An airport can sometimes feel like a modern-day Tower of Babel.
Foreign words linger in the air. People exchange sheepish, hesitant looks that say “Where are you from?” before trying to speak.
You learn a few words in Croatian to at least thank the airport official in his native language, only to find out he’s actually Ukrainian. What do you do if you accidentally bump into someone at a German airport?
Try your hand at apologizing in German or default to English? But what if the person speaks neither?
It’s enough to make you neurotic. You might be smiling right now because this sounds all too familiar.
All bets are off here. There is no protocol. All the social norms that give you a sense of security at home are flipped upside-down. It makes you wonder, what would happen if we had a universal auxiliary language? We do.
Too many of them. Esperanto, Volapük, Interlingua…
Movements for an international auxiliary language
The idea of having one universal auxiliary language is not new.
After all, the benefits of having one global language are clear. Imagine a world with no language barriers, no miscommunication.
For centuries, the languages of dominant societies have become the lingua francas, the go-to languages for international communication.
During the rule of the Roman Empire, for example, Latin was the standard language for trade and commerce in the Mediterranean region due to the sheer economic and political power of the empire.
This has continued to evolve with the changing tides of the international arena. Nowadays, some people would argue that English is becoming the lingua franca of the modern world. More on that in a minute.
Not surprisingly, lingua francas have often been met with a certain amount of resistance. Who wants a foreign language imposed on them simply because a certain region has the upper-hand economically or politically?
The adoption of lingua francas has sometimes been interpreted as a form of cultural imperialism, stripping away the cultural individuality of less powerful regions.
For this reason, linguists have tried to construct an artificial auxiliary language: one that is culturally unbiased and easy to learn, with no irregularities in grammar or pronunciation and no regional slang.
This language is not meant to replace any other languages, simply to function as a global communication tool.
The 19th century
During the 19th century, a surprising number of international auxiliary languages bubbled up. Louis Couturat and Léopold Leau reviewed at least 38 of these projects in Histoire de la langue universelle.
We wanted to narrow down our language choices and ended up with more than we could have bargained for. We can be sure that the lack of a single international auxiliary language is not due to a lack of trying, to say the least.
- SOLRESOL: a language based on musical notes, was the first to gain widespread attention but failed to pan out.
- VOLAPÜK: later gained some degree of international prominence but was eventually set aside in favor of easier-to-learn auxiliary languages, such as Esperanto, which borrowed word stems from Romance, Slavic and West Germanic languages and created a method of derivational word formation that allowed for the creation of hundreds of words from one root word.
- ESPERANTO: sounds like something that would be spoken in the mythical land of Atlantis, but it is actually the most popular international auxiliary language in the world, with approximately two million speakers worldwide.
While we might all argue that our own mother tongue is the easiest language in the world, linguists might suggest that Esperanto holds the #1 spot.
Reportedly, you can learn Esperanto in only one-third to one-fifth of the time it would take to learn any other auxiliary language.
Even Duolingo has boarded the Esperanto bandwagon, providing the opportunity to learn this made-up language alongside some of the more traditional ones like Spanish, French, German, Italian, etc.
Sadly, Esperanto still has not caught on. If it had, we would be speaking it in airports instead of resorting to charades.
English as a global language
Barring any sort of international consensus on an auxiliary language, it looks like our society will continue to function according to the lingua franca paradigm for a while.
Nowadays, it appears that economic success determines what languages rise to prominence in the international realm.
This explains the modest boom that German has experienced in Europe.
Decades ago, schools taught French as a foreign language; nowadays, German has risen in popularity, a practical consequence of the changing economic tide.
But if you had to choose one, what would you say is the universal language?
Most people would say English.
If you live in any non-English-speaking European country, you’re probably familiar with the recent English craze.
Everyone wants to learn English for three main reasons:
- to pass a foreign language course in school: now a major requirement
- to find a higher-paying job: a motive that signals the economic power of English-speaking countries
- to travel: a reason that points to the internationalization of English
This seems natural, considering that:
- Most international business is conducted in English.
- Many signs in airports worldwide appear in both English and the country’s native language.
Proponents of the Basic English movement have responded to this worldwide tendency by trying to adopt a neutral form of English for international use, one without regional differences or slang.
But is English the most effective choice for a global auxiliary language?
Some linguists point out that irregularities in spelling and pronunciation don’t make it an easy language to learn.
Yes, English has already gained a foothold, but would it be feasible to continue to spread it as the standard language throughout the world?
There is no easy answer.
Nevertheless, it does seem that English has become the de facto international auxiliary language, at least for the moment.
Is English experiencing its 15 minutes of fame as a universal language or is it here to stay? Only time will tell.
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