Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/October 1911/English as an International Language

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1538823Popular Science Monthly Volume 79 October 1911 — English as an International Language1911Albert Léon Guérard




OF our thousand languages, great and small, dead and living, natural and artificial, from Edenese to Esperanto, which is to be the world-speech of the future? "Why, English, of course!" America replies with one mighty voice, in which rings the indomitable optimism of the nation. Now, I love English dearly, for having spent twelve years of my youth in trying to master some of its intricacies; I love America still more, for her generous hospitality, which I am at present enjoying, and yet I find myself unable to join in the chorus so ably led by Professor Brander Matthews. I do not believe that English is destined to be the international language of to-morrow. On this side of the Atlantic, this may sound paradoxical; across the water, it is accepted as a truism, even in England. Let us suppose ourselves in a neutral zone, and examine judicially the pros and cons of the case.

Faith in the future supremacy of English can certainly not be lightly dismissed as a mere chauvinistic delusion. It is based on personal experience: we all know how eagerly the better class of immigrants take up the study of the language; how impatient their children are of any other tongue; we know that, with nothing but English and money at our command, we can be understood, and respectfully fleeced, in all the best hotels in the world. Statistics give scientific support to these individual impressions. One half of the world's commerce, two thirds of its shippping, one fourth of its population, one half of its railroads, of its newspapers, of its postal transactions, are under the control of the English-speaking countries. Grammatical and literary arguments can then be brought forward in favor of English: its grammar actually simpler in some respects than that of Esperanto, its international quality as a strongly Romanized Teutonic language, its wonderful vocabulary which can be extended in all directions without losing its unity, the unrivaled freedom of its syntax, which enables it to use the same word as a noun, a verb, an adjective or a preposition; last but not least, its unbroken literary record, and myriad-souled Shakespeare as supreme argument.

All this has to be granted, and is granted without reluctance. No one denies that English is one of the three or four world-languages, and a prince among its peers. But that it will ever attain the unique position once held by Greek, Latin or French does not by any means follow.

There are three ways for a language to achieve universality: political domination, natural development, international agreement. It was through the political domination of Rome that Latin spread over the whole of the ancient world. It is through the same agency that English was and is diffused in Ireland, India and the Philippines; French in Languedoc, Provence, Brittany, Flanders and the colonies; German in Slesvig, Poland and Lorraine. Should England and America conquer the world, or simply control the world, English would become everywhere what it is in India: the language of government, modern culture and commerce.

It can not be denied that the British Empire alone is larger, richer, more varied, more powerful, than Rome ever was under Augustus or Trajan. But Rome stood as practically the sole representative of civilization: side by side with the Anglo-Saxon world there are other worlds—Germanic, Slavonic, Latin and Mongolian, hardly inferior in material development, and in some respects fully equal in culture. That the fate of Carthage and Greece awaits France and Germany can not be suggested, except in jest. Ten or twelve years ago, conditions were different. Anglo-Saxondom was a religion—hardly less aggressive than Islam under Mohammed; Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling were its prophets. China, South America, the colonies of Portugal, Holland and France were to be turned into Anglo-Saxon dependencies. Sometimes Germany was bidden to the feast, as a poor relation, and the London Daily Mail published highly sensational maps of the coming partitions. Where are the dreams of yestereve? The threatened nations have prospered unimpeded; other claimants to world-wide influence have come and gone for a season, like Russia—or come to stay, like Japan. The acknowledged weakness of Anglo-Saxondom in land forces has had a wonderful sobering effect, and, more than anything else, the growing sense of international justice, the thorough sanity of Great Britain and the United States, have contributed to dispel those unholy fancies.

