|7. What a world
language will do for us
Ease of Travel and Communications—The Spread of Business— The Spread of Ideas—The Solution of National Internal Problems— The Problem of International Ethics—The Future Generations
A world language for the future is for a future world of peace and international cooperation, in which communications and the interchange of ideas will have their fullest development. By itself, the world language can never bring about such a world. But it can effectively aid in bringing it about, through the removal of linguistic and even, to some extent, of ideological misunderstandings, and through the creation of a healthy atmosphere wherein men regard one another as fellow human beings endowed with the capacity for intelligible human speech. If wars must go on in spite of this, they will at least be wars in which the participants will understand one another, and an offer to surrender won't be misinterpreted as a gesture of defiance. In a hypothetical war of the future in which all the military and civilians on both sides are capable of speaking the same language, there will be less suffering and dying, to the extent that the suffering and dying of the past have been due to language differences. There will be no specially endowed individuals, like the U. S. general who speaks fluent French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean; no special interpreters for American, British, French, Dutch, and Italian warships participating in joint maneuvers; no quickie language courses for men destined for remote areas. Neither will there be such incidents as that of American sentries and South Korean civilians killing one another because neither understood what the other wanted.
In civilian life, we shall be able to avoid such peculiar and preventable accidents as the drowning of a young Italian immigrant to Canada, who was warned of a strong undertow, was unable to understand, and went swimming in the danger area, or the almost fatal incident of the Soviet plane carrying Gromyko to London which twice overshot the London airport because the control tower directions had to be translated from English into Russian. The disasters of the Titanic and the Andrea Doria both involved heavy loss of life due to language misunderstanding between passengers and crew. Back around the turn of the century, numerous Italian workers coming to New York from the backward districts of southern Italy lost their lives because they did not understand the directions given them to turn off the gas lights in their flop-house quarters instead of blowing them out like an oil-lamp.
But without going into the comparatively rare instances o? the difference between life and death made by knowledge of another tongue, the world language will mean that any immigrants, tourists, or travelers coming from one country to another will at once be able to understand and be understood by those around them, to the evident comfort and general satisfaction of all concerned.
Here is a Bulgarian ex-king in Portugal, struggling with a servant who thought he wanted to take his coat off, whereas the king was trying to put it on. Here is an American tourist who thinks anyone will understand English if you only bellow it at him, and thereby arouses ridicule for himself and his country wherever he goes. Here is another tourist on a motor tour of Europe, finding himself faced with road directions in thirty unfamiliar languages, with unpleasant and dangerous consequences. The story of the American who missed his plane in Copenhagen because the taxi driver had to stop four times along the way to ask other Danes what he was saying; the Reader's Digest editor in Finland who could not make the waitress understand that he wanted eggs and coffee, not smoked fish and aquavit, for breakfast; the man who knew ten languages but found himself faced with one he didn't know, and had to secure the services of an interpreter, are all familiar enough. These instances will be multiplied as time goes on, because the advances of civilization, trade, and travel will not halt to permit languages to catch up with them.
A world language will do away with the necessity for publishing a magazine in seven tongues, saying the Lord's Prayer in six for the benefit of an international body of worshipers, conducting scientific congresses in four official and ten unofficial languages, as has so often happened in the near past. It will do away with Holland's real or fancied need for tourist directional signs in five languages (Dutch, French, German, English, Esperanto), It will make possible what is impossible today, a truly international driver's license, recently rejected on the ground that it would have to contain at least thirty languages. It will permit the transfer of thought with a single translation, instead of twenty, as has happened with so many works of literature. It will enable a single radio or television broadcast, a single motion-picture production, a single newspaper account, a single magazine article, to reach the people of the entire world.
We shall no longer need the elaborate school for UN simultaneous interpreters and foreign service translators if we have a world tongue. We shall not have to worry whether the Chinese text of a UN address in English is correct, or whether "genocide" should be translated into the literal equivalent of "destruction of racial groups" or "destruction of human groups," whether the English and Spanish "human rights" corresponds precisely to the French and Russian "rights of man" or to the Chinese "man right." We shall do away, once and for all, with the criticism voiced by students observing the proceedings of the UN Security Council that "the delegates talk too much without saying enough." There is no reason why in a world gathering what has to be said should not be said just once, in a language fully comprehensible and accessible to the entire world.
In science and technology, a world language will enable us to make the entire world output directly and immediately available to the entire world. Important discoveries and inventions will not have to wait for slow, difficult, often inexact translations, or unsatisfactory abstracts which often omit important details. The language of the atom will become clear to all who are concerned with it, and not have to be delayed until a UN corps of skilled interpreters laboriously transfers it from English to French, thence to Spanish, and ultimately to Russian and Chinese. There will be no further use for Professor Parry Moon's difficult task of standardizing scientific terminology in the major languages of the earth, or the abortive use of electronic translating machines which up to the present time have only succeeded in demonstrating the need for a skilled human translator to retranslate their jargon into something that makes sense.
