Considerations on the Introduction of an International Language into Science



ALL who are occupied with the reading or writing of scientific literature have assuredly very often felt the want of a common scientific language, and regretted the great loss of time and trouble caused by the multiplicity of languages employed in scientific literature.

The remarkable and regrettable feature of this state of affairs is that we once possessed, and have now lost, such a common language, namely, Latin. Even in the first third of the last century Gauss wrote a portion of his mathematical and physical papers in Latin, and up to the middle of the last century the dissertations of the scientific candidates at the German universities were translated into Latin by their philological colleagues, since the former were no longer sufficiently conversant with that language. The fall of Latin as the language of scholars and men of science could not, however, be prevented, nor does there exist the faintest chance of its ever recovering its lost position. The reasons for this are known to all. The rise and development of science, for the expression of whose ideas the language of Cicero no longer sufficed, the fall of scholasticism, with its Church Latin, the diffusion of knowledge amongst people not possessing a university training, the foundation of technical high schools, and, finally, the growing national sentiment and jealousy of nations who sought to further the spread of their national languages by using them in the works of their scientific men - all this has contributed to displace Latin by the modern national languages. The result is that, instead of one common language for scholars and men of science, we now possess three.

It is required or supposed that every scholar or man of science should know at least German, French, and English. For the majority of German scholars and men of science this may hold good, but in the case of the French it is less true, and in the case of the English least of all. The knowledge of these three languages is, however, no longer sufficient, and that for the following reasons.

In the first place, several other languages must be taken into account, for many Italians write only Italian, many Dutchmen only Dutch, whilst numerous Russians, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Scandinavians, and Spaniards employ only their national languages. In this way much escapes general knowledge and recognition, or is only accessible in a belated or mutilated form.

In the second place, the difficulty of a quick mutual understanding is great, even for those who can command these three chief languages. If one is possessed of a little natural talent, one can by dint of industry and much loss of time easily get so far as to read or understand a paper or a letter in a foreign language, but when it comes to writing (replying) the task is incomparably more difficult. One can, however, not assume, when a German scholar or man of science replies in German to a letter written in French or English, that he will be always understood.

The matter is much worse in the case of oral intercourse, especially at scientific congresses. At these the three chief languages mentioned above are usually now declared to be official, that is to say, permissible for the delivery of papers. As a matter of fact, however, the language of the country in which the congress is held usually dominates. The German speaks French in Paris, but the Englishman mostly only English, and demands, as occurred at the recent Refrigeration Congress in Paris, the translation, into English of the papers read at the sectional meetings. Only very few can take part in the discussions, and many must be well content if they are able to understand the usually rapidly delivered papers. Many an important criticism is not made because one does not possess the expertness necessary for discussing a question in a foreign language, and does not wish to expose oneself to the chance of a rebuff, caused not so much by ignorance of the matter in hand as by want of facility in expression.

Every member of a congress has noticed that whenever the language employed in the papers changes, a considerable number of the audience leave with more or less noise, in order to avoid being compelled to listen to a paper which they do not understand. Congresses would be certainly much better attended were it not that these difficulties keep many away.

One cannot hope that an increasing diffusion of the knowledge of the three chief languages will cause these difficulties to diminish, still less to disappear. They will, rather, increase still more, since the number of national languages desiring to take part in the work of civilisation is constantly growing. Already, at the present time, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and the Scandinavian and Slavonic languages must be taken into account, besides the three chief languages. National sentiment forces the scientific men of these countries to use the national languages, even when they perceive that this procedure does not conduce to mutual understanding. Even if the scientific men themselves were completely free from national amour propre, they would be obliged by their fellow-countrymen to employ their own languages, not so much for the purpose of advancing scientific knowledge and learning as in order to contribute by means of their literary and scientific works to the diffusion of their languages and the advancement of their nations. Whoever has observed this phenomenon will be forced to the conclusion that amongst scientific men, at least in Europe, this state of affairs is getting worse rather than better.

