In the previous part, we have seen that existing languages can be fairly complex. Besides, we cannot speak all languages spoken by others. Clearly, from the beginning of language, people needed to communicate with “others who don’t speak your own language”.
Many existing languages served as a common tongue between different civilizations. In fact, such languages emerged in history in every region that had enough trade going on, and where communication was necessary.
In the West, during the Middle Ages, traders around the Mediterranean spoke a language called “Lingua Franca”. The term now means “common language”: a language spoken by people who otherwise wouldn’t understand one another. All over the world, groups that had strong interactions used some variations of regional languages as “lingua franca”, such as Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Swahili, Latin, Quechua, and many others.
Vulgar Latin served as the “lingua franca” for the whole European continent for centuries. It is actually still in use in the scientific world, where Latin is the root of botanical and anatomical names.
After the Renaissance in Europe, there were many attempts to devise simplified languages, mostly for scientists from different countries who couldn’t communicate across Europe because they spoke different languages.
In the late 19th century, Schleyer, a German priest, created a language called Volapük, which he hoped would become an international language. His language gained big popularity very quickly, with over a million enthusiasts, but it was short-lived.
Among Schleyer’s followers, some wanted to make changes to the language. However, he wanted to keep it “pure and unmodified” – and also didn’t want the credit for creating the language to slip from his hands. As a result, many “unofficial” variants of the language appeared. Different factions started arguing and claiming that their version was “the best”.
Power is a treacherous thing. Every promoter of their own version fought with others. Many branches of the language appeared, and this is probably one of the main causes of the destruction of this language. I insist on this part of the story because it explains what followed with Esperanto, and is still visible to this day.
10 years after the creation of Volapük, a Polish ophthalmologist (he was actually born in the Russian Empire at the time), Zamenhof, published a book under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto”, describing what would become the language “Esperanto”. He had been working on creating an international language for more than 15 years. Indeed, he believed that humanity needed a common language to be at peace. Many Esperantists (people who speak and promote Esperanto) still have this same goal in mind: a unifying language for the world.
I do admire the goal, and I absolutely share the vision. Not being able to understand one another creates division. And certainly, the “divide and rule” tactic is working partly because we all speak different languages.
Fear and rigidity
However, like many other people, I find that the Esperanto language is lacking. In fact, Zamenhof himself thought that his language could be improved. However, many Esperantists feared that modifying the original language would lead to a “Volapük schism” which would eventually destroy Esperanto. A large majority rejected Zamenhof’s own reform when he proposed improvements to the language. This fear is still felt by many Esperantists today.
Although I do understand the fear, I feel it is based on the wrong grounds. Volapük did not disappear because it was modified by others. It disappeared because Schleyer would not allow to modify it to make a better version – thus provoking the splitting which eventually led to its demise. The thing is: the inevitable obviously cannot be stopped. Trying to stop a natural evolution makes things worse, not better. From a shallow point of view, it looks like a schism destroyed Volapük. However, when looking deeper, the root cause was rigidity. I fear the same might happen with Esperanto.
Granted, some reforms did take place in Esperanto. But they are very minimal and insufficient, at least from my point of view. On the other hand, I do share the view of many Esperantists that an international language shouldn’t go through a reform every month. I also agree that “better” is often the enemy of “good”. However, what is clearly broken and/or creates strong negative emotional reactions cannot be widely adopted and creates resistance. Esperanto is the oldest of the current major surviving conlangs, it also benefited from a number of hypes over time. Yet, it never really took off and we’re very far today from it being a common international language.
Many, very early on in the life of Esperanto, shared the view that it needed some extra touch. Branches of the language appeared despite all the efforts from Esperantists to stop anyone from modifying the language in fear of a schism. Those branches separated forcefully from the main Esperanto speakers since there was no tolerance from their side. One of them is called Ido, a “revised Esperanto” (“ido” in Esperanto means “offspring”).
Frankly, I find that Ido feels like a patch. It does solve some of the problems I see in Esperanto, but it is still lacking. Quite a lot. We will see that in more detail in the next posts. It is an honest attempt at fixing many aspects of Esperanto that many people judge negatively, but I believe it is not sufficient. It is just like fixing a broken house with tape.
And indeed, the result is here: despite being around for quite a long time, Ido is at a standstill. In fact, it is far behind Esperanto in terms of the number of speakers. If it was as good as it claims, I believe it would have overtaken Esperanto by now.
In the middle of the Second World War, a scientist, Lancelot Hogben, devised the bases for an international language during his idle hours. He published a book called “Interglosa”, mostly aimed at language teachers, confident that people would pick up his language immediately. However, people at the time had other things on their minds, with the war going on. His introduction manual for the language never took any attention.
Almost 20 years later, another scientist, Ron Clark, found Hogben’s book in a second-hand bookshop. He read it and immediately found it fascinating. He was soon joined by Wendy Ashby, and they worked with Hogben, who was still alive, to improve the language. However, Hogben died in 1975. Clark and Ashby founded Glosa after some further modifications of the language.
I find Glosa much better than any previous attempts. After all, Hogben benefited from many failures before him, so he definitely had an advantage. Here are some of the core features of Glosa:
- it is fully phonetic, every single printed character is pronounced in one way, and vice versa,
- unlike Esperanto, words do not change, they can serve multiple purposes by the simple addition of prepositions. This feature eliminates complex inflections which makes it difficult for many people to speak and understand languages – people in general don’t think about what an adjective or an adverb is when they speak!
