English Shouldn’t Be The Universal Language

Or any language for that matter.

The dominance that the United States and Britain have seen in the globalized world has led people to learn English in droves. It is now nearly impossible to find a young person in Europe who doesn’t speak at least some degree of English. While the adoption of English as an a priori language has already begun, I am concerned about the cultural implications as well as the logical misgivings of such a shift. English is menacingly difficult to master. Even native speakers can’t speak English properly. This is of course due to the language’s rich and complicated history of vowel shifts and imperialist conquest. I agree that there is due need for the people of the world to be united by a common language, but I greatly disagree that English should be the bridge to unite us, or any other existing language for that matter.

For a language to be suitable as a de facto world language, I argue that it must be (1) written phonetically, (2) easy to pronounce, (3) based on logic, (4) culturally generic, and (5) socially progressive.


1. Phonetic Writing

I shouldn’t need to go much in depth to bring to your attention that English is not written phonetically. English could very well be one of the worst offenders in terms of spelling words absolutely nothing like the way they sound. To learn English means to also learn its many silent letters, homophones, inconsistent pronunciations, and much more. The ending ough gets a different pronunciation almost arbitrarily. In plough, it’s pronounced [au], but in rough, it’s pronounced [uff], and in through, it’s pronounced [oo]. Another ending is ow, which is pronounced [au] in how but [oh] in bow, which can also be pronounced [au] if bow is understood as a verb, since bow is also a homonym. It is completely nonsensical for two words to be represented by the same spelling, the same pronunciation, and yet have two entirely unrelated meanings. And for added insanity, English spelling can vary depending on who you ask. Is it color or colour? Tire or tyre? Maneuver or manoeuvre? Perhaps check where you find yourself on a map before putting pen to paper.

There have been attempts in the past to correct the wrongs of English spelling. Benjamin Franklin proposed a new alphabet for the English language that would have removed the consonants c, j, q, w, x, and y and added six new letters in their place. Franklin’s attempt at creating a phonetic alphabet for English was noble but short lived, as it never caught on.¹ Like all things English, speakers of the language weren’t keen on adopting something even roughly coherent.

Image Credit: Business Insider

2. Easy Pronunciation

The sounds included in the English language include some that are not widespread throughout the world. The sounds created by the combinations of sh and ch can be particularly challenging for those coming from a language that lacks these consonant sounds. The vowel sound in saw and lawn is also one difficult to master for those coming from a language of the five cardinal vowels. Spanish is one such language that is limited to the five cardinal vowels a, e, i, o, u. It’s always a treat to hear my friend from Spain say my dad’s name Shawn as Sawn. Or when her friend Richard’s name would come out as Reetyard. Despite having grown up learning English her entire life, she still struggles to sound them properly. The Baltic languages of Finnish and Estonian even lack the [f] or [b] sounds. The closest consonants to f and b are v and p. If English were to be our world language, it would need to be pronounceable by all people, regardless of the mother tongue they are accustomed to.

3. A Basis in Logic

I wish I could say English were logical. But it isn’t. An article published by the Oxford Royale Academy highlights everything in a nutshell that makes English so illogical:

  • “There is no ham in hamburger.”
  • “If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught?”
  • “If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?”²

To truly understand the word hamburger, one would need to understand its origins. In this case, hamburger refers to “someone who is from Hamburg,” in the same way that the alternate name for a hot dog, frankfurter, refers to “someone from Frankfurt.” Of course, neither of these cities reside in an English-speaking country, so the likelihood of a foreign learner of English knowing this is highly unlikely.

And again to understand conjugations of verbs like teach and preach, one must do a bit of digging into the etymology of these words. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, teach is of Germanic origin while preach entered the language from Latin through French. This would explain the divergence in conjugation. Germanic verbs (and nouns in plural) tend to change their vowel sounds in the past tense, hence taught with an [aw] rather than teached with an [ee]. Meanwhile, Latin words often follow a more regular pattern of conjugation, especially when adopted by another language, hence preached with an [ee] rather than praught with an [aw].

