The immediate need : political and diplomatic
The Languages of Diplomacy—UN and UNESCO—The Language of National Politics—The Language of International Politics
At the Congress of Vienna, which closed the cycle of the Napoleonic Wars, French was the sole official language; at Versailles, which ended the First World War, French and English were used interchangeably and on a basis of parity; while at the UN, which continues the traditions of San Francisco and Dumbarton Oaks, five languages are in official use: English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese.
The world, far from tending to become a linguistic unit, is spreading farther and farther apart so far as language is concerned.
One might argue that while Vienna reflected a purely cultural state of affairs (French was, after all, the language of the defeated nation), Versailles and the UN were and are rather reflections of power politics thrown into the language field. One could easily go on from that to moralize upon the lowering of cultural standards and ideals that has marked the transition from the early nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century. One might even go further, and claim that the progression from one to five languages is a symbol not of progress, but of intellectual retrogression and growing ignorance.
In 1815, anyone who was engaged in diplomacy spoke, understood, read, and wrote French, easily and fluently, whether his name was Talleyrand or Metternich, Castlereagh or von Hardenberg or Alexander of Russia. In 1919, the Lloyd Georges and Wilsons had succumbed to the forces of linguistic isolationism and linguistic nationalism. In 1958, the use of five official languages points to the growth and spreading of those forces, coupled with a relentless insistence on the part of each major linguistic group upon the separate recognition of its own culture and an absolute unwillingness to defer to the culture of others, or even to what might be defined as a world culture. The Russians have actually had to compile a glossary of diplomatic terms, which they almost completely lacked, because of the fact that in the old days French was their one and only diplomatic language. The Chinese Reds, rejecting the English favored by the Chinese Nationalists, are now said to be grimly engaged in a similar project.
There is a reverse to the medal, to be sure. One could argue with some plausibility that the use of many languages is an indication of the working of modern democratic processes, which grant recognition to everyone. There is no good reason, spokesmen for this viewpoint will say, why the speakers of Spanish, Russian, or Chinese should have to defer to a hypo-thetically superior French or Anglo-American culture.
Unfortunately, there are some grounds for the rejection of this "modern democratic" explanation of the phenomenon. If it was desired to bring in other languages than the French of Vienna or the French and English of Versailles, why did the choice have to fall upon Spanish, Russian, and Chinese? The two other great languages of western culture, German and Italian, were perhaps temporarily excluded because they were the languages of defeated countries. But why was recognition not granted to Arabic, a language of vast extension and distribution, and the vehicle of a separate culture and mode of thought? (Note, in this connection, that the Arab states, in desperation, have finally sponsored a vast translation project into Arabic of the documents of the General Assembly.) Should not some provision have been made for Hindustani, Japanese, Portuguese, the tongues of vast masses of people? Too many languages for practical purposes? But then, aren't five too many?
The use of five official languages by the UN points up the inherent difficulty of a situation wherein all major addresses have to be interpreted from the language in which they are made into four other tongues, and all important documents have to come out in quintuplicate, at the cost of enormous amounts of time, labor, and money.
The UN still has a backlog of official records to be translated into Russian, Spanish, and Chinese that goes back to the years 1946-1949; this in spite of the fact that a force of about five hundred expert translators handles, yearly, material equal to some fifty million pages.
Confusion, of course, abounds. One episode reported by the press dealt with a Molotov proposal to safeguard European peace. The right to move troops back from the East-West German border line was guaranteed to both sides "in case the security of either part in Germany is threatened," said the English version; "in case the security of either part of Germany is threatened," said the Russian version. The difference in meaning and implication is tremendous.
The enormous translation work of the UN has been justified in part on the ground that such translations would be needed anyway for internal use in each country affected. After all, the literate populations of China and India would be interested in a verbatim account of the statements of Mr. Lodge, and the American and British populations would have to know precisely what was said by the French or Russian delegates.
As matters stand, the language of national politics, and the language of national reactions to the international scene, must necessarily be the national language. There would be little point in broadcasting or televising to an American audience, of which only one person in a thousand knows any Russian, the original version of an address by Zarubin or Gromyko. Hence the vast linguistic machinery of UN and UNESCO is justified in practice.
