Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/September 1909/The Necessity for an International Language

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




IT was urged by a certain Greek philosopher that in ignorance alone lay the real reason of wrong-doing, and that none who truly understood the right could thereafter be guilty of wrong. Ignorance in a narrower sense has been offered as the explanation for misunderstanding and consequent trouble of a more or less serious nature between nations and races as well as between individuals. Ignorance of one another's civilization, lack of appreciation of each other's character and ideals, failure to comprehend the motives of essentially simple actions—all these are at fault when great nations disagree. No other interpretation is indeed possible, since longing for power, love of conquest, lust to slay, can hardly be suggested in calm seriousness as motivating the actions of nations who are followers of the gentle Jesus, the kindly Buddha, the wise Confucius, in a supposedly civilized century.

It seems strange at first that there should be room for such lack of mutual understanding and sympathy, in view of the vaunted increase of international intercourse, due to the many opportunities of communication by mail and by wire, to the great interchange of commodities made possible by commercial progress, and to the growing facilities for international travel. It seems strange, also, when we recollect that in the employ of every nation there are numerous persons skilled in the language of every other nation of political or commercial importance, to serve the one as interpreters of the thoughts and words of the other, and to translate the ideas and ideals of these peoples for each other in any emergency that may arise. Such experts are found likewise in all great educational centers. There is not a university without its corps of trained linguists, while its leaders in all of the various departments must possess a fair degree of familiarity with numerous foreign tongues. Even the students are becoming slightly cosmopolitan. A few Americans and Englishmen and Orientals are found at every European university of note, while in America are scattered students from Europe, from the far east and from South America.

Therefore we may claim to have interpreters. They are few indeed, in proportion to the number needed, as has been forcibly pointed out, with the plea that "governments, universities, churches, chambers of commerce, should have some definite plan of raising up a body of sympathetic scholars, who shall be first-hand interpreters of one nation to the other."[1]

But in this very claim lies the explanation of the puzzle. As long as interpreters are needed, as long as the ability to interpret rests only with the officials of the government, the faculties of the universities, and the small proportion of citizens and students who have opportunity of extended residence in at least one country besides the native one, just so long is perfect understanding impossible. For perfect understanding between two nations results from an understanding between a majority of the citizens of these two nations, not from even the most perfect understanding and appreciation of one by but a small minority in the other. This is true even if the minority happens to be the political body in control. For in one way or another the people rule, and public opinion and desire, however faulty, exert a mighty influence.

Accordingly, if international sympathy and agreement rest upon adequate mutual understanding attained through the complete comprehension of more languages than the mother-tongue among the general public—whether these languages be spoken, printed in newspapers, pamphlets and books, or written in letters amicably exchanged—the immediate solution suggesting itself is this: Let all or a majority of the citizens of each nation learn thoroughly the language of each other nation. Then will the barrier to intercommunication disappear. Each individual may read at will and at once the publications of every other; may express his ideas and have his questions answered, orally or by correspondence, with citizens of any nation; and may feel himself linguistically at home in any country of the world, without the present need of guidebooks, couriers and interpreters, ever provocative of mutual distrust.

Such a proposition is, however, utterly futile from a practical point of view. Persons in comfortable financial circumstances may learn several languages besides their own, business men stationed in foreign countries may do so to some extent, and peasant immigrants may do the same in limited degree; but the possessor of more than a moderate familiarity with two or three languages is called a linguist, and placed in a class apart, as differing by that very fact from the majority of mankind. Genuine admiration is accorded any person who has completely mastered three or four languages in addition to his mother-tongue, and speaks and writes all of them with equal fluency, exactness and elegance. Nor is any one surprised to hear that such an expert spends many years and much care in acquiring these three or four languages with a reasonable perfection of pronunciation, syntax and style, or that teaching this is in itself a profession worthy of remuneration.

Yet to be truly a polyglot one must be familiar with not only French and German, English, Spanish, Italian, Russian, each difficult of mastery, and the Scandinavian languages, but also Dutch, Flemish, Portuguese, Roumanian, Catalonian, Greek and the many languages allied to Russian, such as Bohemian, Polish, Servian, Bulgarian, Lithuanian, etc., and also the non-Aryan tongues of Europe, such as Hungarian and Finnish and the scattered Yiddish. Not even with this may he be content, although it demand the work of a lifetime and more, but must turn to the east, with its Persian, Armenian, Arabic, Turkish and numerous Hindoo tongues, and then pass on to China and Japan, and even to Korea.