Besides, linguistic domination does not always follow political domination, unless there be an overwhelming disparity of forces, material and moral, between the ruling people and their subjects. The Tagals will learn English and the Malagasy French, but it is more than doubtful that Mexico, conquered by the States, would learn the language of their victors. The willingness with which immigrants adopt English must not mislead us. Numerous as they are, they are, at any given moment, a minority. They come unorganized, severed from their traditions, into a highly civilized country with a strong national feeling. Yet, the point of saturation might soon be reached. Wherever in the British Empire the non-English elements are compact and have a tradition back of them, they maintain their language with curious pertinacity, like the Boers and the Habitants. Even the French in Louisiana, although they were but a handful, have not yet been fully assimilated. Greek profited at least as much as Latin by the Roman conquest of the world. After a century of union with the Empire of the Tsars, the best educated inhabitants of Finland learn German rather than Russian. Magyar, Czech and Polish have triumphantly asserted themselves against German, once the only official language in the Hapsburg dominions. After forty years of strenuous endeavor, the German Empire has not shaken the hold of French culture in the essentially Teutonic province of Alsace. When one hears of the incessant struggle in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia, caused by the attempt of imposing a language on a conquered people, one can not but hope that England and America will be wise and generous enough not to commit the same mistake—or the same crime.

Without any coercion, the natural superiority of a language, or of the civilization which it represents, will ensure its triumph. Thus Cornish disappeared and Welsh is receding before English; thus, for a time, and without any political connection between the two countries, Rumanian was entirely overshadowed by French. By a process of natural selection, some languages remain provincial, like Basque or Breton; some become national, like Hungarian; and a few conquer international status. Among these, by a similar process, one will forge ahead of all others and become alone international: such is the destiny claimed for English.

All this is theory: do facts point the same way? It seems that every year we have more claimants instead of fewer to national and international rank. A century ago, French was alone in the field. At present, not only French, German and English, but Italian enjoys in all international activities a sort of official recognition. And how long will Spanish and Russian be content to lag behind? The distinction made by H. G. Wells between the three "agglomerative" languages, French, English and German, and all the rest, is by no means so clear as he would have us believe. There is a long way between English and Catalonian, for instance: but all the links of a continuous chain could be found. Can we consider as a minor language Italian, with its magnificent literature, past and present, its active scholarship, its intrinsic beauty, its faith in its own destiny?[1] Or Russian, or Spanish, with their vast numbers, their great achievements, their boundless possibilities? The strong plea of the Brazilian delegate at the Hague Conference against the notion of secondary powers not entitled to all the honors and privileges enjoyed by a few applies with even greater force to the notion of secondary languages. Language has become such a symbol of racial patriotism that the balance of power is preserved as jealously in the linguistic domain as in the political.

The present supremacy of English in commerce is undoubted. Yet it does not amount to a monopoly. English has to face the rivalry of German in central and eastern Europe, of French in the Mediterranean countries, of Spanish in South America, of the native languages everywhere. When the commercial hegemony of England was absolute and apparently indestructible, England could impose the use of her language to all her customers. German competition has taught her that it paid to use the customers' own speech. The unique position of English is thus becoming a thing of the past. England and the United States may retain their lead and even increase it, but the days of monopoly are gone.

All things related to traveling—hotels, traveling agencies, navigation companies, were long the stronghold of Anglo-Saxon influence. But there is no sign that the relative importance of that influence is on the increase. A generation ago, only Englishmen and Americans had both the means and the desire to travel. The French were "casaniers" (stay-at-home); the Germans were poor, and all the rest, especially the South American "rastaqouères," were totally without prestige. The number of Anglo-Saxon tourists has greatly multiplied. Instead of limiting themselves to a few well-known resorts, they haunt every little corner in Europe. But they are no longer alone. German and French cruising yachts call at every port. Parisian hotels can not be content with the "English spoken" of yesterday. He who pays the pipers calls the tune, and we are beginning to hear other tunes besides "Rule Britannia" and "My Country, Tis of Thee."

We do not believe that any nation is going to wrest from England and America the scepter of the commercial world; we do not believe that Anglo-Saxon influence in that domain is on the wane. But we do believe that it is not likely to become greater than it was some ten years ago. And, since it was not sufficient then to secure the adoption of English as international medium, it probably never will.

