The causes which could make a language universal and some observations concerning languages of today which have the possibility of becoming universal


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 language

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 there.
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 languages

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 human knowledge.
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.

German language

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 become universal.
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 an advantage.
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 PUF 1998


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