15. Pro and con: the national languages present their candidacy

GreekLatinFrenchEnglishSpanishItalianGermanRussian-ChineseFinnishLe Monde Bilingue The Devil's Advocate

At the world linguistic congress that is to decide upon a language to serve as an international medium of communication, any language may be presented. Yet the candidates actually placed in the running will probably be relatively few. Still fewer will be the ones to outlast the first ballot or two. A handful of widely known natural languages, Classical and modern, an even more slender handful of constructed tongues, a dark horse or two, will be all that will survive the initial ballots.

Is it legitimate for us to allow our imagination to run riot and anticipate the nominating speeches and their rebuttals? Perhaps, and perhaps not. It will, at any rate, serve the purposes of recapitulation, and fix in the minds of the readers the main arguments, pro and con, that have been advanced each time one of these tongues has been named as a possibility. From a purely objective point of view, many of these arguments are without value, since any language, great or small, known or unknown, "easy" or "difficult" from adult standards, will serve the purpose, provided it is learned naturally and conversationally by the children of each land and is given a thoroughly phonetic written form. But it is adults, not children, who will make the decision, and the adult point of view, however subjective, is hard to eradicate, even among trained linguists, and must be taken into account.

We may therefore expect these arguments to be advanced, and the customary refutations to be made. It will not be amiss to listen in, as it were, on the proceedings of the linguistic congress in advance of its occurrence. Nor will it be amiss to personify each candidate as it is presented, and let it speak for itself, something that is not very likely to happen, but which injects a personal, warm note into the discussion.

Delegate X, being recognized by the speaker, rises and says: "I speak for Greek, and, for the purposes of this discussion, I am the voice of the Greek language, a tongue of great antiquity and high civilization, which has had uninterrupted use from the eighth century before Christ until the present day. Structurally and in vocabulary, I am highly representative of the great Indo-European family of languages, which includes fully half of the world's living populations. My power to express human thought, from the simplest to the most complicated, has been amply demonstrated during the three millennia that I have been in use. I am capable of giving voice to the most refined shades of meaning. Poets, statesmen, scholars, and philosophers have used me, and found me satisfactory. My scheme of sounds is easy to master by people of other tongues. My word-stock appears in all civilized languages spoken today, and has given rise to more than half of the international vocabulary of learning in all fields, from that of philosophy and abstract thought to that of physical science and technology. Having been internationally used in antiquity and during the Middle Ages, having achieved the greatest international use in modern times, I consider myself highly suited for the post of international tongue."

Delegate Y rises in rebuttal. "While all you say is true, it is undeniable that your ancient Indo-European grammatical structure is largely out of vogue today. Few people in the twentieth century are prepared to cope with your intricate system of noun declensions and verb conjugations. While your words are widespread in most modern tongues, the bulk of your vocabulary is unknown. The language we want is for practical, colloquial, not scholarly or philosophical use."

"I am the Latin language. Almost as ancient as Greek, equally representative of the Indo-European family, I am to an even greater degree a vehicle of civilized thought. For many centuries I was the world language, while the Roman Empire stood. Later, in the Middle Ages, I was the universal tongue of western scholarship, and all men who were literate used me in speech as well as in writing. I have many children in the world: French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese are all sprung from me. Today, I am still used as an international tongue by the clergy of a Church that extends to all countries of the world. I, too, have been the expressive vehicle of literature, poetry, philosophy, and science. My vocabulary is international to an even greater extent than that of Greek, and I continue to be studied where Greek has gone out of fashion. I am a language of simple, yet majestic and sonorous sounds, which will not unduly disturb the speakers of other languages. I have within me, at the present time, the machinery for expressing the most complicated modern terminology. In asking to become the world language, I only claim what is my own."

"As a spoken tongue of common intercourse, you have been dying by inches, year by year, and you are becoming more and more dead. Your place has been usurped by the modern tongues, in diplomacy, in literature, in science. Grammatically, you are difficult to master and use, and your difficulty justifies the statement once made by Henderson in the language he had derived from you: 'Post decem annos de studere, pauces discipules pote, aut legere facile, aut scribere accurate, aut loquere aliquantulum i latine lingue' ('After ten years of study, few students can either read easily, or write accurately, or speak just a little in the Latin tongue'). Your complicated grammatical structure is accompanied by uncertainty as to your pronunciation, and the speakers of each modern tongue pronounce you in their own fashion."

