ROLAND DE LA PLATIÈRE
On an universal language
On 20 april 1789 (210 years ago)
at a meeting of the Société d'émulation at Bourg-en-Bresse,
France, Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière presented his paper entitled:
"The causes which could make
a language universal and some observations concerning languages of today
which have the possibility of becoming universal".
In this rather long reflection on
the various ancient and modern languages spoken in Europe he reaches a
rather unexpected and surprising conclusion considering the importance
and wide use of the French language at that time. His choice - the English
language of the young United States of America !!
(In this translation of the French
text, I present his conclusions first followed by his observations concerning
the other languages he considered as possible and his reasons for rejection!!)
The English language, as spoken
and written in the United Kingdom, already offers us the qualities which
we have enumerated (below), but the people who speak it do not have the
qualities which go along with the language qualities. It is in America
where I find assembled all those qualities which indicate that the English
language can become universal.
If the English language, because
of the climate, has not benefited from the southern influences which produce
harmony and seduce the ear by the charm of the accents, this climate has
produced a powerful language. Because of the passionate activities and
the elevated character of those who use this language, it has a richness
and majesty which captivates the mind. captures all the movements and participates
in all the affections.
Finally, profound thinkers, men
of genius, famous scientists and prolific writers have used the language
in all its forms and all its tones.
The great Voltaire and the french
The great Voltaire complained about
the severity of French poetry and its enslavement to rime. He missed the
lucky liberty of the English to lengthen or to shorten words, to write
poems without rime, to straddle the lines, to create new terms and to always
accept them when they are resonant, intelligible and necessary. He said
that an English poet is a free man who enslaves his language to his genius.
The French poet is a slave to rime,
obliged to write 4 lines to express a thought which an English poet can
do in one line.
The English poet can say all he
wishes, the French poet says only what he can. The English poet runs in
wide open country, the French poet walks on a narrow and slippery road
full of obstacles.
Mr. Le Tourneur observes that in
English there are very few minor words. The names of all animals, of all
the details concerning society, the life of the people as well as the royalty
and of all objects are important words in this language. It imputes baseness
only to that which chocks and disgusts the senses.
The English language used by the
people is applied with enthusiasm to all things, it is used successfully
to all areas of knowledge, to express the highest sentiments and the gentlest
of emotions, and to vaunt the love of glory and country. It has become
the channel of communication between the two hemispheres.
United states of America
1 - The inhabitants
of the United States, as proud and courageous as the English, as active
and industrious, more experienced with hardships, more industrious because
of necessity, are more generous, more humane and more tolerant. All of
these aspects invite us to taste the opinions, adopt their customs and
speak the language of such a people. The tolerance which distinguishes
them will have more influence than we can imagine and will contribute singularly
to their power.
The sensitive author of "Letters
of an American Farmer" (lettres d'un cultivateur Américain)
makes it obvious to us when he develops the sagacious political system
of that happy country, when he describes the peaceful and happy families,
the union of independent citizens of all opinions; and the influx of immigrants
from all countries seeking in this new continent the liberty, the protection,
the fraternal help and the active kindness which they are sure of finding
Placed as they are to easily extend
their commerce advantageously to all parts of the ancient world, the Americans
of the United States will be strangers to no people. They will fraternize
with the whole world. The knowledge and learning of all the centuries does
not make them proudly condemn those who do not have that knowledge. They
accept people by the common kinship which unites them.
The crude negro and the superstitious
indian finds among them the same indulgence they have for the ignorant
savage, their neighbors and for their jealous european allies. The gentleness
of their government makes them zealous patriots which even the best known
republics have never achieved.
The gentleness of their principles,
because of their universal kindness, make them similar to the most perfect
cosmopolitans, and their geographical position will make them the greatest
business- men. They have unlimited means to improve, to grow and expand,
to multiply their relationships and to propagate the use of their language.
The unique charm of their philosophy, so suitable to capture the heart,
seems prepared to assure the triumph of their opinions, and should one
day draw many peoples to their consoling religions. I see a nation establish
high respects to justice, base its happiness upon humanity, expand its
empire by all the virtues, obtain the respect of other nations, able to
make all hearts cherish it, offer a home to all the oppressed and unfortunate
and demanding them to be hard working and honest. Consider how they have
been able to establish themselves from France to China thus enveloping
two thirds of the globe. The nation has undertaken all that is useful yet
has not neglected all that is agreeable, and they are active and industrious.