The increase of the participating languages involves an increase of the periodicals, just at a time when a concentration of the periodical literature is most desirable. The cost of subscriptions, translations, storing, and registration, and the labour and time spent thereon, increase from year to year. Above all, there is a want of translators; ordinary interpreters are not sufficient, since a special knowledge of each subject is required. Where are such persons to be found in sufficient numbers? And how few and far between are those who, when they possess the requisite training, are willing to content themselves with the poorly paid remuneration of a translator!

Bad or erroneous translations and faulty abstracts are very harmful; it would be better in such cases that no translation should exist, as then the original would have to be consulted. These difficulties, many more of which could be mentioned, are well known to all scientific men, since each has suffered more or less from them.

The question then is, What remedy can we apply? One proposal is to introduce into secondary schools the teaching of modern instead of classical languages, in order to render the students, after matriculation at the universities, capable of taking part in international scientific intercourse. This proposal has arisen from the view that the learning of modern added to that of the classical languages would overburden the secondary schools, whilst the learning of modern languages at the universities would cause equal or greater difficulties.

Few young people possess, during their years at the university, sufficient keenness and moral courage to subject themselves to the ordeal of linguistic studies, from which they have joyfully escaped on their entrance into the university. Few possess at that age a full conception of the usefulness and necessity of a knowledge of languages. And it is just those young people who wish to devote themselves to the professions of literature or science who ought to devote their whole time and full powers to their professional work, and not be obliged to break up their time with linguistic studies.

The proposal to exclude the classical languages from the secondary schools has encountered, however, from many quarters very weighty objections, the force of which cannot be denied, even by the opposite side. We shall, however, not enter into this much-debated question, contenting ourselves with the remark that at the present day insuperable obstacles stand in the way of a complete or partial substitution of modern for classical languages. Experience shows also that the teaching of modern languages in schools seldom leads to a practical result, although it must be conceded that nowadays, with newer methods, much better results are obtained than formerly, when the grammar, but not the practical use, was taught. If, therefore, the teaching of modern languages cannot well be carried out either at the universities or in the schools, there remains only the time before school studies. It is, in fact, possible (as is done in many well-to-do families), by means of a French or German governess, to teach a child, besides its mother tongue, one of these languages, in so far as its mental development permits. It is probably inadvisable to teach more than one new language in this way, in order to avoid injury to the child's own mother tongue. Such a knowledge, however, is quite insufficient for the needs of the young scientific man, and so the acquaintance with a language gained in this way requires constant extension and development.

But even assuming that the young man continues the study of the language that he has learnt as a child, or even indeed learns another during his school days, he will possess at best that approximate knowledge of the three chief languages which we have characterised above as being neither qualitatively nor quantitatively sufficient, because it does not suffice for oral intercourse, and because other languages must be taken into account.

The proposal has, therefore, been made to choose, by international agreement, one of the national languages as a universal intermediary language. If everybody learnt this language, then the difficulty would be surmounted.

This proposal is, however, still-born. Every attempt to realise it is bound to be shipwrecked on the rock of national jealousy, as has been often shown before, for it is evident that the nation whose language was chosen would receive a very great advantage. The widely spoken English language possesses, it is true, a very simple grammar, but it would be very unsuitable for this purpose on account of its extremely difficult pronunciation.

Just as science has succeeded in giving to the world a uniform system of weights and measures by choosing instead of a national unit of length one common to all nations, namely, the length of an earth quadrant, so only that language could find general acceptance which was based on the common possession of those peoples for whom it was intended. By that we mean the stock of words common to the three great families of languages, the Germanic, Romance, and Slavonic.

Against this the objection will be raised: "An artificial language; in other words, a Utopia! How could one think of artificially creating a language, which, after all, is a living and spontaneously developing organism? One might as well think of artificially creating a live horse!" It is true that one cannot make a live horse, but one can make an automobile, which under certain circumstances may replace the horse, and even excel its performance. But no one would think on that account of totally doing away with horses. In a similar manner the partisans of an artificial language have no wish to displace the natural languages. In poetry and imaginative literature, wherein the soul of a nation finds its highest expression, the mother-tongue will always be supreme (1).

"But it is unthinkable," one will say, "that an artificial language would ever be generally accepted."

