16. Pro and con: the constructed languages present their candidacy

Basic EnglishEsperantoInterglossaInterlinguaThe Devil's Advocate

As against a precise figure of 2,796 natural languages, all of which are potential candidates, the estimated maximum of constructed tongues is about 600. Of these, many are so far in the past that it will occur to no one to resurrect them. Yet a respectable group remains whose followers, many or few, still live and prosper. There is little point to presenting the hypothetical candidacy of numerous systems which, departing from the identical principles, are far too much alike (an excellent critical comparison of Esperanto, Ido, the old Inter-lingua, and Romanal appears in Guerard).

Four systems that differ radically, all of them advanced in modern times, may serve as samples of the arguments that will be advanced for and against the various constructed tongues that will pose their candidacy.

A delegate addresses the chair: "Mine is the voice of Basic English,* and the statement that I here make about myself is an example of that small-scale language at work. As a separate language system, I am the invention of one man (C. K. Ogden, 1890-1957), but as a part of English I am as old as the rest of the language. Man made though natural, springing from the mother tongue like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, I came into being armed with the powersthough wisely limitedof full English. Such skill has been used in the selection of my 850 words that with them man may say almost anythingin business, trade, industry, science, medical workin all the arts of living and. in all the exchanges of knowledge, belief, opinion, views and news which a general-purpose language has to take care of. Learning to do so is not hard because the rules for putting my words together have been made clear and simple and short. But there is nothing in good Basic which goes against the rules of good English. Great books have been put into me, as well as talks to men and women at the far ends of the earth. Because my word list is so short, all my sounds may be played on one recording, and teaching me with the help of sound motion pictures is becoming simpler and simpler. Moreover, my selection as servant of the earth's needs would give to men everywhere, if not theirs by birth, use of one of the great living languages. I am a door opening on wider English."

The devil's advocate rises in rebuttal. "You are neither a natural nor a constructed tongue, but a distortion of a living language. The only improvement you offer over natural English is a restriction and limitation of vocabulary, which is no improvement at all, for the language of the future needs an abundant word-stock capable of taking care of all the needs of civilized living. Your claims are deceitful, since you permit the addition of special sets of words for special pursuits, thereby multiplying your vocabulary until it grows to be many times the 850 words with which you say you can achieve communication. You are bewildering to the speakers of English, who find themselves beset by restrictions at every step in the use of the tongue that is natural to them. You are offensive to non-English speakers, who find that you complicate their problems of translation far beyond the point of endurance. Your combinations of nouns and adverbs, nouns and prepositions, are highly idiomatic and highly tricky, as well as logically inaccurate. You do nothing to simplify the problems of English pronunciation or of English grammar, or to offer standardization of a tongue so highly unstandardized."

It is now the turn of a delegate who wishes to propose the candidacy of Esperanto: "I am the voice of Esperanto, the one and only constructed language that has a body of living speakers, the only language of my artificial family that has had the honor of a full, free discussion at international conferences and international bodies, and has been recommended by a consensus of such bodies to serve as the world language. Numerous nations have issued stamps in my honor, using me; even more numerous are the nations that use me officially over their air waves, and otherwise recognize me as a secondary language. I am neutral, since I belong to no nation. I am thoroughly international, yet quite familiar in spots to all who undertake to use me. My grammatical structure, while so simple that a child can learn me, has points of contact with the languages of the Indo-European group, with those of the agglutinative family, even with the isolating tongues. My vocabulary represents a blend of the two most numerous groups of the Indo-European stock, the Latin-Romance and the Germanic, but in me you will find Greek, Slavic, Oriental words. My system of suffixes and word-formation lends itself to infinite expansion of vocabulary and full-fledged literary use, and this I have proved by developing a flourishing literature, both original and in translation. My sounds are easy for all to pronounce, for I have taken only those sounds which most civilized languages hold in common, and my syllabic arrangement is open and clear, so that I vie with Italian in harmony and euphony. My system of spelling and accentuation is such that no one need ever be in the least doubt as to how any one of my words is pronounced when he sees it written, or how it is spelled when he hears it uttered. My career has not been ephemeral, like that of Volapiik; despite oppositions and rivalries, I have survived and grown, and today my followers are more numerous than they have ever been. The smaller nations of the world favor me, as well they should, since I put their citizens on a plane of absolute linguistic equality with those of the larger and more powerful world states. When people hear the term 'international language,' nine out of ten think of me, and not of any other tongue, national or constructed."

