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