12. Inefficacy of "movements"

The Volapuk Movement—The Esperanto Movement—The Basic English Movement—The Inlerlingua Movement—Popular Appeal, or Government Support?

As we observe the growth and decline of the various movements on behalf of a particular solution for the problem of the international language, we are struck by the enthusiasm and missionary zeal of each movement's supporters no less than by the general indifference displayed by governments and their official organs, even when these governments and organs act in concert, as was the case with the old League of Nations and as is the case with the United Nations today.

These two factors, together, add up to certain failure. The very nature of the international language calls for universality. It must be accepted not by some, but by all. So long as we have dozens of diverse movements, all working in opposition to one another, there will be utter confusion in the ranks of international language advocates and sympathizers. A language for the world, yes. But which of the many proposals unfolded before the eyes of the world's masses shall these same masses strive for? English, Russian, French, Chinese, or any of a hundred other natural languages? Or shall it be a bilingual world, or a series of zonal languages? Or a constructed language, and if so, which one of the many? Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, Novial, Romanal, or something else?

There is little point to going too deeply into the motives that inspire the smug complacency and indifference of governments and their organs so long as this situation persists. It may be, as some cynics claim, that governments are interested in keeping their peoples divided by the language barrier, because the antipathies fostered by linguistic differences help to fasten the hold of each national government upon its people. But it is more likely that the indifference of the statesmen is the product of inertia coupled with uncertainty. After all, government officials are only human beings. It is only natural for them to be as bewildered as are the rest of us before the conflicting claims of so many different languages and systems.

The interlinguists of the past have erred in putting the cart before the horse. They have invariably advocated the adoption of one particular language or system long before endeavoring to convince the world at large that an international language, any international language, is needed and must be adopted. Each of them has sinned in presenting his own particular solution as the only possible solution, failing which everything connected with the international language must perforce fail.

Starting with Solresol and Volapuk, the two early movements to gain a measure of popular support, we see this mentality at work. Sudre and Schleyer both thought they had evolved not merely a solution, but the only possible, practical and conceivable one. Today, most advocates of Interlingua, Esperanto, Basic English, Bilingual World, straight English, straight French, straight Russian, are almost equally obdurate in refusing to recognize any merit in any system other than their own. In the case of the natural languages, this might be attributed to the good old spirit of nationalism, French, English, Russian, or of a dozen other varieties, manifesting itself along linguistic lines. But we also have an Esperanto and Interlingua nationalism that says "Outside this language, there is no salvation."

Oddly enough, some interlinguists, recognizing the danger of excessive intolerance, fall into the opposite error. They turn themselves into debating societies which go on forever arguing the merits of minor points in the constructed tongues; whether it is better to form the plural with -j, Esperanto fashion, or with -s, as do many other systems; whether a certain root should be drawn from Latin, or Greek, or Germanic; whether it is better to have an infinitive end in 4, or in -r, or in -re; whether we cannot continue to work upon and improve Esperanto or Interlingua, thereby making the language of our choice a more perfect instrument; or, for that matter, whether we cannot take a natural language like English, and by limiting its vocabulary, or by getting rid of a few irregular plurals and past participles, turn it into a thoroughly regular tongue that everyone will accept.

There would be undoubted merit in such discussions, if they did not tend to go on forever, creating, as they go along, new languages, new solutions, new possibilities, further to confound and confuse those who seek a practical and, above all, an immediate solution.

If the inventors of the automobile or the airplane had doggedly insisted on making all sorts of minor improvements on their blueprints instead of going into production as soon as they had achieved a workable model, it is probable that we should still be awaiting automotive or air transportation. A good many of our 2,796 natural tongues and our 600 or so constructed languages are workable models.

Of course, the language that is selected for world use will not stand still. It will grow, expand, and change, as all languages do, once it is put into effect. But we need not allow avowed and minor imperfections to keep us from putting it into immediate operation.

