Why English wouldn't do in a better world

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Apr 6 14:10:49 UTC 2007

1. Why English wouldnt do in a better world

The Manifesto of the Universal Esperanto Association adopted at the 1996
World Congress in Prague states, among other things, that [t]he unequal
distribution of power among languages is a recipe for permanent language
insecurity, or outright language oppression, for a large part of the
worlds population (Phillipson 2003 : 173). While not exactly an Esperanto
enthusiast, I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment. Any inequality in
status among languages is directly and immediately translated into
inequality of opportunity among their speakers; and crowning the pyramid
of linguistic inequality is, of course, English.

Much is being said about International English distancing itself from its
traditional native-speaker base and becoming a neutral communication tool
that no longer belongs to any particular nation. Efforts are being made to
replace the traditional English as a Foreign Language teaching model by a
more relevant English as a Lingua Franca approach which does not regard
the native speaker as the highest authority and the lofty ideal to aspire
to but instead focuses on the features that are really important for
successful international communication between speakers with very
different first-language backgrounds (Graddol 2006). Simplified or
controlled versions of English have been proposed; some of them, such as
Seaspeak for maritime communication, are used in their specific fields to
everyones apparent satisfaction (Crystal 2003). In Europe, Diego Marani, a
professional EU translator, recently initiated a campaign to legitimise
under the general name of Europanto English-based language mixtures that
many Europeans use to communicate with each other. The frustrations of the
vast majority of people who are forced to use English even though their
command of the language is not very good can, in his opinion, be addressed
by speeding up the process of the internationalization of the English
language and by its isolation from the Anglo-American culture.  Here is a
delightful, if somewhat over-the-top, example of a possible
Romance-Germanic Europanto written by Marani himself:

Cabillot was nicht zo bravo in crossverbas. Seine boss le obliged
crossverbas te make ut el cervello in exercizio te keep, aber aquello
postmeridio inspector Cabillot was mucho somnolento. Wat esse greco, esse
blanco und se mange? tinqued. May esse el glace-cream? No, dat esse
italiano aber greco nicht. Cabillot slowemente closed los eyos und sich
endormed op seine buro. Der telefono ringante presto lo rewakened.

The realist, sober-minded part of me can only wish success to such
initiatives; however, the idealist in me is less willing to accept the
status quo. A basic assumption in this paper will be that, if we are ever
to have a genuine global lingua franca able to facilitate fair, rich and
accurate communication, English either in its full form or simplified and
peppered with yet more random words from other languages just wont do.
English may be easier for many people to learn than Hungarian or Mandarin,
but it is still in many ways a treacherous language because of the
complexities of structure and usage (reflecting its hybrid origins, and
subtle variation in how near synonyms are used) and because there is
massive variation in the ways English is spoken by people from different
parts of the world (Phillipson 2003 : 140). More importantly, I find it
unlikely that any amount of internationalisation will ever sufficiently
distance English from its native-speaker base: A World Standard Spoken
English is bound to be based on Anglo-American mother tongue norms
(Phillipson 2003 : 166), giving native speakers, even though they already
constitute a minority of English users, an enormous advantage compared to
those people who have to study English to be able to speak the language,
because their English is the correct one - not the bastardized versions
spoken by other peoples (Marani). Even if the hegemony of English ends
some day and another big natural language takes over, we will still have a
situation where a majority of the worlds population is at a disadvantage.
The only natural languages fit to serve as lingua francas in terms of
fairness are dead ones; and even dead languages are disqualified on the
grounds of unnecessary complexity. So, unfair reality aside, what would
happen in a better world? As an Ido website has it, [t]he answer to this
situation is to use a neutral invented language.