Business is not the whole of life. If we turn to science, we find that, whilst English has conquered international recognition in practically all branches of learning, in hardly any does it rank first. England and America have as splendid a roll of scientists to show as Germany or France; but many of these were isolated men of genius. Germany has a larger host of conscientious, subordinate scientific workers and a larger competent public. The lead of Germany is probably not so considerable as some Americans are apt to think. This country has long been a province of the Fatherland as far as higher education was concerned, and it retains to the present day a pro-German bias which makes it unjust to the achievements of England, France, Italy, and even to its own. But, great or small, that lead, from the linguistic point of view at least, is undeniable. For the purpose of disinterested study, every scholar and scientist in the world has to learn German first, and possibly French second. In this connection, again, the claims of Italian are too often disregarded in America, and yet there is hardly any branch of learning in which Italy is not doing excellent work. We had occasion, this year, in an English-speaking university, to use the Italian translation of a Danish work on the old French epic. This is a small but typical instance of the growing cosmopolitanism of science, and of the usefulness of Italian.

But, in the world of science just as in the world of commerce, the so-called minor languages show an increasing tendency not to recognize the privilege of the three or four now in possession. Berthelot complained that, whilst in his youth, with four modern languages only at his command, he could keep in touch with scientific activity everywhere, he could no longer do so at the dawn of the twentieth century. Science does not quite obliterate national susceptibility. Scientists work for their compatriots primarily. Perhaps they shirk the effort which the use of a foreign tongue always involves; perhaps they are afraid of the traps winch the grammar of French, English or German is fenced round with, and in which even the wary may fall. Scandinavian, Dutch and Slavonic scientists still use the recognized world-languages occasionally in preference to their own; but there is a growing body of untranslated and often valuable works in Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Russian. The unification of scientific literature under German hegemony is fast becoming a dream, and English hegemony the shadow of a dream.

The position held by English in commerce, by German in science, belongs to French in the world of "polite culture"—diplomacy, society, art and letters. It is a well-known fact that this position is not what it used to be. William II. is an accomplished French scholar and an admirer of Frederick the Great; yet he does not cultivate the tongue of Anatole France as his ancestor that of Voltaire. The Gallophobia of twenty years ago no longer blinds Berlin to the merits of France, yet the Prussian Academy would not as in 1784 crown a modern Rivarol for an essay on the universality of the French language. There has been, almost everywhere, a sharp and often unjust reaction against French influence. The Belgian Flamingants have revived their neglected dialect, and secured for it absolute equality with French. In Rumania, where the Frenchification of the upper classes had gone to almost incredible lengths and was threatening to stifle the legitimate development of national culture, there have been actual riots against the "Bonjouristes." And the predominance of French in the Mediterranean is not so exclusive as it once was.

However, the position of French is much stronger than most Americans believe. America welcomes our lecturers, our actors; few colleges are without a French club, and even in small towns, ladies will meet once or twice a month "pour parler Francais." Yet, we regret to say that America, for whom we fought, America, our sister republic, is, of all great nations, the most indifferent to French culture. The small number of Frenchmen in this country, the bad reputation of a few international places of amusement in Paris—some under English management—a small, noisy literature exclusively for the Boulevards and the export trade, perhaps also the enormous influence of Germany, whose friendliness to France was none of the warmest—all these factors have led many Americans to neglect France, her people and her language. America was, I believe, the first great nation to restrict the use of French as the diplomatic language, and she is perhaps the only one at the present day where more students learn German than French.

However, in the rest of the world—for there is a rest of the world—French maintains its position. It is curious to notice that foreigners are much more sanguine than the French themselves about its future. At the Liège congress for the diffusion of the French language, a Russian, Novicow, led the optimists, against our great medieval philologist, Paul Meyer, probably lost in his regrets for the glorious thirteenth century. Rivarol was never more complimentary to us than H. G. Wells, Gubernatis, Valera or Max Nordau.

