An international language – living languages are BAD – Part 2

In this part, we will see why any living language makes a very bad candidate to be an international language. Yet, we do need a communication tool across the globe, so let’s see how existing languages can help – or actually create more problems.

In part 1, we have seen that English is a very complex language. This complexity makes it very difficult to learn for many people on the earth. Besides, it is highly ambiguous. All these points make it a very bad “international language”. But it is not the only language with these difficulties. In fact, I state that, in general, an existing living language cannot and should not become an international language.

You might wonder why we can’t safely take an existing living language as an international language. After all there are many alternative choices, some of them without many drawbacks of English, while already widely spoken across different populations: Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, French, Swahili…

Obviously, the advantage of picking an existing language is the strong base of speakers who use it without any extra learning effort. Of course, this existing base helps the initial spread of any language, but it comes with some attached strings.

Domination

The first point is a cultural and philosophical one. There is a symbolic meaning when one language of a certain culture is forced upon the world population, as it is currently the case with English. Colonizers always imposed their language to their colonies. It clearly means: “You need to make the effort of learning my language, but I certainly won’t make any effort learning yours. And that’s because I’m superior to you.”

Yup. That’s it. Racism at its worst.

So for this reason alone, any existing language as a “lingua franca” (a term I will use a lot in the future – meaning a common language) is simply a no-no. Should we still continue the discussion at this point? Maybe not. But just for the fun of it, there are other reasons why any existing “living” language is not a good candidate.

Languages are… a mess

There are many other practical reasons why living languages are totally inadequate to serve as an international language.

They have grown randomly

A language changes mostly through usage. There are many reasons why languages evolve. But they generally do when something is considered “inefficient” by the social group that uses it. And that fills the language with exceptions over time, which makes it more difficult to learn for people who were not born within that social group.

Vocabulary

New words appear when new objects or concepts appear. This can be the case with technological, scientific or philosophical advances, for instance.

Very often, languages also take “loanwords” from other languages. “Oh, this word doesn’t exist in my language, but it does in that other language. That’s fun! Let me borrow it!” In the meantime, another word from your language might have actually done the job quite well – but you didn’t think about it. Typically, in France, everyone speaks about a « week-end » while in Quebec it is a « fin de semaine ». On the other hand, what is « une job » in Quebec is « un travail » or « un emploi » in France.

English is full of loanwords from Latin and French, from the Middle-Ages, especially nouns. For instance, almost all words ending in “ion” are French words (adoption, lion, explosion – etc.), spelled exactly the same, pronounced slightly differently. On the other hand, many verbs come from Germanic and Scandinavian languages: “to run” is “rennen” in German, “to drink” is “trinken” in German, etc. And the irregular verbs come directly from Germanic languages. In German, “to sing” is “singen”, also an irregular verb which becomes “singt – sang – gesungen”. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Phonetics

The way syllables and mores are pronounced play a huge role in the evolution of languages. Whenever something is lengthy, difficult to pronounce or judged ambiguous, usage changes to correct this perceived fault.

“It is” becomes “It’s”. “Getted” becomes “Get”. “Pronounciation” becomes “Pronunciation”. “Logique” becomes “Logic”. And “a apple” becomes “an apple” because pronouncing two a’s in a row is “breaking the flow” of speech. Almost all languages go through these changes, which have some logic to them from the point of view of the social group that uses this language, and occur on words that are most used in daily life.

New meanings

Old words can also get new meanings. And before you know it, the vocabulary changes quite a lot. And again, it is daily life and daily usage that affects the language most. Common words are often transformed, whereas literate words change more rarely. An English “plate” is a French « assiette » and an English “tree” is a French « arbre ». But the English “sediment” is also the French « sédiment » and “vernacular” is also « vernaculaire ». Of course, there are many counter-examples of this, but the point is that, as a general rule, what is used more often is a more likely target for changes to “simplify” the language.

This phenomenon also causes exceptions to occur within the vocabulary and expressions that are mostly used daily by everyone.

They adapted locally

Languages also adapt to local circumstances. If you’re a tribe living in a hot climate and near the sea, you have very little use for the word “snow”. You don’t have snow in your environment, and you probably don’t even know what it is. So you don’t need a word for it. On the other hand, you certainly need to name very precisely every species of fish and sea animals, in order to know whether you’re speaking of a predator or a prey, or whether that thing is edible or not. You probably also need very specific vocabulary for water currents, tides, waves, wind and other sea-related concepts.

