International Language and National Cultures

Albert Guérard

Most of our thinking is automatic response. Mention “international languages” and the inevitable result is a superior smile. Esperantists and their kind belong with those earnest creatures who are eager to redeem the world through a diet of raw carrots or by dividing the solar year into ten months of ten days each. We assert our invincible sanity by dismissing the matter with a shrug.

Great are the merits of unthinking; life would be an intolerable burden if we had to ponder at every step. But if there is fumbling and stumbling there is also a strenuous joy when we leave automatism behind. We may discover that the world beyond the safe confines of the commonplace has a logic and a promise of its own. Not all cranks are prophets and pioneers; but not all conformists are in possession of eternal wisdom. A few ideas have come to life since Adam delved and Eve span.

If we vault over the stockade of our prejudices three elementary facts about the international language problem will at once become evident. The first is that interest in the question is not limited to half-educated fanatics. There is a lunatic fringe even to the Union League and to New England Unitarianism; and similarly there are not a few Interlinguists who should be relegated to the balmy shores of Southern California. But for several decades the subject has engaged the attention of philosophers, scientists and scholars. If a cause were to be judged by the quality of its general staff the international language movement should command respect. An exhaustive list of names would swell this brief essay beyond measure; a


selection might be invidious; let us be satisfied with a mere indication. Since among men of learning, philologists have for generations been most averse to the international language idea such names as Jespersen, Meillet, Sapir, Vendryes, should suffice to stop the scoffer. I have no desire to insist inasmuch as I give little weight to the argument from authority; Pascal justly derided those theologians who brought forth “monks rather than reasons.” I am using authority merely for defensive purposes. Our first positive fact is that the international language has gone far beyond the Utopian stage; there is a science of Interlinguistics.

The second fact is that, throughout the practical world, a vast process of standardization is under way. It is not identical with scientific or industrial progress but it is one of its most efficient instruments. Men have discovered the wastefulness of chaos: ask any scientist if he would advise that each province evolve its own set of units and symbols and its own terminology. Therefore international systems of weights and measures are adopted and even the thread of a humble screw is determined by agreement. Every discipline has its committee on nomenclature and there are associations for coordinating all these efforts. As a result an enormous technological Interlingua is being brought into being. It could be turned into a recognized language by the adoption of a few rules—shorter than for any game—and of perhaps two thousand words in common use. Many a technical paper is already nine-tenths international; the national words are opaque fragments in the pellucid mass. What is still wanting is the general code, the ultimate coordination, the final welding. To provide this is the task of the interlinguists.

The third fact, which seems to blind us with excess of evidence, is that the language obstacle is most emphatically not a theory but a condition. It faces us everywhere. Whenever the representatives of two or more countries have to meet, the problem arises; every day, among enemies as well as among friends, it has to be solved by some makeshift. International


relations cannot forever be restricted to the forcible but rudimentary language of shells and bombs. Interlinguists, therefore, are not dwellers in Dreamland. They are seeking, realistically, the easiest way out of a very concrete difficulty.

The existing solutions will seem to our descendants, as they would have seemed to our ancestors, clumsy beyond belief. Gone are the days when Latin was universal among scholars or French among diplomats. In many international gatherings every word has to be translated successively into three, four, five languages. The waste and the weariness may well be imagined. And the situation is growing worse. Aldous Huxley noted that he could still communicate with educated Mexicans through “that incomparable Esperanto, French.” But, he added, their descendants will probably know nothing except an Indian dialect and his own descendants will proudly restrict themselves to some form of Cockney. Every patois demands official status; every minor tongue clamors for equality with the greatest. Local differences are so highly cherished that two or more national languages may grow where only one was acknowledged before. There is no concentration of power in the linguistic field analogous to the concentration of wealth prophesied by Karl Marx. The curse of Babel is more grievous than ever, at the very moment when technical triumphs are abolishing distance.