Yet one wonders whether a linguistic simplification on the level of international politics might not lead to a similar improvement on a much broader scale. Let us suppose there were an international language which would be the sole official medium at the meetings of such bodies as the UN; that all addresses, without exception, were to be couched in this language, and all official documents drawn up in this language and this language only. What would be the effect upon the people of the various countries? Might it not lead to a very active interest in the international tongue, and a very active desire to learn such a tongue on the part of all intellectual and interested persons who follow international affairs?
Even if no active measures were taken by any of the governments concerned to make such a language official in their countries, or to teach it in their schools, would there not be everywhere a concerted movement to gain possession of this new linguistic medium?
In one of the few uninspired passages of an otherwise enlightening work, a writer on language asserts that if one were to select an obscure language like Nahuatl (the indigenous tongue of the Mexican Aztecs) as the international language, no one would bother to learn it. Why not, one wonders? Languages are generally learned for a purpose. So long as Nahuatl remains an obscure language, it carries no incentive to the majority of people. Make Nahuatl the official language of the UN, and there will be a very strong incentive for a great many people.
As of today, we find not only UN and UNESCO, but the entire field of international diplomacy and international relations, both at the official and the unofficial levels, hampered and hamstrung by the lack of a common linguistic medium. Ambassadors, consuls, and all sorts of official representatives are sent, by us and by others, to countries of whose languages they are completely or partly ignorant. These people are not chosen primarily on the basis of their linguistic aptitudes or achievements, but on the basis of their skill as negotiators, administrators, experts on law, or commerce, or military affairs, or a dozen other things. If they happen to speak the language of the country to which they are sent, so much the better; if not, they can always be given an on-the-spot six-week language course, or a staff of expert translators and interpreters on whom they can (and must) rely. This situation is said to be peculiar with us, but it really isn't so. There is the case on record where the Soviet envoy to China had to converse with Chou En-lai in English, a tongue representing a civilization they both detest, but a tongue they both happened to have learned. It is further reported, though this may be only a newspaper embellishment, that the Russian inquired why the Chinese Communists did not pick up Russian, to which the Chinese countered with the question: "Why don't our good Soviet friends learn Chinese?" "Chinese is a very difficult language," the Russian is said to have replied. "No more so than Russian is to us," was Chou's final answer.
A felicitous phrase for the state of affairs existing today in international relations by reason of language differences is "the Woolly Curtain." It was coined by a distinguished writer and journalist, Laura Z. Hobson, after she had attended, along with some seventy-five confreres, a press conference with the late President Castillo Armas in Guatemala City. The Woolly Curtain, she says in effect, blankets you completely; you can't talk save to your own countrymen and a minor part of hoteldom and officialdom; you are cut off from the small shopkeeper, the folks in the street, the kids in the park—the heart and soul of any land. Not one of the seventy-five reporters, she continues, could put pencil to paper until the interpreter began to summarize the statements of the man giving out the interview; but in the process of translation and condensation, she assures us, one loses all the clues to a man's vanity, or sincerity, or forthrightness, that one would get if there were a possibility of linking direct words with facial expressions, gestures, and mannerisms.
Of course the world's diplomatic, commercial, journalistic, even military business manages to get done without a common language. It has been so done since the beginning of time and languages. But it is inconvenient and unsatisfactory. It slows up things. It leads to confusion and misunderstanding. What is worse is that as time goes on the inconvenience of the many-language system will make itself more and more felt.
On the unofficial level, it is a matter of recent record that Americans attending the Moscow Youth Festival took it upon themselves to address large Russian audiences in the streets of the Soviet capital for the purpose of clarifying issues between the two countries. Their talks and the ensuing discussions regularly took place through interpreters. How much more clarification there might have been if the American and Russian youths had possessed a common linguistic medium is a matter of conjecture. There is little doubt, however, that full linguistic exchange between two contending parties tends to clarify the issues, and that any translation process lends itself to possible distortion, exaggeration, and misunderstanding.
An international language will not of itself prevent international conflict. It will remove areas of misunderstanding, deliberate or accidental. It will clear up muddled situations. Above all, it will aid man in his search for the truth, now so frequently distorted by factors which, though often planned, are almost as often of a fortuitous nature.