THE PROBLEM IN THE PRESENT: THE NEED
1. The jigsaw puzzle of language
The Existing Languages—How They Are Distributed—What Appeal They Make—Inequalities Among Languages—The Thirteen Leaders
A tool is seldom missed save when you want it and it isn't there. We seldom miss language, because it is so readily available. It is only when we find ourselves faced with someone whose linguistic tool does not mesh with ours that we become acutely conscious of language.
Language is by far the most important of the tools we use. It serves the purpose of communication with our fellow men, and without it no coordinated activity is possible. It is in use practically every waking moment of our lives. Without language, we tend to lose some of our human qualities and sink to the level of the animals.
But normally we are not aware of this. Language is there for us to use, like the water gushing from the tap of a kitchen sink in an apartment house. Who worries about water, save on the very rare occasions when the mains are under repair, and we turn on the faucet only to be rewarded with a gurgle?
When things go wrong with language, the gurgle we get in the place of the steady flow may be a gesture, a broken phrase, a word that fails to carry a complete message. Or we may get a flow of something we can't use, as though our water faucet suddenly started spurting ammonia instead of water.
At any rate, we quickly feel lost. Our power of communication is drastically curtailed, and so is our activity. There are a million things we would like to say, but we can't say them.
There are a thousand things we would like to do which involve the participation of the other person. We can't call for that participation, so we can't do them. We don't merely feel lost. We are lost.
How often have you found yourself in this situation? Perhaps you were a soldier in one of our recent wars, and found that you could not communicate with an enemy, or an ally, or a neutral, that you couldn't question a prisoner, call upon a trapped foe to surrender, ask for food, or directions, or medical help. Perhaps you have been a tourist abroad, trying to tell a taxi driver who spoke only French, or German, or Spanish, where to take you, trying to find out where the rest-room was, or the elevator, or the museum, or at what time your train was scheduled to leave. Perhaps you have tried, here or elsewhere, to do business with people who did not speak your language, to show them the advantages of what you had to sell, inquire about the things you wanted to buy. Even without leaving the continental United States, you may have been approached by someone struggling with a penciled address and the intricacies of the New York subway system, and you recall the feeling of helplessness as you vainly tried to impart the needed directions to one who could not understand them.
Take all these situations, multiply them by the two and a half billion people now living on the globe, and you have a picture of what the lack of a common language does to the people of the world today. To get the picture of what it will do a hundred years hence, when travel, trade, and general international intercourse will probably be ten times what they are today, multiply again by ten.
If you are intellectually inclined, there is also the matter of books, magazines, and newspapers published abroad that you may be interested in reading, of foreign radio or television broadcasts that you may want to listen to, of foreign movies or plays that you may want to see. For all these things, stemming from our twentieth-century civilization, as well as for the more vital matter of direct spoken-language communication, there is one stock answer: "Learn foreign languages!"
It is a good answer, and one well worth considering. But there is one big drawback. The foreign languages are many in number. Whether you learn one, or two, or a dozen, you are still up against the basic problem. You cannot foresee what your specific language needs are going to be ten years, or even one year, from now. Of what practical use to have learned perfect French and then be shipped to China, or to have mastered Russian and then find yourself in Mexico?
The world's activities, cultural, scientific, commercial, and even military, now proceed on a more or less integrated basis, riot piecemeal, country by country, or continent by continent, as they once did. This means that the complete answer to the language question can only be an integrated, global one. The leisurely language learning that well served chosen segments of previous generations is today at best only a stopgap. Language learning has drastic limitations, both for the individual and the community, when one considers the infinite amount of new factual material that both individual and community have to assimilate, in widely unrelated fields, in order to keep abreast of modern progress. We cannot spend all our lives learning foreign languages. Even if we did, a lifetime would be insufficient to give us what we want in the way of full, easy, untrammeled communication with our fellow men.
There are in spoken use throughout the world today, according to our most reliable linguists, 2,796 separate languages, exclusive of dialects. This is far more than any man could master in a hundred lifetimes.
