Natural and Universal Languages: Problems and Solutions

About the problems of developing a universal language because of the complexity of vocabulary and expression, possibly solutions to the problem.


Coca-Cola has become a word in almost every language in the world. The French talk of "rocanrole" and "automation." Italians put "colcrem" on their faces and kick "futbols." Russians drive "avtomobiles" and eat "bifshteks." The Japanese eat "bituteki" with a "naifu" and "forku." English-speaking people have adopted such foreign words as: taboo, samurai, chocolate, depot, vodka, curry, and blitzkreig. The flow of words to and from languages increases as society becomes more complex, interdependent, and mobile. It would seem that a universal language would arise easily and naturally.

However, languages are more complex than their vocabularies. It is still an open question whether people shape languages or languages shape people; probably both ideas are true. Concepts in one language often cannot be translated into another. One language's rich forest of words is another's desert. The Eskimos have 12 words for "snow"; the Hawaiians lack even one word for "weather." Javanese has 10 words for "to stand" and 20 for "to sit," according to posture, attitude, and symbolism. Should all those excesses of vocabulary so important to the cultural heritages of people be included in a universal language? If so, the vocabulary will be immense. If not, subtleties and nuances will be lost.

Languages differ, too, in how they are put together. Native Australian has 5 future tenses. In some Eskimo languages, a noun can have more than 1,000 forms. In Kwakiutl, the only way to say "The man lies ill" is "This-visible-man-near-me I-know lies-ill-on-his-side-on-the-skins-in-the-present-house-near-us." How can a universal language be one into which all kinds of language structures can be translated?

Pitch and stress and intonation differ in importance in various languages, too. They mean a great deal in English: "You ate Twinkies?" has a totally different meaning from "You ate Twinkies!" In Vietnam, however, pitch means even more. No Vietnamese is tone deaf because the same sound spoken at different pitches has entirely different meanings. It would be as if, in English, "dog" intoned in A flat meant "German shepherd" and in C sharp meant "apple." What emphasis should a universal language put on stress, pitch, and intonation ... and how? Whom should it please?


Mario Pei, the famous linguist, believes that any language will do as a universal language, as long as it has a correspondence between spoken and written sounds. According to him, the main problem is getting it adopted and taught in elementary schools everywhere in the world.

Other experts believe that the world should be divided into major linguistic areas, in each of which one major language dominates: Hindustani in South Asia, for instance.

Margaret Mead and Rudolf Modley, anthropologists, believe that the world needs 3 languages:

1. A system of graphic symbols (glyphs) to help travelers around airports, lodging places, and so on. These should not require knowledge of any particular language. An example is the directional arrow.

2. A universal spoken language. This language should be a natural one with regular spelling; it should be non-European; it should have no religious, political, or ideological connections to speak of.

3. A written language, which can be artificial. This language should be logical and require a minimum of characters.

Whatever happens, almost everyone agrees that the time for an international language is now. The world cannot exist much longer as a kind of huge Tower of Babel.

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