Modern technique, the wonder-worker, has been called to the rescue. An extremely ingenious method has been applied, particularly in the USSR, where all nationalities are promised equal rights on the cultural plane. As a speech is given it is translated, at once and simultaneously, into ten or twenty languages by a battery of translators. Every seat in the assembly hall is provided with an earphone; every member plugs the phone so as to hear only the language of his choice. Thus engineering reproduces the Pentecostal miracle and the new Apostles also receive the gift of tongues.

A remarkable achievement no doubt. The difficulties are


great but not insuperable; heavy as the initial cost may be, it is trifling compared with that of armaments or unemployment. But this intricate device does not touch the problem of the written word; as before, a highly specialized article or treatise has to be published in a number of languages. It does not help the individual traveler or the men who want to gather for a small, informal symposium. It does not lend itself, in large meetings, to the swift discussion, the interplay of personalities, the gradual adjustment which should be the chief end of any assembly. And, as is so often the case, faultless machinery is as weak as its weakest link, the human element; this method demands a body of interpreters able to improvise translations into unrelated languages, on subjects in which they cannot always be experts. With all its technical elaborateness the device is crude. It will do admirably, no doubt, when twenty nationalities are called together to hear their Master’s orders; it will not do for the active cooperation of free minds.

Most of these difficulties would disappear if one language and one only were adopted for international communication. At first translation would still be indispensable, interpreters a necessary evil and the earphone method a workable makeshift. But within a few years every man with international interests could acquire a passive mastery of the auxiliary language—that is to say the capacity to understand it when read or heard. An active command, a speaking and writing knowledge, could become general within a decade. This will seem unduly optimistic to anyone who knows what poor linguists our college students are—not to mention the Faculties. But effective bilingualism can be achieved, even by people of scant education, when it serves a definite purpose. I have met Arabs and Berbers in, Morocco, who, without formal schooling, spoke excellent French and had a creditable smattering of English. Our language teaching is unsuccessful because its purpose seems unreal. The world of tomorrow will take the trouble to learn the auxiliary language because its benefits will be manifest.

It will be noticed that modern students of the subject speak


of an “international auxiliary language” and not of a “universal language.” For most of them a return to the days before Babel, when all the earth was of one speech, is but the dreariest of dreams. It is reasonable to desire that facts of international validity be expressed by international signs; in a treatise on mathematics or chemistry it would be well if the verbal connectives between formulae were as universal as the formulae themselves. This non-national, this supra-national field, will in all probability expand indefinitely. But not at the expense of the national. Every existing language is at the same time a code and a tradition. For the code part, an international equivalent may be substituted without loss; the tradition is unique. No Esperanto can ever have the complex and undefinable savor of German or Spanish. A language embodies, to borrow a famous phrase from Maurice Barrès, “the soil and the dead.” It confers upon the humblest thought a depth of intimacy beyond the reach of philosophers. It adds to the plainest sound a wealth of harmonics which eludes analysis. It is this quality which we find adumbrated, not fully expressed, in such words as “racy,” “bodenständig” or “le parler de chez nous.” Not only is this obscure feeling cherished by the heirs to a tradition; it is precious also, even more consciously at times, to outsiders. I thank the Lord that there are foreign languages; if familiarity soothes and strengthens, strangeness is a challenge and a delight. There are three planes, recognized or not, in a man’s culture: the basic facts of home associations, the exhilaration of travel and discovery, the vast common denominator of world-wide human experience.

The chief purpose of the international auxiliary language, therefore, is not to supplant the historical and national tongues but on the contrary to save their historical and national character. At present they are exposed to a double threat. The minor ones struggle desperately because they feel themselves menaced with extinction: but for a tremendous effort of the collective will, Irish would go the way of Cornish. Even when minor languages are tolerated, a stigma of inferiority is placed upon


them. But the major languages stand to suffer also from ‘Imperialism,’ which ultimately denationalizes the conqueror as well as the conquered. A language begins to disintegrate when it is imposed upon men of an alien tradition; its “raciness” disappears. Greek and Latin lost their vitality when they became “international.” If it was a triumph for French to be adopted by cosmopolitans like Frederick II it was also a menace. Babu English is noted for its lack of inner harmony and Genevan English sounds appallingly flat.

