Toward An International Language (with commentary by Alvin Boyd Kuhn)

by Aldo Lavagnini

* Electronically typed and edited by Juan Schoch for educational research purposes, from New Outlook, circa 1953. This notice is not to be removed.

It may seem strange, especially from a higher perspective in which we can envisage this century, that in this age of speed, international travel and growing world-mindedness, the problem of an International Language has not yet found an actual adequate solution; not only that, but so few people are generally aware of this vital need, and devoting to it the needed time, energy and means.

No doubt, partly this lack of active interest, and even awareness, is due to the naïve hope still cherished by many, if not by most of the Intelligentsia of today, that some national, or multinational language, such as English in its actual world position, may in the end win that place, which they consider in advance as due. But, just yesterday, that same hope was cherished by the French, and even the German people, and even now there are many who hope and think that this place may be won tomorrow either by Spanish or Russian.

We consider that much of these claims, and especially the one of English in the passing moment, have a sound foundation in everyday experience. By only speaking English, if one may find it not so easy in Continental Europe and South America, he can find himself at home in such widely distant places as Great Britain, North America, Australia and South Africa, and be understood in the whole borderland of Asia and Africa. Even if there is some difference in the exact meaning of many words and the local modes of pronunciation.

In a way, because of its now exceptional diffusion, encircling the whole globe, we may consider ourselves to be in the true Golden Century of the English Language. But, what of tomorrow? The next day, century or millennium, has a way of presenting itself with a more or less wholly changed face, and the position just now held by English, because of its very same exceptionality, is certainly not a guarantee of its future.

After the Babylonian language, we have the recorded history of the two overspreading languages, Latin and Arabic, which have broken the first one in distinct national tongues, and the second into widely differing dialects. Still, Arabic may even now lay claim to the distinction of being a multinational language, at the side of English, Spanish and Portuguese.

But, as a lingua franca, after Phoenician, Greek and Latin, Arabic had to struggle with Italian or Venetian first, and last with French. And French has held, in the past century, the recognized position now upheld by English.

So, the position of a national language as such, or even of a temporarily multinational one, in the leading role of interlanguage, is always a precarious one: time and events will change it, sooner or later, in one way or another. Even without ever having been a truly multinational language (since Belgium is a bilingual country, and in their possessions the French language has been only partly superimposed) the international claims of French are just now receding, not only before English, but also before Spanish. This last is the one language spoken by the greatest number of free nations, and may compete with English for its American extension.

But, if passing and insecure is the position of an individual language, outside its true linguistic domain, while within this last one it is subject to the law of change and transformation, only partly checked by common literary use, the common linguistical foundation of which it is both heir and transmitter, is of a much more lasting and almost eternal nature.

Moreover, while as distinct national (or multinational) languages, the respective claims of English, Spanish and other originally European languages, they are the outcome of a common Indo-European tradition and linguistic substratum, and they have in common with Italian and Portuguese (and frequently with German, Scandinavian and Russian) many Latin, and otherwise primitive roots.

Very sound is, therefore, the position of those practical idealists (to whom the writer has the honor to belong) who from about a century have sought to attack the problem of International Understanding at its very root, seeking a better and more permanent solution in a Neutral Language, based on those common natural and international elements, above all national rivalries and misunderstandings.

Only toward the last quarter of the past century, the work of such almost unknown pioneers, as Pirro, came to light in those most known projects as Volapük, Esperanto, Mundolingue and Idiom Neutral. The beginning of Volapük was very crude, however ingenuously elaborated the language. But the other three show a distinct progress, from the viewpoint of internationality and familiarity of their forms.

While being the work of men of German or Slavo-Lithuanian stock, they all show a very marked preference toward the Latin words and forms, compiled as they were by the very internationality of the Latin roots and affixes. Although it claimed a more thoughtful and coherent ensemble, on the theoretical ground Esperanto came to be surpassed almost at its beginning, to the point that radical reforms were strongly advised and undertaken. However, these came to nothing, owing to the prevalence of a conservative spirit and the fear of even rational innovations, since many seem to think that the better is an enemy of the good.