Who can boast of all this? Yet who will deny that not one nor many, but in truth each and every one, of the intelligent citizens of every nation should have the power of overcoming these linguistic barriers? This is one of the great needs of the civilized world, as urged in the Prime Minister's address at the Seventeenth Universal Peace Congress held in London, July, 1908: " I have said it before, but I would say it again, the main thing is that nations should get to know and understand one another." This is profoundly true. Not only the future but the present of these various-tongued races and nations is intertwined to such an extent that the power of free intercommunication is an imperious necessity. But if this direly needed intercourse is so impossible of universal or even fairly general attainment under existing circumstances, another solution must be sought.

The solution that presents itself next is, that some one of these languages be chosen for universal international use. Next after the mother-tongue, this should be learned by every inhabitant of the civilized world, and all publications of any importance whatever should be published directly or in duplicate in this international medium. All international correspondence should be thus conducted, and the language likewise used in all international assemblies and conventions. To learn one language besides the native tongue would not be so absolutely impossible as the absurd idea of learning many or all of them. The proposal is good, and the selection of this language at once becomes a problem worthy of attention, for that one language should serve all nations of the world in international dealings is eminently reasonable.

The place of a semi-common language among the educated classes was held by Latin in the middle ages, and the mind at once reverts to this, with speculations as to the possibility of its revival. But Latin can not serve this purpose. Its vocabulary is too limited and too unsuitable for discussion of modern themes, since even a bicycle or an umbrella demands circumlocution in Latin, while the introduction of new and modern words would destroy its purity, and make it but a barbarous hodge-podge of Latin forms. Moreover, the difficulties of Latin grammar and syntax prevent this language from being easily mastered. Only at the expense of much time and effort can the modern mind completely assimilate the ancient ways of word-inflection and sentence construction. Any one may admire the purity and severe elegance of Ciceronian Latin, but not every one is able to imitate it. Yet Ciceronian Latin would unhesitatingly be chosen as the standard for a revivification of this tongue. The silver Latinity and that of the middle ages are as out of the question as the "modern" Latin which for want of a better medium is forced to serve in a multitude of scientific classifications and descriptions of the present day. This too is in regard to Latin as a written language. Speaking it is a still more difficult problem, one before which even the Latin specialist is ill at ease. It is evident that the idea of bringing Latin in any shape into real use as an auxiliary language in the busy modern world is absolutely hopeless.

What is true of Latin is equally true of Greek, with its own peculiar alphabet, used by no other language, and its even greater remoteness from present European tongues, in spite of the many derivatives from it in modern vocabularies, especially in technical terminology, and in spite of the fact that the idiom developed from ancient Greek is a spoken language to-day. The languages of the past can not serve the peoples' of the present in any immediate and practical capacity.

The next alternative is the consideration of the modern and living languages. For French was the accepted language of European courts, in times not yet remote, as well as the language of diplomacy and of polite literature; although, as in the case of Latin, this language too was semi-universal among chiefly the educated and politically powerful classes. Is it feasible to restore French to that high estate from which it has now fallen? Hardly so, with English a powerful competitor, and German vying with both. From this very competition it is clear that neither French nor any other national speech can to-day or to-morrow become the accepted auxiliary language. This idea, untenable now, may find acceptance in the far future, after the establishment of international unity and understanding, and after the forgetting of international jealousies and struggles for political preferment and commercial supremacy. But at present it is plainly "Utopian. No nation of to-day will yield to any one other nation the immense commercial and political advantage given by permitting the mother-tongue of that nation to become the accepted medium for international dealings. No American or Englishman would consent to an attempt to have German used exclusively, in his intercourse with Spanish-speaking peoples, or any other peoples, nor would he consent to French for such a sole medium. No German would accept French in this capacity, or English; nor would the Frenchman be a whit more generous. This same feeling, intermingled with a host of ancient grudges, would extend to the lesser nations whose languages meet with still less consideration in such theorizing.

In days of old, that nation politically most powerful might sometimes thrust its language upon conquered peoples, by sheer force of arms. This method is rather impracticable to-day, although a hint of it remains in the ineffectual struggles of the Poles to retain their own idiom in spite of the "official" tongues established among them, or of the Boers against the "official" English. Clinging to the native tongue overbalances practical and economic considerations, and hence the Flemish, Celtic and similar "revivals."

