ONELANG and AUXLANG are old acquaintances who accidentally meet. After some preliminary conversation ONELANG broaches a topic of common interest:
ONELANG We've been conversing without difficulty in my preferred tongue, and you'll have to forgive me for not addressing you in your new international constructed language. No doubt we should all be speaking it. Just imagine! All our thoughts would then be rightly organised and straightened by its globally-equitable vocabulary and rationalised, regularised grammar. Civilisation would run like a well-oiled machine and we would all be protected from such inherent thought-crime and irrationality as lurks within existing languages!
AUXLANG Ha! Ha! You're joking, of course - but in any case your "Newspeak" dystopia couldn't be realised, since the auxlang will always be supplementary to the mother-tongues. This is a cast-iron safeguard. Everyone will learn at least two languages, including their own mother-tongue and the auxlang, so, being able to express themselves in the former, your suggested Orwellian thought restriction could not possibly happen, even if the extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis happened to be true, which it isn't.
ONELANG Ah! But you are assuming that the auxlang will remain subservient to every mother tongue. Language doesn't necessarily perform such favours. It's quite possible that the modern, politically-correct culture associated with the auxlang will become dominant and push all existing onelangs to the margin. After all, the major onelangs have already done this to the minority ethnic tongues as a result of popular demand, so there is no reason why they might not be displaced in turn by a populist auxlang.
AUXLANG How could this happen when an auxlang is not at all comparable to existing languages? The IAL will be politically and culturally neutral whereas every major existing language has gained its influence through its association with an existing power.
ONELANG It is this very idea of political and cultural neutrality that I question. How is that possible with language? Every language is an expression of the culture of the people speaking or promoting it. Their auditory preference determines its phonology; their characteristic thought patterns and ideology shape its grammar. The point is that every major onelang expresses many centuries of religious belief, tradition and distilled philosophy. On the other hand an auxlang is modern and artificial. Who are its real promoters? Who are the powers behind its throne? Can anyone have confidence that it is not the subliminal vehicle of sinister ideology and socially-destructive thoughts?
AUXLANG Well, I don't accept your argument for the reasons already stated: firstly, you are assuming that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true and that the quality and structure of language determines imagination and thought. Like many others I would dispute this, and suggest on the contrary that the state of popular imagination and thought determines language: thus an increasingly scientific and global consciousness would tend to produce a regularised international language. Secondly, the mother-tongues will remain as the primary vehicles of thought and knowledge in any case, so there is no reason to suppose that the auxlang would usurp these functions. But even if they did, why would that be such a bad thing? You say that an auxlang is artificial, but actually the dominance of a single onelang is even more artificial. Language is always an artificial construct from the point of view of the individual. Children brought up by wolves do not develop language. Not only that, but "natural" languages are regarded as somewhat artificial by people outside the historic catchment area of that language, since they don't correspond to their "natural" speech patterns. Thus we are likely to notice that their speech is more or less at variance with the phonology and standard pronounciation of the language, thereby producing a laboured accent - and we may also notice that their characteristic thought patterns are at variance with the grammar, inclining them to distort or misuse it. In fact, it is probably true that an optimal "artificial, constructed" language is, in the final analysis, more "natural" because it places fewer phonological and grammatical constraints upon the sum of the global population, all other things being equal.
ONELANG But we can't have it both ways. Either we have a two-language onelang cum auxlang solution, with some sort of equilibrium, or the equilibrium will resolve itself one way or the other and we have a onelang solution. Thus I am arguing that either the auxlang will fail, as has happened up to the present, or it will itself become dominant and drive out the onelangs. I am arguing this because of the evidence that human beings are naturally monolingual. A lot of research has been done on this. People with perfect fluency in two languages are very much the exception: in the vast majority of cases the accent, vocabulary and grammatical structure of the mother-tongue or first language intrude on the second. Contrary to other areas of life, in which people learn better second time around, the first language seems to impose an almost-indelible imprint which it is very difficult for a second language to efface. A second language is therefore learned in the context of the first, leading to the distortions with which we are all familiar. This means in effect that in most instances an equilibrium will not be achieved and either the mother-tongue or auxlang will become dominant and impose its pattern on the other.