2. The existing constructed languages

There are conflicting estimates as to how many a posteriori planned
languages have been created so far. About 1,000 is the figure quoted in
several sources; however, a quick look at a website like
www.languagemaker.com makes one suspect that there must have been many
more and new ones keep appearing all the time. Regardless of the exact
number of invented languages, it is probably safe to assume that a
majority of them were not created with the explicit purpose of providing
the world with a universal lingua franca: such languages as Klingon from
the Star Trek series and J. R. R. Tolkiens Sindarin, as well as numerous
lesser-known fictional languages, can sometimes boast devoted fan bases,
but they were not tailored to facilitate international communication in
the real world and are normally learned for other reasons. It is also safe
to assume that few planned languages have actually been developed in
sufficient detail as to be fully functional in the way natural languages
are. The multitude of linguistic inventions can thus be narrowed down to
just a few contenders, of which the best-known seem to be (in order of
appearance) Volapk, Esperanto, Ido, and Interlingua.

Volapuk (vola of world + puk language), proposed by Johann Martin Schleyer
in 1880, was the first artificial language project to gain significant
popularity: during the 1880s, it attracted at least 100,000 enthusiasts
(some sources put the number as high as a million) and Volapk clubs sprung
up all over Europe. Such was the sweeping popularity of Volapk that an
English scholar named Alexander Ellis, in a report to the London
Philological Society, was moved to conclude: "all those who desire the
insubstantiation of that 'phantom of a universal language' which has
flitted before so many minds, from the days of the Tower of Babel, should,
I think, add their voice to the many thousands who are ready to exclaim
lifom-s Volapk, long live Volapk!" (LaFarge 2000) For the most part, the
vocabulary of the original Volapk consisted of unrecognisably modified
English roots (vol actually comes from world and pk from speak). The
grammar was agglutinative, with a complex system of postfixes and prefixes
used to build four German-inspired noun cases and an unrivalled number of
verb forms. Both the unnecessary complexity and Schleyers stubborn
resistance to any reform of the language contributed to a mass desertion
of enthusiasts to Esperanto and a quick decline of Volapk; the estimated
number of fluent users now stands at 20 people, all of whom learned the
language out of linguistic curiosity (LaFarge 2000). However, the initial
success of Volapk prepared the ground for later inventions.

Only 7 years younger than Volaupk, Esperanto is without a doubt the most
successful planned language to date. It was invented by Lejzer (Ludwig)
Zamenhof, who grew up in Bialystock, Poland (at the time occupied by the
Russian Empire), and later worked as a doctor in Warsaw. Zamenhof, only
too familiar with language barriers and aware of the relative success of
Volapk, was inspired to press on with his own language project. He
published the first outline of his constructed lingua franca in 1887 under
the pseudonym Esperanto (he that hopes), which eventually caught on as the
popular name of his language. The first book contained a basic grammatical
sketch accompanied by some 900 roots and a number of text samples. After a
somewhat slow start, Esperanto gradually accumulated a dedicated
international following and in 1920 was actually considered by the League
of Nations for adoption as the working language of the organisation. With
France, Britain and the USA pushing for adoption of French and English,
one can argue that Esperanto never stood much of a chance; however, 13
countries did vote in its favour, among them Belgium, Brazil, China and
Italy. (Phillipson 2003) Despite the vigorous persecution of Esperanto
enthusiasts by assorted dictatorial regimes including Stalins Soviet
Union, Francos Spain and Hitlers Germany and the ever-growing role of
English as a global lingua franca, the Esperanto movement is still very
much alive, and Esperanto remains the only constructed language that most
educated people around the world will have heard of. The largest Esperanto
organisation, Universala Esperanto-Asocio, has representatives in 62
countries and holds annual conferences around the globe (Yokohama in 2007)
(www.uea.org/info/angle/an_ghisdatigo.html), about 250 book titles are
published in Esperanto every year, several dozen periodicals appear in the
language (Fettes 1990), a simple Google search brings up countless web
pages dedicated to it, and the most conservative estimates put the number
of fluent speakers at around a million. Much as these statistics pale
compared to English and other big languages, [t]here is no reason to
consider these figures insignificant, since speaking Esperanto is an
entirely voluntary act almost devoid of material incentives; how many
speakers of English as a second language would one expect to find in
similar circumstances? (Fettes 1990) I, for one, tend to think that, along
with Modern Hebrew, Esperanto is one of the most impressive exercises in
purposeful language construction.

