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Objections to Constructed Languages
Not So Good as Existing Languages

Differences in an Interlanguage[edit source]

A further objection is this: such a language can never be exactly alike in the mouths of all who use it; there will always be a good many divergences and differences. But could not the same thing be said of any existing language? English is spoken in many ways, differing according to localities and to classes and sets of people. What is essential in one as well as in the other case is that there should be so much practical agreement that mutual understanding is possible - and as a matter of fact that has been attained in the case of more than one constructed language.

"An Englishman and a Frenchman will never be able to pronounce the same words in the same way." In this form the statement is not exact: modern practical language-teaching on the basis of phonetics has shown possibilities in this direction which former times could not suspect; but further, phonetic schooling and training is needed to a far less extent in the case of a constructed language than when it is a question of teaching a foreign national language, with its many fine nuances which it is necessary to know and to observe if one wants to have a good pronunciation, and on which we must therefore at present insist in our schools. The phonetic system of a constructed language should be very simple indeed - and is so in the case of all recent schemes. Volapük had German ü and ö, which are easy enough for a Frenchman and a Scandinavian, but not for an Englishman, a Spaniard or a Russian, though a few hours training after a phonetic explanation will suffice to enable anyone to pronounce these sounds; but Esperanto and several other constructed languages have shown how easy it is to dispense with these vowels so as to have only the five vowels a, e, i, o, u (pronounced in the continental way): sound which no nation find difficult. Similarly with consonants: if the language is really constructed on a sensible plan, a sufficient degree of phonetic agreement can easily be obtained even among people who start from such different sound-systems as French and English. It must be remembered that the fewer the distinctive sounds (the "phonemes") which one has in a language, the wider the margin of correctness which can be allowed to each sound without infringing on the domain of its neighbour, and thus running the risk of a word being misheard for another.

But we need not linger over theoretical considerations: the practical experiences of Volapükists, Esperantists and Idists in their congresses and informal meetings has shown every participant that the fears of sceptics are groundless with regard to pronunciation. "Ab esse ad posse valet consequentia": when one has actually seen a thing, one cannot any longer doubt that it is possible. As for myself, I was present at a meeting of the Philological Society of London in 1887, at a time when I was an utter disbeliever in artificial languages, and there I heard an Englishman and a German speaking Volapük and understanding one another perfectly in that curious tongue. Later I have heard Esperanto and Ido spoken by people of a great many nationalities and have been able as a phonetician to observe the ease with which they were able to converse with one another on various topics. It should also be remembered that as an interlanguage is chiefly spoken when men and women from different countries meet, they will naturally tend to rub off the peculiarities of their national pronunciations. This was the experience related by a French Idist after a visit to English Idists: "During the first sentences there was an appreciable difference between our pronunciations; but gradually and pretty rapidly, on account of the very necessity of making ourselves understood, each of us adapted himself to the other, my English host giving a clear enunciation to all syllables, and myself paying more attention to stress than when I am talking Ido with my countrymen. After some moments, we struck, as it were, the same middle note" (Progreso, 4.429). I am perfectly sure that a similar mutual adaptation has taken place very often, and will take place again whenever interlinguists meet together from various countries with the sincere wish of getting full benefit from the conversation. The more such a language is spoken at international gatherings, the more will everybody's pronunciation quite naturally approach the ideal average.

It will further be said that there are difficulties arising from the form-system of any constructed language, which people with different morphologies in their own language will not be able to overcome. If the interlanguage distinguishes four cases, as Volapük did on account of the idiosyncrasies of its German inventor, Englishmen will constantly stumble at these rules. Quite so; therefore recent schemes avoid such complications. Nothing can be concluded from imperfect schemes, except just this, that we must make the interlanguage of the future more perfect, i.e. simpler. Volapük made the error of having four cases; Esperanto made a simpler, though lesser, mistake with its compulsory accusative, used not only for the direct object, but also without preposition to indicate the place to (or towards) which. The simpler the morphological structure is, the less inducement will there be to make grammatical mistakes from a recollection of the grammatical rules of one's native language. But that simplicity does not mean that the language we construct is to be a kind of "Pidgin" incapable of expressing nuances of thought which are necessary to highly cultivated Europeans. I have devoted a long chapter of my book Language to a study of Pidgin English, Beach-la-Mar and similar exotic minimum-languages or makeshift-languages, so I speak with some knowledge of the matter when I say that the interlanguage I am advocating in this book is totally different from such languages through being expressive and efficient, though extremely simple in its grammatical structure.

The following objection is found in various forms even in quite recent articles, and it cannot be denied that it carries a certain weight. Everybody will necessarily transfer some of his speech-habits to the international language, which will thus be coloured differently - in word order, phraseology, etc. - according to the native language underlying each user's way of thinking. There is, however, not so much in that objection as one might imagine beforehand, and here, too, we have already a good deal of experience gathered through practical work with various interlanguages. As a matter of fact a great many people have learnt how to express their thoughts in a constructed language in such a fashion as to be easily understood by people starting from very different national languages. Personally I have read articles and received letters, chiefly in Ido, but also in Esperanto and Occidental, written from not a few countries, Russia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Hungary, etc., and expressed so accurately that I could hardly detect a single trace of the writers' nationality, though I do not deny that some correspondents lacked this power of effacing their mother-tongue. Some Russians will feel inclined to use sua instead of mea, when the subject of the sentence is "me," etc. No language, not even a simple interlanguage, can be learnt without some instruction, either through the mouth of a teacher, or through a book, or through both; and it must be the chief and foremost task of an instructor to warn his pupils against these idiomatic turns and expressions which cannot be easily understood abroad. It requires very little linguistic knowledge on the part of an Englishman to understand that he should avoid translating phrases like "put up with," "how do you do?" "go in for," etc., word for word into any foreign language. "Take place" means something different from "Platz nehmen." During the war a German paper was indignant and took it as a sign of the cruelty of English girls that one had written to her "young man" the following threat: "I will cut you dead unless you enlist at once"; the German translated: "Ich will dich zerhacken," and took it literally!

The all-important rule in dealing with an interlanguage must always be not to translate word for word from one's native language, but to render the thought itself in its simplest form. This of course requires some mental discipline and amounts to saying that a constructed language cannot be expected to fulfil all the functions and uses to which a national language can be put. It must necessarily remain an intellectual language, a language for the brain, not for the heart; it can never expect to give expression to those deep emotions which find their natural outlet through a national language. There will always be something dry and prosaic about it, and it is a mistake to try and translate very deep poetry in it, for it will be capable of rendering only those elements of poetry which might as well have been expressed through a paraphrase in native prose. But all this does not hinder a constructed language from being eminently useful in very many practical affairs of the utmost importance. This leads us to the following consideration.