The English language is, like so much else in today’s world, in a state of conflict. Especially in America, our language serves two purposes which are distinct and even, in some cases, diametrically opposed. Not only must it serve as a native tongue for the vast majority of inhabitants of numerous countries (the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and so on), but it has also been adopted, in the so-called World English form, as a modern-day lingua franca for most international communications.
Those two purposes, however, work against one another. By serving as an international language, the value of English as a literary language is devalued, for we native speakers lose the connection that every other language allows. Conversely, the “Anglo” cultural connotations present in the language can be seen as relic of colonialism. Why must speakers of, say, Japanese or Arabic care about how a particular offshoot of the Saxons lived a thousand years ago? On the other hand, why shouldn’t Americans or Canadians have the opportunity to forge a closer cultural bond with each other than they would have with nonnative speakers?
In other words, we have a clash between a culture wanting their own language and a world needing a language without strings attached. But there is an answer.
The lingua franca
In days gone by, people—Europeans, rather—would turn to Latin. The Romans ruled a large swath of Europe, along with parts of North Africa and Asia Minor, and they spread their tongue throughout their realm. Thus, even centuries after their decline and fall, their speech was still seen as a model. It helped, of course, that many of the languages spoken in those regions were descended from Latin: the Romance tongues of French, Spanish, Italian, and so on.
Latin, of course, suffers from numerous problems of its own. It’s a complex, baroque language, and the “New Latin” movement that started shortly after the Renaissance only made the situation worse. On top of that, it is still a human language, associated with a culture.
As that culture is now extinct, we can counter most of the anti-colonialist arguments. Using Latin as a lingua franca doesn’t spread Roman culture any more than using modified Arabic numerals in mathematics spreads Islam. Time and evolution have detached the Latin language from its roots.
To a lesser extent, we can say the same thing for Classical Greek. Here, the situation is murkier. Greek is a living language, spoken (obviously) in Greece. But there are significant differences in phonology, grammar, and lexicon between the writings of Homer or Plato and what’s spoken on the streets of Athens today. In that sense, we can make a lesser argument that Classical Greek is sufficiently acultural to serve as the basis for a global language.
One might also consider other possibilities. Chinese script, for instance, spread throughout East Asia, penetrating Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, among other places. Sanskrit is the ancestor of languages spoken by over a billion people, and has a rich literary tradition of its own.
These do have their own problems. Chinese might have a unified script, but this hides a wide range of variation in the spoken form, so much that what Westerners call dialects should, in fact, be treated as languages in their own right. Thus, for a spoken global language, we would have to choose one, and that disadvantages speakers of the others. Mandarin might be the most prominent, but why pick it over Cantonese?
Sanskrit’s daughter languages are even more distinct, much the same as the Romance languages of Europe, so cultural favoritism isn’t as much trouble. Rather, the problem here is one of connotation. In the West, Sanskrit is often considered to be the tongue of mystics and monks at best, New Age pseudoscience at worst. In a quirk of history, its vocabulary didn’t penetrate far enough outside its initial borders to gain global recognition. Thus, we should call it a more distant third choice after Latin and Greek.
Two other contenders, Classical Arabic and Old Church Slavonic, we must also reject due to connotations. In this case, the factors are religious, as they are inextricably linked to Islam and Orthodox Christianity, respectively. As we want to create a world language that respects diverse cultures while promoting none of its own, those best known as liturgical or scriptural won’t work.
English as spoken
Fortunately for our purposes, English already has numerous loanwords and coinages in Latin and Greek. (Most of those coming from Sanskrit and its children are cultural loans such as yoga.) By some estimates, as much as 50% of English text derives from these two languages, and that percentage is even higher in technical and scientific contexts. Modern terms often combine the two, creating forms such as television or hexadecimal, further diluting any connections to the native tongues.
This extensive vocabulary can be the beginning of our world language. Indeed, it already is. Scientific terms built from Latin and Greek roots have been borrowed into languages all over the planet, no matter whether those places and peoples were ever even conceived by the Romans.
