Why a Universal Language Will Never Be a Thing
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Why a Universal Language Will Never Be a Thing

Why are distinct languages still a thing?
April 22, 2016, 1:54pm

One of the cooler experiences I've had happened in a Chinese restaurant in Peru. I got into a conversation with the waiter, a Chinese immigrant who didn't speak English (for obvious reasons). We both communicated fine in Spanish, our second language.

This got me thinking—why the heck don't we humans all decide to learn the same language so we can finally all speak to each other? Why are distinct languages still a thing?


There have actually been various attempts at creating a universal human language; the most famous one is called Esperanto. But it turns out that, for many reasons, we'll probably never have a universal human language.

You can probably take a stab at a few of these reasons, and you'd be correct: Language is culture; not everyone has the internet, which would presumably be used to disseminate a universal language; getting everyone to agree on anything is difficult; politics are complicated, etc.

What I'm saying is it's not hard to see why we still have languages. But this is not the end of the column! There are technical, scientific, and cultural factors that are instructive in exploring why humans, and Earth as currently constructed, aren't well-suited to having a universal language.

Language is identity

"The way you talk communicates a tremendous amount of things about who we are. Because we have separate identities, we have separate languages," Marc Ettlinger, a theoretical phonologist for the Department of Veterans Affairs who currently studies the relationship between brain injuries, hearing loss, and language, told me. "People assumed that with the invention of TV, dialects would be homogenized and people would speak generic prestige dialects. But what we found out is that dialects have diverged in the United States as a result of media homogenization. People are looking for more ways to differentiate themselves."

For many groups of people, having a specific language is to say "I exist."

Language, then, is identity, which Ettlinger argues is slightly more specific distinction than simply saying that it's "culture."

A common example of this is a phenomenon: White suburban kids who listen to rap music can consciously or unconsciously choose to pick up an urban dialect of English they never would have been exposed to before. The resulting mix between the two dialects communicates to the rest of the world something about the person who picked it up.

Dialects are not languages per se (though where a dialect ends and a language begins is a sometimes contentious debate in the linguistics community), but the example above is illustrative of how language evolves. Danish and German are often mutually intelligible, as are Norwegian and Swedish, as are Urdu and Hindi, but, for political and identity reasons, all of them are considered to be their own distinct languages. When a Danish person speaks Danish, he or she is saying "I am Danish and I'm proud of being Danish," according to Ettlinger.

India and Pakistan's ongoing rivalry has led the two countries to try to make their languages as unique as possible. Both Urdu and Hindi are derived from a language called Hindustani, but now, when the need for new technical words arises, Hindi will borrow from Sanskrit, while Urdu will borrow from Arabic.


Countries often have specific economic and political interests in preserving, protecting, and promoting their own language. An important step in the evolution of any language is when a technical register evolves for that language, meaning it formalizes to the point where universities can be established that teach only in that language, scientific papers and laws can be written in that language, etc. For many groups of people, having a specific language is to say "I exist."

That's why, politically, languages like Basque and Kurdish are so important to the people who speak them.

"In Turkey, the Kurdish identity is really important. But there's also another language called Laz—it's a Caucasian language related to Georgian—and it's dying and it's not politically as big of a deal," Ricardo Rivera, a linguistic anthropology Ph.D student at the University of California, Berkeley (who is also one of my best friends), told me. "The Laz people are primarily Turkish nationalists, their kids speak Turkish. It's not an ethnic marker in the same way Kurdish is."

We don't know how many total languages there are on Earth, but most estimates suggest we have somewhere around 7,000, which Ettlinger believes is down from more than 10,000 several hundred years ago. Colonization, conflicts and violence against indigenous people, globalization, and urbanization are the biggest factors for this decline. These are almost entirely sociological and anthropological causes, not linguistic or scientific ones. Today, if you live in a small village in a developing country, for example, there's a good chance you may want to move to your country's urban center to have better economic opportunities. In doing so, you'll probably be leaving your village's indigenous language behind.


Why languages will continue to evolve and why new languages will continue to form

New languages don't pop up overnight, but new languages are still forming and do have utility. In the Persian Gulf, for example, an immigration boom from south Asia has led to new Arabic pidgins. Pidgins are rudimentary means of communication between two groups that don't have a language in common. While a pidgin isn't "a language" in the same way that, like, French is, it can be a seed of a new language. Pidgins usually don't have established grammar, but they often evolve into creoles, which are languages that originate as a mixed language.

