Would a common language have helped unite Europe?

PUBLISHED: 17:49 19 April 2017 | UPDATED: 17:50 19 April 2017

(Photo: Syd Wachs)

(Photo: Syd Wachs)


There have been various proposals for “neutral” international languages to help countries to get along, but politics always get in the way

Once the UK has left, the number of native English speakers in the EU will fall from around 14% to just 1%. English will, almost certainly, remain one of the EU’s 24 official languages, due to its status in Ireland and Malta. But it will also likely continue as the main lingua franca across the continent – a concept which isn’t to everyone’s liking.

Back in October, when Theresa May first visited the Commission as prime minister, there were reports that the EU’s lead negotiator was demanding that Brexit talks be conducted in French rather than English. And last week, as she was triggering Article 50, another report suggested that the Académie française – the body which oversees the French language – wanted French speakers to stop using the word ‘Brexit’ itself, and instead replace it with a home-grown equivalent, perhaps ‘RUquit’ (a blend of ‘Royaume-Uni’ and ‘quitter’).

MORE: What Brexit means for minority languages

Despite English’s status as the pre-eminent global language, it still, inevitably, has symbolic ties with the UK. And this can cause problems which go far beyond finding a practical solution to the question of communication. So would having a single, neutral language for Europe help both politically and communicatively? And if so, why has the EU never adopted one?

This month sees the centenary of the death of Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof. The name may not be that familiar these days, but in 1887, Zamenhof published a book introducing his Lingvo internacia, or ‘International Language’, under the pseudonym Dr Esperanto – a word which, in time, came to be applied to the language itself.

Esperanto was part of the trend for what are known as International Auxiliary Languages: invented languages, or highly modified natural languages, created for the purpose of international communication. Between 1850 and the Second World War a huge number of these were developed, especially in Europe.

The trend was a response to the way that changes in society – especially around technology – were making the world ever more interconnected, while at the same time a wave of nationalism was stirring up military conflict across Europe. The hope was that cultural and political differences could be overcome with the help of a universal means of communication.

For a few decades the idea was extremely popular, and proposals for these languages had the support from everyone from H.G. Wells to Winston Churchill. J.R.R. Tolkien, while working on the invention of his own fantasy languages, argued that an artificial language should be seen as the one thing ‘necessary for uniting Europe’.

One hundred years later, and the idea has fallen mostly out of fashion. From today’s perspective, as the linguist Andrew Large writes, the history of artificial languages appears to have been ‘one of earnest endeavour with long hours spent in painstaking labour, but also of frustration and failure’.

But with the world once again grappling with the rise of nationalism, and beset with cultural discord, is there something we can learn from this period in linguistic history? And why is it that the idea has lost its appeal?

When looking at the relative successes of artificial languages it’s important to distinguish between the aims of the original movement, and the experiences of speech communities who speak such languages today. As Anna Polonyi notes, one can only talk of Esperanto as a failure ‘if you think about it in terms of the goals initially set by Zamenhof’. It has not become a universal language, that’s true. But it does have a vibrant and enthusiastic following. In fact, its speech community today runs into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. And during its 130-year lifespan it has spread across most continents of the globe, and has a prominent status on everything from Wikipedia to Facebook.

But while in practice it fulfils many of the functions of an international language, its profile in mainstream culture is far removed from what it once was. It’s often said that the reason international auxiliary languages didn’t take off extensively is because English emerged as a natural alternative – one which, by the end of the Second World War, had a strong foothold in countries all across the globe.

But even if English hadn’t emerged as a powerful rival, it’s unlikely that auxiliary languages would have managed to attain universal acceptance while remaining true to their ideals. The spread of English, after all, is a direct result of the history and politics of the people who speak it. It’s a result of colonialism, of American imperialism, of decolonisation and globalisation.

For an artificial language to attain the same level of universality as English it would need a systematic programme of political intervention. It would need to be adopted as an official language by major international organisations, be introduced into school curricula the world over, be embraced by leaders of all different ideological stripes. In other words, it would need consensus between governments around the world. And as Umberto Eco noted, it’s ‘hard to imagine the international bodies, which are still striving to arrive at some agreement over the means to save our planet from an ecological catastrophe, being capable of imposing a painless remedy for the open wound of Babel’.

Then there’s the concept of neutrality. Zamenhof’s rationale for his project was that while language is the ‘prime motor of civilisation… difference of speech is a cause of antipathy, nay even of hatred, between people’. By producing a neutral auxiliary language, he believed that national linguistic identity could be retained while at the same time people could communicate across linguistic boundaries on an equal footing.

His motivation came directly from his own experience of marginalisation and cultural struggle. ‘If I had not been a Jew from the ghetto,’ he wrote, ‘the idea of uniting humanity… would never have entered my head’. The tragic irony of his story is that the language he invented went on to be persecuted by one totalitarian regime after another. Under Hitler it was seen as the language of international Jewish conspiracy (and all three of Zamenhof’s children were killed by the Nazis ). For Stalin it was a tool for espionage. In these cases, it was nothing to do with the structure of the language, or its effectiveness as a means of communication, that led to its suppression. Instead it was the ideologies of those in power, which assigned it a particular meaning as part of their own political agenda.

And this, to some degree, happens to all languages, in all contexts. As a fundamental part of human behaviour, language invariably becomes politicised. And this means that neutrality, unfortunately, is never a natural property of it. Which is why an international auxiliary language might work as a communicative solution, but is much more problematic as a political solution.

Political understanding can only come from addressing entrenched and divisive belief systems, by challenging the idea that linguistic diversity – or cultural diversity – is a threat to social harmony, and instead finding ways to celebrate the endless variety of language.

Dr Philip Seargeant is a senior lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University

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