The core vocabulary of Esperanto is Indo-European, with Romance roots
constituting a majority of the word stock and the rest coming mostly from
German (knabo boy) or English (birdo bird); there is also a smattering of
Slavic roots (prava right, true). Like in Volapk, the grammar can be
roughly classified as agglutinative: different grammatical markers are
stringed onto each other without modifications, e. g. knab root + in
feminine marker + o noun marker + j plural marker + n Accusative marker
results in knabinojn, as in La knabo approbas knabinojn The boy likes the
girls. There are separate endings for different parts of speech (-o for
nouns, -a for adjectives, -e for adverbs, -u for verb infinitives) as well
as for different tense forms (-as for present, -is for past, -us for
future); all morphology is fully regular. (Sigurd 1993) The standard word
order is SVO.

Quite predictably, there have been several attempts to reform and further
simplify Esperanto, the most successful of them resulting in Ido,
described by an enthusiast as a language more fit [than Esperanto] for the
purpose for which it was intended. (www.idolinguo.org.uk) In 1907, a
special international committee set up by the Delegation for the Adoption
of an International Auxiliary Language chose Esperanto as the best
available candidate for the role; however, the committee also recommended
that the language should be modified and thus made more suitable for
international use. This caused a split in the Esperanto movement, and Ido
was developed by those who chose to comply with the committees decision.
Ido does away with such features of Esperanto as the obligatory Accusative
Case, adjective-noun agreement, accented letters and certain consonant
clusters; it also introduces some different endings, a gender-neutral
3d-person pronoun and a number of vocabulary changes, generally bringing
words closer back to their natural-language originals. While Ido
definitely enjoys much less popularity than Esperanto, it is nevertheless
comparatively vibrant: there are regular international Ido conferences and
a number of Ido societies, including Svenska Ido-frbundet. (Sigurd 1993)

The last constructed language I will mention in this section is
Interlingua, the brainchild of the International Auxiliary Language
Association (IALA). IALA was founded in the USA in 1924 and, presumably
after a great deal of preparatory effort, published the first Interlingua
dictionary and grammar in 1951. Like Esperanto and Ido, Interlingua is
mostly based on international vocabulary, the main criterion of
internationalism being that a word has to occur with the same meanings in
at least three of the major European languages: English, French, Italian,
Spanish/Portuguese treated as a single language, German, and Russian.
(Stanley) The grammar is essentially a simplified and fully regularised
version of what is found in Romance languages. One Interlingua website
(www.interlingua.org) paints the following, rather gloomy, picture of the
current state of the language: Following a string of initial successes
within the scientific community (chiefly publication of Interlingua
abstracts in medical journals and summaries by world medical congresses as
well as the distribution of plant disease manuals under the sponsorship of
the U.S. Department of Agriculture) during a quarter of a century,
interest in the subject waned as English became the undisputed language of
globalization and the Interlingua Institute which had been founded to
continue IALA's work was formally dissolved in November, 2000.  It can
also been argued that, strictly speaking, Interlingua was never intended
to be a genuine living lingua franca; rather, as even its name suggests,
it was designed as an auxiliary interlanguage for written texts aimed at
passive understanding. However, Interlingua does have an impressive
presence on the Internet as a functional lingua franca: in addition to
Union Mundial pro Interlingua, there are more than a dozen active national
societies, including Svenska Sllskapet fr Interlingua. While the issue of
the actual number of speakers seems to be tactfully avoided on Interlingua
websites, there are regularly updated news pages, considerable learning
resources and numerous blogs in the language.