The proportion of those speaking a certain language is no less impracticable a basis for the choice of an international auxiliary medium. Leaving out the question of Asiatic tongues, in spite of their superiority in this regard, the selection is among those same reciprocally jealous nations, namely, Russian, French, English and German. Moreover, this method would be unfair to multitudes among nations speaking other languages. For even French (in France, Belgium and Switzerland) is spoken by only about forty-five millions among the three hundred and fifty millions of Europeans, English by about forty millions, and so on. If the calculation be made upon a wider basis, and the new world and the far east included, the additional figure for English would be more than neutralized by the additional figure for Spanish tongues and the entrance of the multitudinous non-Aryan as well as Aryan languages.

Let still a different basis for the selection be offered: Let that language be chosen which is the easiest of acquirement for all peoples to whom some other language than this is the native tongue. This is even more perplexing. The people of each nation, accustomed to the national language from infancy, are unconscious of its peculiarities and irregularities, its difficulties of pronunciation, inflection and syntax, and its various idiomatic expressions. Not aware that these are difficulties, they unhesitatingly declare their own language the easiest of all. Yet English-speaking people would debar German from the choice because its mastery takes far too long, and is woefully hampered by the umlaut vowels, the three categories of grammatical gender, the complicated verb and the troublesome word-order. Similar objections exist for the Scandinavian languages, while against Russian are its additional vowels and additional consonant combinations, its perfective verbs, its seven-case substantive, with changing declensions for noun, adjective and pronoun, and three classes of formal gender, its alphabet which like Greek and German would need transliteration into the more universal and therefore also more economical Roman characters. French would be dismissed because of the "French u," the nasals, the varying verbal forms, the grammatical gender, quite as annoying as the gender of three categories in the previously mentioned languages, inasmuch as the assignment of those categories is entirely arbitrary in each from the point of view of the others, and the irregular plurals, and the many fine distinctions which make complete mastery all but hopeless. Of Spanish and Italian much the same may be said. English is quite as much out of the question as any other language. A smattering of it, as of the others, is obtainable without great difficulty, but to learn it well, to overcome all of its difficulties, is another matter. English contains three consonant sounds peculiar to English alone, the w, the sound represented by th in with, and the surd represented by the same digraph in pith. The accentuation is irregular and perplexing, while the orthography is hopeless. A half-dozen sounds may be represented by one letter or combination of letters, or one sound may be represented by as many varying signs.[2]

There are irregular verbs, about 175 in number, numerous irregular and defective plurals, and a want of clearness due to the fact that nouns, particles, adjectives, adverbs and verbs may have the same form, and that different tenses of the verb may be identical in form, whether or not identical in sound. There is also a more or less stereotyped and yet elusive word-order.

Any and all of the national languages are then out of the question, first because none can yet secure adoption even if it were suitable, and second, because none is suitable. To be capable of truly international use a language must be possible of complete acquirement by all, whether linguistically gifted or not, and must be possible of such acquirement in such short space of time as can be devoted to this by the majority of the busy citizens of the world. Its acquirement must be an incidental preparation for one's profession or business, not an end in itself, or a matter of higher culture for the few.

Hence the thought of modifying some one of these languages, or combining them, or in some way forming a neutral language, objectionable to none on political or sentimental grounds, easily mastered by all, and therefore recognized by all nations and races as the accepted medium for international communication. That it must appeal to all sufficiently to be thus accepted is an important item, for, as has been previously intimated, nothing of this kind can be forced into use. It must be such a language that every intelligent citizen of each nation can and will learn it, as the first language to be mastered after his mother-tongue, to be able to read it, speak it and write it, in his capacity as a citizen of the world, and as an intelligent citizen of his own nation.

Since the days of Descartes this dream has haunted one and another, and plans for such a tongue have been proposed, necessarily crude at first, gaining in value as time went on, and as each author of such a plan profited by the faults in the projects of his predecessors. The earliest attempts were to create a language of philosophical or a priori nature, in which words are reduced to mere formulæ, a certain letter of the alphabet indicating the concrete, another vegetable life, another animal life and so on. The idea, although wholly impracticable, has not yet entirely disappeared, and a priori schemes are still occasionally promulgated. One project, for example, has the following formations upon the letter m: mab, "mankind"; mac, "monkey"; mad, "cat"; maf, "dog"; mag, "bear"; mas, "horse"; me, "bird"; mi, "reptile"; mo, "fish," etc. Quite the opposite of these are the a posteriori languages, based upon the principle of borrowing, selecting and simplifying from already existing languages. This latter method, with a negligible admixture of the a priori, proves the only sound one, and all projects meeting with the slightest favor have been of this class. Among the numerous languages proposed, two alone have succeeded in obtaining any prominence or general publicity. The first of these was Volapük, published in 1880. Societies for its propaganda were organized, some instruction books and several magazines published. The success of the language, in spite of its crudities and too great difficulty, afforded proof that an international language was desired. But dissensions arose, chiefly as to whether numerous proposed changes should be introduced, with or without the consent of the author, who had assumed an unfortunate attitude of ownership of the language. By giving attention to discussion of such matters instead of to propaganda work, the Volapükists lost all they had gained.

