18. What we must do about a world language

Wishful Thinking About Our Own Language—Joining a Movement-Private Propaganda—Bringing Pressure to Bear on Governments— On Behalf of A World Language

The desirability of a world language is not seriously disputed by at least four people out of five. The fact that no one has yet fought a civil war over it need not preoccupy us. Civil wars are fought over issues that arouse great passions, either because great principles are at stake, or because people's economic, racial, social, political, or religious interests are involved. The international language is primarily a tool, not a principle or an interest. It is missed by a great many people on numerous and specific occasions, but seldom in such a way as to arouse fiery passion or fanatic zeal.

Yet the international language is, in its own way, an issue-one that we have temporized with for centuries, but which becomes more pressing with each new advance in technological science and the network of communications. In some ways, it resembles the ultramodern traffic problem in a great city, which grows and grows to the point of near strangulation. People worry along with makeshift temporary solutions, but the problem always keeps ahead of the solutions. "Some day," they say, "something will really have to be done."

The time is perhaps at hand when something will really have to be done about both problems. For what concerns the international language, the solution, while not easy, is clear. Let one language, natural or constructed, be selected by common accord, and let that language thenceforth be imparted in all of the schools of all countries, by natural speaking methods, on a par with the national languages. The machinery for both selection and implementation has been described. Details of both may vary, but the general line of action is unmistakable.

Those who have followed me in my exposition of the problem, and have found that the solution proposed is, in the main, reasonable and workable, will now come up with the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question: "What can I, as an individual, do to help bring about a world language?"

It is easier, in a way, to tell you what you should not do, or, to put it more squarely, what it is useless for you to do.

If you are convinced that there should be a world language (and four out of five people hold that conviction) here are a few things you should refrain from doing:

1. Do not indulge in self-hypnosis concerning the inevitability of your own language as the world tongue. This advice is particularly directed at speakers of English and French, the two natural languages that are most often mentioned, at least by their own speakers, as likely candidates for the role. It is also directed at dedicated believers in certain constructed languages, notably Esperanto and Interlingua. If you, as a speaker of English, start out by saying, as do some of our leading exponents of so-called thought: "How wonderful it would be if everybody spoke English!" you at once run the risk of antagonizing the nine tenths of the world's population which does not speak English. You can impose English (or French, or Russian, or German, or any of a dozen other "big" languages) by force of arms, if you care to try that method; but in a world where the hydrogen bomb rules supreme, it is not advisable. Propaganda on behalf of the language of your choice is legitimate, provided it is carried on with an accurate knowledge of the facts and full consideration for the viewpoint of others; but the value of such propaganda is invariably diminished by more than half when it is carried on by native speakers of the language. Of course you would prefer English, which would call for no effort on your part; and equally of course, speakers of other languages would prefer their own.

If you are a partisan of a constructed tongue, remember that your particular solution is far from the only one, as evidenced by the few we have outlined above. You may think it is the best one; others may hold different opinions. At any rate, get rid of the attitude that "it must be my language—or bust!"

In sum, we must be prepared to accept another language than the one of our choice. If this language is selected by something approximating the democratic process, we should be prepared to go along with the choice of the majority, as we do in national and local elections where our side often loses out, but life goes on nevertheless.

2. "Joining a movement" (Esperanto, Interlingua, Monde Bilingue, etc.) is in itself innocuous, and may even be helpful, to the extent that it fastens your own attention and that of others on the problem and the need for a solution. Do not, however, join the movement in the spirit in which you would join a religious group, since the triumph of one or another language system does not involve either your immortal soul or the fate of the world. Remember, too, that "movements" have displayed their inefficacy in the past, and that the conversion of all the world's individuals to the system of your choice is a practical impossibility. What the Christian, Moslem, and Buddhist faiths have been unable to accomplish (the unification of the entire world by persuasion) can hardly be accomplished by your "movement" or by any other.

3. There is an opposite vice to fanaticism, and that is excessive skepticism and experimentalism. A good many of today's interlinguists go to the extreme of casting doubt upon all languages, natural or constructed, and attempt to evolve new, more "scientific," more "logical" systems. The natural tongues have already proved their suitability as means of communication, by the very fact that they exist and are in use. The majority of constructed tongues, particularly those that have been advanced within the last century, are perfect enough to go into immediate use. All we need to do to make a successful international language out of any national tongue is to give it a fully phonetic system of writing, coupled with standardization of dialectal forms. In the case of the constructed tongues, a minor going-over to smooth out the angles that have elicited major criticisms is all that is needed. Any further "study" of the problem, as envisaged by UNESCO, is a pure waste of valuable time. Nor do we need another thirty-year study of the Interlingua type, in the course of which still another generation will die out without achieving anything.

These are the purely negative aspects of the situation. On the positive side, this much can be said: No language or system, nor even any survey or study, has the slightest chance of success unless it has on it the stamp of the official, de facto governments of the world, coupled with their powers of implementation and enforcement. We can never convince all of the world's people of the absolute superiority of one language or system over the others, and in this the world's people probably show their good sense, because no such absolute superiority exists. What we have instead is an entire series of workable languages and systems, any one of which, with a few minor retouches, applied for the most part in the field of writing and spelling, is competent to serve.

The world's governments must be induced to make up their minds that they are willing to accept one such language or system, as determined by a compulsory runoff vote of the members of a linguistic commission in which all the nations of the world will be equitably represented, and then put it into their school systems. The machinery for the original decision on the part of the governments to accept, in principle and in advance, the language that will be chosen is already there, in the form of UN and UNESCO.

People of all countries who are convinced that there should be a world language should bring pressure to bear upon their governments to bring up the issue in the only international bodies that we have at our disposal. This pressure, it must be emphasized, should not be directed on behalf of a particular language or system, but simply and merely on behalf of a world language, as yet undetermined. The languages and systems whose candidacy will be advanced will then rest upon their respective merits before a body that will include representatives of all nations on earth, chosen by their respective governments on any basis the individual government sees fit, but bound to a democratic process of majority rule.

The movement on behalf of a world language, as distinguished from movements on behalf of specific languages and systems, has a good chance of success. It can be carried on individually or in groups. It can and should attract all followers of specific movements who are genuinely interested in seeing one language for one world rather than the triumph of the tongue they happen to favor.

In all countries of the earth, totalitarian as well as democratic, there exists a limited right of petition in connection with things that are not considered subversive of the existing order. The international language tends to subvert nothing, but only to make communications easier and faster among the peoples of the world. Anyone can write a letter to his government, urging that steps be taken to bring about the same ease in human that exists in postal communications.

Wherever you are, if you believe in one language for one world, let your government, the UN, and UNESCO know it!