"I am the French language, widespread and popular, elegant, clear, and expressive. For centuries I have been used as the world tongue of diplomacy and culture. No one who does not know me can consider himself truly educated. I am spoken today by no fewer than eighty million people, scattered all over the world. You will find me equally at home in Europe, America, Africa, and Asia. My grammatical structure, if not too simple, is at least definite and crystal-clear. I am thoroughly standardized, both as to grammar and as to pronunciation, so that people need not be in doubt as to whether they are using me correctly. My vocabulary is largely Latin, which gives it broad internationality, and my words have penetrated all other languages, most of all my great modern rival, English. When an official, authoritative text is wanted, I supply that text. As a tongue in full spoken use, I am not under the disadvantages of the Classical languages, yet I am Classical in the cultural and literary sense, with an uninterrupted tradition that goes back more than a thousand years. In the great political-economic controversy that agitates the present-day world, I am equally acceptable to East and West, for my history embraces both feudalism and the Jacquerie, absolutism and Jacobinism, the bourgeois industrial revolution and the Paris Commune."

"You are far less widespread than you formerly were. In recent years, you have lost a great deal of your old international prestige. Your sound-scheme is difficult for anyone not born to it, and lends itself to confusion and misunderstanding. Your grammatical structure is complex, particularly for what concerns the verbs. Your vocabulary may be Latin, but you have pushed the process of change to the point where far too many of your words are unrecognizable as stemming from their Latin ancestors. Your system of spelling is antiquated and misleading, and if it is phonetized, as it must be for international use, the abyss that separates you from your etymological origins will be deepened and broadened to the point where few of your words and forms will be recognized by those who today at least recognize them in writing. You may serve as an international language for an intellectual elite, but you are hardly suitable for the world's masses."

"I am the English language, second in number of speakers throughout the world, first in distribution, in commerce, in industry, in wealth, in economic power, in science and technology. My grammatical structure combines the features of inflectional Indo-European with those of isolating Chinese. My vocabulary is truly international, uniting Germanic, Romance, Greek, and Latin elements into an indissoluble whole, and affording the greatest freedom of choice to my speakers. I have spread with ease over the entire world, because practically everyone wants to learn me and use me. I am a thoroughly popular, colloquial tongue, yet I have proved my worth as an instrument of literature. I am direct and concise, yet quite expressive. More people want me as an international tongue than want any other."

"You are a tongue that is extremely confusing, not merely as to spelling, but also as to pronunciation and grammar. You have no standard form, and refuse to have any. Your sounds are among the most confusing in the world, with vowels and diphthongs that have bewildering glides when they are stressed and are completely unclear when unstressed. Your consonant clusters are harsh and unpleasant to the ear. Your stress is unpredictable. Your spelling is ghastly, and if it is phonetized, half of your word-stock, now perfectly recognizable in written form, will become a shrouded mystery. Your grammatical simplicity is a snare and a delusion. Your tricky auxiliary verbs, like do and have ('Do you have a book?'; 'Have you got a book?') are the despair of grammarians. Your system of functional change, whereby the same word may be used as any of three or four parts of speech ('Casualties from cold cut' says one of your newspaper headlines) leaves speakers of other languages breathless. You are much too given to slang and jargon, and you change far too fast to suit anyone but your own speakers."

"I am the voice of the Spanish language, a tongue of widespread use, ancient and honorable ancestry, ease of sounds and structure, long service in the fields of literature, commerce, exploration, and discovery. I am a friendly language, one that people fall into easily, as proved by the millions of non-Hispanic stock that today use me as their own. My word-hoard is abundant, for I have drawn freely from every source, and passed on to my sister languages of the West thousands of words from the Arabic of the Moors, the Indian tongues of America, the languages of the East. Yet I am basically Latin, and no one grounded in a Latin culture finds my words difficult. I have a free and easy interchange with the speakers of Portuguese on the one hand, those of Italian on the other. I am the leading language of a continent that may dominate the world's future, South America. My grammar has been deliberately simplified, to the point where it outstrips in logic and regularity all my sister tongues of the Romance family. My system of writing is so simple and phonetic that if I am chosen very little will have to be done to phonetize me."

"You are indeed widespread, but with uneven distribution. Outside of the western hemisphere and the isolated peninsula that is your original home, few people know you. You are not standardized as to usage or pronunciation, and each of the many countries that use you has its own special vocabulary, its own special slang, its own points of usage, which you have not succeeded in bringing under unified control. In some of your dialects, some of your sounds are too harsh; in others, too soft and relaxed. Your grammatical structure is simple in its early reaches, but it achieves great complexities of syntax and word arrangement, encouraging your speakers to be verbose and redundant."