3. The problem with the existing constructed languages

Among the more fully-fledged artificial lingua francas one can find on the
Internet, there is a language called Slovio, created by Slovak scientist
and linguist Mark Hucko. Here is a short passage in Slovio:

To es bezsporju historju fakt zxe sovremju Europanis (negda imenitju
Indo-Europanis) es potomkis om Dunavju Slavis (negda imenitju Dunavju
Lesju Ludis). Odnakuo to es bezsporju fakt zxe vse Europju jazikas
originijut iz odnakju jazika, jazika om Dunavju Slavis. (Berger 2004 : 4)

Now, if you speak Slovak, Polish, Russian, Bulgarian or any other of the
Slavic languages, my guess is that you understood that the author of the
excerpt is propounding the somewhat dubious theory of all modern Europeans
being direct descendants of an ancient people he refers to as the Danube
Slavs. Slovio claims to be what it is: a Pan-Slavic auxiliary language
created to facilitate communication between the 300 million speakers of
Slavic languages. Apart from a number of international terms of Latin or
Greek origin, it has an exclusively Slavic vocabulary, retains a
regularised Slavic morphology and is not supposed to be easily learnable
by anyone except the target Slav audience. Slovio is not meant to go
global. It is very obviously parochial.

The question is: are the languages I looked at in the previous section
more global than Slovio?

Here is the same sentence in Esperanto, Ido and Interlingua (Respected
Sirs! I read in your citys newspaper that you are seeking a clerk.):

Altestimataj sinjoroj! En la jurnalo de via urbo mi legis, ke vi sercas
kontoriston. (Esperanto)

Altestimata siori! En la jurnalo di via urbo mi lektis, ke vi serchas
kontoristo. (Ido)

Estimatissime seniores! In le jornal de heri de vostre urbe io ha legite,
que vos cerca un commisso. (Interlingua) (Sigurd 1993 : 110)

Someone unfamiliar with the languages can be excused for assuming that all
three of them are some obscure dialects of Spanish or Portuguese. Looking
at the Swedish translation of the sentence given in the source (Vrdade
herrar! I Eder stads tidning lser jag att ni sker en kontorist), I cannot
help but wonder whether Swedish should also be promoted as a potential
global lingua franca. Compared to some languages, it is already
wonderfully simple; one would only have to do away with the gender system,
reduce the number of plural endings and conjugate all verbs as if they
belonged to Group 1.

There is no doubt that Western European languages such as Spanish, French
and, of course, English have more of a global presence than Russian or
Polish, the two biggest Slavic languages. However, to people whose first
language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family  to cite the most numerous
example  any artificial language based on Spanish, English and French is
unlikely to appear significantly less alien and intimidating than Slovio;
this, in my opinion, is the main problem with the language projects
proposed so far. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find reliable
studies of the comparative learnability of Esperanto or other constructed
languages by people with different language backgrounds. Even so, I am
inclined to think that replacing English with Esperanto would make the
lives of Chinese speakers a little easier  but it would still leave them
at a disadvantage compared to (Indo-)Europeans.

4. What does it take to make a true global lingua franca?

To put it in a nutshell, I believe it takes a lot of mutual trust,
meticulous research and rational discussion, none of which seem to be too
common in global politics. However, as the dream of a fair universal
language is utopian in any case, I feel licensed to outline here what is,
in my opinion, essential to make the dream come true:

a)                 The phonemic inventory of a truly universal lingua
franca should be very compact and include only those sounds that occur in
an absolute majority of language families. The number of such sounds is
unlikely to be very high, but if a fully functional natural language such
as Hawaiian is able to manage with just 13 distinct phonemes (5 vowels and
8 consonants), there is no real reason why a global lingua franca should
have many more. User-friendly phonotactics are also extremely important.
Esperanto has been rightly criticised for its consonant clusters (e. g. in
funkcio, punkto, ekzemplo), which pose a serious difficulty to speakers of
some non-Indo-European languages. There are natural languages that allow
very few or no consonant clusters at all and require every syllable to end
in a vowel (Crystal 1997); this could be a good strategy for a global
lingua franca.

