Chapter Eleven: The Language of Empire 

An alternative situation also exists, where instead of a single speech community being divided by two scripts, a single script area contains a number of speech communities. The former pertains to smaller countries and nations; whereas the latter is found in empires, or former empires, where the necessity of keeping together peoples with wholly different patterns of speech has been paramount.

For example, an entirely ideogrammatic script has enabled China to remain a united country despite the difference in language between provinces: the Chinese script does not relate at all closely to any of the language varieties in China, so it serves them all. This means in practice that, when people from different parts of China meet, their speech is often mutually unintelligible - though they can of course understand one another's ideograms. The Chinese Government has been attempting to remedy this state of affairs by promoting Putonghua: the "national language" based on the Beijing pronunciation of the northern dialect. This official language was first introduced in 1955 along with the Pinyin system of transliteration into Roman script - which is now used for proper nouns. Putonghua has since been given a simplified script and is taught in every school in China.

This promotion through the national education system has ensured that the Chinese are already well on the way towards creating a unified language and script. Other factors are conducive to the same end: the large number of workers on the move since economic liberalisation, the compulsory use of Putonghua at international conferences within China, and centralised radio and television broadcasts - to which the geography of China is well adapted. However, the problem is entirely different for English and French, the only "empire" languages which, by geographical spread, are seriously regarded as international languages; they are now the property of so many diverse nations and interests that reform in the Chinese manner is practically impossible.

Under the circumstances it may be considered surprising that English and French have survived at all as reasonably homogenous international entities. The former recognisably "international" pronunciation of both tongues has lost the respect of the political establishment within both homelands, to the extent of being deliberately subverted by the domestic broadcasting services, and the opposition in ex-colonies continues. However, the nationalism motivating these trends is not necessarily a bad thing, provided it is kept with reasonable limits. Protest that local phonologies do not relate to the orthographies of former imperial languages is by no means illegitimate. The worldwide spread of the great national languages has always had as much to do with political sovereignty as with any intrinsic linguistic merit, though the two are of course intimately connected.

In spite of all these drawbacks; the one advantage these two languages enjoy - an international status - is at least equal to all the benefits accruing to Putonghua as a great national tongue. Whether as the two "working languages" of the United Nations, or as the literary recipients of some of the world's brightest talents, they are the palpable beneficiaries of the need for an international auxiliary language. The honour accruing to a principal focus of this need, the BBC World Service, explains the extraordinary dedication of its staff, including many "stringers" or foreign correspondents who are prepared to work for it for nothing or next to nothing, and why its English is still of a high broadcast quality (though not nearly as high as it was), in contrast to much of the B.B.C. domestic output.

Nevertheless, it is evident that the U.K. alone is no longer prepared to bear the cost of such an institution, and that the World Service will have to come under the aegis, or at least share facilities, with the national service: with all the potential for a parochial British attitude that entails. Many commentators have expressed misgivings at the prospect. This is yet another evidence that the writing may be on the wall for present-day English as an international language. American world service broadcasts are likewise excellent; but the limited output suggests a similar lack of funding.

The experience of these major colonial tongues is directly relevant to the coming international auxiliary language. It too will be the lingua franca of a kind of empire: the coming world federal system, even now being constructed behind the scenes, largely in response to new kinds of economic inequity produced by the instant operation of market forces among peoples at such different stages of social and political development that more than half the world's population has never even used a telephone; while small sections elsewhere, who often but not always lack the moral counterpart to their material civilisation, live in a state of affluence which is largely dependent upon access to the latest technology. This is an old problem, but the simplistic solution of redistribution by force has arguably made the situation worse. A change of attitude by all parties is the fundamental requirement: a vast educative process in which the international language will be central.

In all these ruminations it is essential to maintain a proper perspective. Although the common international tongue will be instrumental in promoting understanding and fellow feeling between all the nations presently separated by their languages, its influence will be severely limited without collective action to confront and resolve those spiritual exclusions, moral prejudices, legal inequities and practical difficulties, too numerous to mention, which tend to keep the peoples of the world apart, and hinder the free and voluntary association which is a precondition of dialogue.

In any case a unity of sorts has been created through information technology. Computerisation has given wings to Marx's dictum that "capital breaks down all Chinese walls". The multinationals now largely exist within a global cyberspace that transcends every nation state: rapidly moving resources to where they can obtain the best financial return. The global superstate is coming into being on the same level in order to counter the social and ecological disruption produced by this economic activity. It will also have the task of maintaining peace and establishing global equity through an agreed and enforced code of laws: inevitably placing some limitations on national sovereignty in favour of world unity. However, although the necessity for such a planetary federation has often been advanced, nobody would be so bold as to assert that it would always operate perfectly - even though it might be an improvement on some the empires of old.

Similarly, the international auxiliary language is unlikely to be used in the right way, and in due measure, everywhere it is introduced. In such circumstances, all the tendencies that bedevil present tongues, such as towards orthographic irregularity and fossilisation, will no doubt threaten its integrity. However, moderation in matters of vocabulary, phonology and script will minimise these dangers. Another safeguard would be the creation of an international speech standard upon which to base a unified orthography.

                      NEXT                      Return to Contents

Home ][ Sacred Writings ][ Bulletin board
Primary sources ][ Secondary sources ][ Resources
Links ][ Personal pages ][ Other sites

Google distinguishes accents, e.g. "Babi" and "Bábí"
return different results. See more search tips.