Monday, February 14, 2022

Universal Language

The idea that we would all get along better, or perhaps progress scientifically if we all spoke the same language has a long steady minor popularity, never disappearing but never becoming much of a force either. I have never thought the getting-along part was particularly persuasive. Serbs and Croats speak the same language, America's bloodiest war was between sides which both spoke English, and worldwide, civil wars often include combatants who understand each other quite well, thank you - and that's the problem.  Is it worse when opponents also speak different languages? Perhaps. I might even say probably.  But mutual intelligibility is at best a percentage improvement, not a cure.

Does shared language improve scientific progress? It seems to have worked with Latin in Europe in the Middle Ages, and American science PhD's used to require facility in a language used in one's field, both for reading articles and interacting with peers in other countries. German and French were favored for this when I was in school, though Russian was popular in some fields.

Esperanto, that favorite of European idealists since the 19th C still has adherents. It looked like it was going to disappear after a century of mild success, but the internet has created a new community of speakers and writers. Still, the growth has not been explosive, as other communication changes related to the internet have been. While there are East Asians who learn it, it is going to attract few learners whose main language is not European and even Western European.  There are some Slavic elements, but it has largely Romance and Germanic foundations. If you originally speak Japanese, your effort is going into English, not Esperanto. It has a popularity among those who resent Americans and the domination of English on the international stage. But then, you have to take an artificial stand that you, Urdu-speaker, are going to side with the rest of Western Civilisation instead? Unlikely.

Interlingua, whatever its virtues, has very few users and is very heavily Western European.  There is no incentive for a speaker of Mandarin, Tamil, or any of the Arabics to learn it. Not gonna happen. There was also an invented language by a Swiss priest in the 19th C. Began with a "K," I think.* Never caught on anywhere.

So the constructed languages don't seemed to have achieved enough velocity for liftoff.

That leaves us with languages currently spoken, or simplified versions of them. French was the language of diplomacy and so known throughout the world and even favored in those places where English was hated. But French has faded. If the world were only the Western Hemisphere, some Spanish-Portuguese combo might win out over English and certainly French. But there is more to the world than that, much more. One might think that English-speakers would universally prefer that their own language remain the standard international language, but there is plenty of sentiment that it's just not fair, and symbolic of colonialism and capitalism and American hegemony and boy-we-hate-McDonalds-and-our-ugly-culture. Not that these folks are going out and learning Mandarin in any numbers, which would be the first credible alternative. They might know some nice European language to show their internationalist bona fides, but their advocacy for anything else is basically that schoolchildren should be made to learn whatever, because America is on it's way out, dammit, and we need to stick it to those Trumpsters and other jingoists. Anyway, it's the kids who will do that work, not them. Many (not all) who are anti-English because of cultural imperialism smuggle in Whorfian ideas, the belief that one's language influences or even dictates how one sees the world, also called The Language Hoax.

Because Mandarin, even though it starts with an enormous advantage of a billion speakers right out of the gate, is hard to learn.  It has tones, which are very difficult to even imitate, let alone master, if your ears did not start picking them up before age five. It is not like learning bad English or bad French, where your mispronunciations can be pieced together by natives. Mandarin is based on single syllables with varying tones, and getting the tone wrong does not mean you are saying "woman" badly, but another word entirely, multiple times in each sentence. Further, speakers of Indo-European languages in general, and very especially Americans, are used to non-native speakers butchering their language yet understanding them anyway.** 

More importantly, whether it's fair or not, English got in first, learning the languages of other people at least in part in order to trade, and teaching its own tongue at the same time. English is not just the language of airlines, but of travel in general, and most places like tourists even when they hate them. American culture has permeated the world. K-Pop, Bollywood, and other Asian popular expressions are on the rise, sure, but they are starting from so far back as to be nearly invisible. China will gain traction because of numbers alone.  They apparently already quietly influence Hollywood's choice in ways we seldom notice. 

There are simplified forms of English used internationally, such as ELF, Basic English, and Global English or Globish, which native speakers are not that familiar with. While supposedly aiming for a standard small-e english that can be understood by Magyars and Malagasys who have no other language in common, in practice each region develops its own versions. Not a terrible thing, I understand, as there is still a lot of intelligibility and it allows people to feel some control.

But doesn't English spelling ruin everything so much that it just has to fall into disfavor eventually? I recall as far back as elementary school reading SRA articles moaning about enough, cough, through, though, bough, thought. (Crazy spelling happened because literacy was becoming more widespread even before the printing press, and just as there were more people who could write things down in English, the Great Vowel Shift of the 15th-16th C occurred, rendering a lot of the spellings obsolete. Spellings change much more slowly than spoken language, and so are retained.) Yes, that's a problem. But it's not a problem of speech. In writing, we can suss out what someone means if they put it down phonetically.  Trust me on this.  My older Romanian son still doesn't spell well, but we can read his texts just fine. Spelling is a definite obstacle for an adult learner who wants to look like she knows what she's doing, but it is not an obstacle to understanding. Also, it is often overstated. Most words are phonetic, and even the ones which aren't are usually off on only one sound, with the rest being unimpaired.  The main disconnect is in stressed syllables, between how a word looks like it should be accented and how it actually is.

It's going to be English for a long time.

 *Volapuk. Close.

