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The Road to a Perfect International Language

 

Some time ago, a friend and I decided to try to establish guidelines for building a “perfect language” that ultimately could be adopted as the world’s common language. We did not intend to create such a language. We just wanted to lay down standards against which any candidates for this high office (living, dead or artificial) could be objectively judged.

Our primary criterion was that it should be easy to learn. We started from what we called the Facility Principle: What you don’t have to do is always easier than what you do have to do. We wanted to find out what is really basic to language, i.e. what elements are fundamental, what elements are secondary, and what elements are entirely unnecessary. This we would use to judge how close existing languages came, or how to create an artificial language that virtually everyone could rapidly learn and use.

Our method was to identify what elements could be removed
without fundamentally damaging a language's capacity to communicate. To ensure that we would not “over-intellectualize”, we decided to test our ideas by finding at least one language, living or dead, that did not possess the element we thought could be safely deleted. If we found such a language, we would know that this feature truly wasn’t absolutely essential. Between the two us, we were fluent in or had working knowledge of Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swahili, so these were our reference points.

We started with irregularities. Few people would argue that irregular verbs are fundamentally necessary in order to communicate, so our perfect language should have no irregular verbs. Does such a language exist? Yes, Swahili has no irregular verbs. If you can conjugate one verb in that language, you can conjugate them all, and in all tenses.

 

We also looked at irregular spellings. Clearly, a phonetically spelled language would be easier to learn than a non-phonetic one. Just consider all the endless hours French-speaking school children spend with their “dictées” and English-speaking children spend with their “spelling bees”. Although they are disguised as games and competitions, their real purpose is to help children master the thoroughly chaotic misuse of the alphabet in their native tongues.

Does a phonetic language in fact exist?
German comes very close, and so do Italian and Spanish. Swahili, however, is fully phonetic. If you can say a word in that language, you can spell it, and if you can read it, you can say it.

We also immediately dismissed noun genders; English lives without them very nicely. What about pronouns? They too are not fundamental; in Italian and Spanish they are hardly ever used.

We even discovered languages that make no distinction between singular and plural.
At first, we had difficulty accepting this because singulars and plurals just seemed to be so basic. However, eliminating them makes perfect sense.

Why should a language constantly distinguish between one of a thing and two to infinity? To say “I see a dog” clearly means that I see only one of them. But to say “I see dogs” is undefined. It could be two, ten, twenty, a hundred, a thousand, a million, etc. Some languages define “singular” not as one, but one, two or three. “Plural” then means anything from four to infinity. By establishing this set of considerations, did we create an ideal blueprint for producing a clear, concise, easy-to-learn universal language? Actually no. We thought we did; however, it turns out that the Facility Principle has a fatal flaw.

When we consulted a linguist during our investigations, he pointed out that it may be possible to eliminate a grammatical feature in a language only because it contains another feature that compensates. But this would not be true of all languages. Thus, eliminating something from Language A because it adds nothing to communication could be crucially important in Language B, where its absence would damage communication. We were not discouraged, but we decided to change direction. Despite the flaw of the Facility Principle, we still felt that irregular spellings had little to recommend them. However, since we could not necessarily eliminate them based solely on the Facility Principle, we looked around for another principle that would allow us to exclude them. This we called the "Comprehension Principle".

The Comprehension Principle states: What is not important for communication in the spoken language should be even less important in the written language.


This is only common sense. When we are in a conversation, we must understand what the other person is saying instantaneously, and vice versa. We cannot stop every couple of seconds to have something repeated to be certain that we have correctly grasped its meaning. If we did, conversation would be impossible.


When we read, if we have a problem understanding something, we can always look at it again and study it, which is not the case when we speak. It therefore seems logical that the written language should be simpler and more straightforward than the spoken language. In English, French and some other languages, it is just the opposite. The written language is very much more complex than the spoken language. According to the Comprehension Principle, all of the things in the written language that are not in the spoken language are not necessary for communication. Therefore, they can be considered merely decorative and expendable.

This brings us back to phonetic spelling.

If a word is not written the way it is pronounced, what purpose does it serve? Very little; in fact it is counterproductive. As argued by no less an authority than Voltaire (1771): "Writing is the portrait of the voice; the more they resemble each other, the better (L'ecriture est la peinture de la voix; plus elle est resemblante, mieux elle est.)"

Nevertheless, it is amazing how ferociously some people will defend chaotic spellings. One of the principal arguments is that current spelling is a "conveyor belt of culture". Thus, we spell "pharmacy" with "ph" to remind us that the word is derived from Greek, and we spell "farmer" with an "f" to remind us that this word isn't. But why should the way we write a word reflect its origin? Language is for communication; it should avoid useless complications such as non-phonetic spelling. “Phonetic” itself should be spelled with an “f” as it is in Dutch, Italian and Spanish. Its Greek origin is of interest mainly to linguists but it shouldn't be imposed on the rest of us.

When the written language loses touch with the spoken language, it also loses touch with reality. Even the august Academie Française now permits elimination of the "accent circumflex" (the little hat) in many words where it serves only to remind us that in Old French there used to be an “s” in the word which is no longer there. It is also introducing numerous other reforms to make the language more consistent and less of a barrier to clear communication. One article I read opposing spelling reform in English concluded with the startling statement: "Spelling is beautiful. Believe it". Spelling is not beautiful; it is a tool. As with any tool, loading it with useless complications can only reduce its effectiveness, not enhance it. In writing, the only thing that is beautiful is a well-structured, well-crafted text. Judging writing by how well the author masters chaotic spelling is like judging a painting by how well the artist works with defective brushes.

If the language-proud French can reform their spelling, surely we English-speakers can do likewise. And the sooner, the better.

Contributing Writer:  Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium. His recently published book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional is available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com). For further information, contact: Philip Yaffe
Brussels, Belgium Tel: +32 (0)2 660 0405 Email: phil.yaffe@yahoo.com,phil.yaffe@gmail.com
 

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