|2. What you can
do with each language
The Population Factor—The Distribution Factor—The Military-Political Factor—The Economic Factor—The Cultural Factor
On a scientifically linguistic basis, all languages are equal. They all consist of meaningful, distinctive sounds (sometimes called phonemes); of grammatical devices, which include prefixes, suffixes, changes within the individual word, and word arrangements; of words, conveying separate partial meanings; and of sentences, or complete utterances, conveying minimal units of complete meaning. In spoken (though not in written) form, they are all equally easy and clear to their own speakers, the people who have heard them and practiced them from babyhood, no matter how outlandish or complicated they may seem to the outsider. They all serve the same purpose, which is that of transferring thought and meaning from one person to another. They all have within themselves the machinery to become vehicles of literature, philosophy, science, political thought. Like human beings, they are endowed with an individuality, a complete set of physiological features, and an intellectual or spiritual quality which distinguishes them from the lower orders of creation.
But just as all men, though created equal and endowed with basic equality in the eyes of God, are not endowed with all faculties, powers, and gifts to the same degree, or even if so endowed, have not had equal opportunity to develop them, so languages have marked differences of a purely external, nonlinguistic nature, which make them far from equal in size, importance, use, and general practical desirability. Men faced with a choice between English, the language of one tenth of the earth's population, with its infinite possibilities of use throughout the globe, and Kwakiutl, the tongue of a few thousand North American Indians, will almost invariably prefer to learn and possess English. They will base this choice on external factors—population, distribution, cultural, political, and economic importance. These factors are nonlinguistic, but they are far from unimportant. In a practical sense, they come close to being paramount, just as the possession of wealth, education, social prestige, and influence are tremendously important in the affairs of the individual, though not inherent to his nature and far more subject to change than those more permanent physiological, mental, and spiritual qualities which make up the true essence of a man.
The population factor is to a language much as wealth is to the individual. It can be rather easily gained or lost. It does not particularly enhance its possessor, save insofar as he may make good and socially advantageous use of his increased opportunities. To say that English has 250 million speakers while Greek, in modern times, has fewer than ten million, is not to claim superiority of English over Greek, but only to state an incontrovertible, objective fact, like saying that Win-throp Rockefeller has more money than Albert Schweitzer.
From a practical standpoint, the fact that the thirteen leading languages have over fifty million speakers each gives them a tremendous objective advantage. But other factors come into play. One, which is almost equally subject to empirical observation and enumeration, is that of distribution throughout the globe. Speakers of Chinese outnumber those of English two to one, but they are rather inconveniently located within the boundaries of China, a large and important country, but one which constitutes only a fraction of one continent. English, on the other hand, enjoys widespread distribution throughout the globe. It is found on the North American continent, in the United States, Canada, and Alaska; in Europe, in the British Isles; in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; in the innumerable possessions and former possessions of the British Empire, scattered over the world, from Malta, Gibraltar, and Cyprus in Europe to British Honduras and British Guiana in America, from India and Pakistan in Asia to Egypt and Kenya in Africa. It is a language that has been learned by many who do not have it as a native tongue, so that you find people who speak it almost everywhere you may travel. This distributional advantage more than offsets the numerical superiority of Chinese.
Second only to English in distributional power is French. Though endowed with only about 80 million native speakers, it is practically as widespread as English. It is not only the official language of France and one of the official languages of Belgium and Switzerland, but it is spoken in Europe by large numbers of educated people of all countries. In the Western Hemisphere it is official only in Canada, Haiti, and the few French possessions that are left, but it is widely spoken by the educaced classes of Latin America. In Africa it is one of the great colonizing languages. Madagascar and Indochina, Samoa and Tahiti, the formerly French-held cities on the Indian coast and numerous scattered islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans recognize French as an official language. Like English, French can be used almost anywhere.
Spanish, by way of contrast, is largely limited to the Western Hemisphere, though its homeland is in Europe. Relatively few Spanish speakers are to be found in Europe outside of Spain. Spanish possessions in Africa are few. In the East, with the exception of the Philippines, where large numbers of Spanish speakers were inherited from pre-Spanish-Amer-ican War days, Spanish is practically nonexistent. But in our own hemisphere, Spanish vies with English in distributional strength. It is heard from the Rio Grande to Cape Horn, and is the official language of eighteen of the twenty-two independent American nations.
Portuguese is also primarily a Western Hemisphere language, with Brazil, a country larger than the United States, as its western preserve. But Portuguese still holds sway in a fairly widespread Portuguese empire (continental Portugal and the Azores in Europe; Angola and Mozambique in Africa; Goa, Diu, and Damau in India; Timor in the Indonesian islands).
The distributional force of German is largely limited to central Europe, since Germany's bid to become a world imperial power failed in two world wars. But the German language's position in the heart of the European continent gives it an irradiating power that is felt as far north as Sweden, as far east as Russia, as far south as Yugoslavia, and as far west as France and Belgium. Similar, though somewhat lesser, advantages are enjoyed by Italian, which makes its force felt throughout the Mediterranean basin. In addition, both German and Italian have large masses of transoceanic speakers who impart their own flavor to the Western Hemisphere countries to which they have emigrated—the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay.
Russian, which until recently was a restricted language, has now embarked upon a wide career of expansion. It not only dominates the Soviet Union, which covers one sixth of the earth's land surface, but infiltrates the countries of central Europe and the Balkans. To the east it presses upon China, Manchuria, and Mongolia, though it seems to be meeting with resistance from the Chinese. Still, Russian, like Chinese, Hindustani, and Bengali, is landlocked. A landlocked language, as long as it remains so, cannot be a world language.
