An Universal Language


I started to learn Esperanto. It’s a planned language that was constructed by Dr Ludwik Zamenhof in the 1880s to serve as global lingua franca. It’s intended to be as simple as possible without loosing the subleties and precision of many natural languages. After it’s creation, it received a lot of public response, millions of people began to learn it and there were clubs and congresses all over Europe. Zamenhof hoped that in the future all people would learn it after their native tongue to communicate with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, it never really took off. Today, only between two to ten million people speak it.

Other attemps on an universal world language were/are Volapük, Interlingua, Interglossa and Lingwa de Planeda. But Esperanto is the most prominent one.

What do you think about such attempts? Are we going to need such a language?

If mankind could get their asses up and work together as one (which much likely never will happen), then yes, we need a universal language. But I think it should be english, which already is some kind of universal language, from my point of view. It’s spoken and understood by sooo many people in the world. English is already there, we don’t need any freak language, which had/has to be “invented”.
But that’s all just my opinion…

But English isn’t international, it’s imperial, since it doesn’t belong to all of humanity, it’ rise was because of the British Empire’s global colonizations and the political, economical and cultural dominance of the United States since World War II.

Yes, you’re right. I can’t argue with that.
But english is deeply established in the world…
Maybe, sometimes you have to let go of the past.

you’re right

Since I’m deeply dissatisfied with basically all languages I know of, for various degrees of the same reasons, I would also prefer it if we could make a proper universal language some time. However we don’t even yet have any good alternatives, as the universal attempts we currently have are also ultimately not really that good.
For instance with Esperanto we still have the similarities to current languages. While a tiny bit good in terms of ease of learning for people with long since established languages, it also carries a lot of the negative baggage we could get rid of.

Throughout the years I’ve often come to dabble and tackle the idea of an universal language, testing out words, pronunciations and subsequently different ways of writing too, and the conclusion I can only come to is this: While I think we should create an universal language it’s not a task for a single person or a small group. Rather, in many decades I would think, we should form a real ministry (or so) to make a new language from scratch. And really, from scratch. No old language baggage. It should be a language that’s designed without any compromising, taking in all of the issues of modern languages and fixing them. The development of such a language would also likely take years, possibly even the one or the other decade before rolling it out. Of course if it’s planned to this degree it can be implemented directly as a second official language, and then, again many years later, could truly replace the old language in official use too.

One might wonder why go that far at all, given current languages work? Well, that’s the thing, current languages work in the same way that a rubber boat is a boat. Sure I can cross some water with it, but the ocean? Not so much. For instance if we make a planned language it should flat out be phonetic, if you read something for the first time you should know exactly how to pronounce it, and vice versa. As it stands English is a particularly funny, but also annoying offender in this regard. Just think about the words read and lead. Did I mean the present or past form of read, which are pronounced differently? Did I mean lead the metal, or lead as in leading? Again both pronounced differently. That’s of course just the tip of the iceberg, and the next obvious part is the necessity of context for interpretation. Sure, it usually works out, but there’s quite a few avoidable hiccups.
Then there’s all the irregularities in pretty much all languages, and simple unnecessarily complicated grammar, were German is a particularly bad offender. Japanese on the other hand has rather nice and simple grammar. But then in exchange there’s Kanji. Speaking of writing systems, I have no particular attachment to our alphanumerical ways either.
And if an universal language is to address all of these… yeah. That takes time to figure out. A lot of decades and hard, focused work by dedicated people. And this would be done I think the result would likely not even be too hard to learn, despite lack of similarities to what we have.

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Have you checked out Lojban, yet?

Lojban is a carefully constructed spoken language. It has been built for over 50 years by dozens of workers and hundreds of supporters.

  • Lojban’s grammar is based on simple rules, and its linguistic features are inspired by predicate logic.
  • Lojban allows the expression of nuances in emotion using words called attitudinals, which are like spoken emoticons. ue marks that you’re surprised; ba’u marks that you’re exaggerating.
  • You can be as vague or detailed as you like when speaking Lojban. For example, specifying tense (past, present or future) or number (singular or plural) is optional when they’re clear from context.
  • Lojban is machine parsable, so the syntactic structure and validity of a sentence is unambiguous, and can be analyzed using computer tools.
  • There is a live community of speakers expanding the Lojban vocabulary day by day.

The real problem here is not creating a universal language that’s “good enough”. It’s getting people to actually adopt it. Languages are reflections of culture. If an artificial language is not adopted by any culture, it’s effectively dead.

So, what kind of culture could be developed around an artificial language? The easiest that comes to mind is a culture that is all about creating artificial languages, but the scope of such a culture is too narrow. We need a culture with mass appeal. If one could make something like a religion or ideology around an artificial language, it could spread along with the carrying religion/ideology. Needless to say, creating new religions or ideologies is a very dangerous business and can easily backfire in all kinds of ways.

