machinery of a peaceful solution
UN and UNESCO—The Linguistic Commission—Membership-Procedure—Outcome—The Judgment of Solomon
As far back as 1894, Hugo Schuchardt, one of Europe's foremost philologists, who had opposed Volapiik since its first appearance and predicted its eventual downfall at the time of its greatest triumphs, made this interesting statement: "If all the governments of Europe had introduced it as a compulsory subject in the public schools, its future would have been assured in spite of all superior projects."
In 1922, Albert Guerard said: "Without official recognition, the fate of the best system is precarious; with it, any scheme that is not totally unworkable would do well enough."
These two pronouncements from two of the greatest minds that have ever devoted their attention to the international language problem sum up the situation.
Even the support of revered learned bodies is not enough.
In 1901 no less a group than the International Association of Academies warmly endorsed the adoption of an international language. This body included, among others, the academies and scientific societies of Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Budapest, Christiania, Copenhagen, Gottingen, Leipzig, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Vienna, and Washington, as well as the Royal Society of London, the three great academies of Paris, and the Accademia dei Lincei of Rome. In a lengthy resolution presented by the secretary of the Paris Academy of Sciences, which was unanimously approved, it was pointed out that the progress of science demanded the unification and coordination of scientific production through the medium of a single world language. This plea fell upon deaf ears, so far as the dozen or more governments of the countries represented at the Congress were concerned.
The Congress of International Associations, meeting in Brussels in 1920, endorsed Esperanto as the world auxiliary language, with the recommendation that all improvements deemed necessary be deferred "until the moment when the language has been officially adopted by the governments." This moment never came.
It is true that at the first Assembly of the ill-starred League of Nations, in 1921, a motion favoring Esperanto was made and carried. But this motion simply stated that the League "follows with interest the experiments of official teaching of the international language Esperanto in the public schools of some members of the League, hopes to see that teaching made more general in the whole world, so that the children of all countries may know at least two languages, their mother-tongue and an easy means of international communication, and asks the Secretary-General to prepare for the next Assembly a report on the results reached in this respect." This emphatically was not enough.
As recently as 1955, a general meeting of UNESCO held at Montevideo discussed, quite inconclusively, the endorsement of Esperanto as a universal auxiliary language. Subsequently, the writer enjoyed the privilege of an hour-long interview with Dr. Luther Evans, Director General of UNESCO, at which the question of UNESCO's official and even unofficial attitude toward the question of an international language was fully discussed. The gist of this interview is to the effect that the organization holds a completely neutral attitude toward the various projects now afloat; that no scientific study of the problem has yet been made (!); that the problem ought indeed to be investigated; that a scientific study should be made. That is as far as UNESCO cares to go at the present time.* In return, for what it may be worth in relation to the problem, there is a full description of the achievements of UNESCO in the matter of spreading literacy in backward countries. This activity is in itself highly praiseworthy. It is only fair to point out, however, that the methodology followed leads to the multiplication of existing languages and the consequent linguistic confusion that prevails in the world. This methodology calls for instruction in local language forms rather than in the big language supposed to be prevalent in the area under consideration (Haitian Creole, for instance, is imparted to the children and illiterates of Haiti in preference to French, and pidgin English is similarly used in Melanesia in preference to English). To the extent that this system continues to be followed, it will lead to the fractioning and dialectalization of national tongues by placing an official imprint upon substandard forms that might be expected, in a period of swifter and better communications and education than the world has ever known, to disappear by a process of merging into the standard languages.
There is little more to be said concerning official governmental attitudes. The general policy of UN, UNESCO, and the individual governments is one of hands off. Individual movements, or the movement toward any solution whatsoever of the problem, are left to private initiative, where it is safe to assume that they will get nowhere, as they have gotten nowhere in the past.
If there were a will on the part of the governments to solve, once and for all, this thorny problem that has so long agitated the world, the machinery of accord would not be too difficult to create and set in motion.
