A universal language

This precipitated this tweet by Jon Beech.


Later, in the bath, I reflected on the implied criticism of the tweet and found myself in interesting territory. What is wrong with a universal language? If everyone has their national language but their second language is always English, what is so bad about that? You could travel to most places in the world confident that you would find someone who spoke enough English to communicate with.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not precious about the English language (although I am grateful that it is my first language which saves me the trouble of learning it) I could comfortably contemplate Mandarin as being the universal language.

A universal language has been tried before; Esperanto which tried to preserve everyone’s national pride by  bastardising most of them and in so doing pleased no one. Unfortunately it simply wasn’t useful enough in the real world.

In the global economy of today it pays to learn the languages that will give the most return on your investment. If I was to spend the time and effort in learning French I would only be able to use it productively in France (yes, yes, I know that in certain parts of Canada it would be useful). I could speculate that in ten years time Mandarin might become the global language but that predicates on so many precarious economic factors and its inability to adapt itself easily for digital use argues against it.

No, you learn the language of current global usage. If the dominant language is English then so be it, that is what you will learn. I am aware that Spanish speaking peoples outnumber English speaking people but the truth is that the spheres of influence in the world use English as the first language.

But I digress. My point is that a language is not a currency, it is not an ideology foist upon a defenceless people by some superpower. It is a tool, like an axe, which can be used for many purposes, some good, some not so good.

One of the few examples of a universal standard that I can think of is 16mm film, still in use today. This was developed by the Nazi’s to aid their propaganda machine. So successful were they in establishing the medium that at one period during the sixties and seventies, you could take a 16mm film anywhere in the world and you would be able to find a projector to show it.

But 16mm film is just a medium, it is not an ideology. Anti-fascist films can be made on it too. Language is just the same.

Incidentally we have gone backwards in the technological ease of showing moving images. There are so many formats and protocols for digital video that if you take your .MOV file burned on a dvd, chances are it won’t play on someone else’s branded laptop.

2 Responses to “A universal language”

  1. Dan Ladds says:

    Good post.

    English didn’t get to where it is fairly. It lied, cheated, stole, killed and oppressed its way to being the world’s common second language. We can’t change that, it’s just the way it is, but as it happens, there are many benefits to the situation we’ve found ourselves in, and not just to English people.

    Right now, there are thousands if not millions of people speaking to each other using mediums like the internet. In many cases, English isn’t either of their primary languages, but it’s the common language that allows them to communicate.

    If a hundred-and-fifty years ago, you’d brought computers and internet to the world, the majority of people still wouldn’t able to communicate. Now, with English as a common language, I can speak to someone from China, Libya, Spain, Japan, Iraq, Canada, Peru or Russia. I couldn’t do that otherwise.

    Sure, we have to remember that English isn’t inherently superiour, but having a global common language, whatever language that may be, is really fricken useful.

    Nowhere is that more useful than in computing. Writing a complier is really hard work and the last thing anyone wants to do is maintain 20 different versions of one over different languages. So I’m afraid where computers are concerned, we just have to pick a language, any language, and decide to use that. English just got there first.

  2. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Thanks Dan. I hadn’t considered how influential the internet is in all of this, code-writing being the prime mover.

    In a globalised world, a standard language is essential as sometimes life or death messages have to be conveyed – just consider air traffic control which, as it happens, uses English as its standard language.

    And as usual in world history, whoever gets there first, is remembered the most.

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