Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW

Remarks on the Esperanto Symposium

by Mario Pei

First published in The International Language Review, Jul.-Sep. 1993

Preliminary editorial note by Donald J. Harlow first published in Esperanto U.S.A., 1994/1


[In the years 1962-1963 the late, lamented International Language Review, edited and published by Floyd Hardin of Denver, CO, printed a four part symposium "Is Esperanto the Answer to the World Language Problem?" Well, symposium is perhaps not the correct term; it was more like a cat fight. The fourth part appeared in the July-September 1963 issue. It was a summing-up, containing articles by Dr. Alexander Gode, the inventor of lnterlingua, by Dr. Ivo Lapenna, then Secretary-General of UEA, and by the well-known linguist Dr. Mario Pei. For the interest of a new generation, we here reproduce Dr. Pei's final contribution to the discussion -- probably the most even-minded, level-headed contribution to the entire four-part debate. References to Interlingua are representative of the mindset of the American international language movement in the 1960's but are, of course, no longer of much relevance.]

While it is easy to discuss the individual merits of Esperanto, or Interlingua, or both, it is difficult to hold a debate over tbeir relative merits, in view of their avowed difference of purpose. Dr. Gode never tires of repeating that Interlingua is not meant to be an international language of common intercourse for the world's people, but only a tongue to be used by scientists, preferably in written form, in their journals and at their meetings. Esperantists just as frankly avow their aim to set up Esperanto as a fully spoken language of common, everyday usage for everybody. It is tberefore as illogical to debate their relative merits as it would be to debate the qualifications of two candidates for such different offices as President of the United States of America and Mayor of Peoria, Illinois.

Dr. Gode is frankly skeptical about the possibility of having a language of common intercourse for all the people of the world, or at least for that portion, fortunately ever-growing, which can be reached by formal education. On this point I have always differed with him, and continue to do so. I not only believe that "One Language for the World" is practical and feasible, but I venture to prophesy that such a language will be in operation, though perhaps not functioning with perfect smoothness, by the year 2000 A.D. It is badly needed now. It will be more and more needed as the years roll by. Eventually, that need will impinge itself upon the consciousness of the World's governments, and they will act. The rest will be relatively easy, though it may take years and decades to get the world language to function naturally and smoothly.

What the procedure of choice and implementation may be we can only guess at right now. I have suggested a possible mode of procedure in my One Language for the World [New York Devon-Adair,1958. - ed.], but I am the first to admit that many other modes of procedure are possible.

While I do not consider it possible to debate the relative merits of Interlingua and Esperanto because of their difference of purpose, it is quite possible to exercise critical judgement on them individually and in turn, always keeping in mind what they are supposed to be and do.

Interlingua may be of limited value in facilitating the work of international scientific congresses and summarizing scientific papers, articles and books. I use the word "limited" because the true scientist (as apart from the technician) who is not equipped with one or more languages beside his own is rare. It is a little difficult to conceive of an Italian, or Japanese, or Iraqi, or even Russian scientist who has not studied English, French or German, or all three, at least to the point of being able to read them. It is quite true that Interlingua contains all the scientific terminology, based on Latin and Greek roots, that is common to our western civilization. But so do the major western languages, particularly English and French. Interlingua, therefore, seems to serve a partly redundant purpose. Since Interlingua has no ambition to serve as the world language of the masses, it seems to me that we may safely leave it to fulfill its limited function. Let its users pass judgement on it. If the world's scientists decide that it is worth while to have, among themselves, a language of limited use, they will adopt it. But they may find it easier and more practical to adopt one of the existing scientific languages, notably English, which is widespread, combines Latin, Greek and Germanic elements, presents few basic structural difficulties, particularly in written form for scientific statement, wbile its tremendous difficulties of spelling vs. pronunciation will be covered up by the fact that it will be used primarily in writing.

As has been the case all through history, scholars, scientists, and people of high education are the ones who need an international language the least, because they have all sorts of resources and replacements at their disposal. My own interest lies in a language of common intercourse for the people of the world as a whole, and here, by the teims of the debate, Esperanto is left in sole control of the field. Yet the merits of Esperanto can perfectly well be weighed, not against those of Interiingua, which is not a candidate for the same post, but against those of languages, natural and consnucted, that are avowed candidates.

Here we can proceed either by linguistic theory or by linguistic practice. Linguistic theory informs us that for the purpose we have in mind one language is as good as another. All languages are on the same plane, because all languages are equally easy and natural to their native speakers, those who have acquired them and used them from early childhood. There is no evidence that any language, in purely spoken form, is more easily assimilated by its own speakers than any other language. Therefore, by linguistic theory, all we have to do is to select, blindly if we wish, any one of the nearly 3000 natural languages of the world, or of the 700 or more constructed languages that have been offered since the 17th century, and put it into operation. Any one of them will do the job.