Hindustani, surrounded by minor languages and further split into the Hindi of India and the Urdu of Pakistan, is an important and growing tongue. The day will probably dawn when it will serve as a common linguistic medium for all of the subcontinent's four hundred million or more people, but for the time it must be remembered that it is known to less than half that population. Bengali, despite the number of its speakers and its literary merits, may be regarded as a local tongue of northeast India and East Pakistan.
Japanese, Malay, and Arabic are languages of some pretensions. The first made a bid for world power during the recent war. That bid failed, and Japanese is today the language of Japan's 90 million, and little more. The predominant tongue of Indonesia is Indonesian, based on the Malay which served as a lingua franca throughout the Dutch East Indies even before they gained their independence. But it is a language superimposed upon countless minor languages and dialects of the same family—Javanese, Madurese, Balinese, and a host of others. It has little currency outside of Indonesia and Malaya.
This leaves Arabic as the only Asiatic language whose spread permits it to rank in distribution with the great languages of the west. Arabic dominates the African continent from the Mediterranean to the Sahara, and from Morocco to Egypt. It covers most countries of the Middle East—Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq. In addition, Arabic is the vehicle of Islamic civilization, and its influence is felt wherever there are Moslems. It is safe to say that it affects, directly or indirectly, at least 300 million persons, among whom are African Negroes and East Indians, Indonesians and Turks, Chinese and Albanians.
Is it possible to establish a hierarchy of distribution, as we established one of numbers? In such a hierarchy, we would have to list English and French at the very top, then arrange Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, German in a second division, and end up with the more localized tongues, Chinese, Indonesian, Italian, Hindustani, Japanese, Bengali.
But here other factors come in to interfere with our distributional values. What are the economic forces that underlie each language? What political and military elements enter each picture? What scientific realizations and cultural traditions does each language represent?
Here we are forced to depart from the realm of the purely objective. Statistics concerning the production of steel, coal, oil, the number of telephones or radio stations or automobiles are partly or totally available. But it is no more desirable that a language should dominate the world by reason of these purely material factors than that the individual or family that owns half the township property should control the local elections. The military-political and even the scientific elements in modern times closely follow the economic pattern, so that the languages used in countries of vast industrial and economic potential, like the United States, the British Commonwealth, and the Soviet Union, are the ones most likely to have the backing of big guns and atom bombs. These advantages, however, are largely illusory, since in the absence of complete world domination by one power, the large national units, so far as language is concerned, tend to cancel one another out. If English speakers refuse under any and all circumstances to accept the tongue of their Soviet rivals, and the latter in turn reject English, one of three things is likely to happen: in the event of an armed clash, one language will emerge triumphant; or, in the absence of war, the two languages will withdraw each to its own sphere, and become dominant there; or a third, compromise, "dark horse" candidate may replace them both.
The cultural factor remains, but that is so shadowy, so subjective, so dependent upon individual interpretation and taste, that it is doubtful whether it will ever play a very serious role in the choice of a language for the world.
Each group considers its own culture paramount. At the most, a grudging measure of respect may be paid by some of the more enlightened members of one culture to another culture, as when English speakers admit that French is a language well suited for diplomacy, or cookery, or women's fashions, or that Italian works out best for opera singing.
Each of the thirteen leading languages is in a position to advance serious cultural claims, at least from its own viewpoint. We may point out to the speakers of Japanese that their culture stems largely from China, but they can counter that we of the English language have inherited an originally alien, Judaeo-Graeco-Roman civilization, on which we have superimposed a medieval and Renaissance structure that came largely from France and Italy. Speakers of Hindustani, Bengali, even Indonesian, can proudly point to the stemming of their cultures from Sanskrit, earliest of the Indo-European languages on record. Speakers of Arabic can remind us of the mighty Islamic civilization that gathered to itself some of the best elements of Judaism and Christianity, along with the philosophy and science of the ancient Greek world, and went on to build a great cultural empire that for centuries was in advance of anything produced by the west. The antiquity of Chinese civilization, and its direct and indirect contributions to the west are too well known to bear repetition. As for the cultural claims of western languages like French, Italian, German, Spanish, anyone who has attended a foreign-language-choice session in an American high school is familiar with them. The Russians claim not only to have had a share in developing the civilizations of both east and west, but also to have made a modern political contribution to the welfare of mankind, the validity of which is very much disputed by many in the western world.
Perhaps we should learn to regard culture as something world-wide rather than as a mosaic of different parts, and begin to realize that it is precisely this world-wide aspect of culture and civilization that lends itself to the proposition that mankind is fundamentally one. No civilization has grown to truly great stature without copious contributions and admixtures from countless foreign sources.
One aspect of culture, perhaps, is directly and easily measurable in terms of language, and that is literacy; or, to put it another way, the extent to which education in that particular culture has pervaded the speakers of the language can be determined. Here we find vast differences, ranging from the almost 100 per cent literacy of English speakers to the 90 per cent illiteracy of the people of India. But illiteracy may be described as a passing phase in the history of modern cultures. Its aspects are purely temporary and remediable.
How temporary or permanent, how remediable or irremediable are some of the other factors we have discussed? How stable are population, distribution, economic and political and military prestige? Does the status quo have to endure?
Is it desirable that it should? For the answers to these questions, we shall have to look at the reverse of the medal.