Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Suppose I’m throwing a party. I enjoy parties, and I enjoy hosting them. But this time, the party is a little different. I don’t just want to invite friends and family, but I want to meet new people too. So instead of inviting just a handful of people, everyone on this planet is invited. 7.8 Billion people, including you.
Now suppose that everyone actually shows up. I’m planning a party for approximately 7.8 billion people and I want to be a good host. So ideally, I want to speak to every single person. I would welcome them, offer them a drink, and exchange some generic pleasantries. I’m sure you can imagine, there are several problems that I will encounter in hosting this party. But the problem I want to discuss here is not about the food or how to get these people in the same room. Rather, let’s discuss how we will communicate at this party; and the problem of a common language.
Dutch, the Universal Party Language
Let’s start with my native tongue, Dutch. If Dutch was the only language I could speak, there would only be around 23 million people around the world I could understand and talk to. That seems like a fair amount, but at this party of 7.8 billion people, those 23 million Dutch speakers are hard to find.
This is particularly difficult when people mingle. And indeed, some time after the party has started (i.e. Pink is in the house), people are randomly mixed. This means that for every 330 people I meet, there is only one I could actually talk to. As the host of the party, this is simply not acceptable. I’ve not found my common language yet; I would only be able to properly welcome 0.3% of all the people there, and from my perspective, it wouldn’t be a great party.
Learning a Second Language
So instead, I learn a second language. Luckily, I’ve had the chance to learn other languages in school, such as French, German, and quite a lot of English.
Particularly English is a good second language to know. We’ve learnt to talk, speak and write in English, of which this blog is a good showcase. Being able to speak English widens my possibilities. It makes traveling easier and makes me more employable.
More importantly English allows me to speak to the 1.5 billion other people who also speak English either natively or non-natively. In other words, around 19% of the people at the party I’ve invited speak the same language as I do. So if I switch from Dutch to English, I can pick 5 random people, and there is a fair chance that I could talk to someone in that group. Quite an improvement!
Acquiring a Lingua Franca
So with this English, I’ve actually learnt a so-called ‘lingua franca’, or ‘bridge language’. As an interesting side note, there was an actual Lingua Franca or ‘Frankish language‘ which was used in the Mediterranean (specifically countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Greece, Cyprus) as a language for commerce. It included words from Italian dialects, Spanish, and even Turkish, Greek and Arabic.
While this specific common language worked in that specific region, we now often use English. And I suppose that, once you’re fluent, English is a relatively good language to use. After all, I’m able to express my thoughts quite well in both written and spoken form. Plus, English has a broad vocabulary, and can be quite descriptive, so it’s not a very bad choice as a lingua franca*.
* Strictly speaking, a lingua franca is a language spoken by two people who each do not speak each other’s native language.
Crashing the Party: English as a Lingua Franca
And yet, when I speak English at the party, there are still four people (out every five) that will not understand a word of what I’m saying.
But more importantly, even when I do speak to a fellow English speaker, there’s a fair chance that we will have a difficult time properly understanding one another. This will lead to complications, and perhaps the guests won’t feel as much at home as I would like them to.
This is because of a few reasons. First and foremost, our accents are most likely different. We tend to use different words, and tend to pronounce them differently. You could say we even may speak a different dialect, though that would not make a whole lot of sense in this context (see an explanation of dialects below).
Secondly, even if we all spoke the Queen’s English, English in itself is a bad lingua franca. The language is filled with exceptions and ways to write and pronounce words that do not make much sense. Although we don’t have to concern ourselves with spelling at the party, our pronunciation (or pronounciation?) may still be different.
Why English is a Bad Common Language
One of my favorite examples of the weird exceptions used in English, is the difference between the meaning of the words horror, terror, and their conjugations. They go as follows:
- Horror (“an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust”)
- Horrible (“causing or likely to cause horror”)
- Horrific (“causing horror”)
- Terror (“extreme fear”)
- Terrible (“extremely bad or serious”)
- …. Terrific? (“of great size, amount, or intensity”, or informally: “extremely good; excellent”)
In other words, when a guest approaches me with the words: “You’ve hosted a terrific party”, should I feel great or take it as criticism?
