Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Me Global Talking

Last week, I was seated next to a beautiful woman on a plane, so of course I said hello. She said hello back, but that’s as far as the conversation went, because I found out very quickly that she didn’t speak English. She spoke what I’m pretty sure was Czech, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t speak Czech, and communication beyond hello was going to be difficult.

Anyway, in that moment, I formulated today’s Afternoon Inquisition.

Should there be an official Global Auxiliary Language? If so, what language should it be? And a follow-up question: Will language eventually evolve to be one universal tongue (relative to this planet)? 

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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48 Comments

  1. I think there are a lot of proposals of “neutral” Global Auxiliary Language: Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, etc. However, most of these languages are actually based overwhelmingly in Roman languages. Just as English is, so for most people English is a more direct Global Auxiliary Language. Of course English is not a neutral language, but even if we choose Esperanto, children raised in Esperanto-speaker homes (i.e. George Soros) would be equally “privileged”.

    As for the universal tongue, it is more difficult as it seems. It is true that a lot of languages are disappearing (Long Now Foundation is worried about that). But that does not seem a universal tongue, because linguicide tends to favour so-called “imperial languages” (English, French, Arab, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, etc.). A few dozens of “imperial languages” dominate international communication, and each language is powerful enough to fight for its own “sphere”.

    So, we have now a hierarchical order of languages. First, English. Then, a few dozens of “imperial languages”. Thirdly, national languages. Fourthly, local languages that are often very menaced by linguistic interference. Of course, this hierarchical order is not permanent, and power shifts in economics and politics can shift also the role of English.

    Even a Global English dominance could lead to fragmentation of English in local languages, the very same way Latin was splitted in Roman languages.

  2. Well, I think that was the intention of Esperanto and most other constructed languages. None of those ever got very far. English and maybe Spanish are basically global languages right now, but not everyone learns either of those. English is a pretty bad language to be universal. Spanish is a little easier to learn for people who already use languages using the Latin alphabet. For some type of universal language, we’d have to invent one that is really easy to learn and use, or else nobody will even bother. This would require a lot of studies in linguistics and how people learn languages. However, I don’t know if it’s possible to create a language that is easy to learn for every group of people. It would have to include only sounds that exist in all or most languages. For example, including the Spanish rr sound or the German ch sound would make it difficult for English speakers to learn. Including the l sound would it make it more difficult for Japanese speakers to learn. This is something I thought about long before I even knew that constructed languages already exist.

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  4. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Volapük, Interlingua, Esperanto, etc. And I think they could be successful at what they’re doing, if they reached a critical mass where a rational person looking at the world could say “If I learn ‘x’ IAL, I will be able to talk to ‘y’ people,” with sufficiently large ‘y’ for the person to conclude it’s worth his time.

    As it is, the highest estimate I’ve seen puts fluent speakers of Esperanto (by far the most popular IAL) at around 2,000,000– scattered throughout the world, but I believe mainly in Europe and China. What are the chances, if I put forth all that effort needed to learn it, that I would ever encounter a fellow speaker outside of artificial environments like internet forums and gatherings of Esperantists? Nearly zero. That makes it not so much a way of communicating as a hobby.

    At the same time, our rational person can look at learning English, and say “Wow, if I learn English, I can talk to people everywhere! And it will help my career and help me appreciate movies and television, give me access to more things to read,” etc. It may not be the easiest language to learn, but at the end of the day, every language is seriously difficult, and the immense investment of time demands some kind of return. I think for Esperantists, they do it out of some mix of idealism, enthusiasm for linguistics and language learning, and the esoteric appeal/community surrounding it. Just like Interlingua and Volapük before it.

    But there will never be enough enthusiasts to reach that critical mass, and if history continues as it has, there will always be a lingua franca which the average rational person can use to expand his cultural reach.

  5. English is quickly becoming that language. There are already more people on the planet who speak English as a second language than native English speakers.

    Thom is right; you can blame cultural imperialism if you like, but most people are just being pragmatic. It’s incredibly useful to be able to speak English. Next time you travel abroad, look for moments when two people whose native language is not English but is different from each other try to communicate. It’s nearly always the case that they’ll fall back on English…and it usually works.

    Media globalization undoubtedly plays a role, as does the economic influence of western (esp. American) markets.

    Whether it’s good, bad, or irrelevant, English (or some dialect thereof, as a few people have already noted) is, for a while at least, the global lingua franca.