The great variety of its climates
meets the tastes of all, while the immense variety of its agricultural
products and those of its industries are of great interest to the entire
world. Most important of all, I find that the diversity of opinions has
little influence on the basic principles such as human rights and the rights
of the citizens, nor on the the common spirit which maintains that we are
always brothers, always friends, always human and always charitable no
matter how each one renders homage to god the creator.
2 - To me it becomes
indubitable that the language of such a nation will one day become the
universal language. Because the opinions and principles of such a nation
become universal. This nation's tendency for union and concord based upon
the principles of moderation, common sense and wisdom seem to be those
of all men living in organized society. These principles are in effect
the basis of all philosophy. Without them you may find temporary enthusiasm
and fervor, but nothing lasting.
Observations concerning the other
The reasons which seem to unite
to render a language universal are the state of the language in that nation
and the state of the nation in which it is spoken. The state of the language
is determined by its nature, by its progress, by the important men who
use it and have developed and transmitted it in their works. The state
of a nation is determined by its laws, its situation, its government, its
religion and all the things which determine its influence, its morals and
its relations with others. In this way, the perfection of the language
and the preponderance of the people who use it contains the data necessary
for its universality or resolve the problem of its extension.
These two reasons are indispensable
and both must be met. Let us search for examples in antiquity which meet
and justify these principles. Then we will determine which nation existing
today in Europe could meet these principles. Almost all the legislative
principles known to us originated in the Middle East. Morals, political
systems and most of the religious systems seem to have originated in this
part of the world. But among these peoples, who were the first children
of our world, non had contacts or relations outside their area. At the
time of their power, the people outside their area were barbarians. Their
writings spread very little to nations which became civilized latter. These
works were badly copied, badly translated and badly understood, to the
point where these primitive languages disappeared completely. The ancient
inhabitants of the north also had their own languages, but they were crude
and arid, like their climate. These languages were greatly modified by
their contacts and relationships with other countries and peoples. So that
today we have confused ideas concerning their etymology. Thus none of these
languages were able to expand beyond a limited area or even less able to
last because of exclusive domination, and inability to expand beyond the
limits of the empire.
The Ancient Greeks
The Greeks and their language were
able to establish themselves by all which can be imposed upon men. Courage,
glory, intellect, politeness, civil and literary perfection were united
to dictate the laws which we still recognize. The influence of a good climate,
the great character enforced by liberty, the strength of a good political
constitution and the refinement which advanced knowledge, all contributed
to the domination of the Ancient Greeks over the known world combined with
their morals their knowledge and their language.
3 - Expressive and soft,
majestic and rich, flexible and resonant, their language spread as did
the relations of a proud and sensitive people who represented spiritual
elevation, lively passions, multiple sensations, sublime concepts and friendly
knowledge. The ease and abundance were advantages which enabled it to be
accepted by people of good taste and to spread into the local culture wherever
the Greeks penetrated. But who could resist the torrent of overwhelming
revolutions shaking the world over the centuries! Finally, the Greek language
became that of an oppressed nation: the land seemed to be swallowed up,
barbarism overran the nation after having chased or killed all the great
men who had civilized the nation. Unfortunately, this barbarism invaded
the entire world. Europe became a land of war and oppression. Science and
writing were ruined and tried to escape elsewhere. Without a doubt, the
scientists and writers tried to maintain their republic and continued to
chose this rich language, this basic element of expression; the expression
of all sentiments in which we could already find the principles of all
A harsher climate, a more austere
make-up and in a continual state of war, gave the Romans a harshness which
literature was never able to soften entirely. The latin language spread
along with their domineering armies. But while subjugating their vanquished
, they seldom took the time to charm them. Almost everywhere, they adapted
to the local language. Without the work of men of genius who continued
to enlighten the ravaged earth, latin would have probably vanished. We
learn it today just to read the works which remain after the conquests
of this powerful nation. We must admit that the beauty of the language
comes from the Greek. The latin writers all admit it. They blackened as
barbarians those among them who were not able to use the Greek language
to be able to use theirs gracefully and successfully. Genius and military
victories, that is the combination of arms and knowledge worked together
to spread the use of Greek and Latin. Now let us take a look at ourselves
and our neighbors. let us try to discover which nation, which language
should become dominant. But the actual general civilization is not as it
was at the time of the two famous peoples we have just described. There
is a much greater division of power, a kind of equilibrium established
among them which each attempts to preserve, thus the possible of great
conquests and ascendancy does not appear to be possible. Thus, today it
is not by arms but rather by commerce, through which wealth is procured.
