Newest article for Sterling.

“Words themselves – the very material of our discourse increasingly take on masks or disguises” Dennis Potter

Are there languages that are better than others? Speech is a fundamental and crucial constituent of human communication. In cases where humans, such as feral children, or children who have suffered isolative abuse, have grown up from a very young age with no social contact with other people, they do not develop any speech at all (but will sometimes mimic animal noises). From this, we can conclude that the primary purpose of vocal language is interpersonal communication, thus the “best” language would be the one that allows optimum communication between people, and provides people with the means to express themselves as fully as they would wish.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, explored fully in the last issue of Sterling, theorises that the language(s) we speak influence the way we think. The SIL Ethnologue, as of 2009, recognises 6,909 living languages (although this would vary depending on different definitions of “living language”), so if the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is true, how can people be expected to have a high level of understanding with someone else if the fundamental communication patterns that they use dictate a completely different set of thoughts, ideas and even feelings? It may come across as naïve assumption that if we all spoke the language there would no longer be such a thing as misunderstanding- of course this is not true, there are still plenty of communication breakdowns between those with shared mother tongues, but that is not the point to be made- what I am trying to say is that from language we derive social systems.

Before written word became commonly-used (and in civilisations where it still largely is not), there was no choice but to trust word of mouth. Proof was in language, evidence came in the form of the number of people that could speak of something. It makes sense then to say that for humans to have superlative accord, the usage of one language rather than many would be ideal.

The concept of a universal language is not a new one- Plato wrote his dialogue Cratylus around 2,400 years ago, which is arguably the earliest authoritarian text to consider the origins of language and the possibility that languages are all intrinsically related, and the idea that a word must relate to its subject. If this theory is taken to be true, then we can go on to add to our view of the “best” language as one whose lexicon describes best whatever it may refer to. This would certainly not come from one language, but rather from many, and logically, these words would be the words which have evolved to be most similar to those of languages from different language trees- those that are the most synaesthetically apt.

The word, if you can call it that, which remains the same (or the most similar) in the highest number of languages, or which is understood in the most languages, is “okay”. “Okay” is originally an English word, yet it is also an etymological anomaly- very curious given that it is probably the most widely-understood word, with unchanging meaning, in the world. There has been no unanimous agreement on the derivation of the word “okay”, yet myriad proposals. The fact that the word signifies a lack of negativity, and often an agreement or understanding that can be read on a universal level makes it one of the most powerful words in the world. Conversely, every language has certain words that simply do not have accurate translations in any other languages. The Swedish word “lagom”, for instance, cannot be translated into any other languages (although some neighbouring languages have similar words), and so its meaning must be given through a description of what the word would signify in different circumstances rather than what it means. “Lagom” is a word often used to epitomise Swedish culture, and is often translated to mean similar to “adequate”, “sufficient”, “in moderation” or “just enough”, reflecting the traditional Swedish leanings toward a more humble and modest lifestyle. Although this word can be seen as a beautiful example of the many nuances of language and culture, is exclusivity in language not paradoxically redundant?

This is where the idea of a constructed language comes into play. There is always much talk of meaning being “lost in translation”. Any bi- or multi-lingual person will tell you that reading the same text, especially a poem or another form of creative writing, in different languages will never provide exactly the same meaning, or instil into the reader’s mind the same ideas and feelings. Because language is subjective, we can never truly say if what is being communicated to us will come across in the exact way that the speaker or writer intends, because what means one thing to one person may mean something completely different to another. This is the reason why the language of Esperanto was constructed. Esperanto was (and still is) intended as a universal language representing neutrality and the progression of a more understanding, peaceful and communicative human race. The most interesting thing about Esperanto, however, is that given that it is not only one of the oldest but also the most successful constructed languages, there are now up to 1,000 native speakers (those who have learned from their parents), not to mention up to 2,000,000 fluent speakers- surely at this point Esperanto is no longer a constructed language but one that is evolving and changing (as all languages do), yet remains free of the burden of culture, spoken in around 120 countries. It is recognised as a language of diplomacy, evolution and that which is cosmopolitan.

Esperanto is by no means a “perfect” language, but what it is is an example of an attempt at betterment. I do not wish to champion nor condemn any languages; rather I wish to promote the amelioration of global linguistic communication, as I believe it is a crucial foundation for international peace and empathy. Language is taken for granted because we have never lacked it. As Scout Finch, the protagonist of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird stated so astutely, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”