  6. Given the demand for English teachers in Southeast Asia (China in particular, but also Korea and Viet Nam)I think English will continue to be the default business language and ultimately the dominant language globally. This is certainly not inevitable but it’s where things are trending right now.

    I very seriously doubt that the other ‘imperial’ languages will disappear but they will probably be less common than they are now.

  7. For next time, “Good day” in Czech is “Dobrý deň”.

    Despite the alias, you now know as much Czech as I do. Ethnic Czech though I am, I’m a 4th generation American and speak only English.

    Esperanto-type projects will never work because you can’t just decree that people start using a new language that you just invented. If one ever forms, it will do so organically over time and it won’t be any existing language in its present form.

  8. Seems pretty much inevitable that there will be a universal language. English is certainly the frontrunner, but the eventual endpoint probably wont be all that recognizable as any current language. The interesting question is really how long it will take.

  9. @wet_bread: Global media is definitely a big factor here.

    I remember being in England 23 years ago and having a really awkward conversation with a native Londoner when all he did was ask me what time it was.

    Now, I see American slang on British television all the time. I’m sure it is totally because of American media.

  10. @dougreardon:

    I think sign language is a great idea. I know a lot of people who are teaching it to their kids, though not necessarily in-depth. In one case, it was a way for the kid to ask for milk before he was old enough to speak. For another friend, she taught her daughter some basic signs so they don’t have to yell across a busy playground to communicate. Another great thing about sign language is that it’s equally easy for people to learn no matter what their native language is.

  11. Good point, although they would have to standardize sign language because its quite different depending on the country you are in. I learned ASL (american version) working in an interpretors office in Toronto but when I went home to Ireland I got some funny looks.

  12. @catgirl: Is it really so universal as that? It seems like the vocabullary and thus the ease of learning would be tied to the underlying spoken language. I would assume, to use a lousy example, that ASL has no sign for simpataco.

  13. Lojban, totally. :P

    > Will language eventually evolve to be one
    > universal tongue (relative to this planet)?

    I don’t think so. Individual languages fraction pretty quickly into local dialects, etc.. The shape of the communications network would have to change a lot … people connecting less frequently to a larger number of geographically and socially distinct speakers, to allow language to homogenize that way.

    It may *seem* like the internet is doing that, but not really. People still form small societies/cultures/classes and communicate largely within those cultures, they are just delineated by other things than geography. By the time we reach a point where there is little to no geographic separation because everyone communicates equally online, we will have separation on other lines, and the separate groups will evolve different dialects.

  14. @IdahoEv: It seems to me that the replacement of linguistic differences with dialectic or jargonic (mmm. Made up words.) differences is still molding into one language. Sure, we’ll still have the problem where birdwatchers and mmorpgers wont be able to understand each other, but they can still step out of context and order a #2 with fries from one another, something that a modern korean and a german couldn’t do.

  15. Well, let’s get real here shall we. Because I only speak english and as you all know, the world revolves around ME, I think we are obligated to use all means possible, up to and including overwhelming military force, to convert the entire world to english speakers. In fact, I intend to write my congressman and senator about this immediately.
    Thanks for bringing this up, Sam :)

  16. I have two, count them two, friends from India (bow before my network of international friends). Anyway, they tell me that they have 3 languages in India. English and Hindi which everyone learns, and then one of several regional languages which dominate in those specific states/regions. As such, though they are both from India, they communicate to each other in English, do to the fact that they don’t speak each others regional language. (apparently their are regional dialects of Hindi but not of English)
    So.. I think this is the way the world is going. Everyone has there own regional languages with english being the international language of choice. Already english has become the unofficial language of business and the official language of aviation. (Japanese pilot flying into Germany will communicate to the air traffic controller in english)

    As far as my facts on India, if someone is from India and wants to verify/correct/tear to pieces my analysis of language feel free, especially if there a contributing skepchick.

  17. @skepticalhippie:

    As far as my facts on India, if someone is from India and wants to verify/correct/tear to pieces my analysis of language feel free, especially if there a contributing skepchick.

    Sorry guys, but it looks like I’m pretty much the only one hanging around here today.

    I’m sure Maria is getting ready for everyone’s arrival in Atlanta for Dragon*Con, and many of the other Chicks are en route.

    I was traveling last weekend, so I’m not doing Dragon*Con. Hope you don’t mind if it’s just SkepSam for a couple days.

