|17. What a
world language won't do for us
The Lessons of History—The Abolition of War—A Millennium of Tolerance—The Era of Good Feeling—Dialectalhation— Standardization—Eventual Disappearance of the National Tongues
Once the international language is selected, the real work of implementation will begin. But in its early reaches, it will hardly impinge upon the consciousness of the average man.
A five-year period of preparation is none too long for the double job that has to be done at this point. First will come the labors of a linguistic commission whose task it will be to smooth out the rough angles of the selected tongue. If this is a natural tongue, it must, first of all, be perfectly and fully phonetized. But this in turn means that it must be fully standardized. The task of standardization will be relatively easy in the case of a language, like French, which has a national academy and a generally recognized "correct" form; it will be difficult in the case of a language, like English, which displays important cleavages of a dialectal nature. It must be emphasized that the process of standardization and phonetization will apply to the language only in its international form, and that for purely internal use the speakers of the language will be left free to do what they choose. This will at once differentiate the national and the international language; the former will continue with its irregularities and antiquated spelling. The latter will be presented in invariable, prescribed, arbitrary form as to speech, with absolute correspondence of sound and symbol as to writing. If the speakers of the national language choose to adopt the new international variant for their own local use as well, so much the better for them; they will get rid of complexities of grammar and spelling that have been troubling them for centuries, and become at once the natural speakers of the international tongue. But this is not at all necessary or required.
If the choice happens to fall on a constructed tongue, a similar process of polishing will go on. Phonetization must be perfect and complete. Such points of grammar and vocabulary as have given rise to serious criticism must be carefully re-examined. Esperanto, for instance, might be required to get rid of its suprascript characters by the simple expedient of utilizing those letters of the standard western alphabet which it has discarded—q, w, x, and y; it might be requested to add to its word-stock a copious list of synonyms derived from the Slavic and Oriental tongues, so that its claims to neutrality and internationality may be strengthened.
This process of final revision of the international language should, however, be limited to one year, with the firm understanding that at the end of that year the commission will come up with a final draft of the language selected, and that this draft will, in effect, become final, and be subject in the future only to the natural processes of growth and development that at present characterize every living language.
Now comes the task of teacher training. Since the foundation of the entire system is that the international language be imparted, by natural speaking processes, to the world's future generations from kindergarten on, it is particularly important that the people who will devote themselves to this task be educational experts of the first order, and at the same time accomplished linguists in the spoken language field, with particular emphasis not on "linguistic science," general information about languages, philology, literary history, or even grammar, but on ability to learn and speak foreign languages with absolute purity of accent. The search for a large group of people of this description will not be easy, but the educational authorities of the various countries can accomplish it during the same year that the linguistic commission is putting the finishing touches to the international language. By the end of the year, both language and teaching staff should be ready.
A much smaller number of specially qualified teachers can be set apart to "teach" the international language in the upper elementary grades, high schools, colleges, and universities to those of the adult or near-adult generations who care to have it. It should be understood, however, that no one beyond the kindergarten years will be forced to learn the international tongue. This will be compulsory only for those who reach the kindergarten stage after the language enters into operation, which will not occur until five years after its selection and four years after it has been given definitive shape. Four years of training in the spoken language are not too many for those who are to impart it by natural methods as a spoken, natural tongue.
At this point, some adult readers will object: "But is not the international language for us?" It is, if you want it; it is not, if you don't. The international language should be viewed primarily as something for the world of the future, for those children and children's children concerning whom so many fine words flow, but on behalf of whom so little is ever done by each existing adult generation. The people of the world have waited many centuries, throughout many generations, which have grown old and died out without accomplishing anything about a world language. They can afford to wait a few years longer, with the absolute assurance that something will be done to smooth the way for their descendants. At any rate, there is nothing to prevent them from learning the new tongue at their own adult stage, the hard way, which is precisely the way in which they would learn any foreign tongue today. The real point is that if the world language goes into operation by, say, 1965, it will be spoken in the year 2000 by the younger adult generations of the entire globe, and by 2025 there will be few indeed who do not speak it.
It would be highly unfair, as well as highly illiberal, to try to force the international language upon all the adult generations of today. In addition, it would be highly impractical, not to say impossible. Let today's adults do what they want. The national languages will continue in full spoken use for centuries to come. The man who does not feel hampered today by his ignorance of foreign tongues will not feel hampered by his ignorance of the new, growing tongue that he hears spoken around him by the younger set, since the youngsters will also speak the tongue to which he is accustomed. If he is curious to know what goes on in their midst, he will learn it.