"In Oman and these Gulf states, you have so many South Asian migrant laborers who speak an Arabic pidgin that has a lot of Hindi and Nepali words," Rivera said.

"They're here from France, Germany, and Switzerland, and we have animated conversations during our hikes and meals on every topic, in only Esperanto"

The path is something like this: Adults who don't have a language in common with each other speak a pidgin, which is usually made up of some mixture of simple words, sounds, and body language. Those adults still have their own native language, however, which is important. Languages evolve much more rapidly when there are native speakers of that language. Naturally, when those adults have children, the native language of many of those children will be the pidgin, which is where the real fun begins.

"When it's a more permanent group, it becomes a native language of the next generation of children, and it develops a grammar naturally because that's what they have to work with," Rivera said.


This is where things get very interesting—language evolves, always. And children are often the ones driving that evolution.

And this brings us to Esperanto.

Why a universal first language will never work

Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s by L.L. Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist. Yes, invented. Esperanto is a "constructed" language, meaning it was consciously designed by a person or group of people (other examples include Klingon and Elvish). Esperanto was designed to be a universal second language. If things had worked out as Zamenhof had hoped, maybe I would have spoken to my Chinese waiter in Esperanto.

Esperanto is not really popular in the grand scheme of things—there are believed to be, at most, about 2 million Esperantists. It is the most successful attempt at a universal language, however, and there are Esperanto meetups and conferences all around the world. There's an Esperanto science journal, Esperanto magazines, an Esperanto Duolingo course. I tried to speak to someone at Seattle Esperanto Society, but I couldn't, because the president of it was "in the middle of a hiking week with nine other Esperantists."

"They're here from France, Germany, and Switzerland, and we have animated conversations during our hikes and meals on every topic, in only Esperanto," he told me in an email.

Because constructed languages aren't native languages, they don't usually evolve in the same way.


"Every new learner of the language has reforms they might recommend—it's part of learning the language," William Harris, director of Esperanto-USA told me. "Most of the time they don't go anywhere, because if you want to have a language that'll be understood when you go to China for instance, you can't have confusion."

As such, Harris says there aren't really specific Esperanto "dialects," because the adults who learn Esperanto are consciously trying not to make changes to the language. A Russian who speaks Esperanto may have a Russian accent, but she won't use different words altogether.

Anyways, lots of linguists look at Esperanto as an interesting curiosity, but not something that can be studied as intensely as natural languages. But something crazy has happened: Some Esperantists are so into the language that they have begun to bring their children up as native Esperanto speakers.

Esperanto, then, is becoming a natural language for these children. And the children are doing what children do: They're changing the rules of the language, and adults aren't always going to be able to pick up on and fix every change.

"Because of the ways kids' brains work, they will do things to a language as they're learning it that also changes it. A good example is called 'over regularization.' In English, kids will say 'I eated the cookie,'" Ettlinger said. "Over time, something like that can become normalized and become the accepted version." Changes like this (among lots of other changes) are why English today is not the same language it was a few hundred years ago.

"If you hear someone speak Esperanto, you know immediately that it's a person who prioritizes and thinks very highly of globalization and in the power of mankind"

A native Esperanto speaker in China, then, will change different things than a native Esperanto speaker in Chicago, who will change different things than a native Esperanto speaker in the Chicago suburbs. In fact, some of the only studies on the subject found that native Esperanto is indeed different than learned Esperanto. The world is globalized, but it's not so connected that changes of this nature will happen in the same way across the planet..

This was all a long way of explaining that even if by some act of nature all humans woke up tomorrow and everyone spoke the exact same language, that language would change and evolve and eventually we would have the same situation we have now, which is a whole lot of languages.

"Anyone trying to create a language should know that languages change, and they aren't all going to change in the exact same way," Ettlinger said. "Pretty soon, you're back to having hundreds of languages."

So why do Esperantists bother with a language that will never actually be universal? It all comes back to the idea that language is identity.

"If you hear someone speak Esperanto, you know immediately that it's a person who prioritizes and thinks very highly of globalization and in the power of mankind," Ettlinger said. "They're speaking Esperanto because they want to communicate to others that they share this dream of a globalized world."

Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.