  18. I don’t think that any deliberately-created language (like esperanto) could ever become widespread. If any language is going to become universal, it’s going to be one that’s already heavily engrained in one of the major cultures.

    Commerce, I think, is the main driving force behind the spread of a language. More and more, English is becoming our universal language, since such a large part of global commerce is driven by English-speaking countries. It doesn’t matter how many people speak a language, but how much trade is done using a language. English is the world’s trade language.

    It’s interesting how many parallels there are between the spread of language and natural selection.

  19. I think English is becoming that language. Hopefully, someday everyone will know basic English. If you’re in America then you should definitely learn basic English at least and if you travel to another country you should learn the basics of their language.

  20. I think that when you visit another country, and especially if you’re going to live in another country for any length of time, you should do your best to learn some of the language before you go so you don’t come across as a fat, rude foreigner, or at least have a phrase book within easy reach and try to speak to the natives. I think that should be common courtesy. And I think that too few people do it.

    I think English is pretty universal, for a lot of people and a lot of countries. Although I remember hearing that French is the international language of business? Maybe I’m hallucinating again…
    But I, too, think that a common sign language would be a great universal. No accents, really, just signs.

  21. @skepticalhippie: As far as India goes, according to my Indian friends, they speak four languages: their local language, Hindi, English, and Hinglish. English as she is spoke in India is only barely intelligible by a western English speaker, especially when they’re going at a good clip and talking to each other instead of you — unless you’re already familiar with perfectly cromulent English words like “crore.”

    Language Log has in the past run a series of posts on Chinglish, the variety of English spoken from Mongolia to Singapore on the East Asian mainland. Chinglish is rapidly evolving as the lingua franca of the Far East, and already has more second-language speakers than Standard English has native speakers. It’s different from the colonial-era English pidgins, and yet different enough from standard English that it’s evolving its own standards, lah.

  22. Forget cats, unifying human language would be like herding planaria with pinking shears.

    Human language always trends toward chaos. They’re constantly mutating, disappearing and popping up. French has only been the primary language of France since the beginning of the 20th century. Observe the Occitan language, a once prominent European tongue now relegated to Southern France and some parts of Spain and Italy with less than 3 million fluent speakers, all due to 20th century technological innovation and calculated political posturing (public schools, mandatory military conscription, etc.). Less than 20 percent of languages have any written component at all. Etc etc etc.

  23. Languages diverge over time, especially when they’re distributed over a large geographic area. The presence of a “standard dialect” doesn’t change that – it’s just another language for people to learn for when they do business, science, media, etc.

    In a few hundred years, a huge portion of the world’s population will speak an Anglic language, but none of them will be the English spoken today, and few of them will be mutually comprehensible. Educated people may still write or even speak in “Classical English”, probably based on old, literary forms of the language (like, say, from way back in the 21st Century). But, it’s not too likely that their spoken version of the “standard” language will sound much like American or British speech today.

    History is full of this type of thing. See, for example, the historical evolutions of Arabic, Latin, and Chinese. All were languages of empire, and all eventually fragmented, leaving behind standard written forms but giving way to spoken daughter languages.

  24. Well, while language evolve, mutate and diverge, just like genomes, they do so mostly once isolated, once again, a bit like genomes.

    At this point of world-wide society and culture and internet, I believe that all region would be in tight enough contact for a common language to co-evolve. Certainly, there would be regional differences but I do not believe that the language wxould break up into individual languages like the Roman language ended up doing.

    Anyway, looking at the world right now, I think we are going to see the emergence of English as the universal language, spoken by virtually everybody. It won’t be the Queen’s English, mind you, nor will it be the president’s. It will be a weird version of English by people for whom it is a second language.

  25. @ JamesK: No, a creole is new language from two or more old ones. A second language crafted or arising by custom for business purposes is a pidgin (the name probably comes from the nearest pronunciation Shanghai natives coming to english late in life could manage to ‘business’, pidgin english was business english).

    A pidgin can become a creole when it gets adopted as a native language, english almost certainly got its start this way.

  26. Regarding sign language as used by deaf people:

    There is no natural universal sign. There is an invented one, like Esperanto, called Gestuno or International Sign Language (ISL). It’s used mainly at international conferences of the deaf. As someone who used to interpret and teach in American Sign Language (ASL, not AMSLAN), when I saw it at one such conference I could understand it fairly well but not well enough to follow it without interpretation.