b)                 Phonetic considerations obviously limit the extent to
which already existing words from various languages can be incorporated
into a global lingua franca in their original form. Roots will have to be
carefully selected from a genuinely representative sample of languages and
then modified to fit the phonetic requirements of the new lingua franca:
shorter words will be preferred, longer words will be clipped, extra
consonants will be discarded, and extra vowels will be inserted. Quite
possibly, some words may need to be created from scratch. The core
vocabulary should contain concepts found in a majority of language
families; the more peripheral vocabulary may need to have an equivalent
not necessarily in a one-word form  for every concept ever expressed in a
language. Clear and simple morphological guidelines for borrowing and
creating new lexical items will need to be laid down that will fit the
phonetic requirements of the language.

c)                 As for the grammar, it may be a good idea to look to
creolised pidgins for inspiration. Most grammatical phenomena that creoles
(and especially major world languages) manage to do without can be safely
left out  only those that do not cause international learners any
significant difficulty may be allowed as a matter of consensus. To cite a
few examples from Esperanto, features like the adjective-noun agreement,
the definite article, the adjective-adverb distinction and the notorious
Accusative marker can hardly qualify for inclusion.

d)                 A well-funded international body will have to be set up
to carry out the necessary research and actual language creation. Any
final version of the new language will have to be tried out on a
representative learner group. Once the language itself has been created
and accepted by the international community, it will take at least several
years to prepare the world for a simultaneous launch: promote the project,
create learning materials, train a host of teachers, translate a body of
information into the language, introduce social and educational incentives
to learn it etc etc.

For humanity in its present state, this is a tall order. On the other
hand, many things have happened that would have been dismissed as
pipe-dreaming only a century ago. One of them has been the creation of a
multinational European superstate, uniting countries that, until very
recently, used to regularly go to war with each other. Perhaps, the EU
could keep up the good work and set another good example for the rest of
the world by adopting Esperanto as the pan-European lingua franca. After
all, it has been pointed out time and again that at least Europeans are
guaranteed to find it easy to learn.

Although the Finns, the Estonians, the Hungarians and the Basques might,
of course, have their own view on the matter.


Berger, Tilman. 2004. Vom Erfinden slavischer Sprachen. Slovio.com.
Available at http://www.slovio.com/linkis/BergerPlansprachen.pdf Accessed
on 1st April, 2007.

Crystal, David. 2003. English as a Global Language. Second Edition.
Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Crystal, David. 1997. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language. Second
Edition. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Fettes, Mark. 1991. Europes Babylon: Towards a Single European Language?
First published in the series Esperanto Documents. Available at
http://esperantic.org/ced/eurlan.htm Accessed on 1st April, 2007.

Graddol, David. 2006 English Next: Why Global English May Mean the End of
English as a Foreign Language. British Council Learning. Available at
http://www.britishcouncil.org/learning-research-english-next.pdf Accessed
on 2d April, 2007.

LaFarge, Paul. Pk, Memory: Why I Learned a Universal Language No One
Speaks. The Village Voice, August 2  8, 2000. Available at
http://www.villagevoice.com/arts/0031,lafarge,16942,12.html . Accessed on
2d April, 2007.

Marani, Diego. From productive process to language, or How to cause
international English to implode. Newropeans  Arts, Sports, MKP2001,
Neurope Tower, Europanto. Available at
http://www.neuropeans.com/topic/europanto/what/more.php Accessed on 1st
April, 2007.

Mulaik, Stanley. Interlingua for English Speakers. A Quick Survey.
Societate American pro Interlingua. Available at
Accessed on 1st April, 2007.

Phillipson, Robert. 2003. English-Only Europe? : Challenging Language
Policy. Routledge. London.

Sigurd, Bengt. 1993. Esperanto, transpiranto och andra konstgjorda sprk.
In Jerker Blomqvist and Ulf Teleman, ed. Sprk i vrlden: Broar och
barrierer. Lund University Press. Lund. 103  114.



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