The first step would be a general accord among the governments for the setting up of a linguistic commission to select the language that is to serve the world, and an advance pledge on the part of those same governments to abide by the decision of the commission, and to implement it by putting the language chosen into all grades of their educational systems, from the lowest to the highest, with the added provision that instruction could, at the discretion of the country's educational authorities, begin at the lowest, or kindergarten level, and be gradually extended upward, year by year, so as not to cause too great a dislocation of programs.
The linguistic commission would consist of duly qualified delegates selected by the government of each country. The basis of representation for each national delegation would be a matter for discussion. The large nations, whether they be western democracies or the teeming countries of Asia, like China and India, might favor representation by population. Other considerations might suggest representation by adult literate population only, or representation based on a weighted index in which population, literacy, and industrial and scientific productivity would all play a part. Nations with small populations and high indexes of literacy and productivity, like Sweden, might favor the weighted index. It might be claimed that basing the representation, and therefore to some extent the choice, upon present-day factors is unfair to nations that might in the future achieve either a higher birthrate or a higher standard of literacy and productivity. In the final analysis, the method of apportioning representation would not make too much difference. No one nation, or group of nations speaking the same tongue would under any circumstances be able to exert direct control over more than one fifth of the total vote. Nations that in the course of the balloting find themselves in danger of being overwhelmed by a single aggressive delegation would be able to form the same kind of coalition that appears in our national conventions under the form of a stop-somebody alliance. The ultimate choice could never represent the will of a minority, but only the compromise of various conflicting tendencies.
The choice of the delegates allotted to each nation would rest with the government of that nation, by whatever methods it pleases. This does not differ materially from what goes on today in the UN Assembly, and ought not to shock the advocates of the democratic process. If we are to reject the assumption that the governments represent, if not the consensus of the people governed, at least the effective power to make those people move, then there is no point to any kind of international gathering, for linguistic or any other purposes.
The delegates would presumably represent each nation's best available linguistic talent. We must, of course, be prepared for the eventuality that certain delegations will arrive with full and precise instructions as to how to cast their votes, while others will consist of individuals who will in the main be guided by their own linguistic conscience. This, too, is a situation with which we are acquainted and know how to cope. The voting procedure will be such that even fully instructed delegations will be powerless to affect any but the preliminary results.
The delegations should know in advance that it is their mission not to create a new language, but only to pass judgment on those that are already available. This will exclude any creative efforts and time-consuming discussions.
The voting procedure will be simple. At the outset, any member of any delegation may propose the candidacy of any language, natural or constructed, already in existence. Nominating speeches will be held to a maximum of ten minutes, in the course of which the delegate may propound the advantages of the language or system he advocates. In actual practice, this will not mean the presentation of some three thousand languages, but of only a small fraction of that number; for one thing, no delegate will be allowed to sponsor more than one language; secondly, the vast majority of minor languages and projects will not find anyone to sponsor them. It may safely be prophesied that no more than a couple of hundred languages and systems will be nominated.
Once the nominations are closed, a brief period of discussion, half an hour at the most, will be allotted for each language that has become a candidate, with ten minutes for the supporters and twenty for the opponents (along with the nominating speech, this will mean twenty minutes for and twenty against each candidate).
This preliminary process may be expected to consume at least a month of the congress' time. It will be time well spent, since both delegates and the world's peoples at large will be able to familiarize themselves with the issues. Some of our national nominating conventions have lasted almost as long.
Once the discussion period is over, the voting will begin. Here the procedure will be purely automatic. On the initial ballot, any delegate may vote for any of the two hundred or so candidates he wishes. When the results of the first ballot are known, that half of the total number of language-candidates that have received the smallest number of votes automatically drop out of the running, and only the leading 50 per cent remain in the field.
Additional runoffs are compulsory even in the very unlikely eventuality that on the first ballot one language should receive an absolute majority of all votes cast. This provision works against numerically large delegations and permits the coalescing of minor forces.
The runoff ballots continue to the end, with half the candidates automatically eliminated on each ballot, and the delegates obliged to redistribute their votes on the surviving languages. If at the outset two hundred languages are in the field, they become one hundred, then fifty, twenty-five, twelve, six, three, two. The eighth or ninth ballot should tell the story, and it will probably be a vastly different one from what the first ballot foreshadows, as the delegates are obliged to recede from their favorite sons and take their choice of what is left.