Linguistic practice is something else. In modern civilization, languages must have a written as well as a spoken form. Ease of language-learning is definitely not on a plane of equality, so far as the written counterparts of the spoken languages are concerned. Inherent, objective ease and difficulty are in evidence here, and the objective standard by which such ease or difficulty is gauged is the extent to which there is sound-for-symbol correspondence between the spoken and the written form.

Here the constructed language holds a tremendous advantage over the natural language. In the course of their histories, natural languages have deveioped discrepancies in correspondence. Some have greater discrepancies than others, butthere are few natural languages where you can, after an hour's instruction in the correlation between speech sound and written symbols, pronounce or spell the language creditably, let alone perfectly (English and French, two of the leading contenders among the natural languages for the international post, are unfortunately among the worst sinners in this respect). On the other harnd, constructed languages, by virtue of the very fact that they are constructed, are generally equipped with sound-for-symbol correspondence.

It can, of course, be replied that one can phonetize a natural language. But here another disadvantage of the natural language rises up to plague us. These languages are normally heavily dialectalized. In some, like French, there is an ideal standard, or preferred dialect form, which could be taken as the norm for phonetization and international use. In others, like English, there is no such standard or norm. This means that enforced standardization must be added to (in fact, must precede) phonetization. These twin hurdles, standardization and phonetization, are not insurmountable, but they are grave and time-consuming.

Constructed languages, by virtue of the fact that they are constructed, are normally fully standardized. Add to this that the constructed language, though it may not be quite as neutral or fully as international or intercontinental as some would like, is nevertheless neutral enough to escape the charge of cultural imperialism that may be leveled at any natural language. Among adult learners, everyone would have to make some effort to leam the constructed language, though this effort might be greater or smaller to the extent that the language leans more or less in tbe direction of the learner's native tongue.

One might say that the reaction of the adult generation of learners is irrelevant, since the intemational language is meant primarily, almost exclusively, for the unbom generations of the future. Unfortunately, the choice will have to be made by an existing adult generation, and it is very hard to exclude from the consciousness of the adult speaker the purely subjective factor of what is easy or difficult "for me".

The frequently voiced objection that constructed languages are not natural, that they do not issue from the soil, that they do not carry a cultural content and tradition, leaves me altogether cold. We are dealing with a twentieth-century civilization, in which the artificial is often infinitely preferable to the natural. For purposes of present-day transportation, I would much prefer to have an artificial automobile, tailored to my needs, rather than a "natural" horse. Cultural contents and traditions, history shows us, can very easily be created, acquired and borrowed, particularly for that part which is worth while having, and which does not represent an exaggerated sense of nationalism or even imperialism. There is no good reason why the truly cultural content of the world's great cultures cannot be transferred to a constructed language, as it is right now in the process of being transferred from one natural language to another.

All of the foregoing considerations would lead me, if I were a member of a linguistic commission created to select a language for world use, to cast my initial ballot in favor of a constructed rather than a naturai language. The constructed language, in my opinion, would materially reduce the very real difficulties and problems of the great innovation that a world language would constitute.

This narrows down my choice to the constructed languages. Here again, practical linguistics comes to the fore. It is as vain to seek perfection in a constructed language as in a natural one, for the very simple reason that in the field of language there is no such thing as perfection. It may be perfectly true that Ido or Novial may express a certain concept more clearly and tersely than Esperanto or Volapuk; but Esperanto or Volapu"k may have certain other areas of superiority. Also, there is nothing to prevent a given constructed language, once it is adopted for world use, from being modified or improved upon by the Language Academy that will under all circumstances have to be created and function, far more effectively than the French or Italian or Spanish Academies, to keep the language from being dialectalized, and to prescribe in no uncertain terms, what is and what is not correct, standard usage.

In my examination of the numerous constructed languages that have been offered since the days of Descartes, I have come across many praiseworthy features that could eventually be incorporated into a fully functioning world tongue, just as new elements of vocabulary will have to be. But if we undertake to solve now, before the adoption of a world language, the numerous problems of how to improve upon existing candidates, we can easily go on doing this for another thousand years. The thing to do is to adopt the language, put it into operation, and modify it later, as it will have to be modified under al1 circumstances.

There is one constructed language that has more followers and is more widely recognized than any other. This is a de facto situation, and not necessarily predicated upon inherent merits. Whatever its merits or demerits may be, that language has proved 1. that it can draw to itself a fairly large and highly enthusiastic body of followers; 2. that it can satisfactorily serve all the purposes of a spoken and written language, even to the point of producing its own body of original literature and poetry; 3. that it can draw the interest and attention of governments; 4. that it can draw the interest and attention of outsiders, to the point where there are few who have not heard of it, and don't equate its name with the concept of "international language". That language is Esperanto.

Without being in the least fanatical; without at all saying that it must be Esperanto or nothing; without excluding the possibility of another choice, and my own graceful acceptance of that choice; with the full realization that, although based on long years of study of the problem, mine is only a personal reaction, and one that I would not at all care to force down anybody else's throat; I must nevertheless come to the conclusion that Esperanto seems to me the most logical, though by no means the only possible, candidate for the post of international tongue.