AUXLANG OK, let's suppose for the sake of argument that you are correct, and the auxlang becomes the world's primary language. Again, would that be such a bad thing? People might then speak and write in it directly rather than through translation, even though all its benefits as the translation medium of the world would remain. Not only that, but we have established that it would be a less unnatural constuct than any existing language, from the point of view of all nationalities. What is there then to be afraid of?
ONELANG It's just too big a risk. Many a wolf appears in sheep's clothing. The professed neutrality of the auxlang could be a cloak for a worse tyranny. In any case it would be impossible to start with a completely neutral language. Choosing between alphabetic and logographic script, analytic and synthetic tendencies within grammar, various placings of subject, verb and object within the sentence, and other quite fundamental structural differences, would initially disadvantage certain nationalities. How do we know that these temporary expediencies wouldn't become permanent? For example, we all know how communism promised its earthly paradise beyond an initial brief state capitalist phase which somehow never withered away. Therefore, despite protestations to the contrary, an auxlang could remain in a position of inequity and become worse than any onelang. And the worst of it would be that, since it was the only language on Earth, there would be no opposition so the tyranny would be complete and perpetual.
AUXLANG But the auxlang would not simply be started off like a clockwork toy and left to run on its own. You speak of the culture behind it - well, these are the same people who would ensure that adjustments were made and reasonable compromises worked out. For instance, East Asian nations that might well have to adopt an alphabetic script - as they are starting to do already - might be compensated with an analytic or isolating grammar and a fair proportion of words from their own vocabularies.
ONELANG I'm not sure that controlling the auxlang would be so easy. The values of a culture can be difficult to discern, since anything new is likely to be treated with great suspicion. Zamenhof certainly understood this fact, and placed great emphasis on "homaranismo", which is essentially a set of humanitarian values that all Esperantists should aspire to. However, that didn't prevent the movement and its followers from being discriminated against and even persecuted. Unless there is an overt belief system and tradition extending over a long period of time, that everyone can verify for themselves, it is hard to make progress. Here the ancient onelangs have a great advantage: the judgment of history. Moreover, their close association with religious and philosophical tradition has interested conservatives - or what is properly called the right-wing - in their preservation. So since auxlangs and onelangs are inherently in contention for the international language role, the auxlang movement seems to be associated in peoples' minds with the Left, by default. So this raises the question: should the Left should be in charge of the future of the world's language resources?
AUXLANG That categorisation I do not accept. An auxlang might just as easily be described as right-wing, if it identified itself with those institutions conducive to the progress and stability of a single world order. Anyway, what is your solution, since you are so right?
ONELANG To look at the world as it is, not as how we would like it to be. Influential civilisations have successively arisen, each one accompanied by a great language. The language has helped propagate the civilisation, but has not been independent of it. Consequently, when the civilisation has come to an end, so has the progress of the language, even though it might - like Ancient Greek and Latin - continue for many centuries. Through the victories of Islam, Arabic became an international language from Spain to the borders of China, and Classical Arabic remains a peerless language to this day. In Europe a coincidence between the Renaissance, the cult of kingship and aristocratic style following Louis XIV, and the genius of French letters accompanying the Reformation elevated French to the international stage. Meanwhile the English language had shed various linguistic complexities, whether through acting as a pidgin or bridge language between the indigenous Britons, Romans and immigrant tribes from Continental Europe or simply through exclusive usage within the illiterate working classes, and thereby found itself well-prepared for a wider international role. It remains to be seen what will happen next.
AUXLANG There is no doubt about the great influence of these cultures and their languages. The linguistic sovereignty of Latin from the time of Constantine, and of Arabic after Muhammad, was regarded as of Divine origin in the minds of believers. The English language was also largely spread by missionaries. China does indeed look set to become the world's economic power, but what is there in its culture that would have world-wide appeal? And quite apart from the script, Chinese seems most unsuitable as an international language. What about the tones, for instance?
ONELANG Well English is quite unsuitable too, but hundreds of millions of non-natives have managed to learn it nevertheless. By the middle of the Twentieth Century, English was spoken by perhaps 12% of the world's population, in addition to being very widespread. Apart from political prejudice there's no intrinsic reason why it couldn't have been taught in a systematic manner to the progeny of the remaining 88%. In this respect Chinese has the advantage of already being spoken by a quarter of the world's population, although with less geographical distribution of course. The Chinese have been through hard times, including serious opium addiction and a convulsive lurch to the Left, but have come out greatly strengthened thereby. Perchance the world will be ready for the Chinese take on social order and obedience to authority. Let's also remember that young children have the facility to learn even quite difficult languages.