Perhaps the way to go is music. Create songs in an artificial languages that are so great that people will want to learn the language in order to understand the lyrics.

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That looks really interesting. I’ve indeed never heard about Lojban once, despite having looked for similar things quite a few times. I’ll definitely take a deeper look than the superficial one I had a moment ago.

I think both are equally an issue. If it’s not good enough, there’s little point in adopting it in the first place. And if it feels like “just another language” I can’t see people adopting it over the convenience of using what you have.
Otherwise though I agree, short of making a long term plan with an official language switch, only cultural influence such as music might do it. This kind of approach strikes me like something that’s going to take more like centuries.

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Lojban isn’t completely unambigious. Only its grammar is, but not vocabulary, which is taken from English, Spanish, Russian, Hindi, Arabic and Chinese.
E.g. a sentence like “a cow leaps over the moon” would be unambigious in Lojban concerning grammar and syntax meaning: A cow does a jump with so much power she reaches spaceand flies in a ballistic curve around the moon.
Yet, the words themselves would not be. E.g. what is a “cow”? The most common definition is a female cattle, yet often cattles in general are called cows while the females of many other species are sometimes named “cow”, too.

Language switches don’t happen overnight and not without good reason. All constructed international auxilliary languages so far didn’t have success.

It’s like why the rest of the world will never switch to English, because the Anglosphere does not have direct power over them. If any, like Donald Trump and Brexit show, the power level of the English language may have already peaked (like Latin during the Pax Romana and French during the 18th and 19th century).

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No language can be completely unambiguous. Concepts are associative, not logical. That’s why we can use logic for grammar, but not for all words of a language that refers to real world objects. What we see as an object, or as a concept is very subjective. We have a single word for two different objects, if they are sufficiently similar. And that’s a completely reasonable approach. Language needs to be able to express sentiments quickly. If I have to specify the objects and ideas of a sentence extremely precisely, that will take too much time and effort. For that reason, the time it takes to express most sentences is quite similar in all languages. That’s why TV shows can be reasonably dubbed.

Of course, you can make the effort to try sanitizing a language from its worst disambiguities. But the improvement will only be marginal. People should be able to use a language as precisely or as metaphorically as they want. Otherwise the language is too restrictive to be useful.

Yet English is used quite successfully as lingua franca and as the language of science. Now imagine that in 20 years Chinese scientists will be years ahead of all other scientists. Then they could decide only to publish in Chinese. In that case, foreign elite scientists will feel compelled to learn Chinese in order to be up-to-date. Afterwards, the skill of reading Chinese will percolate down to lower ranks of scientists. And from there, it will seep into business and politics. Then education and media. Eventually, everyone will want to speak Chinese, because the societal elites speak it.

Now, if you could create a micronation that produced groundbreaking scientific or technological results and published them in an artificial language, you could get the ball rolling.

Not exactly. More synthetic language usually take shorter phrases than analytic ones to express something.

E.g. the verb “vidissem” in Classical Latin translates into French “j’eusse regardé” and “ich könnte gesehen haben” in German. -> 3 vs 5 vs 8 syllables

So were French, Greek and Latin. Or Franconian from which the term “lingua franca” stems. Today, learning French is still useful. Not so much with Franconian. Ancient Greek is studied by some thousands in school compared with millions who take mandatory English lessons.

English is known to have a rather simple grammar compared to other European languages. There are no cases, nouns aren’t gendered, verbs show only few forms etc.

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as stanislew lem saids: annie says: the higher state of intelligence ist not-communication

Well this is at least mostly true though. Languages typically average out in terms of information per second/syllable over the long run. However I find that at times when watching something subbed/dubbed that here and there some stuff is clearly needlessly expanded or forcefully compressed to even fit, leading to some strangeness.

And yeah, English grammar, while still ridiculously convoluted, is yet a mile and a half better than… German grammar. I honestly forgot most terms of German grammar again. I simply wing it by habit and intuition. I couldn’t be bothered either. All the time already and possibly wasted on German grammar can be used so much better to learn for instance math and more set theory.

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I prefer subtitles over dubs but often they’re not better since they exclude information and change texts to make themselves shorter because most people read slower than one usually talks. So the translators have to make sure everybody can read the subtitles during the short time when they’re visible on-screen.

German has the most complex grammar of major languages in Western Europe and is the second largest native tongue in all of Europe, after Russian. It was used as lingua franca in Central, Northern and Eastern Europe from the Medieval Ages up until the World Wars and is also the third most used speech on the internet. Yet, it sounds a bit harsh and aggressive, which makes it unfit for a global diplomatic language.

Same with Russian, it is the second most popular language on the internet, a working language of the UN and important in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia and comes closest to what I see as an ideal grammar. But it sounds VERY aggressive. Also, it isn’t good at integrating foreign names and words, which also is a problem in Esperanto.

If you don’t like German, try Dutch. It is basically just silly-sounding German.

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