The relationships it develops and the resources it ensures are such that
we can measure and forecast the influence of a nation otherwise intelligent
and polite. Italian, son of latin and grandson of greek, has almost lost
all traces of its origins. It has developed expressions and forms which
are its own. Italian has perhaps not retained the power of the two ancient
languages but it has the flexibility, it has especially the advantage of
being able to express with finesse all the shades of feeling. It is its
softness and harmony which makes it so musical and poetic and so agreeable
when spoke by women.
Italian in the Renaissance
4 - Italian was the
first language used in the renaissance when it appeared in our hemisphere.
It was used by great genius and by men of science and letters. It was widely
used in the expression of good taste and one cannot really appreciate its
delicate productions without learning this rich and voluptuous language.
But, if the spirit and grace, the imaginative power, the marks of a lovely
climate, the appeal of delicate passions and the enchantment of the arts
ensure the triumph of the italian language; the political state of the
italian people who speak it is apposed to its universality.
Italy is divided into a number of
small states which have very little relations with the external world and
even among themselves. Because of their relative weaknesses they have developed
a mistrust of each other. Numerous revolutions and civil catastrophes have
awakened a fear of moving outside their local sphere among most of them,
thus they have missed the movements which attract the outside and tend
to change the way the individuals inside react.
This type of closed existence has
a great influence upon the people and tends to render them uncommunicative
and not very widespread. The Italians may travel a lot in Italy, but except
for a few craftsmen, they rarely leave the country. Added to this characteristic
are, the infinite modifications by an exclusive and intolerant religion,
a climate which favors pleasures, and a taste for luxury which blocks development.
The bizarre amalgam of these contradictions has such an effect upon the
educated, upon the great who are hardly so, and upon the people who are
not educated at all, that it renders the division among the three classes
even more evident. They are not only ill-assorted among themselves but
also with the people of other countries.
Spain and Portugal
There are two countries whose lost
splendor is still brightly remembered, Spain and Portugal seemed destined
to share the world. Their splendor spread around the earth. Portugal invaded
and subjugated the east and Spain the west.
The Portuguese language like that
of Mohammed was spread by the sword, was supported by commerce and was
conserved in many countries by habit.
The Spanish language was spread
and maintained by the same means, for oppression is the daughter of violence.
These two languages have a great relationship between them and with italian.
Except for some words which are particular to each and certain forms, we
find very few differences except for resounding and majestic endings. They
are very suitable for expressing great ideas, to sing great deeds and to
celebrate great actions. But the Portuguese have lost their empire in India,
and their language is used only in commerce or by the lower classes. It
has become a formless and barbarian language which is used less and less.
Moreover, the Portuguese intellectuals and scientists have produced little
to entice people to use the language.
5 - As for the Spaniards,
in spite of their widespread dominions, they feared that allowing some
liberty or power to those who had survived the carnage which they had inflicted
upon the lands would lead to uprisings. Their thirst for gold and desire
to hide the sources from others, their base distrust of others in the mercantile
system, there desire to keep all the profits for themselves plus their
monastic government and administration engendered a system which forgot
society and the people, a horde of bandits who based their security on
making it difficult for others to find their hideaway.
The German language is used in a
large nation consisting of divers peoples. It has a particular advantage
over other languages because of its ability to contract or expand at will
either in single words or in the texture of phrases. This gives it the
advantage of being able to express equally well simple or exalted sentiments.
This language has no limit on words. They can be simple or composed but
always expressive whether mental ideas or passions of the heart. The genius
who creates an idea, creates at the same time the terms to express it.
This term is then adopted by those who follow. Many men of genius and worth
have used this language. They have given the world much precious Knowledge
of all kinds.
In Germany as elsewhere, the great,
always too busy with their own greatness to concern themselves with the
useful, produced very little in the sciences and arts. The people, soldiers
and slaves, sold or for sale, spread far and wide and carry the language
with their arms. Many artisans of this nation also travel around the world
and spread the language. But, the common people of Germany, or any other
country, could never inspire a taste for a language which they speak poorly
and which is used only to express common ideas.