AUXLANG That may be true, but they can learn a regular language based on the most efficient grammatical constructions much more quickly.
ONELANG Is that necessarily a good thing in itself? After all, there is still a great deal of irrationality within both individuals and society as a whole. Childrens' minds should be prepared for this, in the same way that living conditions shouldn't be so hygienic that they cannot cope with any germs in later life. We are very far from a Golden Age: the whole world is clouded with corruption and deception, and the mouthpieces of tyranny promise nothing but money and success to those who will simply follow them. Those whose language is too straightforward might too easily do so. A little bitterness and stumbling among the words might cause some to stop and think, and try to understand what is really going on.
AUXLANG You're again making the mistake of conflating auxlang and mother tongue. Yes, the mother tongue might contain historic relics irrational to modern thinking, but an auxlang will act as a progressive counterpoise - uniting all cultures through the latest linguistic science.
ONELANG And that again brings me back to my earlier comment about equal weighting. If the mother tongues are in effect regarded as linguistic museums, and an auxlang as the repository of all that is progressive, wouldn't we tend to see the advance of the latter at the expense of the former?
AUXLANG No, they both go together. It is onelangs that displace other onelangs: the extinction of minority ethnic languages has occurred because their speakers have adopted major languages instead. Where there is a policy of multilingualism people naturally choose the language that will bring the most benefit in terms of educational and employment opportunities. How could they do otherwise? There are hundreds of languages in the world and even learning two is a challenge. With an auxlang, two languages will be sufficient for anyone - and there will be every incentive to preserve the mother tongues, since the role of the auxlang will be limited.
ONELANG Well that's debatable, since there seems to be no inherent reason why the auxlang should not grow and eventually extirpate all other languages. Also, you're assuming major languages cannot represent minority culture - or that they won't develop that facility, if they don't fully possess it at present. Major languages do have the capacity to express various dialects, and there is always the possibility of orthographic or grammatical change to increase that capacity. Indeed, there is no reason why an existing tongue chosen as the single world language should not eventually incorporate the best elements of all languages, whether from existing languages or from transcriptions and/or records of extinct languages.
AUXLANG That's taking too much on trust, and in any case a dialect is always the inferior substitute of a separate language.
ONELANG But an auxlang and the organisation behind it must also be taken on trust. At least a major existing language has centuries of literature, visible institutions and long-established procedures associated with it. And as for dialects - yes, they may suffer more constraints than a separate language, but on the other hand the unity of dialects within one language has the great advantage of making a potentially subversive auxiliary language redundant.
AUXLANG And what is going to preserve the identity of even the dialect, when the distinction of its host culture is lost?
ONELANG You are over-emphasising the importance of separate existence in vivo - the end result of which might well be cultural and linguistic apartheid, if not worse. In particular, the oft-repeated comparison between a minority language and a species is questionable. It may or may not be possible to recreate an extinct species directly from its DNA, or indirectly via genetic engineering, but the resurrection of minority ethnic tongues has proved to be fairly straightforward. Look at Hebrew, a long-dormant language which was brought back with the aid of ancient scriptures. Today's revivalists and would-be revivalists have also had the benefit of direct transcription from the last mother-tongue speakers, and very often a direct audio or audio-visual recording too. Few things have been more carefully preserved than an ethnic minority tongue on the verge of extinction. Who knows - it's even possible that one of these formerly extinct languages may become dominant in the future.
AUXLANG Your worldview is predicated on the notion of competition and the battle for dominance. The point of preserving and revivifying minority ethnic tongues is to allow every culture to gain independence and self-realisation; not so it might dominate others after a competitive struggle for survival. Aren't we entering a new era of cooperation and mutual aid? Consider that there have been more inventions and significant developments in the past 200 years than in the previous 4000 years of war and oppression as the accepted way of determining issues. Haven't we had enough of this!
ONELANG Isn't that a very idealistic view? Major languages or onelangs are a fact of life. In North America, for instance, all languages have effectively ceded to English - and that includes the American Indian or Native American languages. The only exception is Spanish, which is itself a major language, with adjacent cultural strength.