So, Esperanto has managed to hold its way, in spite of all odds and the rising tide of its many critics, and while not certainly the best and most commendable international language, it is still the most known one, after a half century of steadfast, unswerving and ruthless propaganda.

Much work, however, has been done, in this same half century in seeking the best world language, truly discovered rather than devised. On the one side we have had the many Esperanto reforms, beginning with Ido, in the first decade of the century, obviously considered unorthodox by the Esperantists, but not much better nor more acceptable, by those aiming at a much more natural language.

This last school has had its best exponent in the Italian mathematician and Latinist Peano, author of Latino sine flexion and for a quarter century the leader of an Academia pro Interlingua, which last word also he coined. This Academy had a limited but very selected following, mainly of European scholars: its work was interrupted by the first World War, and had a second and more conservative phase afterwards.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, this same word Interlingua has been taken anew by an American organization founded in 1924 by the last Mrs. Alice Vanderbilt Morrow and her husband, the International Auxiliary Language Association. After a large experimentation on the base of Esperanto, they also came to the conclusion that the only acceptable solution for a natural and pleasing interlanguage lies in the basic elements found in the Latin or Romanic tongues. So, IALA has recently published a Dictionary of Interlingua, which is largely an extension and re-edition of the work of Prof. Peano.

Even before IALA was founded, two other projects – among several others preceding and following them – had come forth and are now widely known: Occidental, by the Estonian De Wahl, lately renamed Interlingue, and Unilingue, lately renamed Mondi Lingua, by the writer, a former member of the said Academia, who has devoted to it no less than 30 years of incessant thought and work.

These three projects have a common foundation, and largely the same words, although the final vowel may sometimes be dropped or changed. Among them Interlingua is the most conservative one, while both Occidental and Mondi Lingua are tending, in two different ways, to more streamlined and rationalized forms. The reader may judge for himself by writing for samples to the organizations whose addresses are given below.

 

INTERNATIONAL AUXILIARY LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION,

420 Lexington Avenue, New York 17, N. Y.

 

INTERLINGUE INSTITUTE, Cheseaux s. Lausanne, Switzerland

 

MONDI LINGUA ACADEMI, Apartado postal 2929, Mexico,

D. F., Mexico

 

Comment On The Above Article

The article printed above is interesting and valuable as a brief summary and history of the very devoted effort of many internationally minded humanitarian leaders to promulgate a universal language. It is so obvious that the successful promotion of a one-world language would make powerfully for human brotherhood that it is easy to understand and to sympathize with the idealistic zeal with which the proponents of a world-language advocate and campaign for this great objective. It is the likely truth that people of intelligence and goodwill everywhere are at one in recognizing that a universal tongue would work a great psychological “magic” in accelerating the slow advance of the peoples of the earth toward community of interest, the breaking down of barriers of distrust and aloofness, the emergence of general friendliness and the consummation of a real fraternity among nations. That it is “a good idea” is almost universally conceded.

But equally general and conceded are the practicable obstacles and the feeling of the almost complete futility of the project. It is much like the widespread and deeply sincere wish of millions of intelligent people that we should bring all religions to submerge their special claims and unite in one world-religion. Which ones are to do the submerging and which ones are to have their tenets adopted in the amalgam? Where is the supernal wisdom that can infallibly determine the common denominators of truth that will form the beams and joists of the universal temple of religion? Likewise, where is to be found the sagacity that can distil out of all languages a nearly perfect amalgam of all of them for human speech? For instance, as the article shows, those trying their hand at the heavy task have given the Romance (Latin) branch of European languages a great preponderance in their production. How far out does this leave the enormous bulk of people speaking the hundreds of Asian, Polynesian, African, Slav, Nordic, Saxon, Esquimaux native American and other non-Romantic tongues? To name only the Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, groups alone shows how provincial or sectional the best planned international languages really are. The success of any undertaking to formulate a truly synthetic language on the principle of eclecticism, i.e. of incorporating constituent elements of each and all spoken tongues, would seem hopelessly impracticable.

