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In theory the international auxiliary might begin from any language: its appearance centuries hence after incorporating the best features from every tongue, living or dead, would be much the same whatever the starting-point. However, the right inaugural language would greatly speed and facilitate the process; and we are proposing that a reformed version of English would be ideal for the role. For example, those who learned it would be using their time profitably, even should the projected purpose fail to be realised; the mastery of one of the world's major spoken languages would guarantee a return on their investment. They would be able to go to any English-speaking country and be perfectly well understood, since the reforms would affect the script rather than the language - at least for a considerable time to come.
There would also be a distinct advantage in beginning with a language whose particular irregularity lies in the script rather than in speech, for language is normally more spoken than written. The spoken word always precedes and usually outweighs the written, whether in the life of the individual or of society, and consequently is more ingrained and less amenable to change. Script revision is not easy, but changing a spoken tongue is so hard that it is probably best accomplished through the orthoepic effect of script reform.
The relatively simple grammar of English came into existence precisely because popular speech threw off superfluous grammatical constructions while aristocratic and learned circles were using French and Latin. Moreover, English is part of the Indo-European family of languages, which is twice as large as any other, and where the dominant trend for 1000 years has been towards subject-verb-object rather than subject-object-verb syntax, and the use of word order rather than inflections.
Languages tend to fall into three grammatical types: synthetic - case endings and inflections - as in Russian; agglutinative - compound words with prefixes, suffixes and infixes - as in Turkish; and isolating - bare word roots without inflections or affixes - as in Chinese. English grammar developed into a form that does not fit exclusively into any of these camps but, partaking of all three, allows at the one extreme for elementary prosaic communication, using just the present tense and simple nouns with short sentences and, at the other, for complex expressions employing the full range of a grammar which contains these three characteristics: a wealth of inflected pronouns, verb tenses and moods; a variety of compounds - such as constitute many nouns, verbs, participles, adjectives and even adverbs; and isolates - typically the prepositions and conjunctions which hold English together with the aid of pronouns, punctuation and word order. This gear-changing capacity of the language may be seen by comparing typical tabloid journalism with the finest philosophical exegesis.
A measure of flexibility in grammatical style is necessary if linguistic unity is to be maintained in the face of a wide variety of cultures. The previous chapter showed how pidgins happened upon the minimal grammatical, lexical and phonological requirements of speech. However, although these tongues are relatively accessible by virtue of their simple grammar and basic phonology, they are severely limited, for the same reason, when it comes to prosaic discussion of complex and abstract subjects. Conversely, the great literary languages have preserved an advanced grammatical and lexical capacity, though at the expense of penetration throughout society and across cultural boundaries.
The essential feature of pidgins is their mundane genesis as contact languages: hence minimal grammar, with juxtaposed one-clause sentences, suffices for straightforward subject-matter: e.g. "Man plough. He my brother." English typically embeds the second clause into a complex sentence: "The man [who is] ploughing is my brother." The strength of the English construction, with its relative pronoun, is that it contains an element of transcendence or ambiguity (ploughing what?); but this is also its weakness. Comparing a religious saying in these two styles might show this: "All men are equal before God. He is no respecter of persons." "All men are equal before God, Who is no respecter of persons." The former is the original or authentic version.
Potentially, there is a gulf between these two kinds of language. The pidgin or tabloid type needs less grammar, because the meaning lies less in the sentence than in the word, whether it describes an entity or a situation. This kind of speech, which is essentially focused upon a material object, runs through picture story-books and propaganda posters into its modern home: the television set. Among the constructed languages it is exemplified by Glosa - which has only four tenses (as in "mi sedi [I sit], mi nu sedi [I am sitting], mi pa sedi [I sat], mi fu sedi [I will sit]") and no inflections, i.e. practically all its words can be used interchangeably as noun, adjective or verb. Glosa is a slightly modified update of Interglossa, the international language invented by Lancelot Hogben, humanist and polymath.
The basic unit of pidgin-grammar is the clause, but complex language also derives meaning to a great extent from the tension between clauses embedded in a sentence, and from the dynamic between adjacent sentences, and the contrast between paragraphs; its grammar, whether expressed through pronoun, inflection or tense, is the fulcrum for the shaft of understanding thus formed. This kind of language is still found in newspapers, but more usually in journals and books.
