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On the idea of a universal language



A language may be either natural or universal. If it is natural, then it will be bound up with the thinking and culture of some people and will be relatively remote from the thinking and culture of other peoples. If it is universal, then it may be able to represent whatever is represented in natural languages, but it will then have the character of a metalanguage and, eo ipso, not be usable for general communication.
Christiani Lehmanni inedita, publicanda, publicata
On the idea of a universal language
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dies manuscripti postremum modificati
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International conference on Linguistic cultural identity and
international communication: Maintaining language diversity
in the face of globalization. München, 25.1.2003
volumen publicationem continens
Vielberth, Johann & Drexel, Guido (eds.), Linguistic
cultural identity and international communication.
Maintaining language diversity in the face of globalization.
Proceedings of the first international conference on the
COD system of communication, held in Munich, Germany,
January 15th, 2003. Saarbrücken: AQ-Verlag
(Sprachwissenschaft-Computerlinguistik, 16)
annus publicationis
On the idea of a universal language
Report to the International conference on
Linguistic cultural identity and international communication:
Maintaining language diversity in the face of globalization
Christian Lehmann
Universität Erfurt
1. Introduction
Since human beings have started reflecting on language, there has been linguistic diversity
on the globe. The earliest document which expresses resentment of this situation is the
biblical story of the tower of Babel. No doubt, apart from the enrichment that diversity
represents for nature and for man, there are a couple of disadvantages inherent in the
multiplicity of languages. One is impeded in one’s need to communicate with people of a
different language. And one cannot control what alloglossic people exchange whom one
wants to control. Actually the latter circumstance has been a much more powerful force in
reducing linguistic diversity than the former one. It was customary in the Americas, in Asia
and Australia to destroy the culture, religion and language of the people one wanted to
dominate, and this was a major force leading to language shift and, thus, to the extinction of
languages in the past centuries. The former factor, the desire to communicate with other
people, has never led to the reduction of linguistic diversity. Quite on the contrary, it has led
to the adoption of another language as a second language which could function as a lingua
franca in such circumstances. If positively inclined, people can obviously be motivated to
learn and use a second language; but only force either brutal or subtle can lead them to
abandon their mother tongue.
Thus, when we are talking about a universal language, the option of reducing the world’s
languages to just one is out for ethical reasons. It will never happen by itself; and we do not
want it to happen by any kind of force. We are therefore talking about the alternative that the
second language that people learn in order to communicate with people of a different mother
tongue be the same for everybody.
In principle, this could be any kind of language. Very different languages have played the role
of a lingua franca in the past. One thing is immediately clear: Up to today, the choice of a
lingua franca has always depended on social or political factors; it was never conditioned by
intrinsic structural properties of the language. Latin served as a lingua franca in ancient and
medieval times not because Latin is so beautifully logical but because it was the language of
the empire and then of the church. For English the case is even clearer. If the language of
international communication were chosen by linguistic criteria, it would be clear from start
that English is out. Its phonology and phonetics are so complicated that few people who
Christian Lehmann, On the idea of a universal language
acquire it as a second language ever learn to master it. Its orthography is absolutely hopeless,
and its lexicon is very complex, too. All of this, however, is no obstacle. English is chosen
because people want to share the prestige of that language, behind which there is power and
money. It is that simple, but some people, especially speakers of languages genetically close
to English, try to conceal this, recommending English on the grounds that it would be so easy
to learn.
In the past, liberally minded people have again and again tried to overcome factual
constraints. They hoped that people might be convinced to ignore power constellations and to
choose a language of international communication on rational grounds. This is the story of
interlinguistics, the endeavor to devise and propagate an artificial language which should
serve as an international auxiliary language. Since it had to be devised, scientists could invest
all of their knowledge of linguistic structure in order to create a perfect language that could do
optimal service as a universal language. Wherever the task was undertaken, it was essentially
an academic endeavor, carried on by people who had the mind to devise a perfect language.