The educated Germans travel very
little and those who do, speak the language of the country they are visiting.
Also, many of them do not write in their own language but in latin and
these works are read everywhere even though the latin is bad. The best
works in German are quickly translated into national languages in countries
which appreciate useful and agreeable knowledge.
So, today very few make the effort
to learn the German language even though it is one of the richest of languages,
and perhaps one of the oldest, which also gave birth to English, Flemish
and Dutch, and has modified several others. Thus, in spite of its many
advantages, the political situation in Germany, and the nature of the relationship
between the power and the people make it impossible for this language to
As for the languages of the countries
of the north, there is no evidence that they could be used in other countries.
The kings and their counselors have very little influence upon the language
of these northern countries. Moreover, the interests of these nations with
those in the south of Europe do not have the popular relationships which
produce common interests. Even though they have played an important part
politically with other nations and their science and literature have been
appreciated by them, their languages have made no progress either with
the politicians or the scientists.
The french language
6 - Now, let us consider the French
language. It is already widely used around the world and has conquered
most of Europe. Thus we could be tempted to conclude that the question
has been answered. The clarity and the wisdom of this language is demonstrated
in an infinity of excellent works. The fame of many men whose genius has
developed its character, the numerous publications on all imaginable matters,
the depth and the superiority of divers subjects treated in French, the
notion of all the great that this language should be taught to all the
young; all these seem to unit to ensure that the language will continue
to expand and last.
In addition, French has been used
by writers and men of good taste since several centuries. It has appropriated,
along with the things the Greeks thought and wrote, the phrasing particular
to the Greek language.
This is why we find such elegance
in the writings of Racine, the softness which we find in Fénelon,
the precision which characterizes Boileau, the abundance and at the same
time the tight logic of Pascal, one of the first Frenchman along with Malherbe
who gave number to the French language and established it.
We have Montesquieu and Rousseau
to form the legislators and enlighten even the wise.
We have Bossuet who taught the kings
and captivated the people. We have many scientists and men of genius who
taught our language to men of all classes in many nations...
What could prevent such a language
from becoming universal?? The preponderance of the French in so many areas
has often inspired jealousy, sometimes deserved. Sometimes French was badly
taught thus engendered disdained.
Our triumphs which oppressed and
the humiliations which debased, left impressions which are unfavorable
to us. As for our government which could do great things and make them
permanent, instead it distorts, changes and modifies things continually.
Our sublime religion has been intolerant
and exclusive for too long. There exists a great inequality in power and
wealth which are almost uniquely in the hands of a few. These are the things
which stop universal attachment to our nation and prevent the complete
triumph of our language. Jealous rivals and indifferent foreigners laugh
at our fashions and search for our good authors but they don't appreciate
at all our morals or our politics, nor do they trust our religious principles.
Thus, we will never have the degree
of influence which would ensure the universality of our language. Besides,
even though our commercial relations are extensive, they are threatened
by competition and are too hindered by our administration to ensure us
Today it is useless to look for
a language which can be compared to Greek. There has never existed one
which renders complex ideas like it does in one word and depicts each object
naturally. It binds the different branches of science and renders the breath
of life into the composite metaphysical parts. It created most of the languages
spoken in Europe since the time of Home, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Plato,
Aristotle, Sophocles, Hypocratus and Archimedes. It continues to nourish
them by furnishing all the people with expressions particular to many ideas
and knowledge still to be made by them.
7 - Thus, it is only the living
language approaching the Greek language by ease of its use to express all,
by the power of its expressions to express all feelings, by its inflexion,
by its ability to modify, by its structure which carries the spiritual
ideas, which can be used by poets, orators and historians. It is only this
one which can become universal. That is, if it is spoken by a very civilized
people, very free, very educated and having the means to write and publish
whatever they think, desire, feel and fear. If these people, thirsting
for knowledge, inspired by grandiose actions and devoted to their country
are able to attract and captivate all the other peoples by the rigor of
their laws, the gentleness of their government, the activity of their industries,
the extent of their commerce and the blessings of their tolerance, their
language will become universal. (See page 1 !!)
Translation from the french
by Ed Maykut
Ce texte a paru dans le n° 30
de DIX-HUITIÈME SIÈCLE, la Recherche aujourd'hui