per cent in Russian, 1 per cent in Japanese, but over 95 per cent (at least in the field of medicine) in Interlingua.

To these considerations one might object that in the world of the future the amount of participation and contribution to scientific progress that will be made by any given segment of the human race is very much a matter of conjecture, and that if Arabic-speaking scientists are able to contribute both to science and to its nomenclature in the twenty-first century as they did during the Middle Ages, they should not be prevented or restricted from so doing.

But something more fundamental is involved. Is the language for the world to be merely a language for scientists and scientific interchange? Are all the nonscientists of the world, who are a vast majority, to receive no consideration of their needs and wants? Descartes spoke of peasants, who in his day were overwhelmingly illiterate and attached to the soil. The descendants of those peasants today are largely literate, and many of them have occasions for international contacts of one kind or another, even if it is merely to serve as forces of occupation in a foreign land.

It can be argued that the scientists are those who need the international language the most. It can also be argued that they are the ones who need it least. The philosophers and scholars of Descartes's day were all acquainted with many languages. If the worse came to the worst, they could communicate in Latin. The scientists of today, particularly in countries outside the United States, have all received an education which includes foreign languages, both Classical and modern. In a pinch, they, too, can communicate with one another in English, or French, or German, and if what is claimed about their common western scientific terminology holds true, then they will have little trouble filling in the gaps. The need of the nonscientist, of the soldier stationed in a strange land, of the migrant worker who must travel from place to place in search of a livelihood, even of the tourist who travels for pleasure or for education, seems far greater.

One of the arguments most frequently used on behalf of a world language is that it will allay antipathies and prejudices. In the case of scientists and of the more educated segment of the population generally, these antipathies and prejudices have already largely ceased to exist. It is the less cultured portions of the populations of all lands that must be reached with the spirit of international good will. It has always been recognized that the educated of all lands find it easy to get along with one another, whether they meet in diplomatic conclaves or at scientific gatherings. They may, even by deliberate intent, inflame and precipitate race riots and nationalistic outbursts, but they seldom take direct part in such disgraceful demonstrations, for they personally tend to shrink from violence. If the more brutish, less educated portions of the world populations can in some way be given the understanding that those who do not speak their language are nevertheless human beings like themselves, we may hope to cut down some of the more malignant manifestations of man's intolerance toward his own kind.

The world language should be a language for the world. It should be the sort of thing that is not restricted to any nation or group of nations, or to any social, cultural, or professional group. It should not be a device for the reading of scientific or learned papers, read and understood with difficulty by a polyglot audience, but rather a common tongue, used with absolute ease and fluency by everybody, spoken and written with the same ease with which the bulk of the population of any civilized land today speaks and writes its own language. It should emphatically not be a classroom exercise, of the type so often witnessed in our high schools and colleges. It should not be a little secret language, spoken and written by a few adepts for the bewilderment of outsiders, but a tool of expression as freely accessible to all as is English in the United States, or Russian in the Soviet Union. Only in that fashion can the international language perform its proper function, which is to supply an absolutely free means of communication and interchange of ideas among all of the world's people, whatever their station in life.

Can such a language be achieved? There is no doubt whatsoever that it can. Can it be achieved by handling it in the fashion in which Volapiik was handled at an earlier date, and Basic English, Esperanto, and Interlingua are handled today? No, because in that fashion it will forever remain the property and prerogative of a few enthusiasts, to the exclusion of at least 99 per cent of the world's peoples. Can it be achieved by handling it as foreign languages are handled in our American high schools and colleges, or even as they are handled in the linguistically more enlightened countries of Europe? No, because that is superlatively the hard way to go about learning languages, and only a chosen few can profit by it.

To make the international language a reality, we must apply the two lessons painfully learned through centuries of experience: 1. Any and all languages can be learned with equal ease if one starts early enough and keeps up one's practice; 2. There is no substitute for compulsion from above in the matter of what is to be learned.

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