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Now we’re talking: Should we have one universal language?

You’re at a restaurant abroad and it’s time to order. You fumble for your phone to translate some simple dietary requirements and still the waiter looks at you, puzzled and irritated. Was it your mispronunciation? Or your half-hearted delivery? Or maybe it’s just in his nature to be this grouchy…

If you haven’t been bitten by the language bug, you’re probably no stranger to these sorts of holiday mishaps. So, at the risk of sounding like a Tower of Babel-ite, why don’t we just have one language that everyone has in common? That we could use to communicate without the frustration of being misunderstood?

Ooooooh Babel, I love your way

Under construction

It makes sense, right? An all-encompassing language accessible to everyone would undoubtedly foster understanding and peace between cultural groups. Just think of the opportunities that would arise if everybody could communicate with each other.

Believe it or not, this isn’t the first musing on the topic of a universal language... Take Esperanto, a failed 19th-century international language hopeful. Aside from losing its way to the post-war globalisation of the English language, perhaps another reason why Esperanto never fully succeeded was due to its artificially logical construction. Language comes as a natural consequence of human behaviour and our need for self-expression, so imposing an academic structure would be restrictive – and futile given how quickly language shifts!

Despite such a famously unsuccessful attempt at such conlangery (constructed language) that didn’t stop John Quijada who, through logic, linguistics and philosophy, constructed Ithkuil. Originally created to show the potential of language itself, Quijada designed a structure that transformed implicit irony into explicit markings, portraying human thought in as few sounds as possible.

Speak for yourself

But isn’t ambiguous creativity part of the joy of language? The cultural disparities that inspired some of our most peculiar idioms are far too plentiful to convert into one sole language. The Swedish, for instance, use the phrase ‘to slide in on a shrimp sandwich’ (att glida in på en räkmacka) to describe someone who hasn’t had to work to get to where they are. Inventive idioms like this would never have made the Ithkuil final cut!

A slide-by looting

What some fail to remember is that language is more than a means of communication. Different cultures determine our world-views and perceptions as some languages tend to paint the inanimate world with mental associations. Something as simple as a car can be construed entirely differently, being feminine in French (la voiture) but masculine in Spanish (el coche). And still in many other languages it has no gender at all. In other words, our native tongues can lead us to perceive certain aspects of life differently to others. We have a lot to offer one another...

Speaking only one international language would be like everyone waving the same flag. We humans yearn for aspects that set us apart and make us unique, amid which we can form our own identities – and language is one of them. After all, though a universal language would help us listen and understand one another verbally, the more cultural viewpoints there are, the more perspectives we’ll have to help truly make sense of our complex world.

WIT understands and relishes the beauty and versatility of every language worldwide. Most importantly, if there were only one universal language, there would be nothing to translate! Imagine the horror! 😱


By Gina Agnew, WIT Project Manager


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