Natural and Universal Languages: History and Use of International Languages

About the use of a recognized language for international purpose, the spread of English to all parts of the world, history of other international languages.


Latin was the 1st, and perhaps the most important, universal natural language. For 1,000 years, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was used by scholars and the Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe. It still is the universal language of the Catholic Church, though services are now often conducted in the native languages of the congregations to make them more comprehensible to the ordinary person.

Today, German is considered the international language of science, French the international language of diplomacy, and English the international language of trade. Because these and other natural languages are in such wide use, many linguists feel that one of them could be adopted as an international language.

On the face of it, it would seem sensible to use a language such as English for an international language. After all, only Chinese has more speakers, only French a wider distribution. In a sense, English already is a universal language. One-half of the world's newspapers are written in English, and 2/3 of the world's radio and television stations broadcast in English. English has a flexible structure: Meaning is determined partly by the position of the words (e.g., the man bit the dog/the dog bit the man) and partly through word parts (e.g., the "-ed" ending signals past tense in a verb). And the vocabulary is a potpourri of the world's major languages.

However, English has many drawbacks as an international language. Non-English-speaking peoples, particularly those in Asia, would view an attempt to make English a universal language as imperialistic. Moreever, English has difficult consonant combinations (desks), subtly contrasting vowel sounds (cut, caught), many words with more than one meaning (saw, can), and confusing spelling patterns (though, doe, thought, caught, caw). (Though spelling reforms have been suggested by many people, including George Bernard Shaw, not much has been done about it.)

Other languages present similar difficulties. French and Chinese have difficult sounds. Russian and German are structurally complex.

Semiofficial tongues like Pidgin English and Swahili have only limited international use. Moreover, because they are oversimplified, they sound babyish; they smack also of colonialism.

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