Another superb example of why English does not make for a good common language is this popular poem which is coincidentally written by a Dutchman, Gerard Nolst Trenité. Named The Chaos, the poem shows why English is such a difficult language to learn. Pronounce these first verses out loud, and you will see what I mean:
Dearest creature in Creation,
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
It will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye your dress you’ll tear.
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it?
Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word…
A Better Lingua Franca: Spanish or Chinese?
So we’ve concluded that English is a good option, but it definitely won’t always work. It seems that I’m still failing in my career as a party planner.
But if we take into account all speakers of the English language, including those that did not learn it natively, English is the most spoken language in the world. In other words, even though English is not a great solution, there is not one other language I could have learnt, that would allow me to speak with more than 1 in 5 people.
The reason for this, in large part, is because we use English as a lingua franca or common language. Despite its difficulties, we’ve learnt English precisely to be able to speak to the greatest amount of other people.
But let’s suppose that as a host, I don’t want any misunderstandings. I want to be able to speak to my guests freely, so that we understand each other right away. If that’s the case, perhaps I should learn Mandarin Chinese or Spanish instead; after all, these two languages are spoken by most native speakers (specifically, data from 2018 tells us there were 908.7 million Mandarin Chinese, 442.3 million Spanish and 378.2 million English native speakers).
So should I start learning Chinese or Spanish instead? Well, if I’m going for efficiency, probably not. Chinese after all, has a different script than I am used to. Latin is the most popular script in the world, with around 70% of the world’s population using this alphabet. And perhaps I’m not the only person at the party who wants to be able to talk to new people.
Spanish is most likely easier to learn for me and the other attendees used to the latin script. But still, there are vast differences in accents and word use between native speakers of Spanish, so I still will not be certain that I can properly welcome everyone who speaks Spanish.
The Politics of Language
So perhaps I should learn French. It’s the sixth most spoken language in the world (after Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic), and it would allow me to speak in some shape or form to around 300 million of my guests.
More importantly, French is often considered the language of diplomacy. This is noteworthy, because what I did not consider until now, is the historical and political significance of the language I choose to speak — as host to a party of 7.8 billion people.
Indeed, whatever language I choose, millions of people may feel offended that I did not chose their native tongue as the party’s main language.
An interesting example of this political aspect of language can be found in dialects. From the point of view of linguistics, a dialect is not one well-defined concept. You can’t easily distinguish one language from a dialect, or indicate why language A is a dialect while language B isn’t; both are simply languages. However, often we see the difference between the two as one being the official language of a country or local area with a government, while the other is not.
Russian Jewish sociolinguist Max Weinreich once said: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy“. For a specific example, think of the difference between British English and Scottish English. Or alternatively, the difference between Dutch and (West) Frisian. Why do we call the one just a language and the other a dialect? We define them in this way because of their political importance, not because of any other reason.
A Different Solution: One Common Party Language
So even if I wanted to pick one language to speak as the party’s host, I couldn’t. Even French, as the language of diplomacy, is not diplomatic enough. So what now? It seems that English is still my best choice, even though it’s suboptimal.
But perhaps there is another solution to the problem. Let’s say I have some time to prepare the party. I’ve sent out the invites a year or two in advance, and do not just include the dresscode and location details, but also a request: A request for every attendee to learn the same language in advance.
And in order to not have to deal with the politics of it all, I’ll request my guests to learn a language that not any of them speaks natively: a so-called International Auxiliary Language or IAL.
Getting to an International Auxiliary Language
The idea of an IAL (or informally: an auxlang) is a language that is not already spoken by the two people attempting to communicate and also an ‘additional’ language. In other words, it is a language that does not exist yet, and therefore does not offer (dis)advantages to certain speakers, nor does it come with a political or historical baggage.
And indeed, if we assume that most ‘natural’ languages* are unfit to be a common language, why not create something new?
Certainly, many people have created languages from scratch. From Tolkien’s Elvish languages (such as Quenya) to Wookiee-speak (the language that Star Wars’ Chewbacca speaks; formally known as Shyriiwook), new languages are everywhere if you look for them.
But unfortunately, Quenya, Wookiee-speak or any other of these languages that appear in popular culture are not really fit to be used as an IAL — or this worldly party. The reason for this is that an IAL is designed to be as simple as possible, and therefore easy to learn.