"I am the harmonious tongue of Dante and Petrarch and Boccaccio and the dolce stil nuovo, a tongue so close to my ancestral Latin that for centuries my speakers referred to me not as 'Italian,' but as il Volgare, the Vulgar Language, Latin spoken without the rules of Latin grammar. Why seek a Latin without flexions when I am available? My sound-scheme is so perfect that I have been singled out as the language of song and music and fine diction. I am sonorous, and carry better than any other tongue on earth, with vowels that are clear-cut and distinct, consonants that are fully articulated and audible. I am the language of a great culture, whose continuity extends from the days of Romulus and Remus to the present, for between me and Latin there was never a clean break. I am the most worthy continuator of the Latin and the Roman tradition, which is universal, of the tradition of early Christianity, which is equally universal, of the tradition of the Renaissance, which first spoke in my words. I am the language of a nation that rises from its ashes each time it seems to die, and marches on to greater glory and nobler achievement in the fields that truly lead to everlasting renownmusic, the arts, poetry, and literature, the things that enrich the life of man, not those that destroy it."

"You are the language of a land that has become backward in the modern march of science, technology, and industry. Your speakers are relatively few, and their ranks are cleft by dialects that are among the most divergent and complicated in the world of language. How many of your speakers really speak you? How many do nothing but pay lip service to you, and then go on to worship at other linguistic shrines? Your grammatical structure presents greater complexities than those of your sister Romance tongues, and your syntax is so elastic as to be baffling both to your own speakers and to others. You are restricted in territorial extent, and the millions you have sent out as emigrants have quickly lost you. You are pompous and verbose; you will never say in one short word what can be said in five long ones. Your vocabulary is indeed more Latin than that of any other living tongue, but by the same token it is far less international."

"I am the German tongue, purest and most typical of the languages of my Germanic branch, which is the most populous of the Indo-European family. I am not as conservative of ancient forms as is Icelandic, nor as revolutionary in my innovations as is English. My sound-scheme is not gentle, but it is manly, and my articulation is distinct. My vocabulary is extensive, expressive, and capable of infinite expansion, because I have retained, better than any other western tongue, the ability to form compounds. I abide in the pulsating heart of Europe, and have spread far beyond my borders. I am great in literary, musical, artistic, and cultural achievement."

"You are, despite your extent, a highly localized language. What overseas possibilities you once had you have lost. Your sounds are harsh and unmusical. You are given to consonant clusters that form the nightmare of people of other tongues. Your grammatical structure is both unnatural and illogical, as is your word-arrangement. How can you expect people with other language backgrounds to pronounce such incredible combinations of sounds as Knechtschaft, or manage such unmanageable compounds as Kriegsgefangenenent-schddigungsgesetz, the sort of thing that your sister Germanic language English resolves into 'Law to provide compensation for war prisoners'? Your former scientific appeal is waning in a world in which every civilized nation devotes itself to scientific pursuits in its own language. You are a tongue of the past, not of the future."

"I am the voice of Russian, leading tongue of the Soviet Union, foremost among the Slavic languages, and the official tongue of the new world system, Communism. The territory over which I exercise full direct sway embraces one sixth of the earth's land surface, and my influence extends not only to all lands that have embraced the Communist gospel, but to all lands where there are Communists. Yet, while I represent a new philosophy of life, I am linguistically conservative, preserving the ancient Indo-European structure far better than any of my rivals. My sound-scheme is far from unpleasant to the ear; my grammatical rules, while complex, are no more so than those of Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit. I have served as the vehicle for some of the world's most important literature, and I am now developing into a language for scientific and commercial use. I represent both the past and the future."

"Despite your territorial extent, you are far more of an insular language than the tongue of the British Isles. You are landlocked and circumscribed. Around you there are two iron rings, one fashioned by your enemies, the other by yourself. While you claim to represent a new way of life and social order, the linguistic conservatism of which you boast, and your grammar and system of word-formation, represent a methodology that went out of style with the fall of the Roman Empire. Your words are excessively long, and weighted down with a mighty burden of endings. Your cases are bewildering to the speakers of most modern tongues. Your vocabulary is restricted, and departs from the Graeco-Latin norm that has been accepted by most western tongues. Your unstressed vowels are unclear, almost to the same extent as those of English, and your consonant clusters, while not as frequent as those of German, are equally bad when they occur. Your accentuation is capricious, arbitrary, and unpredictable."

