Observations on:

Words Around The World

Leo J. Moser 1998, 2002, 2005


The world that we live in speaks many languages, and there is no one person who can speak to more than a fraction of the people who inhabit Planet Earth. This situation looms as THE major communication problem of the Twenty-first Century. The mechanical barriers to global communication are rapidly falling; but as they fall, the linguistic barriers become more obvious.

There is no magic that will solve this problem. Machine translation will improve, but cannot address the entire problem. The dreams of sci-fi "universal translators" will remain dreams.

The stark fact remains: Millions if not billions of persons will have to learn to communicate in one or more languages other than their own. This will take
considerable effort and will cost vast amounts of money. Exactly how much of each, will be determined by the strategies used. The Acadon Project is designed to provide new ways to minimize this expense.

Some people respond: "Of course, people will need to learn another language, but not me, since the others will naturally learn MY language." This is an ancient response, and perhaps as universal as it is ethnocentric. I have heard forms or it in Russia during the Soviet era; I have heard it from Chinese peasants who were only vaguely aware that there were other languages than Chinese. I have heard it from French-speakers; and I have heard it from many many speakers of English.

For more than two millenia, all educated persons in China expected that any person wishing to be educated would learn the Chinese characters -- they were fully convinced that knowledge of the characters was what defined civilization and what separated out cultured human beings from animal-like barbarians. The ancient Greeks felt much the same, even coining our word "barbarian for those who did not speak Greek. Under Communism, the Soviets seemed to assume that, with the "coming victory of socialism," everyone would learn Russian. Hitler expected his Reich to reduce the English language to a minor historical dialect of German. Some in France cannot envision truly cultured persons who are totally ignorant of French.

Many English-speakers assume that everyone who wants to communicate with others around the world will have to learn their language. But demographic facts do not support the idea. Mandarin Chinese is spoken by many more persons and is growing faster than English, especially when one considers its expansion to those speaking other "dialects" in China. Moreover, the age of the average Mandarin speaker is far lower than the age of the average English speaker. Hindi, which some consider the second language in terms of population (if its dialects be counted), is also growing much more rapidly than the English-speaking population.

Spanish speakers may assert their language as the wave of the future, for some statistics show that it has recently passed English in terms of native speakers. They may argue that Spanish is far easier to learn in terms of spelling and pronunciation than English. It is far more global than Mandarin or Hindi; and not too difficult for those who speak English or the other Romance
languages. Chinese who have studied both English and Spanish, seem always to say that they found Spanish easy, and English comparatively difficult. Moreover, Spanish is FAR easier than English for speakers of Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, and French. The total of these groups added to Spanish would approach the numbers of Mandarin speakers.

Bengali and Arabic are growing rapidly and have easily outpaced German and French. Indonesian / Malay is growing at the expense of neighboring dialects. Russian remains the second language over much of Eurasia. Persian, Swahili, Thai, Turkish, are important regional languages. Within their states, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese are used by large populations.

Many of the languages of the world are spoken by only a few million people. Nevertheless, many of these are quite important locally or regionally, and should not be forgotten as we look at the larger picture. Examples range from Albanian, Basque and Cebuano to Xhosa and Zulu.

Pidgins and creole languages have sprung up around the world to meet the needs of minimal communication. They show us how language can be simplified for easier learning and dissemination.

There have been many advocates of "international auxiliary languages" (IALs). Beyond the modern languages, advocates have promoted: Latin, various reforms of Latin, Volapuk, Esperanto, Ido, Novial, Lojban, and others. The supporters of each IAL has appealed for support; "If only everyone would learn XXX as their second language, the problem of global communication would be solved." But there has been no immediate value to be gained from learning XXX until others have already learned XXX. So no proposed international auxiliary languages has gained much currency. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of "language planning" has shown that conscious creation can be used to design new linguistic forms -- and that people will actively use the result.

Yet there are many individual words that have become quite common around the world. Words for modern devices such as "computers" and "telephones" are obvious examples. Also many products and commodities, like "pineapple," "coffee," and "plastic". But there are other words that for various reasons are far flung, such as "group," "music" and "name." Some are widely distributed from cultures that were influenced by the high culture of Islam -- "book," "pocket," and "shop." These widespread words may point the way to the design of an international auxiliary language that will be based on many already familiar roots. This is an objective of Acadon.

There are also sad aspects to the global language picture. Many ancient languages are dying off. Others are severely endangered. The world loses part of its intellectual heritage whenever a language dies.

Thus there are many aspects to the use of language around the world. The Word Around the World website gathers information on a variety of these issues.

Copyright Leo J. Moser 1998, 2002, 2004 .