A Universal Language

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The Tower of Babel – Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563. 

The concept of a universal language transcending borders and ethnicities has been with us throughout the length and breadth of written history. Human beings have a need to connect, to communicate. This need is an irrevocable part of us; we are social animals after all.

Look no further than the story of the Tower of Babel, which tells us of a human race unified after the flood that swept away all but those on Noah’s Ark. With a single language to bond them, they strove together to build the city of Babel with an edifice high enough to reach the heavens until God struck it down and scattered peoples throughout over the world, divided by language as well as geography.

But the idea of a universal language remains with us today, especially as technology has shifted us closer together, making the once isolated regions of the world more interconnected than ever before.

And yet, language is a most peculiar thing. Complex, constantly evolving and full of perils. Distinct dialects emerge if one simply travels from one town to another, let alone one end of a country to another. Look no further than the hundreds of unique mother tongues within India, or the countless variations in dialect in the major Sinitic languages of China. Such a rich variety inevitably stalls communication, causing confusion and enmity in mistranslation. The United Nations, with all of its 193 members, still selectively and biasedly sticks to six official languages. It would be impossible to efficiently include them all, it seems.

So is a universal language possible in our future? Is a universal language desirable?

ESPERANTO:

Attempts have been made to create a universal language, with one noteworthy example being Esperanto. A constructed language created by Polish doctor L.L. Zamenhof, its aims were the following, as quoted by Zamenhof himself in his 1887 work, Unua Libro (First Book):

  1. To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner.
  2. To enable the learner to make direct use of his knowledge with persons of any nationality, whether the language be universally accepted or not; in other words, the language is to be directly a means of international communication.
  3. To find some means of overcoming the natural indifference of mankind, and disposing them, in the quickest manner possible, and en masse, to learn and use the proposed language as a living one, and not only in last extremities, and with the key at hand.

Esperanto was designed to be easily learned and taught, with simple grammatical rules not beholden to perplexing exceptions and rules that reflect the convoluted development of most languages. With varying estimates of around two million speakers worldwide at present, it’s arguable whether not the lofty intentions behind the language ever had a feasible chance at success.

But interestingly enough, it encountered suppression in the past. The likes of Stalin and Hitler both saw fit to actively denounce it and persecute Esperanto speakers, and other countries such as France and Romania banned it in some form. The short history of Esperanto is an exploration of humanity’s resilient innate desire to communicate, to break down obstacles. And while the best we can do now is improve translation and learn more than our native tongues, it seems like a unified world, bound by language, will always be an elusive dream for some.

You can find out more about learning Esperanto here. And you can find a translation of Unua Libro here.

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About The Author
Elias Rafik Khoury

Sorry, this entry is only available in Arabic.

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