This is why the adoption of any national language for international purposes is not to be desired even if it were feasible. It is well to insist upon this point, for in every man there slumbers a Hitler, eager to force his will and to assert the supremacy of his own tribe. Many Americans, not consciously imperialistic, take it for granted that when the world comes to its senses it will adopt the language as well as the fashions of Hollywood. Among English radicals there survives an enormous insularity which would be ludicrous if it were not appalling. H. G. Wells chides mankind for not creating the World State—but the Wellsian World State must be of English speech. A subtle logician like Mr. Ogden is on this point as obtuse as any realtor from Zenith. Ogden’s Basic is a remarkable pedagogical contrivance; it might be subtitled “English almost without tears.” But, with its boldly simplified grammar and its streamlined vocabulary, it remains English. It does not attempt to correct the perverse spelling and the bewildering pronunciation of traditional English. Men who start with Basic will inevitably graduate into standard English; and they will find English one of the tersest and most idiomatic languages in the world—that is to say, one of the most difficult.

What most advocates of International English fail to realize is that the materialistic arguments they adduce really militate against the language. Wealth, numbers “dominion over palm and pine,” “mastery of the seven seas”—all that blatant Kiplingesque self-assertion is a bid for universal supremacy; and against such supremacy the world will eternally revolt. We


need an internationalism that will scrupulously respect the interests and above all the pride of every nationalism. I fervently hope that Hitler’s mad dream of world power will be shattered; but I confidently expect that in the process all such unholy dreams will be shattered also. For that reason if it were impossible to devise a neutral auxiliary language then we should adopt, not English or German, but that tongue most free from the taint of ‘supremacy’: some Malaysian dialect perhaps or Maltese or Albanian.

An intelligent and harmonious world must be founded upon liberty and there is no genuine liberty without equality of status. There is a language imperialism which is not identical but parallel with political imperialism. In both cases we establish in our minds a hierarchy of nations and cultures. At the bottom, and without rights of their own, are the ‘possessions’ and the ‘patois’ which receive no recognition. A little higher are the ‘protected’ countries and the ‘tolerated’ tongues. Above them come the ‘minor’ independent nations with their cultures—let us say Sweden or Greece. Near the top rank the ‘great’ powers and the ‘major’ languages. At the apex stands the Ruling Race and its imperial speech. It is hard to cleanse our souls from such insidious vulgarity. “Lording it”—being purse-proud, mass-proud, race-proud, culture-proud—and despising the lesser tribes is an ugly disease, all the uglier for being so nearly universal. It can be checked, and it must be checked if mankind is to be civilized.

Hence the moral significance of the international language idea, far greater than any material consideration. It implies that we renounce overlordship. The adoption of a common auxiliary language will not automatically restore peace; nations fight because they understand each other too well, and civil wars are tragic proof that men of the same speech may be at each other’s throat. But a neutral auxiliary language is an indication that men are ready at last for that mutual consideration which is the first condition of peace.

The international language is above all a symbol of good


will; such is “la interna ideo,” the inmost thought, the ideal, which inspired Dr. Zamenhof. But it is not an empty symbol; it would also be an admirable instrument for the realization of the ideal it expresses. Let us use a method familiar enough in elementary mathematics and ‘suppose the problem solved,’ If men were willing to adopt an Interlingua most of the antagonisms which rend and torture Central Europe would lose their acuity. The conflict there is not religious: the Jews are not organized for resistance and there are Catholics, Protestants and freethinkers on either side. Anyone in his senses knows that the root of the trouble is not racial. The Germans are not a race but a historical language-group; Hitler himself is not a ‘Teuton’; there are ‘Alpines’ among the conquerors, ‘Nordics’ among the conquered. It is not quite so obvious, but it could easily be established, that the cause of strife is not economic. The ‘Have-nots’ such as Germany had far more than the ‘Haves’ such as Poland. France could have ‘annexed’ all the riches of Germany, and Germany all the riches of France, by the simple process of blotting out the customs line between them.

