The Breakfast Table

Lingua Europa

Good morning, Jesse:

The language front has been unusually quiet today: The only news I see is the European Union announcement (reported on the CNN Web site) that the year 2000 will be the year of language. The EU is urging everyone to learn at least two languages, arguing that bilingualism will better prepare workers for the international economy. I’m surprised no one is arguing for an international European language to match the uniform currency. In fact, the EU is struggling with language issues, having authorized a set of official languages and having gone on record as supporting a variety of local languages as well. I assume the EU regards an interlanguage as a crackpot idea; although there must be an Esperantist or two out there who will come forward to defend the idea, created languages are difficult to spread. Quite a few universal languages have been invented over the past few centuries, and a couple, like Esperanto, have dedicated users even today (Esperanto serves as an auxiliary language–it’s no one’s native tongue). But even if we had a universal language, it would soon begin to break up into minority tongues. Babel myth notwithstanding, it’s quite possible that multilingualism has always been part of the human condition.

The European Union may value multilingualism as an economic asset, but Americans seem to think monolingualism is the way to go. We have a long history of encouraging non-English speakers living or settling in the United States to give up their first language. Then we turn around and make them take a “foreign” language in high school! I’ve seen it argued that the languages immigrants give up are not useful ones, or ones with literary cultures worth preserving. In the early part of the 20th century, psychologists argued that multilingualism was actually a cause of mental retardation. Even more thoughtful educators claimed that immigrants should give up their language for English because children didn’t have room in their heads for more than one language.

For a variety of reasons, language has come to stand in for other issues: It can mask xenophobia, signal patriotism, or reveal membership in an elite or a stigmatized group. One reader asks why we don’t discuss how politicians and advertisers twist language to get across their point of view or sell their product. But in a larger sense, that is exactly what all of us do when we use language. All words have spin: There is no strictly neutral or value-free way of saying anything. It bothers most of us that not all language use is fair or ethical, that it may be deceptive or an outright lie, or what we perceive as a mistake or usage error. But lying, deception, and lack of ethics, not to mention real and imagined mistakes, much as we may deplore them, are natural human–and linguistic–phenomena. We can try to get people to change their language use, to make them more precise, to make them more honest, but it doesn’t help to blame the language for failings we perceive in language users.

In fact, there are many times when language should not be precise, or even honest. Think about linguistic behavior at funerals, for example. There are lots of times in our social interactions when if we told the truth, or spoke precisely rather than in a more circumspect fashion, we would find ourselves not socially interacting any more–in other words we’d get everyone so mad they’d avoid us altogether. This too may be a goal of some language users–to anger our interlocutors may be useful, even unavoidable.

Will there be a universal language? I don’t think so. Will everyone become bilingual? No. Will bureaucrats ever learn to write clearly? Don’t get me started! But none of those things is my ultimate goal. What I hope people will do is what we’re doing here–airing issues, exploring them critically, interrogating our own preconceptions about language, broadening our understanding about how we use language and how we’d like it to be used.