AUXLANG Yes - and the same processes have occurred everywhere. Oppression, capitalism, imperialism - whatever you want to call it - is inherent to human nature, whether expressed individually or collectively. The situation isn't going to change overnight, so an auxlang can only proceed slowly, though more quickly in those societies which have been educated in political and economic realities. Major languages will be required for a for quite a long time to come, and I'm not suggesting that children will cease learning them in school overnight.
ONELANG Are you suggesting that those governments which have been putting significant funding into minority ethnic tongues have been consciously preparing the way for an auxlang? Anything is possible, but I think it's more probably the sensible political recourse of attempting to channel actual or potential communist, nationalist and/or racist dissent into easily-managed linguistic cul-de-sacs.
AUXLANG It doesn't really matter whether a government is particularly conscious of what it is doing in this regard. An auxlang is in the zeitgeist. It will surely come. The sea change in attitudes towards minority ethnic tongues proves it.
ONELANG Well maybe you're wrong, and the whole enterprise is just a power grab. Let's reel forward to the future and suppose that your dream has been realised. There is one auxlang taught in all schools worldwide and a multitude of all-singing, all-dancing minority languages, many of them resurrected from ancient half-forgotten cultures, and each one peculiar to its respective ethnic group. So what happens then? I'd suggest that social advancement and political preferment will go to those who use the auxlang more or less exclusively - simply because of the auxlang's greater economic scope in an international culture, and also because minority ethnic tongues, possibly even more than major existing languages, tend to contain politically incorrect usages that might have been designed to embarrass the Left. By this I mean taboo words and other references to the fact that people inhabit family and social hierarchies rather than autonomous spaces as springboards for their ambition - also, value-judgements about race and nationality bound into the vocabulary, grammatical structures generally conducive to a patriachal rather than a matriarchal - or more exactly a feminist - order of society, all sorts of inherent assumptions about the worth of instituted religion, and of an aristocracy, and so on. The Left - identified with the auxlang - will then have the upper hand because the Right will be fragmented between a host of minority ethnic tongues, none of which have a hope of influencing affairs, due to their minority constituency. Of course the Left won't spin it this way: they always find plenty of tame institutions ready to state that black is white. I'd suggest, then, that the auxlang is the tyrannical dumbing-down exercise I identified at the start of our discussion - and an ideal vehicle for a new elite interested only in the exercise of power.
AUXLANG As though such an aim was wholly strange to dominant cultures and major languages! Full of hidden codes, irregular pronunciations and spellings, and grammatical quirks - minefields that only insiders with the right connections and education can negotiate and exploit successfully. And your absurd suggestion that the whole auxlang phenomenon is a sinister scheme by the Left to gain power and impose a global tyranny is a bit rich, or a fine example of the pot calling the kettle black, since the history of the cultures behind the major languages is nothing if not oppressive. Look at all the minority cultures and languages that have been extinguished! The voice of the imperialist has always been caring and compassionate, uttering socialist rhetoric or pious justifications, promoting ostensibly internationalist organisations, and basically using whatever smokescreen has been necessary to conceal the true purpose: a grab for land and resources.
ONELANG Then how do you explain why countless parents have enrolled their children at mission schools, and have even stopped using their own language at home for the sake of the greater educational and economic opportunities in the major language?
AUXLANG It could be ambition, or the well-known psychological phenomenon that causes people to love their oppressor.
ONELANG Your attribution of base motives is unwarranted by the facts. Deliberate attempts to extirpate a minority culture have always caused a backlash. Major languages and cultures haven't always got it right, and no doubt we are seeing this to some extent today. Not always though: other languages have simply disappeared without reaction - confident, perhaps, that they are being preserved at some level. But at least you're admitting human nature into your utopian world! Could it be that an irregular language full of seemingly perverse anomalies is actually a truer expression of culture than your procrustean auxlang? Look at what has occurred in recent times: the major languages have grown at the extent of the minor to such an extent that the obvious conclusion is a single onelang - by popular demand!
AUXLANG We'll just have to wait and see what happens. The future cannot always be predicted from past or even present trends. Anyway, an interesting discussion but I must leave. Good day!