A second forbidding consideration is the next to insufferable difficulty of universalizing a language that is improvised and attempted or expected to be adopted by sheer publication, so to say. Languages, or language itself, is not a thing that comes by planned exertions. Pretty much like Topsy, it just grows out of native roots. It formulates itself, or the primal instincts and motives of the human mind formulate it. It is not first invented, a priori, and then put out and adopted a posteriori. It grew from the first out of the most rudimentary efforts of early humanity to convey ideas or to name objects and actions. Theorists assert even that it developed from bird calls, animal vocalizations or natural sounds. The onomatopoeic structure of thousands of words, such for instance as hiss, buzz, tinkle, rustle, murmur, jingle, whisper, bang, boom, points to the nature source of language.

Yet, in the face of this fact, if we argue that an artificially constructed language can never be superimposed to become a spoken language, thus is the rather startling statement put forth by Fabre D’ Olivet, in his important work, The Hebrew Tongue Restored, that Chinese, Sanskrit and Hebrew were all fabricated languages and became launched out more or less generally into popular speech. The apparent complexity of design and ingenuity of structure seen in such languages as Greek and Latin, with case endings and verb endings of much variety, seem to indicate not popular evolution, but deliberate and ingenious planning. Popular genius is hardly subtle enough to manifest such apparent systematism. It is proven that invariably popular usage moves away from schematic complexity to great simplicity. For instance the four languages developing as dialects of Latin, – Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French – all reduced the six variant case endings of nouns to one, and the three gender endings to two. Spoken English eliminated the difference, generally between the masculine and feminine forms of words.

Finally in our brief survey there is encountered the great factor in the situation that will almost certainly be decisive for a negative outcome of any effort to establish a universal language. This is something too deep-seated and intangible to be commonly thought of or discerned. It can perhaps best be expressed as the ineradicable revulsion of the human spirit against being bound in its operation to a too rigidly mechanical system of things. To structuralize language over a pattern that is too mathematically regular will cause rebellion of the mind against a too formal, precise and mechanized system. It will in a sense put the free spirit of thought in a straightjacket, cramping its creative liberty to utilize a wider range of expressive instruments. I am myself firmly of the opinion that, while a constructed language could be well developed to express all general meanings, its mechanical uniformity would tend to deprive it of the power to convey those intangible elements of variety and uniqueness that the mind seeks to express through the medium of the diverse and striking character of words themselves. A keen writer or speaker comes to recognize an individual quality in each separate word as it has come to form through its descent from far back. It carries with it the virtual history of an idea, which would be entirely lacking in the new mechanically formalized words of a made language.

To put it in briefest form, a manufactured world language would be lamentably wanting in most of the elements of sheer poetry that inhere in the form and texture of a language like the English and German. Especially in their Teutonic background these languages carry a rugged character of picturesque beauty, furnishing the mind with fine tools wherewith to portray its most realistic conceptions with striking vividness. I venture to say that English would at once lose a bit of its dramatic expressiveness if for instance all adverbs were made to end –ly and all nouns ended in a for the feminine and o for the masculine forms, or all verbs had similar regular principal parts. A road that winds around up hill and down dale is always more intriguing than one that cuts straight across the plain. This is perhaps a new element in the discussion of universal language, but I am persuaded it is one that can not be overlooked.

The human spirit, in its joy in freedom, eternally resists the crushing down of its instinct for poetry and its construction in forms of mechanical regularity. Language is man’s highest medium for the expression of his genius. It is the amber that embodies his literature, and the most exuberant outgushing of his spirit in literature is in poetry. It is to be feared that the wings of his free spirit would be severely clipped by the dull uniformity of a mechanical language. How deadly it would be if we were to say soon-ly, now-ly or quite-ly, as adverbs, or often-ly! What poetic potential lurks in the simple words “soon” and “oft”!

There are some elements in man’s constitution that his free spirit will consent to have regularized under a soulless uniformity. One must question whether the great works of a Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe, Milton or Shakespeare would ever have been possible in a made language.

 

 

           – A. B. K.