With a world language, we would even have the full standardization, for international use, of geographical names which at present cause trouble not only to the makers of maps and atlases, but to those who wish to use their products. Who at present can recognize in the Finnish Yhdysvallat, the Arabic Alwellat Almotaheda, the Japanese Beikoku, the Chinese Mei Kuo what we know as the United States? Deutschland, Alle-magne, Niemcy, Tyskland, Saksa, and Doitsiu all refer to the same country—Germany.
In the field of trade and business, we are faced with a five-language automobile dictionary, said to be indispensable for those who take their cars across international borders. We have foreign-language campaigns to advertise internationally used products, with international complications arising by reason of the use of a trade name like "Gillette" to refer to any automatic razor. We have large and flourishing language classes conducted for the benefit of their employees by great business enterprises with international ramifications. There are millions of job opportunities open only to those qualified for them by the possession of one or another of the world's many languages; with a single world language, these jobs would be open to all.
There is one angle of the world language question that has seldom if ever been mentioned. It is the use of the world language for the solution of internal problems in countries having large and numerous linguistic minorities, or in which many languages are at present official. In a country like Switzerland, with its official German, French and Italian (plus occasional Rumansh), there are language difficulties, because not all the inhabitants speak all the official tongues of the country with equal fluency. A Swiss conductor has to call "Fahrkarten! Billets! Biglietti!" as he goes through the cars; the car signs have to bear "Nicht Rauchen! Defense de fumer! Proibito Fumare!" For such a country, a world language might represent an ideal simplification of a complicated state of affairs.
But there are far larger and more important national units than Switzerland to which the world language would be a distinct boon in their own internal affairs—nations like India, Pakistan, the Soviet Union, Indonesia, the Philippines, regions like Africa south of the Sahara, New Guinea, the South Sea islands.
In India alone, there are over 225 languages and dialects, with 24 major tongues accounting for 96 per cent of the population. On a ten-rupee Indian banknote, nine printed languages designate the value of that piece of paper money. Hindi is "official," but the claims of Bengali, Tamil, Gujarati, Telugu, Marathi, and at least half a dozen other tongues will not be denied. English, which once served as a bridge language for the educated portion of the Indian population, is on its way out. Hindi is supposed to replace it, but the replacement gives rise to violent opposition. There have been "walkouts" on the part of members of the Indian Parliament from southern India in protest against the use of Hindi, which they cannot understand. There have been violent language riots in many parts of the country, with speakers of Bihari fighting speakers of Bengali, with Tamil, Telugu, Canarese, and Marathi speakers vying for the state of Travan-core, and with Marathi and Gujarati speakers rioting over Bombay. The Indian government, powerless to solve the language problem, has been endeavoring, with little success, to divide the country into provinces that will follow language lines, but often there are no clear-cut linguistic lines, and entire regions are in dispute. Meanwhile, the Indian government radio is forced to broadcast, locally, in seventeen tongues. Is there any doubt that a world language would prove an inestimable blessing to India, since it could be used as a tongue of common intercourse by all the country's inhabitants, regardless of their original language affiliations? Would this not lead to peace and unification for the entire nation, and do away with the necessity for carving out states, like Andhra, which have no economic or political justification, but are only created to satisfy the desire of the speakers of one of the many Indian languages not to have to submit to another tongue? Since the world language would, in all probability, be neither Hindi, nor Bengali, nor Tamil, nor Oriya, the speakers of all these languages would be able to accept it and use it without any feeling of inferiority or subservience. In East Pakistan, the struggle between the official Urdu and the local Bengali has led to bloody riots. In China, under both the Nationalist and the Communist regimes, the sixty or seventy local dialects, many of which are mutually incomprehensible, have caused trouble in the national assembly. Both these countries would be benefited by the existence of a world language, which could be used as a means of common intercourse. In Indonesia, the official Bahasa Indonesia is based on the old Malay, which has long been a trade language. But even so, not all Indonesians are acquainted with it, and some of the speakers of the seventy or more local tongues resent it. In the Philippines are sixteen major languages, and the official Tagalog is native to only a fraction of the total population. To both these countries, the appearance of a world language might represent the solution of many internal problems. The pidgin of New Guinea and the Mela-nesian islands, the Creole of Haiti, despite the well-intentioned encouragement of some linguists with sociological leanings, are no substitute for a true language. Would it not be better to indoctrinate the natives with a world language that they could use anywhere and for all purposes than with a form of baby-talk that is humiliating in its origins and present-day applications?