The educational means at our disposal today are such as the world has never before seen. Not only do we have schools and widespread literacy; we have radio, television, and spoken films. This on the one hand adds up to insurance that the international tongue will be readily learned by all who want it, as well as by the children who are absorbing it in kindergarten and elementary school; on the other hand, it means that there will be no dialectalization, no fractioning of the language into the multitude of local forms that characterizes almost every known language of today.
A unified language disintegrates into dialects when communications break down. The Latin language ceased to be Latin and became a variety of Romance tongues and dialects only after the Roman Empire, with its mighty network of roads and interchange of human beings, fell. So long as that Empire stood, language became more and more unified and standardized. American and British English diverged so long as communications were lengthy and difficult. Today, the two varieties of English are in the process of merging once more, with both British and American local dialects tending to die out and give way to a standard form of speech.
Those who claim that an international language, once established, would break up into a series of local speech-forms ignore the lessons of history. Language becomes united and standard when there is communication among all the speakers; it becomes a series of dialects when there is no such communication. Communications have never been so good as they are today. Only a catastrophe of major proportions, a full-fledged atomic war, or a mighty upheaval of nature, could break the communication links of today.
What of the problem of international conflicts and wars? Some of the advocates of international tongues optimistically assure us that an international language will abolish them forever. This is, of course, wishful thinking. History is there to recite to us a long list of civil wars among peoples speaking the same tongue. The most that we can claim is that the international tongue may succeed in removing such forms of national and racial antipathy as are engendered by linguistic lack of understanding. But, as aptly stated by Guerard, "sometimes people fight because they don't understand; sometimes because they understand each other too well." A man who walks along the street and is insulted by a hoodlum in a tongue he does not understand may blissfully continue on his way in the belief that the hoodlum has voiced a compliment; but if he understands the insult, he may put up his fists.
One problem that deeply concerns us all is the future of the existing national tongues. Will they be displaced by the international language, and eventually die out? Or will they forever continue to exist side by side with the new language for everybody?
Advocates of Esperanto, Basic English, Interlingua, etc. often assure us that their tongue is to be viewed "only" as an auxiliary language for international purposes, mainly commercial and diplomatic, that it will in no way affect the use of the national languages, that the latter will forever continue to exist and flourish despite the existence of the international medium.
This is again wishful thinking, but with the added feature that it is extremely doubtful whether even the wish should be there. The international language, valid at all times and in all places, will undoubtedly restrict the use of the national tongues, whose effective range is limited. In economics, bad money drives good money out of circulation because all want to hoard good money for future use. But language cannot be stored up for future use. Its utility is in the present. As time goes on, there will be less use of the national tongues, more use of the world tongue. Writers will prefer the new medium, which gives them access to world markets without the need of difficult and expensive translations. Advertisers will prefer it for the same reason. Dante once admitted that the main reason that had led him to write his Divine Comedy in Italian rather than the scholarly Latin of his day was that he wished to reach a broader public.
The final outcome seems clear. The national languages of today will live on for centuries, but their use will tend to become more and more restricted. Ultimately, they will turn into cultural relics, like the Greek and Latin of today. Should that prospect frighten us? Consider that language is forever changing, and that the English of the year 2500 would strike the present-day speaker as practically a foreign tongue. In five centuries the languages of today will be unrecognizable in any event. From our twentieth-century viewpoint, it would perhaps be better if they were embalmed in their present form, at their present stage of development.
Where the advocates of international tongues are undoubtedly right is in their assumption that the national languages of today will go on in full spoken use long after the present generations of speakers die out.
The people of tomorrow will evolve their own forms of life, political, economic, and cultural. The imperfections of our own present-day systems are glaring. Why should we wish to impose them unchanged upon the future generations? But a universal language is a tool, a means of rapid and easy communication. It is conceivable that some might not wish to pass on to their descendants some of our political and economic institutions, but few indeed would be those who would not wish to pass on to them the advances we have made in the fields of science, medicine, and technology, which are tools to human happiness and progress. To these, let us add one more tool—a tongue that will permit all of our descendants, regardless of color, race, nationality, or religion, to exchange their thoughts.