Their bitter experience taught a lesson to the promulgators of the only other important project for an international language, the only one which to-day receives general attention. When overzealous theorists proposed changes in Esperanto, and insisted upon the adoption of their "improvements" the great majority of Esperantists refused to countenance any sudden or radical changes, declaring instead for a unity and stability. Their action was the more decisive in that the proposed improvements appealed to them as simply the marring of a language already proved satisfactory and practicable, and already existing as a living language, in which any changes should come gradually and systematically. The smaller restless and theorizing element attempted to create a schism through the use of various publications attacking Esperanto or Esperantists, and arrived at a somewhat unstable idiom of their own, which was called simplified Esperanto by some and a new language by others, among its advocates. A certain amount of newspaper notoriety was obtained in both Europe and America, but no definite or serious results.

The wisdom of the Esperantists as a whole is apparent in the progress due to their steadfastness and united effort. Those who know more or less of the language are reckoned by hundreds of thousands, judging by the number of text-books sold by responsible publishing houses, but the number of persons announced as being in the actual propaganda movement consists only of those who are registered and paying members of some official organization, such as the national associations, British, French, German, Japanese, American,[3] and various international organizations, such as those of Esperantist physicians, scientists, pacifists, and many others. Propagated steadily but unobtrusively in all quarters of the world, the international language idea, represented by Esperanto, has loomed large and become a reality, even in this short space of time since its presentation to the world. Doubtless one reason is that the unbounded possibilities of the practical side of the language have only as yet begun to develop, while the insistence upon the ideals of "Esperantism" has been emphasized. This word Esperantism has come to stand for a spirit of tolerance and conciliation which is distinctly worthy of note, and which materially aids in paving the way for ultimate complete understanding and "the federation of the world."

It is a significant fact that the two nations which may be said to hold the linguistic balance of power, since their decision for the international language and their refusal to continue struggling with the manifold tongues of Europe, except for cultural purposes, would have great and well-nigh decisive weight, namely, the United States and Japan, were the two countries to send official government representatives to the last (fourth) International Esperanto Congress, held in Dresden, August, 1908.[4] For these two nations whose more and more intimate relations demand better mutual understanding and appreciation, as forcibly pointed out in the document previously mentioned, the most immediate and practicable method of obtaining such general and immediate intercourse lies ready at hand. The Esperanto movement, strongest in Europe, has found favorable reception in Japan, whose minister of foreign affairs is president of the Japanese Esperanto Association. In the United States the present propaganda association is less than a year old, yet the number and quality of persons interested in the idea and movement is such that European Esperantists expect to be invited to the United States for the Sixth Annual International Esperanto Congress, in 1910. It is to be hoped that this will come to pass, and that some educational institution of note will open its doors for the occasion, as did Cambridge University for the Congress in England in 1907. In the meantime, it certainly behooves every one who approves of the wide-spread international acquaintance, understanding and conciliation, to examine this language which offers such great possibilities, since it has proved itself fully worthy of consideration in the brief time that it has existed as a living language. It behooves every one to examine it, and to aid its promulgation as best he may, by advocating it, by urging its introduction into schools and publishing in it, entire or in abstract, at least some of the writings which he now offers to the reading public in English or some other national idiom only. For Esperanto is solving the problem of an international language, which is "An attempt to save the greatest amount of labor, and open the widest fields of thought and action to the greatest number."

  1. Document 15 of the American Association for International Conciliation: "American Ignorance of Oriental Languages," by J. H. DeForest, D.D., page 12.
  2. Note for example the different signs for the one consonant sound in gash, fashion, mission, conscious, fetich, nation, vicious, etc., the different signs for the same sound in raze, raise, rays, tael, gaol, gauge, great, fete, matinee, eh, eight, they; the different sounds given to ch in charm, chasm, chandelier; the interchange of s and z sounds in lose, loose, azure, leisure, raze, race, erase, etc.
  3. Esperanto Association of North America, headquarters, 3981 Langley Avenue, Chicago.
  4. Cf. the report made by the U. S. delegate, Major P. F. Straub, of the U. S. Medical Corps, published in the Army and Navy Register, January 16, 1909.