Professor Brander Matthews believes that the larger intellectual and financial opportunities of English will lure ambitious writers away from their language and their people. He gives Maarten Maartens as an example. This tendency is not new, and French, in the past, could point with pride to many such transfuges, from Brunetto Latini to Frederic of Prussia. And that power of attraction is not spent. For anything except a sensational novel or a volume of sermons, French offers at least as good financial opportunities as English, a more independent and better trained body of critics, a more open-minded, more discriminating reading public. That is why, not only in the days of Chaucer and in the days of Gibbon, but in this twentieth century of ours, so many foreign authors have adopted French as their vehicle. And not only critics and novelists, but poets—which supposes an extraordinary degree of familiarity with the language: Belgians of Teutonic origin, like Verhaeren, Maeterlinck, Rodenbach; Rumanians, like Bolinteano, Hasdeu, Macedonsky, Stourdza, Helen Vacaresco; Greeks like Parodi and Papadiamantopoulos (Jean Moreas); the Cuban Jose-Maria de Heredia, perhaps the greatest of them all; English poets—Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, Mary Robinson (Mme. Darmesteter-Duclaux); finally true-born Americans—Francis Viele-Griffin from Virginia, Stuart Merrill from Long Island, both doing excellent work:

. . . J'en passe, et des meilleurs!
Pour trois qui vous viendraient, il m 'en viendrait soixante.

I do not mean to say that French is, or will be, in any but the vaguest sense of the term, the international language of literature. If a few writers may be led by the prospect of more rapid success, or merely for personal reasons, to serve under foreign colors, the majority will remain faithful to their mother tongue, great or small, for in it alone their best work can be done. A language spoken by five million men may be as good a literary medium as one used by a hundred and twenty million. Indeed, a Pole, for instance, might actually be better off than a Frenchman in many respects, for he would combine an intenser national feeling with a more cosmopolitan culture. It is possible not only to do good work in the so-called minor languages—most of which have a larger public than English in Shakespeare's time—but also to conquer universal fame. Russian is little known beyond its frontiers, yet Tolstoy is everywhere admired. New York alone has a much larger population than Norway, but Clyde Fitch's glory has not eclipsed Ibsen's. Sienkiewicz's country is dismembered, his language persecuted in Prussia and in Russia—and who has not read "Quo Vadis"? Mistral writes in a dialect, a patois, an artificial one at that, the combined work of the peasant and of the philologist; no one was surprised when the Nobel prize was awarded him. We do not see any tendency to a concentration of languages analogous to the Marxian concentration of wealth. But if there were any signs of such a concentration, they would seem to be in favor of French rather than English.

It seems therefore improbable that this tangled problem of international speech will be solved automatically, by a natural process of selection. One alternative remains to be considered: a universal agreement. There is a growing spirit of cooperation among nations, and so the adoption of a world-language is becoming at the same time easier and more desirable as time goes on. Latin was universal when there was a Roman world, Imperial or Catholic; classical French was universal when there was a "classical Europe"; after a century of division, the world is recovering the consciousness of its unity. Let us hope that a conference will be called together, and a universal agreement arrived at; what, in an open competition of that sort, would be the chances of English?

I waive the argument from the present erratic spelling of English. Professor Brander Matthews is doing his best to reform it. Let us hope he will fully succeed, that is to say, that English will be altered beyond recognition. Perhaps the difficult sounds of the language, its weird consonants, its tripthongized vowels, might also be eliminated. The present chaotic state of English accentuation calls for urgent reform. A "Simplified Pronunciation Board" would help us out, by making it a misdemeanor to pronounce English otherwise than in the scientific, or German, way. After such thorough overhauling, English would stand a little ahead of French, and not too far behind Spanish, Italian or German in the way of logic and simplicity. But all that trouble would be vain—a tremendous trouble, since it would oblige the Anglo-Saxon world to learn its language anew. The qualities of English, not its defects, are the main obstacles to its adoption.