- the vocabulary is limited to 1000 words,
- the roots of the words are exclusively taken from Greek and Latin.
However, like Esperanto or Ido, Glosa is still not widespread. Granted, it is much younger and didn’t benefit from big hypes as Esperanto did.
There are many other constructed languages that aim to be international languages. It would be impossible to list them all. I’ll just present a last one, which is quite fun and intriguing.
Toki Pona was created by a Canadian, Sonja Lang, whose aim wasn’t exactly to create an international language, but rather a “minimalist” language. It was a tool to help organize her thoughts. Indeed, the official Toki Pona vocabulary contains no more than 120 words. Yes, you have read that correctly, a language with a total of one hundred and twenty words! In fact, the philosophy is close to Northern minimalism, which along with her pen name led me to believe for quite some time that Sonja Lang was a Swede!
Similar to the founder of Esperanto, the inventor of Toki Pona had something in mind: doing good. While the word “Esperanto” means “the one who hopes”, “toki pona” means “the language of good”.
Besides, I particularly like some of Toki Pona’s features. For instance, the sounds have been selected so that basically all people in the world can read, understand and pronounce the language easily. This is nice! Besides, it can be written in plain ASCII without any diacritics.
Minimalism comes at a price
However, minimalism comes at a price. Although a few root words may be sufficient to express very simple things, it becomes very challenging when you need to express more complex thoughts. You need to become extremely descriptive, like a 2-year-old child who doesn’t know his vocabulary yet.
The student learns history from the teacher
The one who studies learns the communicated chronology that passed from the person whose job is to instruct others.
As a primary tool for communication, this can become very tedious. Better than nothing, for sure. Indeed, the original creator’s intention is to develop creativity and imagination.
However, if we do want to be understood by other human beings, we need a consensus. Everyone must use the same metaphors to be understood. This in turn means that you have to learn vocabulary – or in this case idioms -, just like in any other language. If you don’t, you might scratch your head when someone mentions a “confident bird”. Could it possibly be one of the following?
Actually, it is the metaphor people generally use for an “eagle” in Toki Pona. But if you haven’t come across the expression yet, any one of those above could certainly qualify as a “confident bird”.
Besides, others would probably also scratch their heads when you mention a “confident bird from the Andes”, although that one could come very easily as a “condor” for someone who is familiar with the Andean culture.
Conlangs are also biased
Created languages, or “conlangs”, also suffer from the biases of their creator(s). Because someone created a language with “goodwill” doesn’t mean the language itself is good, easy, or even usable for communication. We’ll examine the ease of learning and communicating of existing conlangs in part 5.
Does a “lingua franca” replace local languages?
To conclude this post, I would like to address this very sensitive topic. Language is deeply connected to the culture of the people who speak it.
Languages politically forced on populations destroy dialects
This is a common fear, due to a very big misunderstanding of what a “lingua franca” should be. Since English has become the de facto international language, many believe that an international language always tries to force itself on people and aims to replace all languages.
In many countries where a common language was forcefully introduced as “the common lingo”, it has been the case.
In my native France, the French Republic has spent countless efforts in the last 250 years trying to kill all regional languages, forcing people to speak French and ditch their local language or dialect. All this in the name of “unity”. And this strong will to eradicate dialects is still very much alive within the Parisian administration today – and, sadly, it has succeeded quite well. In June 2021, it voted on a new law to restrict any teaching of regional languages at school. But that is a political agenda, not “goodwill” to “help people communicate”. Instead, it is a tool to control the population from a centralized authoritarian administration.
In the same way, some other languages did replace the local dialects. But in most cases, those were the results of military conquest. Indeed, Vulgar Latin replaced many local languages in Europe during the Middle Ages. But that was the result of the colonization of territory by the Romans. Similarly, the Incas pushed Quechua on the people they conquered. With the Spanish takeover of South America, it grew even more because the Spaniards didn’t want to have translators for every single local language. Again, it was a military invasion. And after all, the language of the conquerors, Spanish, replaced Quechua to some extent.
English also comes with the conquering American mentality. Conquering through music, a huge film industry, fast food, and many other aspects. It is not the language itself that endangers others, but the associated culture.
This is not what an international language is for.
Lingua francas don’t kill other languages
As I have mentioned, many “lingua francas” emerged naturally in history, and rarely ever replaced or killed other languages. The trading language of the Mediterranean called “Lingua Franca” never replaced other local languages or dialects. Chinese outside of China, Malay, and Swahili, while being widely understood well beyond the borders of their native speakers, didn’t replace local dialects.
The goal needs to be precise: a “lingua franca” is an “alternative means of communication”. Not a new “unified world” thing. By the way, another name for such a language is “international auxiliary language”. Auxiliary.
I actually make the point that providing a constructed language to the world as a lingua franca is actually saving languages rather than endangering them. If you are speaking Cherokee today, you could just learn the easy lingua franca along with Cherokee, rather than having to study English. Because of this, some countries like some parts of Switzerland as well as Finland are actually switching fully to English, ditching their own language. Which I personally find catastrophic. To keep the diversity, we need very easy access to the lingua franca.
Enough spoken of existing languages. In the next part, we will focus on constructed languages: conlangs.