and the Dream
of the Universal Language
Idealists have long dreamed of the many benefits that might be obtained for humanity through the establishment of a universal language spoken by all humans. For example, undergraduates in U.S. universities’ science departments might finally be able to understand their TAs.
On the other hand, devotees of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and variants thereof would argue, sometimes by snowball ambuscade if necessary, that the establishment of a universal common language would impoverish humanity by destroying the valuable diversity of human culture and human thought.
How might this terrible paradox be resolved?
A clue may be found in a study recently performed by linguist Anonymous.1 Anonymous noticed that when linguists wish to discuss the great variety of differing characteristics languages may have, most or all linguists exhibit a strong tendency to choose from a numerically relatively small subset of the languages that exist. For example, a linguist who is told “Name a non-Indo-European language,” is more likely to mention Basque than almost any other of the thousands of other equally appropriate languages. A linguist who is asked to “Name a language with tones” is more likely to name (Mandarin) Chinese than most other tonal languages. English, Mandarin Chinese, Dyirbal, and the G. W. Bush idiolect are among the relatively small number of languages that are used time and time again to illustrate a wide range of linguistic differences.
Evidently, although thousands of languages technically do exist, a relatively small subset of those languages is usually sufficient for linguists to demonstrate their points about important issues of linguistic diversity. It would follow then that the inter-lingual differences implicitly encoded by all the rest of the languages are largely unimportant or redundant. A properly chosen small subset of the world’s languages being sufficient to conserve most or all of the world’s important language diversity properties, we may call this property of the world’s languages “small subset diversity conservation” (SSDC).
There is no good reason (only many bad and unscientific reasons) why the world’s human populations should not be strongly encouraged to standardize on the necessary linguistic subset (NLS).
For example, the Basques are famous for being an aboriginal people within Western Europe who speak a non-Indo-European language. However, for the conservation of non-redundant linguistic diversity (NRLD), it might not be necessary for the Basques to speak Basque specifically; instead they might speak some other non-Indo-European language such as Finnish, Korean, or Mandarin, giving the Basques the ability to easily intercommunicate with millions or even hundreds of millions more people than before.
A cynical, negative person might suggest that the Basques would object to being expected to convert en masse to some other non-Indo-European language, and would consider such a conversion to be oppressive. However, the Basques are so accustomed to being oppressed that the conversion would preserve or even strengthen an important element of their traditional identity. Also, sharing a common language with a people of (in all probability) much larger numbers outside of France and Spain would provide obvious advantages for the Basques in raising foreign support for Basque struggles against local governments.
Once worldwide standardization upon the NLS has been completed, reducing the number of languages in use by 95% or more, we may expect that the communications difficulties within the world shall have been reduced by one or more orders of magnitude.
At least two feasible, reasonable approaches to selecting an appropriate subset of the world’s languages are evident.
Method 1: We might simply survey linguists directly, and additionally perform a meta-analysis of their publications, to see which languages are commonly used to illustrate important linguistic properties and differences. The remaining languages may be judged effectively redundant.
Method 2: Somewhat more formally, we might instead perform a study constructing a ‘DRE differences matrix’ in which all the important noted parameter values of the world’s languages are encoded. This matrix could then be analyzed to determine the minimum subset of languages necessary to conserve important linguistic diversity.
Some people might suggest that in a time when a significant fraction of the world’s small-speaker-population languages are already threatened with extinction, it is insensitive to advocate worldwide conversion to the NLS, because that might be taken to imply the intentional extinction of the vast majority of languages. However, when the extinction of many human languages and the destruction of much of the world’s language diversity has already come to seem inevitable to many experts on the subject, it is only fair to point out that worldwide standardization upon an NLS, by maximizing the preservation of important linguistic diversity, actually promises a substantial improvement over the destruction of linguistic diversity that experts are currently predicting for the next half-century. If in the process, the populations of some large industrialized countries are forced to convert to formerly endangered languages such as Dyirbal or Pirahã, well, they’re surely only getting what’s rightly coming to them.
In short, on a scientific or para-scientific level, several acronyms have been defined, and at least one very important property of human languages (SSDC) has been boldly asserted2 while referring to some actual evidence of interesting quality. As for action items, an excellent compromise between the universal language goal and the linguistic diversity imperative has been outlined, sharing most of the advantages of both extremes. Standardization upon an NLS is such an excellent opportunity that we must not refuse it. If it should prove that most human languages must be eliminated in the cause of human communication and cultural diversity, such surely shall prove a small price to pay. Also, persons suggesting that this essay might in any way implicitly satirize, suggest, or even deliberately embody inadequacies in understanding of human language and/or of the nature of science, should certainly be forced to be the first to volunteer for the conversion.
1 An unpublished, uncompleted version of the study was posted online under a pseudonym. See Said-the-Tensor, T. (2005), “Using the Same Examples” for details.
2 For more information on the technique of “Proof by Assertion” and its refinement within the pioneering field of office furniture, please see DeMarco & Lister, Peopleware.