The cause of war is the thirst for supremacy. What Hitler is fighting for is the denial of that Gleichberechtigung, that equality of status, which once was his watchword. He must force, as Bülow did before him, the Poles of Posen and the Corridor to speak bad German; he must compel the Poles of Warsaw to acknowledge that Polish is an inferior language. Higher education in Czech is banned. The Poles themselves had the same fierce desire to assert their superiority over the Byelorussians, the Ukrainians and the Lithuanians under their rule. In all mixed areas each element seeks to absorb, eliminate or dominate all the rest; Bucharest is hardly less guilty than Budapest, or Belgrade than Warsaw.

No jigsaw puzzle re-division of Europe will avail to create self-sufficient homogeneous blocks. There are linguistic islands, like the Szeklers and the Saxons in Transylvania, that cannot be separated from the surrounding country; and there are many


regions, indeed many villages, in which people speaking different languages are hopelessly intermingled. The one way out is to “live and let live.” Let everyone follow the religion and speak the language of his choice. When men of various speech come together, as come they must for administration or for business, let them use a neutral tongue.

Few people doubt that the present frenzy of hate and destruction will end, in ten months or in ten years, in a Federation of Europe and a Super-Federation of the world. But such Federations demand a federal language, and it is a great weakness in admirable plans like Mr. Clarence Streit’s that the problem is not faced squarely. Frenchmen, Italians, Spaniards, must not be made to feel in any way inferior to a dominant group, be the favored speech English or German; else there will be eternal jealousy and rancor. And this is true of the Scandinavians, the Dutch, the various Slavic peoples, the Portuguese; true also of the smallest, half-obliterated units, the Catalonians, the Basques, the Irish, the Bretons; true even of a non-national, non-territorial element like the Jews: why should they not freely talk Yiddish or Hebrew among themselves? With a ‘federal’ language, federal administration becomes easier to conceive. Customs, defense, police, air lines, will have a practical means of communication. A Parliament and a Civil Service for the whole of Europe would cease to be an absurdity. The development of backward areas, such as tropical Africa, could be made a genuine collective task, without suspicion that one particular nation is seeking an undue share of prestige or profit.

We have so far contended that an auxiliary language, as a protection against imperialism, should be neutral. It does not rigorously follow that it should be artificial. As we suggested before, it would be possible to select a living language so modest that it could not hurt the pride of the major culture groups; or, preferably, we might seek refuge in the neutrality of death and adopt a classical language such as Latin or ancient Greek.

But in the first case the language would have to be expanded


and recast to an enormous extent before it could be made the vehicle of our complex civilization; “International Albanian” would no longer be historical Albanian but an artificial language with an Albanian framework. In the second case Latin or Greek would have to be sweepingly modernized, in a way which might cause scholars to wince; and in order to be fit for common use they would have to shed most of their intricacies. They have been in an academic twilight sleep for many centuries; it would be vain to resurrect, for practical purposes, the Latin of Cicero and Vergil. Just as national tongues had better remain national, classical tongues had better remain classical.

It would be much more scientific to observe the natural trend of Latin evolution, as revealed in the life of the Neo-Latin or Romanic languages, and to carry that evolution to its logical end. In other words the happiest solution would seem to be ‘modern Latin’—Latin as it would have developed if it had not been disrupted and arrested in its growth; a language mainly Neo-Latin in its vocabulary, analytical in its structure, as simple as English in its grammar, free from puzzling idioms and arbitrary exceptions. Such a language could hardly be called ‘artificial’; it is artificial like artificial ice or incubator chickens; man uses the materials provided by Nature and submits them to a rationalized natural process.