    Natural sign languages as used by the deaf are not universal. Even in ASL there are various dialects, which emerge for a variety of reasons. And although American English does have a strong infuence on ASL, other English-speaking countries have signed languages very different from ASL. For example, British Sign Language (BSL) and related SLs use a two=handed alphabet, while ASL and French sign (LSF) both use a one-handed alphabet. This is because ASL is directly descended from French sign language, with other signed and spoken language influence.

  27. – “Should there be an official Global Auxiliary Language?”: OBVIOUSLY

    – “If so, what language should it be?”: There has actually been a LOT of discussion of this issue over the years, both by people very well-educated in these issues and by hordes of well-meaning amateurs.

    An international auxlang has to be (1) Simple enough to be universally learned and used, but (2) Not so “logical” that it’s impractical for everyday communication.

    IMHO, if we graph languages by ease of learning on one axis and “actual empirical history of use” on the other, the clear winner is Esperanto.

    It is (by actual empirical experience, despite any theoretical objections) easy for people from all language traditions to learn and use, and it has been actually used, for all purposes from technical journals to dating, for over a hundred years now.

    (Incidentally, English is currently both more popular and more fragmented than most people realize. There are something over 100 million English speakers in India, Malaysia, Nigeria, etc, etc, HOWEVER, they’re speaking dialects or creoles of English that aren’t very mutually intelligible.)

    – And a follow-up question: Will language eventually evolve to be one universal tongue (relative to this planet)?: IMHO, if we survive, there will be a “common language” spoken by 90%+ of people, but local languages will persist for a while.

  28. @Simon39759: This is simply not true. Despite the ever-increasing interconnection of people even here in America through the media, etc., English in this country has been diverging rapidly over the past few decades.

    In addition to existing dialectical differences, there are four distinct sound shifts happening in North America right now: the Canadian Shift, the Northern Cities Shift, the Southern Shift, and a conglomeration of changes happening in various parts of California that may or may not be part of the same process. I can tell you firsthand that fast speech by, say, a Chicago native, or someone from rural Virginia can be very hard to understand for someone who grew up in the Northeast like me.

    Also, unlike many historical English sound changes, most of the American shifts affect short vowels, so they really confuse communication, especially between dialects where the sounds have shifted in opposite directions. For example, there’s the story of the Canadian woman who got lost in Michigan and went into a gas station to ask for a map. She was told not to worry about it, because they had a guy who would clean the floor later (i.e. to mop – he had assumed she had spilled something).

    There is only so far the bonds of similarity can be strained between two dialects before they must be rightfully considered independent languages. You can be in denial about it (like the Chinese), but it doesn’t make it any less true. And despite the modern media, changes in spoken English are not slowing down – in fact, research indicates they’re accelerating.

  29. @skepticalhippie: I know a married couple from India. They told me they spoke seven languages between them when the met; the only language they had in common was English.

    I actually do think there will eventually be one world wide language, and I think it will be sustainable (with some local variations) because global communications systems (‘Net, TV, movies, etc.) are becoming ubiquitous. I don’t think it will be soon, though.

    On the other hand, technology often shocks us with what it can accomplish. 20 years ago, I might have paid (and waited) to have a page of text translated from Arabic to English. Now, I can do it with a mouse click in my browser.

    What if technology provides a universal audio translator within 20 years? It may seem far fetched, but so did the Web 20 years ago.

  30. @Dave:

    Isn’t it true that English is the most evolved language, in the sense that it changes constantly, often even within a single generation?

    Or is that true for all non-ideogrammatic languages?

    The English of 500 years ago is now understood, in written or spoken from, only by academics and scholars.

    To add a question to Sam’s query, if a universal language does eventually evolve, would it be better that it be something fairly stable and unchanging like ideogrammtic Mandarin? Or would we be better served by a language that constantly evolves like English?

  31. Ultimately the question of language choice is about money. The cost to learn new languages has to be offset by the benefit to the individual. Thus, perhaps it would be better to ask what incentive individuals can have for learning a universal language. We’ve answered that in this thread:

    1) access to new markets
    2) access to cheap information

    The more that we are able to make these things relevant in the lives of people of the world, the more homogeneous our languages will become.

    Finally, a universal translator would not be as effective in marketing or in information access as just learning the language in the first place. It is doubtful such a technology would have much longevity.

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