The immediate need: cultural and scientific
Lo, the Poor Tourist!—The Language of Guides and Guide Books— A Scholar's and Student's Language—The Language of International Scientific Congresses—The Language of Religious Propaganda— The Tongue of Literature
Basically, there is a good reason why the tourist receives all the linguistic attention he gets.
If he is a bona fide, pleasure-bound tourist, he contributes next to nothing to the commercial or economic picture of the country from which he comes; accordingly, he is viewed with favor or disfavor by his own land of origin, purely in accord with that country's financial status and its availability of currency for foreign exchange. America finds it expedient to spend dollars abroad so that foreign nations may use them to buy American-made products, and therefore America encourages Americans to travel abroad. Britain finds it hard to spare the international valuta that the tourist takes out, and therefore foreign tours are frowned upon and currency restrictions thrown in the way of the British would-be pleasure traveler abroad.
But from the standpoint of the host country, the tourist is almost invariably a gift from the gods. He brings in and spends foreign currencies, hard currencies which would be difficult to procure by trade, save at the cost of cutting imports and pushing exports to the point where it hurts. Therefore the tourist is made welcome.
Perhaps the most ostensible sign of this welcoming attitude is the way in which the tourist is linguistically catered to. His language is spoken almost everywhere he is likely to go. Hotel clerks and managers, restaurant waiters, doormen, bellboys, taxi drivers, even government employees, customs men, and policemen seek and get instruction in the language of the tourist. Signs are posted in the tourist's language. Menus are composed in it. Guides, of course, handle it with proficiency. English headphone translations of French plays are provided in Parisian theaters. No effort is spared to make the tourist feel at home.
The tourist's response to this hospitable attitude is usually a thoroughly supine one. He accepts everything that is offered, with good or bad grace, and makes little or no attempt to reciprocate in kind. This ultimately leads not merely to a tongue-in-cheek attitude on the part of the inhabitants of host countries, but also to a feeling, as erroneous as it is widespread, that tourists are simple-minded and tongue-tied. A half-veiled contempt for the tourist with plenty of money and a shortage of brains and tongues often shines through the lip-deference that is paid to him.
All this, of course, changes as if by magic if the tourist reveals himself to be genuinely interested in the people whose country he visits and in their culture, an interest that is normally shown by an ability, or at least an effort, to speak their language. Then the natives, being civilized and responsive human beings, vie in displaying their sincere esteem toward an appreciative, though paying, guest.
What has been said applies not merely to the American tourist on a tour of Europe, but to all tourists from and to all countries. Long before Americans, by reason of economic prosperity, became the tourists par excellence, that distinction had pertained to the British, followed at some distance by the French and the Germans. Their experiences were quite similar.
Again we hear the usual chorus: "If you are going on a foreign tour, learn foreign languages!" Good advice, particularly if you are going to a single country. But modern times have given us, at popular prices within the reach of most, the all-inclusive tour, which visits at least half a dozen lands speaking as many tongues—England, Holland, Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, or Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Curacao, Brazil, Argentina. Taking the well-meant and intrinsically excellent advice of the language advocates means studying at least four foreign languages in preparation for a summer tour. This is generally too much for the average tourist, so he falls back upon his hotel and the signs that say "English spoken here." At the most, he may seek the aid of Linguapix, a travel aid booklet containing pictures of what you want and to which you may point.
What he misses by this procedure is perhaps the best part of the country he visits. He sees the cafes, the restaurants, the night clubs (which are pretty much the same the world over), a museum or two, a few churches and cathedrals and ancient monuments, some scenic beauties, and many, many hotel rooms—not too much more than he could see back in the States.
But if he can go on and mingle with the natives on some sort of common ground, it's quite another story. Then he takes in the real sights, the atmosphere, the spirit of the foreign country. This he can do if he is equipped with the language. But can he be equipped with the four, five, or six languages of all the countries he visits on a whirlwind tour?
If there were a language common to him and to each of the countries he sees, the possibility of pleasant contacts, conversations, enlightenment as to local conditions and problems, absorption of the native culture would be enhanced at least tenfold. For lack of such a tongue, he must go begging for someone who speaks his language.
If the aim of travel is more serious, if the tourist is a student, a teacher, a scholar, one engaged in Fulbright-type research or purposeful observation in a given field, the chances are he knows something of the tongue of the country to which he travels. There are, however, all sorts of possible side trips and week-end excursions in a continent of many nations and languages such as Europe, and the language changes from country to country. Even where there is possession of a language or several languages, such knowledge is often imperfect, and not such as to lend itself to drawing the fullest advantage from the international contact.