In the Union of South Africa, in addition to English and the Afrikaans of the Boers, are nine native languages of the Bantu and Hottentot-Bushman stocks, two of them, Xhosa and Zulu, with over two million speakers. In East Africa, Swahili vies with a multitude of local speech-forms. In the Sudan there are so many local languages, in addition to the Arabic of the Egyptians and the English of the former official circles, that Latin was at one time proposed as a first-class common tongue. What the advent of a world language would mean to these and similar areas of the earth can only be estimated. It would mean that all the people, regardless of their local dialect, could use it among themselves without the haunting fear that one group would thereby obtain predominance over the others; but more than that, it would offer these groups, which are at present backward, a means of communicating with the entire outside world, of quickly enriching their stock of knowledge and information, of finding themselves on a plane of at least partial equality with those who have preceded and outdistanced them in the march toward modern civilization.
Even the Soviet Union could benefit from a world tongue, because within its vast boundaries are some 150 different languages, many of them spoken by groups which in the past have bitterly resented attempts at Russification. It is likely that this opposition to Russian has waned in recent years, but the world tongue would still serve to remove all suspicion of Russian nationalism if it were to be employed as a bridge tongue between the major and minor linguistic groups.
These are some of the advantages which a world language would undoubtedly carry in its wake. They are material, immediate, practical advantages, of the bread-and-butter variety, definitely measurable in tangible terms.
The more remote spiritual advantages are there, too. What goes on today within nations speaking the same tongue and subscribing, at least in theory, to the same set of ethical principles, is not always perfect, or even praiseworthy. Yet few will deny that we have achieved, generally speaking, a higher degree of national than of international order. A world language is one of the factors, though by no means the only one, that will lead to an extension to the broader world scene of such ethical principles as are observed within individual nations. There is undoubted gain in making human beings conscious of their kinship as human beings. Community of language is one of the most powerful factors in bringing about this point of view. The need of a world language for the coming generations is second only to the need for permanent principles of peace and justice for all mankind.
A few considerations concerning those future generations are in order. People are normally anxious to leave to their children and descendants those things which they, the older generation, deem worth while—material wealth, evidence of progress, traditions, institutions. With the possible exception of the first, these heirlooms are not invariably accepted as unmixed blessings by those for whom they are intended.
It has been a commonplace, within our own lifetime, to see both time-honored traditions and institutions of all descriptions radically changed, modified, forgotten, scrapped. Each generation of mankind demands for itself the right to judge what it shall consider of value.
Even material wealth and progress fall under the taint of suspicion. Can we prove that we are happier than those who went before us, despite all our vaunted advances? Nineteenth- and twentieth-century science has brought us a longer life-span, a higher standard of living, faster and easier communication and transportation. It has also brought us greater discontent with our lot, the vastly increased problems of youth and old age, the menace of nuclear conflict and worldwide destruction.
There are few things to which we can point with pride as we say to our children: "We leave you this product of our genius, and we assure you that it can work only for your welfare and happiness." The automobile and airplane which our grandfathers did not have and which we pass on to our descendants will carry people and goods faster and more efficiently; they may also carry sudden death and nuclear destruction. Were we to devise, within our lifetime, a workable system of world government, as so many today advocate, it might put an end to international conflicts, but we would have no guarantee that it might not lead to a world dictatorship as obnoxious as some that exist today in limited areas: the difference would be that no escape could be found from such a world dictatorship to a country that represents our concept of freedom.
An international language differs from the vast majority of doubtful collective heritages passed on by one generation to another in this important respect: it can do good, but it cannot possibly do harm. It is only a useful tool, like the international postage system, or, better yet, like language itself. It infringes in no way upon national sovereignties or prerogatives. If it infringes upon the rights of the individual, it does so only to the same extent as the individual national systems of compulsory education, with their prescriptive features as to what is to be learned in the classroom. No nation, to this writer's knowledge, bars the teaching of foreign languages in its schools, but many make such study compulsory. Here it would be a question of making one "foreign" language compulsory, with all others left to the option of the students, or to the special requirements of the course of study.
Some will object to the standardization that will ensue. But standardization is the general rule today. Everywhere, from the most civilized western countries to the most backward regions of Africa, people are becoming more standardized as the material level of civilization rises. Motion pictures, the radio, television are bringing standardization to the entire world. Refrigerators and air-conditioning are in use today among the natives of West Africa and the Amazon region. For better or for worse, no one in the world today, and certainly no one in the world of fifty years hence, can escape standardization. Why not accept the good features of standardization along with the bad?
Why not pass on to our heirs one item, one tool of communication, which can serve them in all places and at all times, and which cannot in any way damage them? If the international language is viewed with suspicion as fostering an international outlook, then ought we not to be equally preoccupied with any sort of international contact, diplomatic, commercial, or cultural? Has not the world gone too far to think of turning back to the comparative (but never absolute) isolation of former centuries?
Short of a foolproof system for preventing war and ensuring perpetual peace, coupled with freedom for the individual, the adoption of an international language is the greatest gift with which we could collectively endow our children and their descendants. We need it now; but they will need it infinitely more than we do.