This is the essential appeal of the idea of a universal language: not its practical usefulness, but
its intellectual challenge.1 The international auxiliary languages number in the hundreds,2 all
of them devised by people who thought that their artificial language was more perfect than
their colleagues’ inventions. Illustrious linguists are among the inventors, E. Sapir, O.
Jespersen, not to mention earlier philosophers such as R. Descartes and G.W. Leibniz. Their
languages were called Esperanto, Ido, Novial, Occidental, Interglossa, Mondial, Latino sine
flexione, Lingvo, Interlingua, and many other names. Except for Esperanto, none of them has
had any fortune. Esperanto itself does have several thousands of adherents, but it has not
grown noticeably in the past decades, so that prospects for its wider diffusion are dim.
2. What is a universal language?
There are various kinds of universal languages (cf. Eco 1993). A universal language is chiefly
defined by its purpose. It may serve oral or written communication, the formal representation
of logical thought or the exchange of everyday messages, and so on. Let us here concentrate
on a universal language in the sense of an interlanguage, an auxiliary language for
international communication, i.e. a language that enables people who do not share their
mother tongue to engage in everyday communication.
The requirements to be posed on a universal language have been formulated in past
publications on the subject. There are essentially two of them:
1) The universal language must be capable of expressing any concept in the world, i.e. it
must have ‘effability’.3
2) It must be learnable with equal ease by speakers of any language.
The first requirement amounts to saying that the language to be devised must be like any
historical natural language. A universal language that succeeds in fulfilling the purpose
1 Even those international auxiliary languages which aim at use by the general public and have been so used, do
not disguise their academic origin, as their fathers often respond to the requirement that the language must be
adequate for scientific communication on congresses, in periodicals and so on.
2 which means they already form a sizable portion of the set of the world’s languages!
3 Cf. fn. Fehler: Verweis nicht gefunden.
Christian Lehmann, On the idea of a universal language
just formulated will be just like any of the 7,000 existing languages, except that, in theory,
it may succeed better than the others in fulfilling requirement 2.
As to item 2, the ease with which a language is learnt is, of course, a two-sided medal. It is
partly a question of the complexity of the language itself and partly a question of what kind of
language the learner speaks. If we devise a universal language for just anybody, we can ignore
the second aspect. I will come back below to the issue of whether universal languages are
actually designed for just everybody in the world. The aspect of the complexity of the
language system is a genuinely linguistic issue, but one that linguistics has not been able to
solve so far. Linguistic typology and universals research are in a position to develop sensible
theories for various subsystems like morphological paradigms or vowel systems, but no one
has as yet assessed the complexity of the whole syntax of a language, let alone the problem of
the complementary or otherwise relationship between the various subsystems of an entire
language system in terms of their complexity. It is perfectly conceivable that a simple sound
system is necessarily bought at the cost of a complex syntax, and so on. Typologists are
working on such problems, but no answers are ready yet.
3. What does it take to devise a universal language?
The first distinction to be made concerns the language system vs. the pragmatics in the widest
sense of the world, i.e. the set of conventions that relate linguistic expressions to the universe
of discourse. These are partly universal, partly specific to a historical culture. Among the
languages devised to this day, there is not a single one equipped with a pragmatics. It has
always been assumed that the pragmatics goes by itself. Let it suffice here to say that the
pragmatics does not go by itself, as anybody who has ever tried to communicate in a foreign
country has experienced, but I have no proposal to make as to the solution of this problem.
3.1. The language system
Now as for the system of the language, this consists of two main parts, the semantic system
and the expression systems, as shown in S1.
S1. System of language
Conceptual system Significative system Expression systems
Semantics Lexicon Grammar Primary:
The conceptual system consists of concepts and operations connecting and transforming them.
The semantic system consists of meaningful (or significative) units, among them morphemes,
words and constructions. It has two parts, the lexicon and the grammar. An expression system
consists of distinctive units from which the expressions of the significative units are
Christian Lehmann, On the idea of a universal language
3.2. The conceptual system
Many universal concept systems have been elaborated by logicians and linguists. Leibniz's
universal language purported to be one, and modern 'interlinguas' as they are used as
interfaces between diverse languages in machine translation claim to be language-independent
semantic representations, too. As another example, I give here the set of semantic primes
constituting the Lingua mentalis proposed by Anna Wierzbicka (1996).