Time was when few people, usually of the wealthier classes, went abroad for purposes of study. Today, with the Fulbright Act and the G. I. Bill of Rights, both of which permit study abroad on government grants, supplemented by numerous private foundations, many thousands of our students go abroad, and many thousands of foreigners come here. They are all cultured, educated people, equipped with some knowledge of languages, but there is little doubt that their problems would be enormously simplified if there existed a common language, spoken by all with the same fluency with which each speaks his native tongue.
The language problem is especially acute in international scientific and scholarly congresses and conventions, where all sorts of devices are used to overcome the difficulties presented by many languages. At some of these congresses two, three, even four and five languages are made official, with systems of interpretation, translation, and digests that remind one of a miniature UN. At others an attempt is made to use constructed languages like Esperanto or Interlingua (the latter is particularly favored for the compilation of written papers which may be read silently and at leisure). One such convention, held recently in the United States, made the unprecedented gesture of having on hand official guides and interpreters in ten languages. Another, held in Washington for cardiologists from fifty countries (including even Russia and Yugoslavia), combined written Interlingua digests with simultaneous headphone translations of oral communications into English, French, and Spanish.
But all these makeshifts simply serve to indicate the cogency of the problem, and its ever-expanding nature. The same may be said of the widely publicized UN project, carried on in Geneva with the participation of eighty-four governments, for the peacetime use of atomic energy, which has forced the UN to go to work on a new five-language atomic vocabulary, the terminology of which really has to be created in Spanish, Chinese, and many other tongues.
So long as modern science remained the prerogative of a few western nations, it was conceivable that a few western languages might suffice, with or without the aid of constructed tongues that lean heavily in the direction of these same western tongues. All this is now rapidly changing, however, with the dynamic emergence of a scientifically advanced Soviet Union. What will happen, furthermore, when more and more scientists of note appear in our midst from the lands of Asia and Africa? It is fashionable in certain quarters to claim that modern science, having had its beginnings in the western tongues, must forever continue to lean upon them, and that the future scientists of India, China, and Japan, not to mention the Slavic countries, will forever have to hold forth in English, French, and German. What if they refuse? What if their governments, having once achieved scientific and technological independence from the West, insist upon linguistic representation in scientific congresses, as some of them already do in international political gatherings? Shall we then have a scientific cleavage along language lines, with the new discoveries and inventions of the West inaccessible to the people of the East, and vice versa? The situation in the field of science, perhaps more than in all others, seems to call for a common tongue available to everybody.
Religion is a field in which the multiplicity of human tongues has always been fully recognized. Ever since the command laid upon the Apostles to go forth and preach in different tongues, missionary work has been done at the local level, with the spreader of the Gospel acquiring the language of the locality to which he was assigned. It might even be claimed that the original linguists and polyglots were the missionaries, since in many instances it is to them that we owe grammars, dictionaries, and Bible translations of many obscure tongues.
It is worthy of note, however, that these same missionaries, while recording and describing the languages with which they came in contact, also made it a point to spread the official language of their own faith or denomination, at least for liturgical purposes. Latin continued to spread in this fashion after the physical collapse of the Roman Empire, until its influence became even more pervasive than it had been in the days when pagan Rome ruled the world. On a smaller scale, the same may be said of Greek. The widespread distribution of Arabic is due in larger measure to the Koran than to the sword, and India's Sanskrit reached Tibet, China, Japan, and Indonesia through the efforts of Buddhist missionaries.
It can therefore be seen that while one of the subsidiary functions of religious propaganda has been to give recognition and dignity to local speech forms, another function, equally logical, though contrary in its effects, has been to spread a few primary tongues. It is as though each major faith, claiming universality, sought to establish it in the field of language as well as of the spirit.
Today, the spirit of linguistic nationalism makes itself felt in the realm of religion as elsewhere. National religions everywhere tend to abandon their liturgical languages and fall back upon the local vernaculars. This tendency is felt even in that most conservative of religious institutions, the Roman Catholic Church, where several spokesmen have advocated the abandonment of the Latin Mass in favor of a service in the local language. Others, however, have replied that to the extent to which linguistic universality is relinquished, the claim to spiritual universality is weakened.
What would be the impact of a universal language upon the churches? It would undoubtedly facilitate their work on a purely material plane, making accessible to them, without linguistic effort and training on their part, masses of humanity which are at present hard to reach.
