Chapter Fifteen: LANGO Vocabulary

The constructed languages have proved the futility of attempting to mint vocabulary on the grand scale from familiar word-roots, not only because of the failure of these languages as independent entities, but also because the ethnic tongues have rejected the new words. The demise of many English neologisms of perfectly rational provenance confirms the point. Euphonic considerations must prevail alongside the rational: the neologism must sound right as well as look right. Just because a word is constructed from an impeccable Latin or Greek root, or from the most common root extant in European languages, does not mean that the ear will accept it. Word-coiners like Shakespeare always paid as much attention to euphony as to etymology, but even then their neologisms did not always stick.

But although a group of experts, however well-qualified for the task, may not necessarily succeed in creating a popularly-acceptable lexicon; it is incontrovertible that words with the right pedigree are more likely to prevail. Thus the English language like the great common tongues of history has addressed the vocabulary problem by incorporating those words which have stood the test of time in former and current languages. In this way inspired wordsmiths, such as Shakespeare and his near-contemporary John Bullokar, successfully introduced many thousands of words into English from Greek, Latin and the Romance languages, and thus helped English to emerge from the shadow of Latin and French during the 16th and 17th Centuries when the printing presses were busy churning out translations of the Ancients.

This might be confirmed by choosing one word at random from every page of a standard dictionary. The percentages of words from different origins might be: Romance languages 54%, Teutonic languages (mostly pre-1066) 31%, Greek 11%. English has acquired these words whole, or by direct transliteration, or through careful modification when necessary; but never after the manner of the constructed languages with their instant vocabularies. The apparent failure of the artificial tongues as vital, rather than theoretical or philosophical, entities would seem to indicate that language, like any other organic process, can only assimilate the new in measured proportion.

Moreover, a defined lexicon may not give an adequate choice of synonyms. A single word might be sufficient to convey meaning, and quite adequate for many; but language is more than logic for those who wish it to be so. Any speaker or writer who seeks to create poetic speech may require stress, rhyme, alliteration, metre, cadence, resonance, contrast, variety or emphasis within a single word. This is why synonyms may be preferred - even though they all mean practically the same thing. In addition, English is full of near-synonyms from different languages e.g. "rear / raise" and "weak / frail / fragile", which not only give it subtlety, but lower the "vocabulary barrier" for many nationalities. No other tongue, least of all among the constructed languages, displays this degree of flexibility. It is difficult to imagine that any constructed language could be designed with such a feature - which means that, when people from diverse linguistic backgrounds use English, they can employ the synonym nearest to the word in their first language. It might not be quite right; but they will be understood.

A degree of freedom in grammar and choice in vocabulary is as essential as standardisation in script elements and spelling. As we have seen, English has drawn heavily from both Germanic and Romance sources in its choice of vocabulary. Hence a greater proportion of its words are readily accessible to Europeans, North and South, than are those of more specifically national languages such as French and German. English also compares favourably with other tongues in the absorption of words from the widest international sources. Since the learning of vocabulary is the most demanding part of acquiring proficiency in any language, English begins with a great advantage in terms of the international acceptability of its vocabulary.

However, it is also true that some nations and peoples find many English words difficult due to unfamiliar phonology, consonant clusters and the like. At this point the pidgins and creoles might be as great an assistance to lexical reform as to grammatical revision. For instance, they have largely eliminated the consonant clusters that many language groups find difficult: e.g. "want, must" are "wan', mus'". Any vocabulary problem caused to an English-based international auxiliary language by these omissions would soon be rectified. It is not as though there is a shortage of alternative words in other languages!

Selecting words from different languages will also solve the question of homonyms. Traditional English orthography contains a vast number of homophones and homographs; and a consistent orthographic reform, based on the international standard pronunciation described in Chapter 20, would produce very many more. An idea of the current situation in English might be had by glancing at a standard dictionary. A few common English words, taken at random, are defined in the following approximate numbers of different ways, whether as substantives, verbs, or adjectives, on about the following number of pages of the Oxford English Dictionary:





































Not all of these separate definitions are distinct homonyms, but a large number of them are. Hence an orthographic reform would not only produce more definitions in the O.E.D., but more homonyms too. For example, "plain" has approximately 40 definitions on 4 pages of the O.E.D., and "plane" about 16 on 2 pages. Thus a reformed spelling might produce "plän" with 56 definitions. The sensible policy of replacing most of these homonyms with words from other languages would not only greatly increase the scope and precision of the language, but would also make it incomparably more acceptable as an international auxiliary language.

An additional factor, relating to the international currency of word-roots, would make it desirable to substitute some English words by those from other languages - even where there are no homonyms. For example, the English words "soldier, editor" are not typical; the French equivalents "soldat, rédacteur" have a wider international currency. Zamenhof recognised the essential importance of this principle. Here he used the words "soldato, redaktisto", and likewise tended to base his vocabulary upon predominant word-roots, (though he sometimes flouted the principle as in "lernejo" for "school").

The question of vocabulary is one of the most challenging that the constructors of the international auxiliary language will have to face. They will have to be concerned, not only to reflect popular usage, but also to refrain from bias towards any part of the world. However, although it will be necessary to make compromises, there are mitigating factors. Firstly, it will often be possible to list several words from different languages as near-synonyms, since they are not exact equivalents. And secondly, there is the advantage that different cultures and their languages have tended to specialise in diverse areas of experience. For this reason, a lot of metaphysical words might be introduced from Arabic and Farsi, philosophical words from Indian languages, political ones from Chinese and Russian, and so on. The trend of these things is already extant in English.

Moreover, mathematical words might be introduced from East Asian languages. Irene Miura and Yukari Okamoto have established that number values in Chinese, Japanese and Korean are better understood, because the counting system relates directly to the meaning of numbers: hence, eleven in Japanese is "ten-one", twenty is "two-ten", thirty-one is "three-ten-one". The language is also better at explaining fractions: e.g. in Japanese one third is "san bun no iti" meaning "of three parts one". It is well known that East Asian students consistently surpass their British and American counterparts at maths. The difference is so great that it cannot solely be the result of superior discipline, motivation or teaching; it must also reflect the nature of their languages. The vocabulary of the international language will no doubt be influenced by such findings.

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