The constructed language Volapük exemplified this literary type of grammar. By the time of the third congress, in Paris in 1889, Volapük had 200,000 adherents in 300 societies and about two dozen publications; but the attempt to conduct the congress entirely in Volapük proved that a language which worked on the page could nevertheless be unsuited to general conversation. Volapük subsequently faded away after author Schleyer, priest and polyglot, refused to simplify it.
Any discussion of this subject would be incomplete without mention of the Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan (1911-80 - he appears in Woody Allen's multi-media comedy film "Annie Hall"). By his aphorism "the medium is the message" McLuhan was essentially describing the qualitative difference between a human conversation, in which there is the possibility of dialogue (in spite of the prevalence of boring monologues!), and interaction between human and machine, where dialogue is once-removed, if it exists at all. By their very nature, the voices of the media talk at us rather than to us, and do not particularly want a reply: a tendency that has become ever more so as these organs have consolidated into centralised ownership, and have moved from print into more expensive and elaborate electronic imagery.
McLuhan thus perceived a relationship between the providers and consumers of electronic media analogous to that between the oligarchy - tribal chief, witch-doctor etc. - and the mass of the people in indigenous cultures; that whereas traditional tribal societies are enthralled by magical artefacts and ceremonies, the tribes of the late 20th Century are spellbound by totems from lifestyle features and advertisements in tabloid newspapers, magazines, cinema, radio, television etc.: new packaging for old products and ideas sold by advertising shamans and political spin-doctors - the revenant Portuguese adventurers bearing glittering wares. And we are the natives who must weigh the values, for they also bring valuable stuff amid the dross (McLuhan would have been the first to admit this), and their globalising pidgin carries new scientific and religious concepts amidst the slogans and brand names.
The language of course is very often the predominant world auxiliary, namely English - or is it? Typical mediaspeak is not noted for its similarity to the language of Shakespeare, Emerson and Tennyson, and closely matches the voice of no writer from the pre-electronic age. Moreover, the new speech has accompanied a profound cultural shift from imagination to imagery: it is hardly surprising that sheltered modern children adjusted to the televisual realisation of fantasy should prefer Roald Dahl to the literary classics. A great part of the population generally is in thrall to television, when as much topical information can be gained from a decent daily newspaper in a fraction of the time. How many now read the great poets, philosophers and novelists, or the world's seminal religious works - such as the Bhagavad-gita, the Bible, the Qur'an or the Bahá'í Writings? McLuhan, in a letter to a fellow Catholic (20/2/70), put it thus: "I have spent a good many years in studying the cultural effects of print and in proclaiming the alphabet in its printed form as the sole basis of civilisation. The electro-technical forms do not foster civilisation but tribal culture."
From a linguistic viewpoint, at least, these questions are very relevant because an equilibrium between different grammatical styles is impossible to retain in the long run; every partial language - not excepting English - follows the trend of one cultural tendency or another. For instance, many traditional languages have preserved a "correct" literary usage, whereas the creoles cater for a mass market which requires no more than a minimal grammar. The standing of English as an international language has largely been due to its capacity to contain these two grammatical styles.
But this potential may have weakened as the pidginised style has gained the ascendant. It might be asked whether this represents a degeneration of the language, or why a meagre fare should be preferred when the linguistic heritage is so rich. The answer to such questions again derives from the pre-eminent international role of English. The advertising and propaganda industries which cohabit the mass-media and its offshoots, with their remit to maximise the market at all costs, have encouraged a certain style in imagery and language which, by aiming for the universally familiar, effectively crosses many cultural and linguistic barriers. Moreover, the pictures of war, poverty and environmental degradation, and expositions of ecology and macroeconomics, emanating from the same media, have encouraged the formation of a number of international charities, causes and movements, much of whose discussion has perforce taken place through a simplified or pidginised version of English - both because English is the leading international language, and because proper simultaneous translation is extremely expensive.
In such ways, through the dynamics of the mass-market and of global accessibility, the focus of English use has gradually shifted from a literary to a pidginised form. The frontier of this kind of language is found above all where access to less-educated or second-language speakers is the priority, whether the products on offer be jejune ephemera or matters of great import. In some respects, the English so produced approaches the distinctive qualities required by the coming world auxiliary language. Will it now take the next step?
In all these ruminations it is essential to maintain a proper perspective. Although the common international tongue will be instrumental in promoting understanding and fellow feeling between all the nations presently separated by their languages, its influence will be severely limited without collective action to confront and resolve those spiritual exclusions, moral prejudices, legal inequities and practical difficulties, too numerous to mention, which tend to keep the peoples of the world apart, and hinder the free and voluntary association which is a precondition of dialogue.
