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The Horns of a Dilemma: Auxlang vs Onelang


ONELANG     Hail fellow well met! How is "Newspeak" progressing - or should I say regressing?

AUXLANG     You evidently miss the point of an auxiliary language. When the international auxiliary language or IAL is well-established there will be no need for any schoolchild to learn more than two languages. Therefore the syllabus time previously devoted to "foreign" languages will allow a more intensive study of the mother tongue. For this reason alone your predicted 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 IAL will remain in an approximately equal weighting with the respective mother tongue. All the evidence suggests that this won't happen. The disappearance of minority ethnic tongues has been an inexorable trend in modern times. We now have a situation where more than half the world's population speaks five languages: Chinese, English, Russian, Spanish and Hindi.

AUXLANG     No, an approximately equal weighting will remain because the IAL 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 imperialist power.

ONELANG     Are you suggesting that Chinese and Russian are the languages of imperialist powers? That's a surprising statement from a left-winger such as yourself! Didn't Lenin, the Godfather of Communism, denounce imperialism as the ultimate end of capitalism, and promulgate the marvellous alternative just beyond an initial brief state capitalist phase?

AUXLANG     Yes, because these tongues were mostly formed under imperialist regimes well in advance of the Twentieth Century. And in any case the promised withering-away of the state during the brief socialist hiatus before communism never happened. And since state capitalism proved a lot less efficient than the Western model, China and Russia have of course bowed to the inevitable within recent decades and accepted a mix between the public and private sectors. The attempt of the Left to create an earthly paradise through political means has obviously failed. In effect we are back to a competitive situation, though nowadays more likely to be waged through trade, finance and means other than open warfare. "Imperialism" might not be quite the word, but the strife between the peoples of the world for resources and advantage has resumed - if it ever went away. However, the IAL will act as a neutral bridge between cultures, allowing common elements to be shared, and ensuring that nobody feels at a disadvantage in conversation or negotiations. And since the IAL is politically neutral it is absurd to categorise its advocates as left-wing!

ONELANG     But how can any language be politically and culturally neutral?

AUXLANG     OK - neutral in intention and eventual outcome. I agree that 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, will initially disadvantage certain nationalities. However, it should be possible to work towards a satisfactory compromise. For instance, East Asian nations that will have to adopt an alphabetic script - as they are perhaps starting to do already - might well see that the IAL begins with an analytic or isolating grammar and a fair proportion of words from their own vocabularies.

ONELANG     Not quite what I meant by "neutral". Perhaps I should have asked whether any language - including an artificial constructed language - can be value-free. I will answer that question myself: the answer is "no". Any sane person will surely conclude that values are inherent in the meaning of words, and in how they are organised. Zamenhof certainly understood this, and placed great emphasis on "homaranismo", which is essentially a set of humanitarian values that all Esperantists should aspire to. So let's now look at your IAL in this light: it isn't Esperanto, though it is undoubtedly an Esperanto derivative - as all putative IALs are, and it doesn't outwardly subscibe to 'homaranismo", or any religious or political belief system. The only clue you have given me is that it is "non-imperialist". However, nature abhors a vacuum so in effect this means "anti-imperialist" and therefore that the IAL will be the vehicle of the Left. And this is the real point about "neutrality": the issue isn't about reaching a chummy linguistic compromise; it is about whether the Left should be in charge of the future of the world's language resources at all. We aren't discussing linguistics so much as underlying culture and motivation, even as in reality the tail doesn't wag the dog.

AUXLANG     And 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 British were unable to defeat the Dutch in the East, a fact largely ascribed to the Dutch banking system, which allowed the rapid raising of capital so necessary for successful modern warfare. This perceived deficiency was remedied by the end of the Seventeenth Century through the foundation of the Bank of England, an institution which, allied with ongoing religious and political changes, and other factors including the Industrial Revolution and burgeoning Empire, set the English language on the throne it has occupied until recent times. It's ironic that the same phenomenon might presently operate in reverse, given the massive indebtedness if not bankruptcy of the US. Indeed, the increasingly fragile status of the US dollar as the world's reserve currency is likely to reflect the global currency of the English language, at least according to historic precedent. Quite possibly we will all be speaking Chinese within a century - at least in international circumstances, and hopefully with the benefit of Pinyin script.

AUXLANG     There is no doubt about the great influence of these cultures and their languages. I did have doubts about the word "imperialism", but it is perhaps as good as any, since it derives from the Latin "imperium" "sovereignty" - a word which lack of abuse has left untainted. 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 far from a Golden Age where everyone simply obeys God and is happy. 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 the IAL with the mother tongue. Yes, the mother tongue might contain historic relics irrational to modern thinking, but the IAL 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 the IAL 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     Yes, that's a good point. Preventative legislation might have to be put in place. The one thing that must not be allowed is the continuing demise of minority ethnic tongues, which - as many have pointed out - is analogous to the extinction of plant and animal species. With every lost minority tongue a unique worldview is gone forever.

ONELANG     Well that's debatable. You're assuming major languages lack the capacity to express minority culture, or that they won't develop that capacity, 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 IAL 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 the IAL will 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 a long time to come, and children will have to learn them in school.

ONELANG     Are you suggesting that those govenments which have been putting significant funding into minority ethnic tongues have been consciously preparing the way for the IAL? 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. The IAL 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 IAL 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 IAL more or less exclusively - simply because of the IAL'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 IAL - 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 IAL 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 IAL 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 extirpated! 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 IAL?

AUXLANG     We'll just have to wait and see what happens. The future cannot always be predicted from past trends, even if correctly interpreted. I think you'll find that a global IAL will be established - and it won't turn out as bad as you fear. Good day!


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