The formula is simple enough. Its application is by no means easy; it must be remembered that modern interlinguistics is not a game but a science. As in the case of most human efforts the earliest results were crude. Much ingenuity was wasted on a priori or ‘philosophical’ languages which never had a spark of life. Even in Monsignor Schleyer’s Volapük there was an overwhelming element of arbitrariness. Yet Volapük must be remembered with respect and with gratitude, for it proved itself capable of practical use. Thanks to Monsignor Schleyer the way was open; the will, alas! remained lacking.

Dr. Zamenhof followed more consciously and more definitely than Monsignor Schleyer the rules which now guide all interlinguists. His Esperanto is transparently a Neo-Latin and a


natural tongue, with only a few incongruous elements. But Esperanto does not take a normal place in the development of international languages; it may be termed a ‘mutation’ due to the accident of genius. The creation of a single mind, it has the virtues as well as the limitations of a work of art. It had from the first, and it has retained for half a century, a marked individuality, a weird and indomitable power of life. It is not a mere code; it has a spirit and a style all its own. Hence the undoubted fascination it possesses; it is loved and hated as only a living thing can be. No one wasted much sentiment, favorable or adverse, over Idiom Neutral or Novial.

There was far more to Dr. Zamenhof’s work than the purely linguistic side. He was unique among language-makers for a miraculous yet unassuming combination of idealism and practical sense. On the one hand he formulated, more clearly than any other in the field, “la interna ideo,” that burning faith in human brotherhood which remains our hope. On the other hand he established the policy which has made Esperanto the one decisive experiment among so many stillborn projects. Agree once for all upon a few essentials and then, instead of constantly ‘improving’ your language, use it for all it is worth. As a result Esperanto has piously retained all its early blemishes, and some of them are a very serious handicap indeed. But it has also proved that an artificial language could preserve its unity and its continuity in fifty countries and over fifty years. This demonstration could have been effected in no other way and it is of immeasurable consequence. With the confidence created by this enforced stability, the language has been used in hundreds of volumes and magazines for all possible subjects, from metaphysics to humor, from translations of the Bible, Vergil, Shakespeare, Goethe, to popular romance and farce. Zamenhof never believed in his own infallibility; his policy was not the fruit of obstinacy and pride. He wanted to keep Esperanto unchanged in essentials in order to keep it working. In this he has been successful. To the present day, Esperanto offers not only a large-scale and prolonged demonstration but


a solution which, however imperfect, is acceptable. And it has the enormous advantage of being absolutely ready.

Others followed the path Zamenhof deliberately closed for himself, that of endless experimentation. The results have been far from negligible. The common cause was well served by both methods although the rival schools denounced each other with almost theological bitterness. Thanks to innumerable efforts, by individuals and by devoted little groups, the lineaments of the auxiliary language are gradually assuming definiteness. All the serious proposals outside of Esperanto may be considered as dialects of the same tongue. Unity, which Zamenhof created by a stroke of genius, is being achieved by slower and probably safer means.

These efforts are best summed up in the long, unselfish and meritorious career of the Esthonian scholar De Wahl. He has been actively associated with all the principal schemes; and when, after many years, he at last propounded a project of his own, Occidental, it revealed the result of mature study. Occidental is little known outside of interlinguist circles but it has won the respectful attention of scholars.

In my opinion it was the mathematician and logician Giuseppe Peano, working on an indication from Leibniz, who formulated the clearest and most attractive solution of the problem. Peano discarded every arbitrary, a priori element. He did not seek, as even Zamenhof had done, a well-meaning and precarious compromise between terms of Latin, Germanic and Slavic origin. He started scientifically from the lists of words which were already international. He found that the overwhelming majority of them came from Latin and he frankly called his ‘Interlingua’ Latino—but Latino sine Flexione, for the complicated desinences of classical and medieval Latin have disappeared from the European languages of today. He does not distort this ‘living Latin’ according to complicated rules or sheer caprice; he adopts the etymological form from which modern words are derived. His grammar is reduced to the strictest minimum; indeed he professed that no grammar


whatever is required—a paradox I believe which has been for his Interlingua something of a handicap, for grammar is a simplification, not an added complexity.