However, when you live in the mountains up North, far from the sea, you don’t even know what the “horizon” looks like, you’ve got a mountain in front of you! However, you have plenty of snow, and it’s very critical and sometimes a matter of life and death that you describe precisely the type of snow that is on the ground today. You may need to describe accurately if it is icy, sticky, slippery, at risk of causing avalanches, whether it covered animal tracks, etc.

If you’re a tribe of hunters, you don’t need the same vocabulary than farmers or breeders. A sedentary vs nomadic lifestyle also brings its own range of useful words. And an industrial world has other communication needs than a rural one.

Granted, this specialization and optimization for a specific environment makes the language more practical and richer for those people who use it. However, it is completely not adapted for others. Besides, it makes it more difficult to learn for no real advantage outside its original environment.

Ranges of sounds

Any given language has been living within a group of people over time. As a consequence, the sounds it uses have become specialized in such a way that they are very easy to distinguish within this social group. However, we are all different, and every society puts emphasis on different things. Because of that, every social group has come, generation after generation, to select different sounds as “different”. Linguists use various classifications to put every sound into a nice set of categories, from vocative, ablative, labial, dorsal, and many others. Those categories indicate where the sound is produced, with which organ (we don’t only use our vocal chords to produce sounds – the tongue, throat, lips, jaw and larynx play huge roles as well), etc.

Do you imagine an international language with tongue clicks, like in Xhosa (if you watch the video, notice how he pronounces Xhosa… can you do it?)?

If you’re not an African who speaks one of those languages with clicks (and there are many, especially in the South of Africa – Zulu has some too), probably not. If you’ve ever wondered why Japanese people can pronounce “sa”, “ki”, but not “si” (they say “shi” instead), this video may give you a clue. Did you notice how the white guy says: “I can make the click by itself, but I can’t do it with the vowel”.

What about a language that uses tones to change the meaning of words, like Mandarin and other Asian languages? If you are not a speaker of those languages, you simply can’t distinguish the different forms of the word ma: a mother (mā), a horse (mǎ), hemp (má), a grasshopper or “to scold/abuse” (mà), a question indicator or a pause (ma), among others. Because of this, the Chinese language allows for pretty cool tongue twisters:

As they have evolved within a closed community, living languages are simply too different for people who were raised in a different environment. This makes every single living language difficult for anyone who doesn’t speak it as a native tongue. It’s like asking a musician to learn a computer programming language – or a programmer to learn a musical instrument. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s very difficult because there is so much to learn at once with skills that are hard to acquire as an adult.

Languages are rich – too rich?

So, definitely, the environment shapes languages. Does an international language need to go to such deep extremes? Certainly not. You can afford to be more descriptive when the situation needs for it. This is not your daily tongue. It is an auxiliary one.

Consider the adjective “many” in English, it has a lot of synonyms: diverse, countless, copious, innumerable, manifold, myriad, numerous, plenty, several, various… What about “interesting”: fascinating, engaging, intriguing, though-provoking, inspiring, titillating, exciting, absorbing, enthralling, curious, captivating, enchanting, bewitching, appealing… and many others.

Indeed, most of those adjectives have a very slightly different meaning than all the others. Sometimes they are completely interchangeable. Granted, it can help us write better novels and better poetry, in order not to repeat the same word twice or to convey the exact concept we have in mind – that is, if the reader/listener knows that word… and associates the exact same nuances to it than the writer/speaker. Besides, this is adding a considerable amount of vocabulary to learn, for very little gain, if you consider “communication” alone.

This can end up being extremely confusing. Consider some examples:

Word / expression Britain America
I can easily jump out the window since I live on the first floor.
Let’s use a dummy to calm down the baby.
Oh, you are a chemist?
Can you check the post please?
‘Going to the bog?

An international language must be simple

If we want people to learn an extra language and be able to communicate, it has to be simple. Its vocabulary has to be limited so that we don’t need to learn tens of thousands of words to start communicating.

It also has to be as unambiguous as possible:

  • vocabulary must have a definite meaning for everyone, and it should avoid synonyms,
  • grammar must be clear and allow as little misunderstandings as possible,
  • sounds must be easy to pronounce and distinct for most people,
  • related to the previous point, it shouldn’t have homonyms: one sound, one meaning, and vice-versa.