S2. Semantic primes (Wierzbicka 1996*)
category primes
determiner THIS, THE SAME, OTHER
mental predicate THINK, KNOW, WANT, SEE, HEAR, FEEL
speech SAY, WORD
action and event DO, HAPPEN
movement, existence, life MOVE, THERE IS, LIVE
evaluator GOOD, BAD
descriptor BIG, SMALL
meronomy and taxonomy PART (OF), KIND (OF)
metapredicate NOT, CAN, VERY, MAYBE
interclausal linker IF, IF ... WOULD, BECAUSE, LIKE
* with some interpretative editing by CL
These primitive concepts come along with a set of rules for their combination and are meant
to be capable of representing any meaning of any language. Thus, the semantics of an
interlanguage could be defined in such terms.
3.3. The expression systems
The expression systems of a language must make use of a perceptible medium that transports
the meanings to be conveyed. A couple of proponents of universal languages took recourse to
gestures. The advantages of this medium are obvious: All of us have learnt to rely on it and
use it naturally if we have to communicate with people with whom we do not share a spoken
language. Gestures are highly motivated, which implies that not much is to be learnt about
them. And the sign languages of the deaf-mutes prove that a gesture language may fulfill the
two requirements of effability and learnability. It is true that the visual medium used by
gesture languages has a couple of disadvantages against the acoustic medium used by spoken
languages. However, they would not appear to constitute a decisive argument against a
gesture language as an interlanguage. As far as I know, no one has yet proposed this.
In the case of natural languages, the sound system is always the primary expression system,
and many of them also have a secondary one, which is a writing system. In many artificial
languages, this priority has been reversed in that only a writing system has been provided and
the question of how to pronounce the symbols has been left open. This is true for most logical
Christian Lehmann, On the idea of a universal language
and mathematical calculi, but also for some linguistic formalisms. There are also quite a few
natural languages, viz. extinct languages of antiquity such as Sumerian and Accadic, which,
although they were primarily spoken languages at their time, now function as purely written
languages for us, and many philologists do not even care how they are to be pronounced. In
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Latin was almost exclusively used for written
communication. Thus, the idea of a language whose primary mode is the written mode is
3.3.1. The writing system
Most international languages devised in the 20th century have an alphabetic writing system.
Such a system presupposes the phonological system. Some proponents of an international
language realized that a logographic system like the Chinese character system or the Japanese
kanji system carry with them the advantage that they may convey meanings without relying
on the sound system, so that one may communicate in the written mode even if the
communication partners do not share the phonological expressions paired with the signs. A
further advantage of the logographic system is that written symbols represent the meaning of
the sign directly, whereas in an alphabetic system the written symbols represent the
phonological representation, and only the latter is matched with a meaning. Both of these
advantages are clearly visible in the international number system, illustrated in S3: It is much
easier to calculate with the ciphers than with the spelled-out words; and everybody can
communicate with the ciphers, whether or not he happens to know one of the languages of S3.
S3. Logography and alphabetic writing in the number system
ciphers 2,385
English two thousand three hundred eighty-five
French deux mil trois cent quatre-vingt cinq
German zweitausenddreihundertfünfundachtzig
Thus, written communication by means of logograms presents some clear advantages, and so
it is no wonder that some have proposed universal languages based on logography. Some like
Gilbert 1924 took explicit recourse to Japanese kanji, impressed by the ease with which the
Japanese society communicates by this system. The problem bound up with a logographic
system is, of course, one of learnability. A logographic system is typical for the kind of things
that one learns with relative ease as a child, but which demand an enormous effort at the level
of second language acquisition for an adult, certainly more than most of us would be able and
willing to invest.