Such statements must be received with caution, for they have turned out more than once to be wrong. The introduction of a common system of weights and measures was also declared to be impossible at one time, nevertheless it has since been carried out in science. The construction of a system of telegraph wires connecting the whole civilised world and a telegraph alphabet common to all nations was declared seventy years ago to be an impossibility. Now it is ancient history.

The maritime nations have agreed upon a common code of signals. When the English sailor arrives at the Japanese coast, he translates the sentences he wishes to transmit into numbers, which he signals by means of flags, and the Japanese port official translates the signalled numbers by means of the code into Japanese sentences. Why should it therefore be impossible to introduce instead of this intermediary numerical language an intermediary word language, which would give expression to thought in a better and more direct manner? (2)

"Quite so, but such an intermediary language would be much more difficult to create than a code of signals arranged for a limited number of words and phrases."

How would it be if this difficulty had been already overcome, and the intermediary language already created and proved to be serviceable?

"But that would amount to adding a new language to be learnt to the ones we already have to learn ; there would be no advantage in that!"

If, however, this "new" language was really not "new," consisting mostly of words known to every educated person; if its grammar was so simple that its principles could be learned within an hour; and if, therefore, any educated person who knew a single Romance language could learn the whole language in an incredibly short time, would it not be an advantage to acquire it?

To prove this is a simple problem of permutations and combinations, and the proof possesses all the certainty of mathematical reasoning. We shall demonstrate that by an example.

Suppose a large town contains ten districts, each possessing a pneumatic post-office. In order to connect each district with all the others, one could lay from each of the ten post-offices nine tubes to the remaining nine post-offices. That would require (10 X 9)/2 = 45 tubes. The problem could, however, be solved much more easily and cheaply by connecting each of the post-offices by means of a single tube with a central post-office, which would receive and distribute all the letters, as is actually the case in practice. We should then require only ten tubes.

Substitute now for the districts imagined above the languages, German, French, English, Italian, Russian, Spanish, etc., with the condition that every person speaking one language should be able to correspond with everybody speaking a different language. In the case of ten languages we should require for every correspondent nine dictionaries, or altogether ninety dictionaries.

Every correspondent would have to know nine languages besides his own. If, however, we employed an intermediary language, each person would only require to know this language besides his own. The matter is so simple and the advantage so exceedingly obvious that one can only wonder why it has not been recognised and carried out long ago.

It is quite self-evident that, if one wishes to become acquainted with the imaginative literature and the inner thoughts and feelings of a foreign nation, one cannot content oneself with translations, but must study a language in its own country. But how many people learn French in order to become acquainted with its literature? The existence of an intermediary language would interfere with such linguistic studies just as little as the invention of the automobile prevents anybody from using a riding or carriage horse. There is no necessity, therefore, for philologists or professional linguists to be hostile to the project, since their sphere of work and influence will not be in any way diminished thereby. On the contrary, the creation of an artificial language has led to so many interesting questions relating to the structure, and to such a deeper insight into the nature of language, and has attracted so many to its study, that this beautiful department of knowledge will only derive advantage therefrom.

It is also remarkable that the original work of Dr. Zamenhof, which in its principles was characterised by genius, but in its execution was imperfect and therefore insufficient, has only through the reforming labours of distinguished philologists attained to that perfection of form and principle required to make it the international auxiliary language of the civilised world. The difficulty of the undertaking no longer lies in the language itself, but, rather, in the task of inspiring all concerned, and especially the leading thinkers, with the conviction that it is practically realisable. If this conviction can be sufficiently spread, the introduction of the auxiliary language will only be a matter of a few months. In order, however, to form an opinion on the possibility of this realisation, it is, in the first place, necessary to become acquainted with the main principles, structure, and origin of the language which we recommend.


(1) We do not therefore approve of the poetical attempts of Zamenhof, or the dramatic representation of Goethe's Iphigenia.

(2) For other comparisons, such as musical notation, chemical formulae, etc., compare the excellent brochure of W. Ostwald, Die Weltsprache. Compare also L. Couturat, Pour la Langue Internationale.

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James Chandler 23-Nov-97.