Besides, it has to offer all the needed flexibility to get as precise as possible when it is needed. Do I really want to convey “enthralling”? We can use some metaphor for that with simple vocabulary: that is actually what dictionaries do to explain complex words. And that’s exactly what we do naturally when we struggle to find the exact word we mean to use.

However, “simple” is a relative concept. How many words should an international language have? 100? 1 000? 10 000? More? As we will see in the next parts, “too simple” can be very crippling. We need to find the correct balance between “simple but inconvenient” and “overly complex and hard to learn”.

We will see in the next part that many languages have served as “common languages”, and that new ones also appeared, especially in the recent history.

An international language – English is BAD – Part 1

For a time, two centuries ago, the French language shone on the Western world, and was spoken by most travelers and high society. During the 20th century, English has gradually become the main international language. Yet, this language is incredibly difficult to learn for many people on this Earth.

Of course, we do need a language to communicate across countries and cultures. Even more so since we can now communicate instantly with other people all over the world thanks to technology.

However, language can be a huge wall between different people in terms of communication. Not being able to communicate, not understanding someone fully, not understanding at all, or worse, misunderstanding because of the language barrier, is extremely frustrating.

Is English really that difficult?

Although I was born in France, I’ve been lucky to have been exposed to the English language almost since birth, so I don’t mind speaking it. In fact, English serves me well, personally. However, not everyone is as lucky as I am.

Let’s face it: English is incredibly hard to learn, read, write and speak for a large portion of the world’s human beings. It’s not even easy for natives!

English sounds

Pronunciation of English sounds is very challenging for a large portion of non native English speakers (ever heard a French or a Chinese person struggling to speak English and getting the sounds right?). Many speakers of other languages can’t make the difference between some English sounds, especially the vowels, for instance “sheet” and another word which I will let you guess. 💩 And another one is “peace”. Yes, you got that one right too.

Pronunciation

So, how do you expect people to pronounce things correctly when they can’t even hear and make a difference between the different sounds?

Besides, pronunciation rules of written text are incredibly complex, to the point where if you don’t know some words, you wouldn’t know how to pronounce them. Think for instance of “thoroughly” and “through”, or the word “choir”. In this regard, the absence of strict rules about syllable emphasis makes it extremely challenging for non natives. It’s alias but akin, it’s misnomer but mischievous. And even a similarly stressed syllable doesn’t guarantee the same pronunciation: the stressed “a” of alias (/ˈeɪ.li.əs/) is different from the one of alibi (/ˈæl.ə.baɪ/). For a learner of the language, these types of rules go on and on like this forever. You basically have to learn almost every single word.

Spelling rules

Accordingly, spelling is also a big challenge. If you don’t know a word, you’re often at a loss when it comes to writing something you’re hearing. What about “juggler” vs “jugular”, “able” and “abide”, etc.?

Do I also have to have the offence/offense of mentioning as an annex/annexe that the agonising/agonizing specter/spectre of the “z” (zed/zee) is always an unrivaled/unrivalled endeavor/endeavour when it comes to British vs American English?

And yes, it’s pronunciation, although it is pronounced.

And one little doubled consonant can make a whole difference.

Incidentally, a comma also changes everything.

Let’s eat, kids.

Let’s eat kids.

Grammar in general and exceptions

The English grammar is incredibly difficult, tenses are a mess. Who hasn’t struggled with has had been, even natives?

There are exceptions everywhere. Verb conjugation of course. But more typically, prepositions are a headache to learn and can change the whole meaning of a sentence:

I took the statue in the garden. => it was in the garden, I’m taking it away

I took the statue into the garden. => I’m putting it in the garden

Exceptions always lurk around the corner:

The adjective for metal is metallic, but not so for iron.

Which is ironic.

Multiple meanings and homophones

A large proportion of words in the English language have multiple meanings. And I do mean multiple! Think about the very common word “date”: a day in the calendar, a romantic encounter, a fruit, or “old fashioned” as in “dated”. As a computer scientist working in AI, I have to note that this has also a terrible effect on computerized processing of language: it is very hard to automatically translate the billions of text written in English accurately to other languages.

Homophones are also all over the place. An ant is not an aunt, especially at a bizarre bazaar. “Wine and dine” sounds like “Whine and dine” but doesn’t mean exactly the same thing…

Word order

Of course, word order can be challenging for speakers of languages whose grammar orders words differently.