3.3.2. The sound system
For the phonology, the case is somewhat simpler. The universal laws structuring the sound
systems of the world’s languages are rather well studied. Thus, modern linguistics, in this
case markedness theory in particular, is in a position to devise a sound system that grants easy
pronunciation for everybody, regardless of his mother tongue. However, as mentioned above,
it is not yet known at which cost for the rest of the system a simple sound system is bought.
Christian Lehmann, On the idea of a universal language
3.4. The significative system
Once a conceptual system and an expression system have been defined, the remaining task is
to define an association of concepts with expressions or, in linguistic terms, of significata with
significantia. This must be done in two subdivisions, called lexicon and grammar. These are
related to each other as shown in S4.
S4. The significative system
- - - - - - significatum - - - - - -
lexicon ←-→ grammar
- - - - - significans - - - - -
S5 may serve as an example of how lexical concepts are mapped onto word stems in two
S5. Mapping of concepts onto lexemes: English and Latin kinship terms
Few of the proponents of interlanguages were grammarians. Many thought the essential point
was to define the vocabulary for their language. This, however, limits the significative system
to an inventory of words which lacks rules for their combination to sentences.
Christian Lehmann, On the idea of a universal language
In natural languages, the association of concepts with grammatical devices may be very
complex. As an example, a fragment of Latin grammar surrounding the possessive genitive is
shown in S6. On the left-hand side, we have some relational concepts that languages may
express by cases, adpositions or other grammatical relators. On the right-hand side, we have a
set of Latin constructions defined in purely structural terms, each of which may be used to
express a variety of conceptual relations. In the particular area of S6, the structural device
called ‘genitive’ marks all of the conceptual relations shown at the left-hand side; and a
possessive relation may be expressed by all of the structural devices shown on the right-hand
S6. Mapping of concepts onto structural devices: the Latin possessive genitive
conceptual relations mapping structural devices
partitive (X part of Y)
possessive (Y possesses X) Y-GENITIVE X
explicative (Y explicates X) Y-DATIVE verb X
material (Y is material of X) Y-NOM habet X-ACC
It is obvious that the mapping of concepts onto grammatical structures in natural languages is
a many-to-many relation. In this respect, the composers of an interlanguage could, in
principle, do better by requiring biuniqueness of the mapping. They usually try to do that in
the lexicon, by excluding homonymy and synonymy. While this is certainly possible in
artificial languages and demonstrably works in formal languages, it would change in an
interlanguage as soon as it is really used. Then semantic processes such as metaphor would
become active, which create polysemy and semantic overlap.
Four decades of modern linguistic typology have certainly widened our understanding of the
interrelation of the subsystems of grammar. However, no typologist or grammarian of our day
would be able to tell which of the grammatical categories and constructions found in the
world’s languages are compatible with each other and which would even form the optimal
grammar together. They usually confine themselves to presupposing the grammar of certain
modern European languages dubbed ‘Standard Average European’ (SAE) already by B.L.
Whorf and to throwing out a couple of seemingly useless morphological categories. The
first one to be kicked out for sure is gender, a category of which most of the languages of the
world possess some variety (in the form of a nominal classification system) but which is
unfortunate enough not to exist in English and therefore deemed useless.
An important finding of general-comparative linguistics of the last decades concerns the role
played by iconicity in the languages of the world. While the first structural linguists believed
that the principle of arbitrariness prevails in the association of significantia and significata, we
now know that motivation and in particular iconicity plays an enormous role both in the
lexicon and in the grammar of every language. In the present connection, it is particularly
important that the principles governing iconic linguistic structuring are universal. Iconism, for
instance, requires that grammatical items be, on the whole, shorter and phonologically simpler
than lexical items, and favors closed vowels in diminutive suffixes and open vowels in
augmentative suffixes, as illustrated in S7.
Christian Lehmann, On the idea of a universal language
S7. Iconism in Italian diminutive and augmentative suffixes
concept example-suffix sonority of sound
big → libr-one ← intensive
small → libr-ino ← weak
Principles of iconicity must be observed if an interlanguage is to fulfill the two principal
requirements of section 2.