It is quite true that the majority of these languages belong to small groups, numbering fewer than a million speakers and having little practical importance. But even after we have assigned over two thousand tongues to North and South American Indian tribes, African Negro groups, clans of Australian and Papuan aborigines, and sparse populations of remote Asiatic regions and South Pacific islands, we are still faced with over a hundred languages used by large and civilized groups, numbering from one million to five hundred million people, and living in continents and countries with which we have broad contacts. Millions of them have come, are coming or will come to our shores. Millions of us have traveled or will travel to the lands where these languages are spoken. The products of their culture, their spoken, written, radioed, televised words, are forever with us, in international discussions, in books, magazines, and newspapers, in science and commerce and advertising. There is now almost no way to avoid them, and as time and the swift march of modern technological progress advance, there will be even less.
There are big, well-known, widely studied languages that range far beyond their homelands, like English, French, and Spanish. There are medium-sized tongues like Polish, Dutch, and Tamil, that are spoken by populations in the tens of millions. There are smaller tongues, like Danish, Hungarian, modern Greek, and the Singhalese of Ceylon, which may not reach ten million speakers, but are the regular medium of linguistic exchange in their own well-defined areas. It is conceivable that any one of us, individually, may come in contact with any one of them, and with dozens of others besides. The possibility of such contact, once quite remote, is now commonplace, and if present trends continue will become far more extensive.
In the Western Hemisphere alone, disregarding the American Indian languages, which are over a thousand in number, and of which some, like the Quichua of Peru and the Nahuatl of Mexico, have millions of speakers, we find four widely spoken languages. These are the English of the United States and Canada, the Portuguese of Brazil, the Spanish of a score of nations ranging in population from Mexico's 30 million and Argentina's 20 million to the 900,000 of Panama, and the French of Quebec, Haiti, French Guiana, and some insular French possessions—not to mention the Dutch of Surinam and the Danish of Greenland.
In practice, this means that a Western Hemisphere traveler who wishes to be linguistically at home wherever he goes, for whatever purposes he may have in mind, would have to possess a fairly fluent knowledge of four languages, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, obviously a major, though not an unattainable, achievement. Even so, he might find himself at a loss in Dutch Guiana, in Greenland, and in parts of Mexico and Central or South America where the native languages prevail almost to the exclusion of Spanish and Portuguese.
The world traveler wishing to make his way about western Europe would be faced with a far more serious language problem. English would carry him through the British Isles (though he might run into Welsh, Irish, and Scots Gaelic areas where not all the inhabitants speak English). On the continent, it would be a question of knowing French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Serbo-Croatian, modern Greek, and Turkish. This impressive list still leaves out the Breton of northwestern France, the Basque and Catalan of the Pyrenees, the Rumansh of Switzerland, the Flemish of Belgium, the Slovenian of Yugoslavia, languages for which substitutions can normally be effected, since their speakers are almost all bilingual.
In eastern Europe would be found Polish, Czech and Slovak, Hungarian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Rumanian, plus whatever may be left of Lithuanian, Lettish, and Estonian, plus the Russian of the Soviet homeland with its closely allied sister tongues, Ukrainian and Byelorussian.
Even before reaching the Asiatic portion of the Soviet Union, our traveler would come in contact with numerous other Soviet tongues: some, like Armenian, of the Indo-European family; some, like Georgian, of the Caucasian group; others of the same family as Finnish and Hungarian, still others related to Turkish. Numerous tongues of the Finnish or Turkic stock occupy the northern half of Asia, but they are by no means the major Asiatic languages. This distinction pertains to Chinese and Japanese and Korean, the Vietnamese of Indochina, the Malay and Javanese of Indonesia, Tibetan, Burmese, and Thai, the Hindustani and Bengali of northern India, the Tamil and Telugu of southern India, the Pushtu of Afghanistan, the Persian of Iran, the Arabic of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, and the domains of Ibn Sa'ud, as well as the modern Hebrew of Israel. There are many dozens of additional languages spoken by large populations in India, Indonesia, and southeastern Asia.