If a national language is selected, we need have no undue fears by reason of its complexities. National languages are normally fairly well mastered by their own speakers. Two important points, brought out by Couturat and Leau as far back as 1903, bear repetition: a language spelled as it is pronounced has a very good chance of being understood by all who learn it (therefore, if a national language is chosen, it must be phonetized as to spelling); if the foreigners generally make themselves understood better than they understand, it is the fault of the native speakers, not of the foreigners (this means that the language selected must be spoken clearly and distinctly, not mumbled and mutilated by its original native speakers; it also means that a standard form of the language must be adopted, to the exclusion of the picturesque dialectal variants that plague every living tongue).

If a constructed tongue is adopted, these drawbacks need not be feared. Fully constructed tongues are normally born fully phonetized, with precise instructions for the use of both sounds and symbols. The fact that their grammars ordinarily display absolute regularity minimizes the possibility of dia-lectalization.

On the other hand, consideration of a constructed language brings another danger in its wake. This is the tendency to go on changing and reforming it, in the manner in which Esperanto was changed by the Idoists and other reformers. The international language, as Guerard rightly points out, must have permanence, or people won't waste time on it.

At the present moment, the chances of success of an international language are excellent, since at no time in history have people been more aware of its need and possible benefits. At the same time, specific movements are languishing. It takes far more than the few million adherents of Esperanto, or the undetermined number of believers in Ido, Basic English, Interlingua, or any other of the existing constructed or modified tongues to enable us to speak of a successful international tongue. It takes more than a few enthusiasts in each twinned city t6 bring about the Anglo-French condominium. The peoples of the earth are many—over two and a half billion in round numbers. To reach them by the methods by which current interlanguage movements have reached their few million adherents would take not centuries, but millenniums.

There is one, and only one way in which they, or at least a considerable portion of them, can be reached and affected within the foreseeable future, and that is by direct, compulsive government action—the same kind of action that has proved so successful within the last century in extending the benefits of literacy to world populations which at the dawn of the nineteenth century were still fully 80 per cent illiterate.

The peoples of the earth are already convinced of the desirability of a world tongue. It is the governments that need to be convinced. Once that is achieved, the rest, though fairly complex, is relatively easy.

Believers in the freedom of the individual and restraint upon government activity may be somewhat shocked at the implication of direct, coercive government action in achieving the international language. They may be reminded, however, that such action in this connection does not affect the social or economic structure of any given country, and does not, in fact, materially differ from the prescriptions issued by each State Board of Regents in this country, or by the national Ministry of Education in most foreign lands, as to what shall be included in the ordinary school curriculum.

We could go further and say that there is no educational system on earth, to our knowledge, that objects to the inclusion of instruction and training in the use of the national language in the schools, and that most educational systems make definite provision for instruction in additional languages. If, instead of the compulsory study of one or more foreign tongues, we had the compulsory study of a single supranational tongue, with the study of other foreign tongues left optional with the students, the impact upon the world's educational systems could hardly be described as destructive to the freedom of the individual; not, at least, to any greater degree than compulsory instruction in the national language, mathematics, science, history, and geography is today.

Universal governmental acceptance of the principle of a world language is admittedly difficult to secure. Yet, from a purely mechanical standpoint, it should be no more difficult than was the acceptance of the world postal and telegraphic union which permits us to communicate with people beyond our borders. No infringement of national sovereignty is involved. The mere fact that the peoples of the world will have a language in common does not at all mean that they need have the same form of government or the same social or economic structure. Yet if the possession of a common tongue succeeds in allaying fears and antipathies and in bringing about a greater degree of international cooperation, as was claimed by Churchill in the famous speech in which he suggested the use of Basic English as a world tongue, no one should be frightened by that prospect.

There is, of course, a machinery that will have to be created and put into operation for the selection of a world language once the world's governments are in agreement that one should be selected. There is an even more complex machinery that will have to be evolved for the imparting of that language once the choice is made. Neither of these problems is insurmountable.

Before we study the nature and operation of these twin pieces of political and educational mechanism, it may be well to cast a glance at the possible alternatives if they are not created.

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