The raciness of English is its glory and its bane. There is no more strongly individualized language. On account of the very simplicity of its grammar, of its syntactical flexibility, it has more idioms, and is more puzzling to foreign minds, than either German or French. English is an admirable tool, plain, strong and sharp, singularly dangerous in unskilled hands.

The might of the English-speaking countries would be the next objection. The balance of power would seem to be destroyed in their favor. Germany could agree to the selection of Italian without loss of self-respect, or even to that of French, because there are, for the adoption of French, historical reasons which, at present, do not wound the susceptibilities even of the most sensitive nation. But to accept English would be to acknowledge one's own inferiority. The boastful tone of certain writers and orators, although that is fast becoming a thing of the past, greatly increases the moral force of this objection.

Finally, the English-speaking race is progressive, but on its own traditional lines; its literature is deeply human, but intensely national in its expression. The abstract, analytical character of classical French, the effort to describe "man in general," and to discover truths of immediate and universal application, are lacking in English. To this fortunate lack, English literature owes much of its depth and freshness, English thought its "congruency with the unutterable," English political life its wise compromises, its freedom from revolutions and adventures. French is essentially international. Patriotism has inspired French writers to compose admirable poems, and Chauvinism is, or used to be until quite recently, as rife in Paris as Jingoism in London. Yet the French language can be so completely dissociated from the French nation that the most abundant and the bitterest denunciations of France are written in French.

Once more, I hold no brief for French. I do not believe that it will ever be more fully recognized as international than it is at present. There are strong reasons in its favor, but none is decisive. And there are two great objections against it. It is the language of one of the world-powers, and international jealousy would prevent its adoption. Then its strongest claims are historical: but the new nations, America, Japan, quietly ignore European history. A tradition is not a reason; it loses all its virtue as soon as it is no longer respected. America refuses to be ruled by the shade of Louis XIV. We can not blame her. And I must say that, as a Frenchman, I do not regret it.

For our own experience in the eigthteenth century has taught us that universality is a mixed blessing, perhaps a curse in disguise. As everything must be sacrificed to perspicuity and simplicity, there is a danger of enfeebling the language, of making it colorless. It breeds self-satisfaction, and, by making the study of other languages less useful, it favors ignorance and one-sidedness. For many years, the French smiled contemptuously at whatever was not French. They are at present reacting almost too vigorously against that tendency; let us hope that England and America will escape both these dangers. The assumption of superiority on the part of one language and therefore of one race, of one or two nations, causes jealousy, diffidence, hatred. France had to pay a heavy price for her once exalted position. She had to convince the world that she was not in any way a menace before sympathy would flow back to her.

The present situation, with the curse of Babel still on our heads, is not, of course, incompatible with progress, national and international. With the diffusion of the study of modern languages, with the multiplication of translations—some famous works have appeared simultaneously in eleven tongues—with the growing international vocabulary of science, commerce and pleasure, the world feels more and more its essential unity. We can live and prosper without an international language; but, in the same way, we could have lived and prospered without the printing press, the railroads and the telegraph.

The problem remains with us, baffling and entrancing. We all realize what a progress it would mean if all conventions, societies, publications of world-wide scope, would adopt one world-wide language; if not diplomatists, scientists and scholars alone, but the business man, the social worker, the missionary, even the common laborer, had a simple, universal means of intercommunication.

We have attempted to show that through neither conquest, natural development or international agreement had any living language a serious chance of being accepted as international. But is there no other solution? Are we not substituting, in every domain, order for chaos, science for tradition, the organizing will of man for the blind arrangements of fate? Is it beyond the capacity of our scholars to select or in the last resort to devise, a perfectly neutral tongue? If French or English will not do, why not try Esperanto?

  1. Cf. the activity of the Dante Alighieri Society for the spread of the Italian language.