**The Soviet Union kicked this backwards a fair bit. As most movement was considered suspicious and internal travel generally discouraged - except for Russians needing to run stuff - the Slavic languages became more isolated, not less, despite the stated goals of unity.  And the Romanians and Moldovans, speaking the only Romance languages in the bunch were really screwed.


Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: But doesn't English spelling ruin everything so much that it just has to fall into disfavor eventually?

attributed to Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet.

The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later.

Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

Christopher B said...

A ntv spkr cn ndrstnd n Nglsh sntnc wth n vwls.

I remember realizing a news vendor in Paris was speaking to someone who was pretty obviously Italian in broken English. We've borrowed so many Latin-Saxon cognates that most Europeans can probably use English as a common tongue.

French as a diplomatic language probably has the advantage of a defining body that policies words and meanings so you can appeal to a somewhat somewhat neutral arbiter for resolution of interpretation.

Grim said...

If you just want to speak Mandarin well enough to get by, you only need to know ~100 of the most common words plus a few counting words to indicate what kind of quantity you wish to buy or sell. It’s not hard to get there.

Pidgin English is still used in parts of Africa. It’s readily understandable if you sound it out, perhaps more so than Scots. The BBC has a news service in it.

Grim said...

The BBC does not offer news service in Scots.

Unknown said...

AFAIK, English is still the dominant language in business of the European Union bureaucracy, even with the UK no longer a member. Malta and Ireland have designated Maltese and Gaelic rather than English as their preferred language (even though in practice none of their EU representatives or bureaucrats actually use those in EU business day-to-day), so English should now have only a de-facto rather than any official presence there.

I think people forget that there are almost as many native English speakers in India (even if another language is their 'cradle' language) as there are Chinese speakers in China.

Unknown said...

Looks like I'm wrong on the English-speaker percent in India in my comment above. I confess to being led astray by Indian (& Maltese, & Singaporean . . .) students abroad who are offended by being asked to take the TOEFL exam to study in Canada/US/UK when they've been taught in English for every subject from primary-school through university. In India they're not representative of the culture as a whole.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Douglas2 - yeah, i knew the number was too high, but i also knew it warn't nothin'. It also means that many people in India who do not actually speak English have some exposure to it, and would put any learning energy there rather than Mandarin.

Donna B. said...

@Zach - that was... um, interesting! Spelling Bees just wouldn't be any fun in 10-20 years would they?

Zachriel said...

Christopher B: A ntv spkr cn ndrstnd n Nglsh sntnc wth n vwls.

Ndd! (On a related note: If letters in the English language were randomly distributed, it would take about 5 bits to store each letter. But humans or bots can fill in the blanks so well based on knowledge of the patterns in language that the information entropy of the English language is only about 1 bit or so per letter.)

Donna B: Spelling Bees just wouldn't be any fun in 10-20 years would they?

Down with Twain and his "reform"!

james said...

If a common language could eliminate disputes, would there be any divorces?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am not absolutely sure my wife and I speak the same language. The evidence is only partial.

dmoelling said...

English is structurally a more capable language. There are many more words than say Italian or French so you can more precisely define just about anything. I had a business partner years ago say he loved contracts written in French as you could make them mean almost anything you wanted!

I work a lot with non-native english speakers and find that if I keep my use of colloquial expressions low, we get along very well. Its amazing how much we use from cowboy talk(ex riding herd, or round them up), Baseball (in the ballpark, touch base, strike out), and others.

The lack of tones and accents makes it much better for written applications. Also it is claimed worldwide now and has little cultural baggage in most places.

james said...

I looked up "the Language Hoax" and found this in the blurb: " but also why we want so badly to believe it: we're eager to celebrate diversity by acknowledging the intelligence of peoples who may not think like we do."

I don't think that's even in the same city, let alone the ballpark. We want to believe it because some of us believe that education is all we need to change people--change the language so crimethink is hard, change the media to only teach goodthink, and children will grow up to be perfect adults. It isn't just the current woke who believe this sort of thing: “Give me a child until he is five, and I will show you the man.”

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ James - interesting. That may be the motivation, but I have never heard that emphasised. I have mostly (only?) heard the framing of examples of Americans misunderstanding other cultures because they didn't understand language nuances - which might have some truth in it, but is not the same thing - or of applauding other peoples because they have more terms for friends meaning it is more important too them, or fewer terms for friends meaning that each includes more people, but either way they are nicer than us in harsh, competitive America, or similar.

But what you point out is indeed an important belief to the people who are advocating for the idea that language exerts enormous influence on what and how we think. This is true of both conservatives and liberals, as I have seen the idea pop up in links at conservative sites the past two decades as well, and underlies the thinking of both the language police and those who are furious at the language police. Saying that the language police don't much matter either way is the minority opinion. (Note: the language police might still matter in other ways, as in when they are creating verbal traps where everyone must err in some way in order to distribute blame and shame, or when they intentionally obscure meanings to bamboozle people.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have not read the book - I am already convinced of its premise and have other McWhorter works higher on the list - but I should see if your thought is actually part of the reasoning. John's a smart guy, and pretty thorough.

G. Poulin said...

I owned a Basic English Bible once, but I chucked it as a thing of no value when I was trying to reduce my book load. I understand the desire for simplicity in language, but some things just can't be stated correctly with a limited vocabulary.