A language’s logic is ultimately the deciding factor in whether it is easy or difficult to learn. Since English has none, the world is looking at a labyrinth. There aren’t rules to somehow overcome these logical discrepencies, rather they must be learned one by one on a continual basis. Only growing up with the language will allow one to fully comprehend its complexity.

4. Cultural Generality

Misunderstandings in communication usually stem from cultural differences. A particular word may be more harsh in one culture than another or a concept that we take for granted may be unheard of among another group of people. English, like most languages, is culturally dependent. A concept as simple as breakfast may not necessarily exist in another culture. In Spain, for example, dinner is eaten no earlier than 8 p.m. by most people. It isn’t uncommon to eat dinner at 11 p.m. To call this meal dinner is a disservice, since the word dinner in English is attached to a northern European tradition of eating around 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. Maybe 8 p.m. if you like to party. So by generalizing this concept of an evening meal, misunderstanding may arise between cultures, even if they’re speaking the same language. A language spoken commonly by the world’s cultures should compensate for these discrepencies in order to minimize misunderstanding. The more generic a concept, the better it would be understood. We may want to express dinner as “the 6 p.m. meal.”

5. Social Progressivity

In the arena of social progressivity and inclusion, English is one of the better languages. Despite the romance languages, German, and Russian retaining grammatical gender, English is one of the few European tongues to have abandoned it. The preposterousness of grammatical gender isn’t difficult to see. In German, the traditional word for wife Weib, is neuter, meaning that a wife is referred to as an it. However a turnip Rübe, is a she. Unlike the languages I just mentioned, English has one definite article the and one indefinite article a(n). Rather than assigning gender to objects at random, English overlooks this ancient tradition and generally just calls everything an it with the exception of people, taking a he or she when appropriate. It has even begun to take shape a method for expressing the third person singular without denoting gender. Though technically incorrect, more and more people find themselves using they to refer to a person whose gender is not known to avoid using the dreaded phrase “he or she” or making an embarassing faux pas. Kudos to English in this area.

The natural evolution of language cannot produce a method of communication that is utopian in nature.

The Verdict

Of the five criteria I laid out for a proper world language, English fulfills just one criterion. Its spelling is pure madness. Its pronunciation is meticulous. Its logic is nonexistent. And its ability to cause confusion is nothing less than exceptional. With its myriad of silent letters and its grotesquely large vocabulary, English makes for a difficult language to master. Enough so that native speakers never really overcome its infinite list of complexities. Take the time to evaluate all the languages in the world and you will find that not one of them can meet the requirements I’ve laid out. The natural evolution of language cannot produce a method of communication that is utopian in nature. Even L. L. Zamenhof’s Esperanto is unable to meet the needs of a world language.

Separate of my criteria is the fact that adopting a single world language would destroy cognitive diversity. Although it would reduce conflict as a result of misunderstanding, it would also stunt humankind’s capacity to solve problems in different ways. If everyone were to think the same way, certain problems could go unsolved, since no person would be able to formulate ideas in a unique fashion. I once read of a circumstance in which a team of English-speaking researchers, no matter how hard they tried, could not solve an issue in one of their experiments. No matter how many people looked at it and tried different solutions, none could correct the problem. A German-speaking scientist stepped in and solved the problem in minutes. German speakers don’t think like English speakers. To support the takeover of one language over the many tongues of our world would limit our cognition; limit our potential to solve complex problems. Repeating the same action and expecting the same result is a sign of insanity. Thinking in the same language and expecting to come to a different conclusion is also insane.

With all of these facts in mind, the perfect language for the world is nothing. No language that exists today is suitable as a world language, English included. Developing a conlang to meet my criteria would send us in the right direction. But for now, let’s acknowledge English as what it really is: just another language.

References

  1. Franklin, B. (1779). Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces. London.
  2. Oxford Royale Academy. (2016, March 28). Why Is English So Hard to Learn? Retrieved April 13, 2017, from https://www.oxford-royale.co.uk/articles/learning-english-hard.html