Since his ‘living Latin’ survives bodily in English it can be read without previous study by anyone acquainted with classical Latin or with literary English or with any one of the Romanic languages. The conscious linking of Interlingua with classical Latin at one end, with English at the other, offers considerable advantages. The ‘new’ language is not really new. Every Latin scholar, every Catholic priest, is already familiar with it. For elementary students it provides useful etymological indications; for those who so desire it, it can be used as a step towards the learning of classical Latin. Above all it coordinates, far better than Esperanto, with that “standardization of nomenclature” mentioned at the beginning of this discussion. The vocabulary of many branches of knowledge—mathematics, philosophy, law, the natural sciences—is already Latin or Latinized Greek. Even in modern industry many of the terms are of classical ancestry. Aeroplane, dirigible, automobile, submarine, contractor, specifications, are not words which Cicero would have used twenty centuries ago but they are the words that Cicero would use today.

Esperanto, Occidental, Latino, are practical solutions, immediately available. All three, in various degrees, offer the same essential qualities: naturalness, neutrality, facility. Their claim to neutrality may be disputed. They favor the Anglo-Latin group at the expense of the Teutonic and Slavic, and the European at the expense of the Oriental. But absolute neutrality could be achieved only through absolute artificiality. For fear of making the language a little too easy for some we should have to make it exceedingly difficult for all. Neutrality is sufficiently preserved if the solution adopted is non-national. Basic English is not neutral in spirit; Esperanto, Occidental, Latino are.

The facility of artificial languages is sometimes over-


emphasized by enthusiastic propagandists. Tolstoy learned Esperanto in a few hours and any Western scholar can read Latino at first sight; obviously an uneducated Slav, Teuton or Asiatic would have a harder time; even a good linguist will need study and practice before he can write or speak an auxiliary language fluently. But, after discounting extravagant claims, the fact remains that Esperanto, Occidental, Latino, are considerably easier than the best historical languages. Their whole grammar can usually be printed on a postcard, there are no idioms and no exceptions, their spelling is phonetic, difficult sounds are avoided, and the accentuation is regular. This to my mind is not the strongest element in favor of artificial languages: neutrality is far more essential than facility. But the advantage of facility is not to be spurned.

Again: if the will be lacking, the way, however easy, will be of no avail. The international language idea requires our determined effort; it will not triumph automatically. We must liberate our minds from the lazy 19th-century fallacy of “unconscious growth”: it is a pseudo-scientific rewording of “muddling through.” The vast forces now in fierce conflict are perfectly conscious: on the one hand imperialism, which seeks expansion through conquest; on the other nationalism, which resists absorption with desperate energy.

The tragedy is that both are justified. Imperialism is right: our civilization demands larger units than the small European nations of yesterday. Nationalism is right: no one should be subjected to alien rule. They can be reconciled only through our conscious endeavor. Hegelian dialectics will help us out of that infernal circle. If nationalism and imperialism are thesis and antithesis, federal union is their synthesis: the free association, of equals, symbolized and served by a neutral federal language.


SOURCE: Guérard, Albert. “International Language and National Cultures,” The American Scholar, vol. 10, no. 2, Spring 1941, pp. 170-183.

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“Comparative Literature, Modern Thought and Literature” [Excerpt]
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Esperanto in the Anglophone Scholarly Literature of ‘World Literature’?
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Albert J. Guerard - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Albert Léon Guérard - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Guide to the Albert Léon Guérard Papers, 1909-1959
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