It sounds utopian: a world without linguistic borders; where a common language breeds unity instead of division. Unlike traditional lingua francas, international auxiliary languages promise equitable communication between diverse peoples, devoid of the potential problems arising from using the language of a former oppressor. Yet Esperanto, Ido and others have failed to supplant English as the dominant global language. Are they doomed by the very idealism which drove their creation?
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Constructed languages (conlangs) are artificial languages which are designed as opposed to evolving naturally. International auxiliary languages (auxlangs) are a sub-group of conlangs which are designed to facilitate communication between people who do not share a common mother tongue.
Although today they are a rather niche interest, primarily spoken by their devotees in small groups, auxlangs at one point appeared the future of international communication. Esperanto, for example, seemed a legitimate threat to French hegemony when it was proposed as the working language of the League of Nations. Today there are only around 2 million speakers. Although in terms of second language speakers this is quite impressive – there are more L2 speakers of Esperanto than Japanese – it is certainly a dramatic decline in prestige.
Ultimately, France convinced delegates that the world already had a global language in the form of French. English later took up this torch as America became a superpower. How could a new language compete with the economic and political clout of the United States Convincing people to learn a language with little prospect of any tangible benefit is difficult.
Russian achieved dominance in Eastern Europe and Central Asia through aggressive expansion. English, French, Spanish and Portuguese spread as a result of colonialism. Examples of languages peacefully and wilfully adopted by large numbers of individuals are few and far between.
After Esperanto and Interlingua, Klingon is the most frequently mentioned conlang in Linkedin profiles. Quite how this would improve someone’s employability is unclear, but it does give some indication of the relative popularity of different conlangs in the absence of reliable data from any official body. Dothraki, High Valerian, Quenya and Sindarin also emerge as some of the most spoken conlangs by this metric. It would seem people learn less commonly spoken languages largely out of interest. While this is admirable, it is quite a request to make of eight billion people.
Moreover, one of the core issues that auxlangs attempt to address is perhaps overstated. While there is a certain inequity in people using the language of a former oppressor to communicate, post-colonial literature exemplifies how language can be appropriated to empower rather than subdue.
Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart takes its name from a line in W. B. Yeats poem The Second Coming. In his poem, Yeats attempts to encapsulate the atmosphere of post-war Europe, and presents a world forever changed by the violence thereof. In his choice of title, Achebe draws a parallel between the chaos of war in Europe and chaos caused by colonialism in Africa, and perhaps writing in English makes this parallel more poignant by using the language of the coloniser to tell the story of the colonised.
This is not to say that the emergence of English as a global language is not problematic. It is unfair that many people are forced to learn English to improve their economic situation. Yet a language which cannot be adapted like a natural one is hardly empowering. Auxlangs too often lack the democracy of natural language. Rules concerning grammar, vocabulary and usage are frequently established through diktat. Whereas natural language is the collective product of all speakers, auxlangs often feel as if they are the sole property of another individual.
Perhaps this explains repeated schisms within communities of auxlang speakers. Ido and Interlingua split as a result of widespread dissatisfaction with the direction of Esperanto’s development. Each successor attempted to be more accessible and democratic, claiming to be most true to Esperanto’s original ideals. Again and again they were presented with challenges from within.
Strong ideals and a fighting spirit are among the best qualities a person can have. Yet recent British politics has taught us that diverse opinions struggle to coexist under one roof. Auxlangs have many merits. They are easy to learn, accessible and often free to learn. Their creators preach equality, freedom and inclusivity. Yet in attempting to create unity, auxlangs all too often sow the first seeds of division. Perhaps humanity will one day be ready to embrace beautiful ideas, but for now let us remain united in diversity.
MICHAEL HENDLE (LINGUISTICS EDITOR)