4. The development of universal languages
The history of the development of interlanguages may be summarized in a few sentences. In
the past centuries, many universal languages were proposed by scientists and laymen. The last
important proposal was Interlingua, elaborated and published 1951 by the International
Auxiliary Language Association (I.A.L.A.), which was composed of such highbrow linguists
as O. Jespersen and E. Sapir. It was supported by scientific institutions, by philanthropic
societies and by foundations with enormous amounts of money. It is the best proposal to this
day. If one thinks that a universal auxiliary language should be introduced and supported, then
there is no need to devise one, as there is Interlingua. A better one would be able to come
forth only with even more manpower, money and time. Interlingua, however, has met with no
more acceptance than the earlier proposals, including Esperanto. It is utterly improbable that it
will ever play the role it was destined for. It is probably not premature to conclude that the
acceptance of an interlanguage depends no more on its intrinsic linguistic quality than the
acceptance of natural languages as vehicles for international communication has depended on
their intrinsic qualities in the past. We have seen above that this factor plays no role against
the principal factor, which is the prestige of the language.
Let us now take a properly linguistic look at the structure of recent interlanguages. The first
thing to be noted is that none of the existing interlanguages has been devised entirely from
scratch and been defined in the complete sense explained in section 3. Those conceptual
systems that have been designed were not destined to play the role of an interlanguage. Few
authors have occupied themselves with the expression systems; most have just presupposed
that given SAE orthographic conventions, these things would either be self-evident, or each
user would just pronounce it his own way, apparently with no harm to international
communication. For most authors, elaboration of an interlinguage has essentially meant the
elaboration of a significative system, more specifically the stipulation of significantia for
lexical significata.
The earlier auxiliary languages made full use of the principle of arbitrariness which pervades
the structure of natural languages. Volapük, for instance, had a vocabulary that was a colorful
mixture from many different languages. Learning it was almost like learning nonsense
syllables, and that was part of its failure. The more recent proposals, starting with Esperanto,
increasingly incorporate in their vocabulary words that are already in international use, mostly
as Greco-Latin loans. Especially Interlingua, in the standardization of its vocabulary,
combines the criterion of international diffusion of a word with its retrograde approximation
to its Latin or, more rarely, Greek origin. This, of course, leads to a neatly European and even
Romance structure in the language. The committee that was in charge of the elaboration of
Christian Lehmann, On the idea of a universal language
Interlingua admitted this freely, saying that it was, alas, impossible to take into account non-
European languages.
As an example of an international language that can aspire to scientific seriousness I quote a
text that makes publicity for Interlingua (
Que es Interlingua?
Interlingua cade sub le categoria de linguas auxiliari international planificate
que, como tales, es semper "lingua franca" (linguas pro communicationes
interethnic), e ergo usate como secunde linguas. Le specialistas divide le
linguas auxiliari planificate in duo gruppos: (1) autonome (independente de
linguas ethnic) como Esperanto; (2) naturalistic (que retene formas de parolas,
etc. de linguas ethnic) como Interlingua. Interlingua esseva publicate in 1951, e
sponsorisate per l.A.L.A. (International Auxiliary Language Association) in
New York. Interlingua es molto vicin al familia linguistic hindo-europee,
proque su vocabulario e grammatica es de origine latin. Illo pote assumer le
rolo que un vice habeva latino pro le excambios international, ma su formas es
multo plus simplificate de latino e include parolas de facto usate
internationalmente. Pro lo que reguarda su usatores, in theoria al minus 500
miliones de parlatores native de linguas romance (italiano, espaniol, francese,
portugese, romaniano, etc.), como alsi anglese e altere linguas germanic,
deberea esser habile a comprender Interlingua scribite e parlate de post
solmente poc studio.