Since the international auxiliary language will be taught to children in every school of the world, the difficulties of grammatical redundancy and irregularity will have to be addressed. This is because, as researchers have discovered (and experience shows), children prefer a certain level of grammar to a minimal grammar; and they tend to spontaneously regularise grammar where it is is irregular. Thus creoles are essentially created by children who, learning pidgins as mother-tongues, gradually elaborate them by the addition of grammar and vocabulary.
The reason for this tendency is evident. Pidgins developed to facilitate transactions exclusively between adults. In a context where the ground rules of social interaction are mostly understood, and the purpose is mundane rather than transcendent, no more than a minimal grammar is necessary. But children are primarily concerned to orient themselves in an unfamiliar world, and to establish the precise meaning of a situation - as indicated by the syntax, tense, mood, voice and inflections of speech.
The corollary of this finding is that children are deterred
less by complex grammar than by redundancy and irregularity.
For example, the Turkish inflectional system is fairly
intricate, but Turkish children normally master it well before
the age of two because it is completely regular and
straightforward . An oft-quoted illustration combines the noun
"el" ("hand") with the inflections "-im" (first person
possessive), "-ler" (plural) and "-de" (locative):
elim "my hand"
elde "in hand"
elimde "in my hand"
ellerim "my hands"
ellerimde "in my hands"
Similarly, relative clauses (i.e. those beginning "who, which or that" in English) are so straightforward in SerboCroat that most Serbian and Croatian children have likewise mastered them by the age of two. Other languages also have grammatical features of exemplary regularity which children learn to use without difficulty. The international language committee will no doubt look at all such instances in order to assemble the best grammar from all sources.
An interesting fact about the above two examples is that their converse shows some of the worst grammatical practice. Both Turkish relative clauses and Serbo-Croat inflections are incoherent and excessively complicated. The children of these nations struggle to make sense of them, and do not normally use them competently until about the age of five. This conjunction between the regular and straightforward and the confusing and opaque is typical of national languages. For instance, in English we see a relatively simple grammar conjoined with a relatively difficult orthography, and in Finnish and Hungarian the reverse. There appears to be an inherent shibboleth function in national tongues, seemingly designed to identify foreigners and/or those who have not mastered the language properly.
The same psychological constraints will inevitably apply within the international auxiliary language, so any reforms will have to take cognizance of conflicting considerations: firstly, that the international pre-eminence of English is related to its current level of grammar, and secondly that English-speakers who use a rather different grammar should be represented or catered for as far as possible (according to the wisdom of Webster's dictum "Grammar should derive from language, rather than language from grammar").
The present controversy about black American English or "Ebonics" illustrates this tension. Defining Ebonics as a separate language solves nothing, but neither does the non accommodating status quo. Sensible grammatical reform would align itself with such dialects as far as mainstream opinion and historical continuity allowed. Moreover, grammatical irregularities which presently cause children problems might be rationalised by adopting the best practice elsewhere.
The English-based creoles provide some ideas in these simplifying and rationalising directions. The operation of the word-order principle in English has rendered superfluous all noun cases except the genitive, as well as adjectival agreement etc.. However, the creoles have pushed the principle harder in order to achieve further economies, including the abolition of the genitive. Some of the more promising creole constructions, with reference to their possible use in the revision of English, include the following (in order to illustrate the grammatical point they are artificially written in Standard English - in practice an orthographic rendering of creole speech should be spelt very differently [e.g. "the" would normally be "de" etc.]):
(1) The third person singular does not alter verb declension in the present tense: e.g. "he run, she sing". (It is difficult to find grounds for objecting to this one.)
(2) Possession may be denoted by juxtaposing nouns rather than using the genitive with the apostrophe: e.g. "this woman child, that man field". (The context normally distinguishes the genitive from the adjective; the more rigorous use of hyphens and compound words would help to distinguish them on the page. Other languages dispense with the genitive, e.g. Welsh: "llyfr John, llyfr coch" "John's book, red book".)
(3) A plural is often not marked by an [s]: e.g. "two house, them rabbit". (Determining whether "sheep, deer, fish, cod, grouse, Portuguese, Swiss, Maori" etc. are single or plural is hardly a problem in English. Chinese usually does without plurals. Eliminating the plural would abolish irregular forms like man/men, child/children, mouse/mice etc.. Plurals can often be identified by numerals or pronouns; a plural definite article like the French "les" [the plural "the"], or the Chinese plural marker "xie" ["some"], might help.