In English: I go to England.

In Japanese: I (the subject) Japan (destination) go.

In Irish: Go (I) to Ireland.

In Turkish: Turkey (to) go (I). Or: I Turkey (destination) go.

But no. I’m not speaking about those. Because no matter how you look at things, there will be differences, that’s the way languages are. And word order does matter, it is quite normal. As a game, you can put the word “only” anywhere in the next sentence, and get very different meanings:

She told him that she loved him.

Here are the results:

  • Only she told him that she liked him: nobody else told him that
  • She only told him that she liked him: she didn’t say anything else
  • She told only him that she liked him: he’s the only one to whom she said that
  • She told him only that she liked him: that’s all she said, and it sounds like she could have said more
  • She told him that only she liked him: she claimed she was the only one who liked him
  • She told him that she only liked him: that may be awkward. He may love her but she’s pointing out that he’s just a friend for her…
  • She told him that she liked only him: she doesn’t like anyone else
  • She told him that she liked him only: same meaning than the previous one

But English has more tricks which makes far less sense.

Adjectives, for instance. Think about a woman who is: beautiful, tall, thin, young, black-haired, Scottish. To speak a correct English, you would have to describe her with those adjectives in this exact order, no other! She cannot be a young, tall woman. While this may come naturally from experience since birth to a native English speaker, it is a total headache for a non native, who might very well think that she is a “Scottish black-haired young thin tall beautiful woman”. It hurts, doesn’t it?

Word stress

Unfortunately, this also happens orally by stressing one word in particular. In that case, there is no real way of showing this when writing, except maybe by using italic or bold fonts. In the following sentence, stressing a particular word radically changes the global meaning and context:

I never said she stole my money.

Indeed:

  • I never said she stole my money: but someone else may have said it
  • I never said she stole my money: I would never do that!
  • I never said she stole my money: I just implied it, but never directly said it
  • I never said she stole my money: I didn’t point fingers at her as the culprit
  • I never said she stole my money: she may have borrowed it… or found my lost wallet
  • I never said she stole my money: but that she did steal someone else’s money
  • I never said she stole my money: she stole something else from me

Again, this is quite normal and exists in most languages, but it makes comprehension difficult. People do expect you to pick the difference in the meaning of every single of those sentences. Of course, context helps a lot here.

Ambiguity

English can be highly ambiguous, and relies on context and/or “common sense” to interpret what is being said. But in an international context, you absolutely don’t want to rely on “common sense” since this can vary a lot depending on the culture. Consider:

My brother and I are getting married this summer.

What? Well, maybe not “to each other”.

What about:

The lady hit the man with an umbrella.

The only thing we can tell for sure is that it probably did hurt. But who actually had the umbrella in their hands remains unclear. “Their” in the previous sentence is actually singular.

I read the book.

Is this past or present?

English is a local language

English has many native speakers around the world. However, all those native speakers are speaking “their own version of English”. English is actually a local language. And it has its own dialects and cultural versions.

They actually have such different accents and vocabulary that some of them can’t even understand one another. Just picture a Scot and a Texan trying to communicate. That’s the challenge we inevitably face when reusing an existing language to make it an international one artificially.

Let’s not pretend English is mutually intelligible by anyone who learns it anywhere in the world.

To conclude

I think this incomplete list speaks for itself. Although it doesn’t technically speak, as it’s written text. Here is a last funny and well known example and we’ll leave the subject at that:

Why is it that writers write, but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce, and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So, one moose, 2 meese? One index, two indices? Is cheese the plural of choose?

So yes, let’s face it, English is a terrible international language. The most telling part is that people have invented “Simple English” or “Basic English” to try and reduce the difficulty. That’s simply acknowledging that it is too difficult in the first place. For no real benefit. Well yes, it creates millions of jobs for English teachers and translators all around the world. But wouldn’t that energy be better spent if it was for other purposes than trying to fit a square into a circle?

Here’s a link for those of you who are not afraid to go down the rabbit hole.

In the next part, we’ll explore why any other living language is a bad candidate as an international language. Then, we’ll see alternative languages that have emerged as “common languages” between groups which spoke different languages but needed to communicate – and why none of them make a good international language. And then I’ll suggest something else.