"I am the Chinese language, a tongue of greater antiquity and more unbroken tradition than any language of the west, barring none. I have been in uninterrupted use since at least 2000 b.c, serving a population that achieved the arts of civilization long before your Greeks and Romans had issued from their barbarous nomadic state. This population today amounts to between 500 and 600 millioneasily one fifth of the total number of the earth's inhabitants, and roughly double that of my nearest rival, English. In the course not of centuries, but of millennia, I have developed one of the simplest, most direct and concise grammatical structures on earth. With me, no one need worry about endings and cases and declensions and conjugations. My word-stock, composed of roots of a single syllable, is capable of infinite expansion by the simple process of composition. I can say in five words what it will take one of your western languages five sentences to achieve, yet I will say it in such a way as to bring out to the full the imagery and poetry of language."

"You, too, are a landlocked tongue, with little possibility of overseas expansion. Your speakers, while numerous, are mainly concentrated in one region of the earth, and you have done little to remedy their illiteracy. As a spoken tongue, you are broken up into numerous dialects, so different that they amount in practice to separate tongues. You are held together only by the artifice of a common written language, and once that fails you, as it must if you are to be phonetized, the number of your speakers will shrink, and your defects will become glaring indeed. Your sounds and tones are remote and unfamiliar to the majority of the other peoples of the earth. While you are the vehicle of an ancient and noble civilization, that civilization is too far removed from the main highways of culture, which have by-passed you to the east and to the west. You are not merely an isolating, but an isolated language."

"I am Finnish, an avowedly minor tongue. My speakers are no more than four or five million, and even if to them you add the speakers of related languages, like Estonian and Lapp, you do not go beyond a total of six or seven million. What, then, is my justification for presenting myself side by side with the giants of the language world? Simply this: in a world torn by fierce nationalistic jealousies and imperialisms, I am a thoroughly neutral tongue, partial to none of the great language groups, and representative of the numerous small languages whose speakers, summed together, are more numerous than those of any one of the world's greater tongues. I belong to a minor linguistic family, the Ural-Altaic, which does not seem linked to any of the others. My vocabulary and sentence structure are equally unfamiliar to the speakers of Romance, Germanic or Slavic, of Chinese or Semitic or Hindustani. All will have to make an equal effort to learn me. I represent no imperialistic tendencies whatsoever. I am not the carrier of any aggressive nationalistic tendencies or special political ideologies. I can be embraced with equal ease by the Americans and the Russians. My sounds are extremely simple and easy for the speakers of any other tongue, and my system of writing, even at present, is so thoroughly phonetic that little or no change will have to be made in order to phonetize me if I should be selected. My grammatical structure is logical; if it is complex, it is equally complex for anyone who has to learn me. If neutrality and impartiality are wanted in the international tongue, then I am the ideal candidate."

"You acknowledge your lack of speakers, distribution, and general importance, so nothing further need be said on that score. But you have other drawbacks. Your sounds are simple, but, as you admit, your grammar is hard. You have far too many cases and endings, and they are completely unfamiliar to all except your speakers. Your vocabulary is strange and difficult, and utterly uninternational. You will indeed have to be learned the hard way."

Jean-Marie Bressand, spokesman for le Monde Bilingue, now takes the floor:

"I am not one language," he says, "but a combination of two, the two that are most widespread over the earth's surface, both commercially and culturallyEnglish and French. I shall not repeat what has already been said on behalf of each of my two components. What I wish to emphasize is that I offer a practical, acceptable compromise solution of the problem. Taken together, my two members are native to one human being out of seven. But if we consider the number of those who have some knowledge and understanding of both or either of them, or who can be easily, even though indirectly, reached by one of them, the proportion is roughly one out of two or three. What single tongue, natural or constructed, can make a similar claim? The Bilingual World represents not theory or hypothesis, but actual linguistic reality, and this gives it a tremendous advantage over all its competitors. Taken individually, English and French represent mankind's highest achievements, both in the past and in the present, both in the realms of science and commerce and in those of abstract thought and literature. The vast numbers of people of other tongues who have acquired these two languages are direct evidence of their individual power of attraction. Pooled together, they are irresistible, and are certain to lead mankind to ever loftier heights of progress and civilization."

The devil's advocate replies: "Your two languages are but two facets of a single form of thought, one that in the past has imposed itself not only by its civilizing influence, but also by brute force of arms. You represent a crystallization of the status quo, not an advance into the future. One of your members has already lost much ground, the other is barely holding its gains. Why should mankind accept you and your burden from the past? Why should it continue to bow forever to the type of civilization you represent? Why should it accept the added burden of language learning represented by two international languages where one would amply suffice?"

These are a few samples of imaginary nominating speeches and rebuttals by individual devil's advocates. For the purposes of our illustration, we may at this point conceive the closing of nominations for natural tongues (though many more will undoubtedly be presented if the linguistic congress ever meets) and pass on to a similar brief discussion of constructed languages.

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