(4) Verbs are negated by the word "no": e.g. "he no work today". (Old English used the same construction with the prefix "ne-" for "no", exactly as in Scottish English, Russian, and other languages. Also "ne-" might replace "un- "/"in-". English already uses "never" in a similar way.)
(5) Adjectives are used as adverbs: e.g. "he walk silent, she sing soft". (Word order allows this. Words are entities which may often be used interchangeably as noun, verb, adjective or even adverb: e.g. arm, foot, back, up, right, top, shine, love, dog, plant, air, etc., etc.)
(6) Auxiliary verbs like "be" or "do" are often omitted: e.g. "the sun hot, he old man, them hungry, why you bring this?". (There seems to be little problem with this one if the omitted auxiliary or copula is understood to be in the present tense. Russian also does without the copula in the present tense e.g. "he engineer".)
(7) Serial verbs are commonly used in creoles: e.g. "she go try find it, he start run escape". (This would be a most useful reform if it could be done without introducing ambiguity between the infinitive ("to" escape) and the noun. In English the "to" is sometimes omitted from the infinitive as being understood. The infinitive is essentially a self-directed imperative.)
As previously emphasised, no more than an offspring or copy of English would be reformed: a refraction which might then proceed to change the main body of the language - though perhaps in conservative directions. Moreover, it is likely that the pidginising influence of the global media would be transferred on to this grammatically-simplified and orthographically regular language. For the dynamics of the market economy, and the high capital cost of launching any new media product, whether an advertisement, film, TV show, pop record, computer game or other fashion item, are such that the multinationals are concerned above all to maximise global access. A pidginised international language might well be irresistible for this very reason. Thus English, and the other mother tongues, might be freed from the trivialising influence of these things.
It is probable, then, that the international auxiliary language, towards which LANGO is proposed as an initial stage, will have a grammar of the utmost simplicity so that it might permeate everywhere with the aid of the mass-media. But what will happen to the mother-tongues meantime? It is certain that they will continue, for a very long time, as custodians of speech and grammar. For instance, the English-speaking peoples, with their tradition of individual purposefulness, have a grammar replete with tenses, moods and voices (though poor in inflected nouns and adjectives). Conversely the Finns, that poised and musical race, have a language which is very emotionally expressive in its wealth of noun cases denoting different states of being. (Finnish also possesses a useful personal pronoun which denotes either sex.) Briefly, the grammar and vocabulary of every tongue reflect the characteristics of its native speakers.
A complex grammar has as many advantages, for philosophical or literary purposes, as has a simple and straightforward grammar for universal access. An increased grammatical range would give every national tongue greater logical capacity, and better receptiveness to translation and transliteration. For example, a third-person reflexive pronoun for English, as in Esperanto and many other languages, would prevent the ambiguity in sentences like "Eric told Mark about his wife". However, it is unlikely that there will be any more direct transfer of grammar between developed national tongues than there has been in the past. Creoles and languages at early stages of development can do this, but every partial tongue reaches a point at which it resists change.
However, it is certain that the grammatical level of the international pidgin would be gradually raised, once it had an established status world-wide. This would have to be done with the greatest care: the timing of any change closely related to the general level of literacy, and nothing that had not been exhaustively tested in one language or another. Thus, in the distant future, having developed an unsurpassed grammatical, lexical and phonological capacity, there is no reason why the international auxiliary language should not absorb all other languages.
The advantage of a complex grammar for elucidating abstruse subjects on the intellectual level is essentially that of economy: not the simplicity of the pidgins, but the brief representation of a phrase or a clause in the same way that the right word might encapsulate a circumlocution. For example, the use of the gerund in English often obviates a pronoun and predicate, or noun and preposition. In view of the proliferation of knowledge currently taking place in the world, brevity and concision are vital.
However it can be argued that a still more advanced grammar is that of poetry, where understanding exists "between the lines" in the ratiocination of images and thoughts, as well as from words themselves and the tension between grammatical structures. Moreover, the alienation between simple and complex grammar is inherent to prose: at the level of poetry it disappears along with the innate distinction between words and their groupings. For this reason poetry will expand greatly in influence, reciprocally with the global tongue. This is yet another matter which, although of great import to the international language, is mostly dependent upon factors outside its sphere of influence.
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