Thus, we see one fairly simple path to removing the appropriation and colonialism of English: using and creating new “classical” terms wherever possible. English is a more isolating language, though, meaning that it uses a lot of purely grammatical words. Articles such as the, linking verbs like be and do, and many more have no lexical content at all, so there’s no harm in keeping them. It’s only the “content” words we need to worry about.
Conversely, the “native” form of English should favor native-built content words rather than classical borrowings and neologisms. English-speaking nations and peoples share a culture with a long and storied history, the same as any other on earth. We should maintain it, add to it, without forcing it upon the rest of the world or leaning on others as a crutch.
In time, we would have two different varieties of English. One is the “internal” native tongue, respecting its history and culture without attempting to spread them. The “external” language, by contrast, serves as a truly cosmopolitan manner of speaking, accepting all but favoring none. Rather than a distinction of station, what linguists call register, we would see a dichotomy of inner and outer, effectively two languages, although they would remain very, very close in many ways.
This state is called diglossia, following the “classical” tradition of Latin and Greek neologism. Using a more native approach, we might call it twospeech.
What it’s not
Let’s get this out of the way first. Twospeech is most emphatically not another attempt at linguistic purity, whatever that may be. We’re not trying to remove all traces of foreign influence from English. Instead, the goal is to create a more solid cultural boundary between speakers of Native English and those of World English. On one side, we have the tongue of the common citizen of the United States, England, and other countries where English is the primary language. On the other, we have the citizens of Earth itself, humans of all stripes, who should transcend barriers of race and ethnicity.
What it is, or could be
The “world” form would, most likely, become the educated variant, in much the same way that European university students throughout the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods learned Latin, then used it in scientific publications. We’ll call this style epiglossia (the “over” language) or worldspeech, depending on which form we’re speaking.
“Native” English, however, would be the word on the street. Perhaps it would receive “rural” connotations, but the interconnectivity of today’s world will act as a brake on such tendencies. The key is that this form is only intended for English speakers. Yes, it sometimes brings back old words, including some designed by linguistic purists in the past. It also adds naturalized loans, particularly those from Anglo-Norman or the Viking invasions, and it necessarily must turn to its higher-class sibling for scientific talk. But it retains its own character despite that. We’ll call it demoglossia, the “people’s” language, or kinspeech, to emphasize the shared bond between English speakers.
Epiglossia, then, has the following characteristics:
The lexicon is built mostly from Latin and (Classical) Greek roots, with borrowings from other languages allowed when appropriate, but only if they retain their cultural context. In all cases, phonological considerations should be taken into account, as well as the limitations of our script.
Grammar is formal English, as would be used in a research paper, professional speech, or government memorandum. In particular, colloquial phrases should be avoided.
Slang, being specific to a subculture, is best omitted, but common abbreviations are allowed. For example, “chem” for chemistry is acceptable.
Speakers should take care to consider the audience, using forms such as singular “they” if appropriate.
Demoglossia charts its own course, with these guiding principles:
English grammar remains unchanged, but colloquialisms are allowed for all but the most formal situations, encouraged whenever speakers feel comfortable.
Although lexical items can be borrowed from Latin and Greek, as in epiglossia, prefer native constructions and coinages, using roots from Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman (and its related dialects of Old French), and words imported into English-speaking areas historically.
Deriving shortened forms from classical roots (including epiglossia itself) is acceptable. Illustrative examples include phone and TV.
Creativity is key, as the goal of demoglossia is to embrace the Englishness of our language.
This is just a sketch, but it’s an idea with merit. Many have tried throughout the years to create a “world” language, whether a fixed form of English or an auxiliary language such as Esperanto. Twospeech leans more toward the former, but attacks the problem in a different way, by accepting the inherent conflict between the two ideas of what English should be.
Today, the language is under assault from multiple directions, and they will eventually cause a split or perhaps even the fall of English as the international standard for communication. Embracing the notion that the language we speak to outsiders doesn’t necessarily have to match the one we use among friends is only doing what every other culture has to do on a daily basis. In that regard, Twospeech fosters linguistic equality.
It is true that this proposal doesn’t remove all the parochialism from World English, but it’s a significant step forward. In the coming weeks, I’ll expand upon this initial sketch, because I believe it to be educational, even enlightening.