* Languages are only ‘natural’ to an extent; after all, many languages have been subject to ‘language planning’ or ‘language engineering’. If you want to dive further into this rabbit hole, see the Wikipedia page on language planning, which includes an interesting case study of the Peruvian Quechua language.
Too Many Auxlangs
So that seems like a good solution to our problem: Let’s use an auxlang as our common language.
Unfortunately, perhaps there have been too many attempts at creating an IAL, including (but not limited to): Esperanto, Globasa, Ido, Interlingua, Interlingue, Elefen, Lingwa de planeta, Novial, Pandunia, Sambahsa, Kah, Kotava, Mejamey, and Mondlango.
If those all sound like they’re made up, that is because they are. They are truly created for the purpose of making it easy to learn them — and to be used by two people that do not speak the same language. Interestingly, many of them even have their own flags.
Where do all these languages come from? Well, there used to be an International Auxiliary Language Association, but now IAL enthusiasts converge in subreddits, rather old-looking websites, Google Docs (including entire language handbooks), and the auxlang email list.
The Politics of Fake Languages
But if there are so many different auxlangs, how do we choose which one to speak at the party? Again, we could first look at how many speakers there are of every language. Indeed, some IALs have picked up a wider following. For example, Esperanto has its own DuoLingo course, there’s a newsletter and online radio show, and Google Translate even can translate Esperanto.
Nonetheless, it seems not even a hundred thousand people speak the language fluently (see this question on StackExchange). This means that looking at the amount of fluent speakers is not the way to go.
In addition, there is still a problem of non-neutrality. The idea of an IAL is that it provides ‘neutral ground’ for the two speakers that use it. However, most IALs aren’t entirely neutral. Most languages are created based on certain biases, preconceptions and rules provided by their makers; no unrestricted choices took place.
Specifically, most IALs are designed a posteriori (meaning: based on other languages). For instance, Esperanto is quite Euro-centric, because many of the words are based on European languages. Consider these words and you can surely see their English, Russian, Italian and other counterparts: Saluton (Hello), gratulon (congratulations), bieron (beer), nokton (night), pacon (peace), parolas (speaks), nedankinde (you’re welcome, “not worthy of thanks”).
While this makes the language easier to learn for many speakers of European languages, it also makes it more difficult to learn for anyone who currently speaks a non-European language. Chinese or Arabic speakers will find it difficult not just to learn the vocabulary (which does not relate to anything they know), but also to learn the pronunciation (which again, is entirely different from what they know).
Evidently, there is a trade-off here. Esperanto is relatively easy to learn for millions of people from in and around Europe, but this comes with difficulties for non-Europeans. So the alternative is to design an IALs a priori, or in other words: from scratch. An a priori designed language is equally difficult to learn for any learner, making it more equal or neutral, but also making it much more difficult to learn and have the language adopted by a larger community*.
* Note that there are many more arguments in favor and against certain auxlangs, particularly from a linguistic point of view. I won’t share them here, because I found it difficult to make sense of linguistic concepts such as morphology and suprasegmentals; if you’d like to read more on this topic, here’s an excellent essay on auxlang design.
The True Problem with a Common Language
That, in the end, seems the biggest problem. The issue is not which language we choose. Rather, the question is: How do we get so many people to learn one language simultaneously?
In that sense, global institutions like the EU or UN, are the best venues to promote a single common language. As could be expected, these institutions currently do not support Esperanto or other auxlangs. And although they do support natural languages, even the most popular of those (English) isn’t perfect as a common language, which really is a great example of path dependence.
Evidently, the goal of this essay is not to actually host a large party. Rather, it is to understand how and if we can come to a true global language. But as the auxlang community has already realized, to get there, we need a movement that works from the bottom up. This is because global institutions, world leaders, and big corporations simply have too many competing interests to start promoting a global language in and of themselves.
Considering that the movement for a global language (whether English or Esperanto) is small, this is the main problem. So unfortunately, even if I prepare the party years in advance, I would not be able to get everyone in the same room to speak the same language. However, I now do know that if I want to welcome the greatest amount of people there, the way to go, despite all its irregularities, is to learn perfect English.