Modified English as a universal language

by Otto Jespersen


[This article originally appeared in Novial in the journal Novialiste, no. 3, Sep. 1934. Translated by James Chandler.]

The most recent proposition on international language is the book by M. Follick, "The Influence of English" (Williams & Norgate, London, 1934, 6 sh.).

Some eminent men, among others H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw, have warmly recommended this book, which without this would have probably received very little attention. But now I must speak more fully than it perhaps deserves about the book, which is a strange mixture of correct ideas, superficial reasoning and unbelievable errors.

The author begins with a rejection of two attempts at an IL, Volapük and Esperanto: Vp is more "logical" than Esp, because this last is of mixed origin, while Volapük is based solely on English (but this is not true!). But neither of them has been universally recognized. The author has lived for years in many countries, but has not yet come across a person who could seriously say that they speak Esp, only some who had tried to learn it but had abandoned it. The main purpose for which people study a foreign language is to read its literature, visit its cities, use its markets, study its sciences. Therefore an IL can only be one that already exists and possesses a rich literature and generally plays an important role in the world. In this respect no languages can be compared with F, E, Sp, and among them in reality only English merits a chief position. Follick discusses at length the tendencies of migrations of peoples: if one moves from east to west, one finds according to him everywhere simpler languages, and "passive migration" moves always in this direction, because men always seek out places where an easier language is spoken. Germans moving into Russia cannot learn Russian, but if they migrate to England or the USA, they adopt English as simpler than German. This point of view is for Mr. Follick an absolute truth, but it must be taken with a pinch of salt. The author exaggerates the importance of languages in world history. "Between men who speak the same language, there cannot exist jealousy and war" (but the wars between England and America, between the northern and southern states, between Austria and Germany, etc.!). If the Jews in different nations feel themselves as one people, the reason is that they have a common language (!) - and amazingly the author believes that this is Hebrew or Yiddish, which he seems to think are identical (but really, as is well known, Yiddish is a south German dialect with not very many Hebrew words). Also elsewhere the author displays an astonishing lack of knowledge of linguistic conditions, for example p. 30 on Alsace and on the history of his own language. Concerning the teaching of foreign languages he thinks the Berlitz method is the last word, and knows nothing about the reforms in school instruction which have been introduced in many countries.

Interlinguists should reflect profoundly on what is said on p. 95: "If one considers the advantages of knowing English, its influence in all, even the least exploited countries, the size of the English empire and of the USA, the fact that with English alone one knows the European languages of Egypt, China, Japan, Canada, Australia, the greater part of Africa and almost the whole of Polynesia - if one reflects on the dominant role of English-speaking nations in history and in money markets, etc., then one is convinced that the universal language should be English."

But English, though easier than other languages, is not easy enough. Most importantly the orthography is absurd; small changes such as those favoured by Theodore Roosevelt are useless; there must be a radical reform based on pronunciation. Now the author is naive enough to believe that this could be brought about by a parliamentary decision - and that one year after adoption the old orthography could be banned in all new books and newspapers: that would have greater importance for Britain than the biggest military victory. Mr. F. has worked out a system of spelling for English, but although it is based (in part at least) on the wise principle of continental values of the vowel letters instead of the special English ones, it is not completely satisfactory, because the author is not acquainted with the work of the English phoneticists. Spellings like uurk, uuud for work, would would certainly please nobody, neither the linguist nor ordinary people.

But this orthographic reform is not enough. To make English really so easy that the whole world will accept it as a universal language, it is necessary to simplify its grammar enormously, and here Mr. F. is still more radical that with spelling. Much is superfluous, for example the indefinite article, the preterite of verbs, perhaps even the plural. The ideal of the author is something similar to "pidgin English". I am not able to go into details, but here also must be regretted the lack of scientific linguistic knowledge. The idea interested me, because I have studied all such languages, pidgin, Beach-la-Mar, etc., and I have devoted a long chapter to them in my book "Language": I call them "minimum languages". But I cannot agree with Mr. F. when he thinks it would be possible or even easy to make the world adopt such a language for universal use - not only amongst exotic peoples, but also in Europe. It would appear too much like a baroque parody of English, it would be laughed at and mocked, and all those millions who know and love the old English language would be unable to take it as a serious attempt to solve an important problem, but would turn away in horror. The author has not considered the completely natural linguistic sentiments - which are much less shocked by a language constructed on the principles of Novial, than by English as Mr. F. represents it. He gives as a specimen a sentence by Macaulay in two forms:

Dhu rabul at furst stair and uuundur; and at last join in tuu shaut for dhu seik ov tu shaut; and dhus uuun kraun bie pleised on uuun hed uitsh hav not sum rait tuu it, bai dhu huzas ov uuun fiu survail dependents.
Rabble at first stare and wonder, and at last join in shout for sake of shout; and thus crown be place on head which have not some right to he, for huzzas of few servile dependent.

Both forms are in my opinion equally impossible.

(On Basic English in following article.)

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James Chandler 6-Jan-99.