The language selected in the final ballot has automatically been accepted in advance by the governments of the world. If it is a national language, it is understood that it will be rigidly phonetized as to spelling for international purposes, though the nation or nations speaking it may continue to use the old form of writing for purely national use. If it is a constructed language, it will be examined for perfect phonetiza-tion, and whatever changes are needed will be made on the spot.
Now comes a five-year period of teacher training, before the international language is placed in the schools of the world, on a basis of absolute parity with the national tongues.
This period of preparation is necessary. Teachers who are to impart the international language primarily in the kindergartens and lower grades must know it and speak it perfectly, and must be perfect as teachers. This period may also serve the purposes of perfecting and improving upon the chosen tongue, if it is felt that such improvement is needed. Going to work upon a language that is already chosen and established, smoothing out its rough edges, polishing and refining it, is altogether different from what has gone on in the past at congresses of interlinguists, who did not feel bound to respect the languages they had under consideration and who normally solved divergences by creating still another language. At the end of five years, the international language goes into operation in at least the kindergartens of all countries, though it may, at the discretion of the country's educational authorities, be also introduced into the elementary and high-school grades and the colleges and universities. Half of the kindergarten instruction is imparted, by normal, natural speaking processes, in the international tongue, the other half in the national language. This system continues to be applied as the kindergarten generation passes on into the lower grades, upper grades, high schools, colleges, and universities. School instruction is supplemented by radio, television, and motion-picture programs. The kindergarten generation of, say, 1964, when the program first goes into operation, becomes adult by 1984. By the end of the century, it constitutes a majority of the world population. Long before the middle of the twenty-first century, the world language is indeed universal, and the person unable to speak, understand, read, and write it far more rare than the illiterate is today.
The method we have outlined is radical and drastic. But it is the only effective one. It calls for an end to planning and a beginning of direct action. It places the responsibility for the international language squarely where it belongs—on the shoulders of the world's governments.
It calls for an end to wishful thinking and acceptance of a process which is democratic in the broadest sense of the word, since all nations and peoples, without exception, will participate in the choice.
It calls for courage on the part of the governments, which must realize that the attainment of a world-wide means of communication requires some action on their part rather than the indifference or supine neutrality they have so far assumed.
It calls for a realization on the part of the world's peoples that the existence of a single language that will be valid for all sorts of international exchanges is far superior to the study of one or more foreign tongues which are of limited currency, no matter how widespread they may be.
It calls for an attitude on the part of those who are at present advocating one or another particular solution similar to that displayed by the real mother in the Biblical episode of Solomon's judgment. The false mother was willing to have the disputed child cut in two, so that half might be given each of the two claimants. The real mother preferred that the child be kept alive, even at the cost of seeing her rival get it.
Advocates of Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, Basic English, the Bilingual World, or any of at least a dozen natural languages run the risk of seeing their candidate defeated in a world-wide choice such as has been outlined. Are they willing to run this risk in order to achieve what each of them says must be achieved—a world language for everybody?
* Chapter 6 of UNESCO's Scientific and Technical Translating and Other Aspects of the Language Problem, published in 1957, is entitled "The Possible Use of Languages Internationally Understood." This is a 35-page discussion of the international language problem, treated, however, as a matter exclusively connected with scientific and technical translating, and not at all from the aspect of a common language for the world's masses.
It is perhaps natural that the four possibilities discussed at greatest length are English, Basic English, Esperanto, and Interlingua. Of the sixty draft critics (of various nationalities) who voiced an opinion as to which language or system held out the greatest hopes, 35 favored English, 2 favored Basic English, 6 voted for Esperanto, 7 for Interlingua, and 6 were in favor of a mixture of languages of the Monde Bilingue type, but with Spanish, German, Russian, and Chinese included.
Many valuable suggestions are voiced in the course of this chapter, but they deal with the problem of scientific translation rather than with the international language as such.