The westerner who has mastered even one of these Asiatic tongues is viewed as exceptional. The specialist who has three or four of them at his command is a seven-day wonder. Yet these tongues are becoming more important every day as Asia begins to rival Europe and America in the international picture.
In Africa we find Arabic north of the Sahara, but we also find Berber and Kushitic tongues intermingled with Arabic. Other languages of the Semito-Hamitic family appear in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somaliland. Then there are the very numerous languages of the African Negroes, some of which, like the Hausa of Nigeria and the Swahili of East Africa, have several million speakers. There is the Malagasy of the island of Madagascar, related to the Malay of Indonesia and the languages of Hawaii and Tahiti. There are the European tongues of colonization, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian; the Afrikaans of the Union of South Africa, which is an offshoot of Dutch; even a faint memory, in Tanganyika and Southwest Africa, of German from the days that preceded the First World War.
The chances that the average American, unless he is a missionary or an African trader, would require an African language are small. Yet during the Second World War people who knew anything at all about the native languages of French Equatorial and West Africa were desperately needed for military and propaganda purposes.
Australia and the Pacific Islands present a picture not too unlike that of Africa—the tongues of European settlers, English, French, Dutch, Portuguese, a sprinkling of former tongues of colonization, like Spanish, German, and Japanese, and then hundreds of native tongues, some linked to Malay, others, especially in Australia and New Guinea, of unrelated families.
No one knows all the languages of even a corner of the globe. People who have business in a certain area normally undertake to do something about communicating with the people around them. They acquire a smattering of one or several languages, teach the natives elements of their own language, in pidgin form if necessary, or, most often, procure the services of translators and interpreters. Whatever is done along these lines in one area is normally of no value in another. H. Rider Haggard's character Alan Quatermain, who was familiar with many of the languages of South and East Africa, would have found himself as completely lost as you or I if he had been suddenly transplanted to the jungles of Borneo or the mountains of Burma. No satisfactory way has been yet devised of solving the problem of language differences save at the purely local level.
There is, however, this to be said. On the basis of speaking population, geographical distribution and location, commercial, scientific, cultural, and military-political importance, some languages have a greater practical appeal than others.
This practical appeal forms the basis of our language-study. It also forms the basis of such internationality in language as has so far been achieved. Certain languages offer certain advantages—a large speaking population, widespread distribution due to colonization or other historical factors, and commercial or cultural merits.
In our search for a tongue that may serve the entire human race these leading tongues possess tremendous advantages. They are already established as partially international tongues, covering large areas of the earth and being well known beyond their own boundaries. This same feature, however, also acts as a handicap. It causes such languages to be regarded as peculiarly the vehicles of certain cultures, of certain patterns of civilization, of certain types of mental activity, and so offends the speakers of other languages and renders them suspicious. The situation is not too different from that prevailing at a political convention where there are many strong candidates in the field. It may resolve itself into a stalemate, with the ultimate emergence of a comparatively unknown "dark horse" candidate whom nobody really wants, but who at least has the merit of not offending anyone's susceptibilities.
The population factor is by no means the only one that makes a language great or outstanding. At the same time, it is the one which can be most simply and objectively reckoned. Using this simple yardstick as a first means of establishing class distinctions among the world's 2796 languages, we find that there are only thirteen which top the mark of fifty million speakers. They are, in numerical order, and in very round numbers:
Let us by all means stress the fact, which will be brought out in later chapters, that these figures are very far from telling the entire story; that by reason of imperfect census figures, some doubt attaches to certain of the totals; that the totals themselves do not reflect the very important factor of greater or lesser dialectalization within what is classified as a single language.
At the same time, these two facts are indisputable: 1. None of these languages has fewer than fifty million speakers; 2. No other languages pass the fifty million mark.
In what light these figures are to be viewed, and what other factors enter the picture of language hierarchy, will appear shortly.