That a common language would lead to greater harmony of religious thought and doctrine is extremely doubtful. Unity of language would not lead to religious unity. It would, however, serve to clarify differences and divergences, and to make each doctrine clearer to its adherents as well as to its opponents.
To quote from a recent report of the British and Foreign Bible Society: "If man is to be set free, he must have access to the truth. The barriers which cut him off from liberty are not all of his own making, and one of the most formidable is that of language. The truth imprisoned in a foreign tongue is unable to set at liberty those who are bound by ignorance and sin."
We shall touch only fleetingly upon the topic of a common written language for literary, as distinguished from scientific, commercial, or political purposes.
As matters stand today, literary works are normally produced in one of the many existing literary tongues. If they are found to have merit, they are translated and republished in other languages. This is a slow, expensive and unsatisfactory process. It is often the case that works of true literary merit go untranslated by reason of limited commercial appeal. It just as often happens that a work which is a literary gem in the original loses a great deal of its flavor in translation because the work is handled by a translator who is technically, but not literarily, competent. True literary translation is not a trade, but an art.
It is one of the most standard arguments of opponents of the international language that its establishment will lead to the loss of literary values. Actually, a world tongue would lead to an enhancement of such values. Instead of the present uncertain, hit-or-miss system, every book appearing in a national tongue would also appear in a single translation, which in economical pocket-book form would serve the entire world.
It would be far easier to create a body of truly competent literary translators into the international language than it is at present to secure suitable translators into the very numerous literary languages of the world. Also, in international language form, the work would be assured from the outset of a world hearing and response, instead of the limited national public that it has today, coupled with the uncertainty of foreign editions. The cause of good literature could not but be served thereby.
The concomitant argument that an international language, not having grown and developed out of centuries-old human experience, would be unsuited to carry literary values is raised, of course, only against constructed languages. It is understood that if a national language is selected as the world tongue, such a language will carry its own traditional literary aspects.
But even if a constructed tongue is chosen, it is incorrect to assert that such a tongue would fail to be a literary vehicle. If the constructed tongue is based on existing languages, how can it avoid absorbing the aptitudes of those languages to act as carriers of thought and concepts? And what is there to prevent it from very rapidly evolving its own grace of style and arrangement?
Let us not forget that all present-day tongues existed as tools of ordinary communication before they evolved into vehicles for literature. Latin, one of the most majestic literary devices the world has ever known or is likely to know, was the tongue of illiterate farmers and warriors before Cicero and Virgil and Horace came on the scene to endow it with grace.
A constructed tongue, evolved out of existing languages, would not be subject to the handicap of having to evolve slowly and painfully out of a material into a spiritual civilization. It would rather spring full-grown out of its parent tongues, like Minerva out of the forehead of Jupiter, and at once fall heir to the blended cultural values and literary devices of the most developed of our languages. That this is both possible and true is proved by the most thoroughly established of our present constructed languages, Esperanto, in which a considerable body of literature, both original and in translation, has already appeared.
Is it not in order at this point to cite the opinions of some of the great minds of the past concerning a problem which affected them far less than it did and does the world's masses?
Outside of philosophers and educators like Descartes and Comenius, who gave the matter their serious and direct attention, we may refer to a sprinkling- of famous names, for what they may be worth.
Voltaire (1694-1778), a man not too deeply concerned with language problems, nevertheless points out that, from the time of Augustus to that of Attila and Clovis, Latin was spoken from the Euphrates to the Atlas Mountains, but in his day a man from Bergamo moving to a nearby Swiss canton from which only a mountain separates him needs an interpreter, as much as if he moved to China. "This," he concludes, "is one of the greatest scourges of life."
Herbert Spencer, in his autobiography of 1843, says: "It seems to me quite possible (probable even) that an artificial language to be universally used will be agreed upon."
Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Menschliches, Allzumenschliches of 1876, assumes the role of a prophet, and predicts that "in a future as far removed as one may wish, there will be a new language which will first serve as a means of business communication, later as a vehicle for intellectual relations, just as certainly as there will be some day travel by air."
Similar statements and predictions are to be found in the writings of Edward Bellamy, Octave Mirbeau ("Civilization will not have taken a great step forward . . . until there is a single language on the surface of the earth"), Abdul Baha' Ulla ("one language that may be spread universally among the people ... in order that this universal language may eliminate misunderstandings from among mankind"), Maxim Gorky ("Mankind would realize far faster the community of its interests if it spoke a single language"), the Marquis de Condorcet, Istvan Szechenyi, Karl Kautsky ("the division of language weakens the power of mankind"), and Karl Vossler. Many more names could be added to this brief list.