August 03, 2006


I just finished reading Mario Pei's The Story of Language. Because I've taken so many linguistics and ESL courses, the basic ideas of the book were not new to me, though it was fun to read a book written in 1948 and see how things have already changed. French was still considered a much bigger player than Russian, Chinese, or Spanish, and 60 years ago, "corny" and "gimmick" were apparently too slangy to be accepted. The most fascinating part of the book by far was the last chapter. After a discussion in the preceding chapter of constructed languages like Esperanto, Pei sets the stage for an international tongue. He argues that "people now alive will be completely replaced, within less than a century, by other people whose habits, linguistic and otherwise, are not yet formed because the people are not yet born, and who can be given, with proper planning, any set of linguistic or other habits that it pleases their enlightened elders to impart to them." And so he goes on to say

What is needed for the solution of the world's language problem is simply a language, any one of the world's 2796 natural languages or of the five hundred or so constructed ones that have at various times been proposed; with, however, two qualifications: the langauge selected must have absolute correspondence of written symbols for spoken sounds, and it must be adopted, by international agreement, in all countries at the same time, not in the high schools or colleges or universities, but in the lowest grade of the elementary schools, side by side with the national tongue, so that it may be learned easily, naturally, and painlessly by the oncoming generations.

Thus within a century, we'd all speak a common native language.

Anyone who's studied a foreign language beyond school requirements knows that the longer you study, the more you realize how tricky communication is. The more familiar you are with the lexicon, the more you see it doesn't match up one-to-one with your native tongue. And true and exact comprehension between two cultures seems hopelessly naive.

Language buffs like me will get excited by Pei's concept. Economists like my husband will say, "That's stupid. The free market already decided on a language and it's English, baby. Lucky for us." But set aside the diplomatic nightmare of implementing a universal language -- and I'm certain that's the reason that it's never been done in the 60 years since Pei suggested it -- and imagine for a moment what such a world would be like. A world where virtually everyone is bilingual and they all have one language in common.

The thought makes my heart skip a beat.

Posted by Sarah at August 3, 2006 08:49 AM | TrackBack