December 6, 1969


Man has great power of speech, but the greater part thereof is empty and deceitful. The animals have little, but that little is useful and true; and better is a small and certain thing than a great falsehood.

Leonardo da Vinci, c.1500

During a brief visit to Paris shortly after the end of the war in Europe (WWII), I had occasion to visit a cabaret with a young lady. The master of ceremonies, seeing my uniform, welcomed me in English. He then asked my companion, in French, if she spoke English. When she said that she did, he said, "My but he is fortunate to find his language in your mouth." The audience laughed because the word for tongue and language is the same in French.

There are thousands of languages. Nigeria has about 150 of them and other countries have a number of languages. Besides the few languages that serve many people, like Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Russian, many small countries have their own languages. To communicate with people outside of their own country, residents of Sweden have to learn at least one second language, which is usually English.

During the end of the last century, some people decided that one of the major causes of conflict between people was that they couldn't speak to one another. They invented a new language (Esperanto) to remedy this. Did it reduce conflict? Of course not. Esperanto is still used as a written language, particularly in China. People cling to the language of their birth. Some immigrants never do learn the language of their adopted country, but their children do. They have to. As a consequence, many people have two languages: the language of the country they are living in and the language of their home, the language that their mother talked -their mother tongue. With every generation, the old language fades. The great grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants often know little Spanish.

That languages change and die is lamented by some. Yiddish, the language spoken by the Jews of Europe, is spoken only by enclaves of ultra-orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Israel. The only people, other than these sects, who speak it in Israel are the old, who will soon be gone. Fortunately, the best in Yiddish literature has been translated into other languages, as have the songs.The same is true of Ladino(Judeo-Spanish), a dialect of Spanish, with Hebrew words mixed in. A person who understands German can understand much of Yiddish, and someone who understands Spanish can understand much of Ladino. But they can't read it, because it is written in Hebrew script which, besides being read from right to left, bears no resemblance whatever to any European language.

I do not lament the passing of many languages. Let them go and good riddance! Having learned to communicate in five languages, I find that 5 languages is four too many. Being able to communicate doesn't mean that I can read the literature of any language but English without a dictionary and a good bit of struggle.To learn a language well is a lifetime's work for all but the geniuses. I tried to learn Yoruba when I was in Nigeria, but the best that I could do was learn to count and the common greetings. I could bargain in the market place. Yoruba is a tonal language, where the tone defines the word. The word "oko," depending on how it is sung can mean boat, husband, spear, penis, plus a few more. Fortunately, most people are tolerant of foreigners, so they don't laugh out loud at mistakes -and you can make some real beauties. The old expression, "It's Greek to me," isn't a very good one, because Greek isn't the worst of them. I would say "It's Chinese to me." The Chinese are moving toward a Roman script, I understand.

Will there ever be a universal language? The world is moving toward it, and that universal language will probably be English. In 1932, Charles K. Ogden proposed a "Basic English" which reduced the vocabulary to a core of just 850 words. English is now the language used by airplane pilots, and in international commerce and science. While more and more people will speak English, it will never replace native languages. If anything, more language will evolve, unless many more people lose their geographic isolation.

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