Bill Green

Extracting meaning

Evolution towards a unique language for all humans is inevitable

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This is obviously a sensitive subject, especially when so many countries make deliberate efforts to preserve their own language.

Objections to a unique language make sense:

  • A language perpetuates the culture of a people or nation (litterature, laws, concepts, are shaped by language).

  • People will never give up their mother tongue willingly, so a unique language would have to be enforced globally with totalitarian techniques, and you don’t want that.

  • No one language is capable of expressing everything perfectly.

  • You’d need a consensus on which language humanity would adopt.

  • People will prefer learning multiple languages rather than fully adopting a common one.

  • People will break any attempt of a unique language by inventing their own words, simplifying, creating new ones, modifying the pronunciation, language is an ever evolving process and nothing can be set in stone once and for all.

All these objections are valid. In reality, evolving towards a unique language is already taking place, English being obviously the favored global language for business, trade, etc.

The need for a common ground with people you interact with is made more pressing by the Internet. The days are past, when most people would spend all their life speaking only to their geographical neighbors.

By personal experience I can say that the “invasion” of English into the French language, for example, is felt strongly as a threat by the older French generations, and not so much by the young, who are now taught English from age 7, even before they know how to use their mother tongue properly.

No one will be able to stop the process. After all, in year 3000 French is already a dead language.

Regional languages of French (they are plentiful… France is a gathering of multiple old “tribes”, not just Paris) are even more doomed, they are in fact already dying and a historical curiosity rather than functional languages, despite ongoing revival attempts in French schools. Strong regional accents that can be found easily among seniors are softened by the influence of the uniform accent of television and other mass media.

I even read about English middle-aged persons appalled by some young people sounding more and more American.

Of course everywhere where people are isolated, or in ghettos, or when specific efforts are made to preserve a language (French in Quebec for example is unlikely to just die out), the uniformity can never fully reach them.

Now imagine this “connected” future, maybe dozens or hundreds of years from now, everyone using exclusively social media and talking through cybernetic implants, not only with people closer to them geographically, but with people from all over the world with the same interests.

If this is indeed the evolution of the world, all languages will eventually die out except one.

Just by interacting, you lose your specificity, your idiosyncrasies must be abandoned. I can’t speak regional Picard anymore (yes, just like the Star Trek captain, this is not a mere coincidence) when I’m in California, and it’s unlikely my future children will ever hear a word of it, while my grandparents used to speak it almost exclusively.

A world where everybody interacts constantly with everyone, like in social media, tends to be more uniform. The French youth watch Breaking Bad. Because it’s discussed everywhere on Twitter. The French youth use the invented frenchized verb “liker” instead of “aimer”, for Facebook likes.

Emotionally rejected by many, fearful of a George Orwell’s dystopian Newspeak, a unique language would make (and already makes, since you’re reading this blog and you’re not necessarily a native English speaker) pragmatic sense.

Is English the answer?

You could argue that English is already the common language of the world, and in many ways it obviously is. Sadly, English is broken, and it shows.

  • It’s a bastard language, so there are multiple words for many things when one could theoretically be enough and greatly simplify the learning process for people all over the world.

  • You can’t know the correct pronunciation of a word by just reading it, if you never heard it pronounced before.

  • Vowels in general are shifted in various crazy ways. You can never be sure (shoor? shir? shor?) which one is preferred in this or that part of the world.

  • A rather simple and elegant grammar crippled with unfortunate bizarre exceptions (not as bad as French, though).

  • The pronunciation of English, “accents”, stressing words and sentences properly, is very hard for a lot of nations in the world. It’s all musical and slippery, when strong syllabic pronunciations (in French, German, Japanese) feel more consistent in this area.

  • Even when you’re comfortable with, say, a generic American accent, you can have all sorts of trouble understanding the crazy British local accents.

Can there be, conceptually, a language “good enough” that it could boast the necessary paradigm shift required for immediate and durable global adoption?

Of course many tries have been made historically, to form a language that everyone in the world could speak easily, some with reasonable success (Esperanto).

What would be the desirable properties a common language?

It would be nice if it were strongly logical, consistent, and with no ability to diverge from the original idea.

In our current world, with our current monkey brains, it’s close to impossible. We have poetry, ambiguity, play on words, litterature, portmanteaux, our languages are wild and free, which is arguably a good thing.

But imagine a future, thousands of years from now, where human beings are half-robots with incredible computing power wired to their brains, capable of enforcing rules strongly, and they spend all their time discussing with every other person on a hive-like Earth.

It’s possible humans will not even speak or write anymore, just exchange data instantly in binary form, wirelessly.

The following properties can be achieved, making natural languages an inferior alternative:

  • our unique language has no ambiguity. Everything is expressed clearly. No intent is ever misunderstood.

  • our unique language can easily be processed by computer programs. Sentences in natural languages can be formally verified and then used as integral parts of mathematical proofs.

  • our unique language punishes any divergence from the accepted norms by being rendered automatically incomprehensible when even one bit of it is invalid.

While it sounds like a 70s novel futuristic dystopia, it would at least make the programmer’s task considerably easier.