The voice of the devil's advocate is heard: "You are an artificial, not a natural tongue. You are the product of one man's brain, not the outcome of a slow process of evolution. People who speak you are forever conscious of your artificiality, and consider you not so much a language as a game or a fad. You claim to be fully neutral and fully international, but your vocabulary, and even your grammar, lean heavily in the direction of the western tongues. The Slavic and Oriental elements you claim to possess are extremely scanty, and certainly not such as to predispose a speaker of those tongues in your favor. Being the product of a single brain, you are arbitrary in the extreme, and, in spots, unpredictable. What made you select the English bird, an isolated word that does not appear even in the other Germanic languages, in the place of the far more widespread avis or avicellum root of Latin, the ornith- of Greek, or even the Vogel-fowl of Germanic? Why do you turn to the German Knabe for 'boy' when puer and paid- are at your disposal? Why do you form your noun-plurals in the isolated Greek fashion, when -s is so much more widespread? Your sounds are monotonous and tiresome, and speakers of different languages tend to pronounce them in their own fashion, so that even now your pronunciation shows as many cleavages as does that of your predecessor, Latin. Your system of writing is phonetic, but your suprascript characters offer complications and often require substitution."

The nomination now shifts to Interglossa, presented perhaps by its distinguished creator, Lancelot Hogben: "I am a language that endeavors to combine western and Oriental elements, so that I may be equally acceptable to East and West. My vocabulary is largely that of international science, with a predominance of Greek roots, which are already familiar to most of the scientists of the West. My syntax is the isolating syntax of Chinese, a simple, resilient system that permits economy of words with a maximum of understanding. If I have not gained great favor, it is precisely because I have endeavored to achieve strict neutrality and a maximum of compromise."

The devil's advocate replies: "In your endeavor to achieve neutrality, you have turned into a system that pleases nobody. How can the speaker of Chinese, who might like your syntax, be expected to rest content with your vocabulary, which is totally unfamiliar to him? How can the western scientist, who knows your word-roots, be pleased with your syntax, to which he is not as accustomed? You have used Greek rather than Latin elements in your vocabulary. But does the average speaker of a western tongue, who knows the general meaning of 'microphone,' also know that the word's two elements mean 'small' and 'sound'? Does he know that hetero- is 'other,' and dyne is 'strength'? By endeavoring to be too neutral, you have ended by not being neutral enough, at least to the extent of winning acceptance from a considerable portion of the world's speakers."

Dr. Alexander Gode, greatest exponent of Interlingua, now offers his tongue: "I am the voice of Interlingua, the only scientifically constructed language in the world, the product of the labors of the world's greatest linguistic minds over a period of nearly thirty years. I am the language of international scientific congresses, because anyone who is scientifically trained can read and even understand me with ease. The principle that inspired my makers was that of maximum internationality of both words and grammatical forms, and this is reflected in my widespread acceptance in scientific circles."

An Esperantist rises to perform the function of devil's advocate: "Your rules of pronunciation and accentuation are delightfully vague, not fixed; this means that your chances of breaking up into various dialects are enormous. Your guiding principle is erroneous; because you used as your pilot languages a group of tongues in which Latin-Romance held an absolute majority, the outcome was a foregone conclusion; you are not so much an international as you are a Pan-Romance tongue. Of course you are easily understood by speakers of Romance or English. But what happens when a speaker of German, Slavic, or Chinese faces you? The scientist or scholar who can understand you. could just as easily understand English, French, Spanish, or Italian, since they all hold the same scientific vocabulary in common. It is the little man who must be considered, the one whose linguistic and intellectual equipment is not vast. When your control tongues fail to show a majority, you arbitrarily use a Latin word. Why? You supply synonyms, but in haphazard fashion, instead of trying to utilize them to establish needed distinctions of meaning. You have no true speaking population, but only a reading public; and your reading public is such that it could read half a dozen natural languages as easily as it can read you."

These are some of the arguments, pro and con, that we might reasonably expect to hear advanced at a linguistic congress designed to select, from among the many natural and constructed languages, a single tongue for universal use.

Of great importance is the time limitation. Linguists (and we would hope that the delegates would be linguists, not politicians), if left to their own devices, would consume centuries. But with limited time for presentation and rebuttal, and with no more than one candidacy permitted to each delegate, the initial labors of the convention might be held to a reasonable limit. The runoff elections would be fully automatic, and consume one week at the most. At the end of a month, the international language would be selected. But this, of course, would be only the end of a beginning, not the beginning of the end.

* This presentation, in Basic English, was supplied by Miss Christine M. Gibson of Language Research, Inc. It comes in part from the definition appearing in Learning Basic English, by I. A. Richards and C. M. Gibson, New York, Norton, 1945. Acknowledgment is gratefully made to the authors and publishers of Learning Basic English.

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