Aug 22 2008

English as the common language

Category: GeneralLee @ 12:03

There have been rumblings about the idea of a ‘common language’ for many decades. By ‘common language’, I mean a single language through which people from any country can speak to one another.

Esperanto was a noble attempt. It was created specifically for this purpose, grammatically simple and engineered, rather than grown organically – therefore making much more sense on the technical side. However, for various reasons it was never that popular (even though a few films were even made in it). There are still those who speak it dotted around the world, recognisable primarily by their little green star badges, who have created a community of sorts. Indeed, some science fiction films, books and even television series (most notably Red Dwarf) assumed – or perhaps hoped – that Esperanto would be the lingua franca in the future. At best, it could be viewed as an experiment in progress, although with the slow rate of growth it is exhibiting it would be a couple of centuries before it made any real global impact.

The Russians made a somewhat misguided effort when the USSR was formed. Several ex-Soviet country-folk harbour a deep hatred for the Russians, and much of this seems to be focused on their having to learn Russian at school. Now, the Soviet empire was positively glistening with wrongness pretty much no matter which angle you looked at it from; but the idea of a common language for all ‘member’ countries… there have been worse ideas. The reasoning behind it was probably more imperialist than humanitarian, but the actual concept was, in my opinion, a laudable one.

Which brings us to English. England – or should I say Britain – is hardly the most popular country in the world. For a wide and shameful variety of reasons it is in fact hated, looked down upon and ridiculed. There are good reasons for all three of these attitudes. Much of it is, for lack of a better word, hereditary – it’s just the way things have been for centuries. The French hate the English, the English hate the French. This is a tune which has remained unchanged for well over a millennium. The French, again, ridicule English cooking. How many, do you suppose, realise that it was the awful, grossly sub-standard French cooks who were brought over around the 1700s – when everything French was seen as fashionable – who introduced most of what passes for British cooking these days? That what they ridicule is what they themselves have created?

Still, much of the animosity directed towards Britain is well deserved. The imperialist, ruthless attitudes – now gone, but at the time, for a long time, seemingly engineered to do as much damage to a country as possible. The careful de-industrialisation of India when the English were forced to leave is a prime example. The murder of an entire Chinese town – men, women and children – because the townspeople kept taking down the telegraph poles the English erected. (In this case it was because they believed it interfered with their Feng Shui, so it was an absurd thing to do, but it was still their town and the reaction was quite mad). The recent increasing association with the US, and all of it’s despicable acts, has not helped the perception of Britain worldwide.

Yes, there are all kinds of reasons, right and wrong, why England is reviled. But English, the language, is another matter altogether. It might not be perfect, with it’s quirky grammar and a lack of descriptive words which appear in many other languages, but the point is that it is already spoken as a first or second language by an estimated 1.8 billion people.

It is the most-spoken language in the world. Mandarin Chinese, the second, is ‘only’ spoken by an estimated 1,050,000,000 people (including as a second language). In practical terms, the world simply will not adopt such a complex writing and speaking system as a prime, common language. It would also require the redesigning of all electronic systems, from the keyboard to the programs. Additionally, there are a myriad of cultural resistances, especially from the West and, indeed, other Eastern countries. It is, essentially, too complicated and will never happen in my opinion.

Standard Hindi is next, with a mere 325,000,000 people speaking it. 650,000,000 if you include those who speak it as a second language and Urdu (for the main difference is the writing). Most Hindi sub-languages and dialects are mutually intelligible, although not all are. Also interesting is that some 180,000,000 people in India already speak English – typically those who are better educated and actually benefit the country’s economy on any significant scale.

English is also already the international language of business, no matter which country you come from, which is currently what makes the world work (sad, but true). The two main financial centres of the world are London and New York. Neither of these two groups will suddenly agree to trade in, say, Mandarin. Not going to happen.

I put forth this argument some years ago to an aquaintance of mine who was Punjabi. He was outraged that I should suggest subjugating any country’s own language in favour of English, which he claimed wasn’t so great anyway. In case anyone reading this thinks the same, I will attempt to clarity – hopefully with more success than I had with him.

I do not propose that any country should be forced to lose it’s national language in favour of English (they can if they want to, though). I only suggest that, if the circumstances arose whereby a single, worldwide common language might be chosen, the logical decision would be English – with each nation keeping it’s original tongue as a second language, which would almost certainly be taught to all anyway. And that the idea of a worldwide common language would be a truly wonderful thing. Think of it: a whole planet where you can go anywhere, talk to anyone and be understood. That is more like what all those visionary writers had in mind.

As explained above, English is already in place to some degree all around the world, it is the language most business transactions are conducted in and, lest we forget, it is one of the easiest languages in the world to learn. The only realistic alternative would be an engineered language – but Esperanto was just such a thing and, not to put too fine a point on it, failed to live up to it’s promise (though through no fault of it’s own, rather due to people’s resistance to change).

The issue of change is another point in favour of English. Russians will not all learn Portuguese. Chinese will not willingly study Russian. Americans… well, as a nation they probably won’t accept any other language unless they are forced to at gunpoint. Here in the UK, people come here seeking asylum with all the benefits and privileges the government affords them and, outrageously, refuse point blank to learn English. I am by no means a patriot – in fact I think the whole concept of country borders is ludicrous – but if I went to another country and was given everything from a house to food, money, clothes, TV (I worked in the Asylum Seeker’s Unit at the Home Office for a while, trust me on this) I would at least put some effort into learning that country’s language.

The only real alternative for most of the world to ‘accept’ another language: a conquering force which leaves the people no choice. But English is already there. It’s spoken the world over – traditionally even more so by those in charge. Change would be minimal.

I cannot help but feel that the world would be a better place, that we all might feel less distant from one another – culturally as well as geographically – if we could all understand one another. It’s such a simple concept: people of one planet all being able to talk to one another. So simple. Yet some would actively rebel against the idea. Well, I genuinely believe that it could bring us all closer together – maybe even help to alleviate all the fighting we as a species seem to be so enamoured of – and, by happenstance as much as anything else, English is already there to fulfil that duty.

It might not be perfect, but languages evolve – even better with the help of billions of people. Besides, it would be a huge step in the right direction; of realising that we’re basically all the same and constant animosity is not just futile but self-destructive. Perhaps a single, common language could actually help to save the world.

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