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World language needs planning not power

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Thursday, 2 February 2006

Human history is the struggle between two urges: the desire for a larger identity and the need for relationship with origins. Look at conflicts between national governments and local tribes, the suffering and triumph of corporate mergers, exploration of other planets in the face of insistence that this planet needs our attention more. As we globalise our trade and communications we feel a stronger need to trace our family trees back to the roots. Other contributors to On Line Opinion, such as Peter Sellick and David James, have touched on this theme recently in terms of universality versus particularity, or “lumping” versus “splitting”.

It is time for a serious look at the state of language in our world, where the same theme is playing out. This time the tune is an interplay between the development of a universal language and the retention of native tongues.

In 1996 representatives of over 100 Non-Government Organisations and 90 nations, supported by UNESCO, formulated the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. It was to be an instrument for alleviating many problems throughout the world such as the oppression of minority groups because of their language and the inadequate government help for immigrants learning their new national language.


The Declaration also aimed to address the extinction of languages, the rate of which is currently about one per fortnight. Thus more and more individuals are permanently cut off from their ancestral roots and traditions; humanity at large is rapidly losing its linguistic riches and its history, arts, folk-lore and other knowledge yet to be discovered. We are destroying a wealth of diversity that should be handed on to future generations.

This happens largely because some powerful nations and cultures seek global hegemony, using language as an instrument. It happens at many levels - governmental, corporate, individual. The arrogance of the domineering nation or culture tends to trigger a sense of inferiority or smouldering resentment among the people with whom it is interacting.

On the other hand, bodies like the European Parliament and the United Nations devote a huge amount of their resources on translation among the many languages of their members. In the United Nations the annual cost of translation for just one language can be as high as $100 million.

The world needs a common language bridge that causes neither hostility nor loss of language diversity. Can English be this bridge? I don't think so. The spread of English is much exaggerated and it has various characteristics that make it more difficult to learn than many other tongues. More importantly though, as the language of a particular group of nations English disqualifies itself immediately as a candidate for our quest.

The world-language we need must not belong to any nation or group of nations. It should carry as little political, historical and cultural baggage as possible. It should be easy to learn and apply. It should be adopted as an “auxiliary” language, a tool for communication across borders and groups that is not to replace existing languages within their respective communities.

Such languages already exist, often described as “artificial”, “invented” or “synthetic”. These adjectives tend to imply some inferiority or inadequacy which is not always deserved, so a more accurate descriptor would be “constructed” or, better still, “planned”. Many such languages have been proposed, but only one, Esperanto, has enjoyed significant and enduring popularity.


In the late 19th century Lejzer Ludvik Zamenhof conceived Esperanto as a means of traversing national barriers and facilitating peace. The essential components of the language are: regularity in pronunciation, spelling and grammar; word-roots adapted from Romance, Germanic, Slavic and other vocabularies; and a structure that easily allows for the creation of new words as needed. Esperanto is embedded with a philosophy which enshrines the principle of neutrality. It is designed and used as an addition to, not a substitute for, each person’s mother-tongue and each nation’s language.

Because of its regularity and rational structure, students can learn Esperanto four or five times faster than other languages, using it for correspondence within weeks and for school trips abroad within months. Most Esperantists learn by self-study, although many organisations provide formal instruction in classes and online. I verified for myself the proclaimed simplicity of the language by learning to an elementary level and then, over some weeks, teaching a primary school class to the stage where students could create elementary narratives and compose letters.

A host of learning materials and courses, libraries of many thousands of books, and numerous websites are available. There are numerous Esperanto organisations across the world. The Universal Esperanto Association has international affiliates in 62 countries and members in at least twice that number. It has official relations with UNESCO and consultative status with the UN, UNICEF and various other high-level international bodies. One good introduction can be found here.

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

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Related Links
Australian Esperanto Association
World Esperanto Association

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