Here, one cannot even speak of an SAE bias of the language, since it is intentionally designed
as a Neo-Latin language. This is immediately obvious in the vocabulary. For the comparative
linguist, however, it is also apparent in the grammar. The proponents of those languages do
not get tired of underlining the simplicity of their grammar, which can be summarized in a
few pages. But what this really means is that they tacitly rely on what is common to the
grammar of SAE languages, as if the peculiarities shared by English, French, Spanish and
Italian grammar were universal. One of these peculiarities, faithfully reflected by Interlingua
and other auxiliary languages, is the prenominal position of some modifiers (e.g. duo
gruppos, altere linguas) and the postnominal position of others (origine latin), and the same
for modifiers of adjectives (left-branching molto vicin, right-branching independente de
linguas ethnic) and for adverbial modifiers (left-branching un vice habeva, de facto usate),
right-branching es semper). Here the criterion of learnability should certainly favor
typological consistency as it may be found, in the realm of word order, in such languages as
Arabic and Japanese. One cannot avoid the conclusion that such interlanguages are not really
destined to facilitate communication with members of just any speech community; they are
clearly directed to speakers of those speech communities which already speak European
languages. Again, prestige, not intrinsic linguistic quality is the decisive criterion.
Christian Lehmann, On the idea of a universal language
5. Conclusion
The interlanguages that have had at least some success have been learnt and used chiefly by
people speaking an SAE language. This is no surprise, since these interlanguages have a
thoroughly Indo-European structure and are therefore relatively easy to learn for such people.
Speakers of Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Japanese, Indonesian and all the other large languages of
the world use a very simple, but efficient reasoning: If the political constellation of my
lifetime is such that I have to learn a European language, anyway, then I will do much better
by learning the language of power and money, which is English, than by learning an artificial
language which demands the same investment from me but whose usefulness is doubtful.
The conclusion from the above is that a language may be either natural or universal. If it is
natural, then it will be bound up with the thinking and culture of some people and will be
relatively remote from the thinking and culture of other peoples. If it is universal, then it may
be able to represent whatever is represented in natural languages, but it will then have the
character of a metalanguage and, eo ipso, not be usable for general communication.
Eco, Umberto 1993, La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea. Roma & Bari:
Laterza (Economica Laterza, 85).
Gilbert, Friedrich Robert 1924, Die Bilderschrift von China und Japan als internationale
Weltschrift und ihre schnelle Erlernung nach der Mebiwegal-Methode. Berlin etc.: O.G.
Wierzbicka, Anna 1996, Semantics. Primes and universals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
... Music is a part of every world culture, available in some form or another to every person since the beginning of human history, and is perceived as a "universal language" (Genova, 2009). In Vision 2020: The Housewright Symposium on the Future of Music Education, Reimer (1999) wrote an essay to answer the question, "Why Do Humans Value Music?" ...
During the past 60 years, jazz music has slowly become recognized as a genre worthy of study in high school music programs throughout the United States. Only a few researchers have analyzed large samples of jazz-related instruction in instrumental music programs, and of these studies no data were collected to investigate the inclusion of jazz in Florida high school instrumental programs or the background in jazz of directors in these programs. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to gather data on high school-level instrumental music programs in Florida and the band directors associated with these programs in an attempt to answer the following research questions: (1) What is the current status of instrumental jazz course offerings in Florida high schools? (2) Is there a relationship between the status of jazz course offerings in Florida high schools and demographic data of the programs or the directors who teach in these programs? (3) Is there a relationship between the status of jazz course offerings in Florida high schools and the band directors’ experience with and training in jazz? Florida high school band directors (N = 239), representing a response rate of 46.5%, replied to an online survey instrument containing 21 comprehensive questions. Demographic data of participants and the programs they were directing, as well as questions associated with their training, experience, opinions, and attitudes toward jazz-related instruction were cross-analyzed quantitatively. The findings of this study revealed that many Florida high school music programs (38.5%) do not offer students opportunities in jazz music and that these programs parallel deficiencies found in schools in other states. The data gathered from Florida high school directors and programs suggest that a teacher’s actual or perceived level of training in jazz genres, most notably through performance experience, is the greatest factor in the presence of jazz-related courses in high school music programs. Additionally, teachers’ degree of jazz performance experience or training may have a considerable influence on their level of anxiety and comfort with jazz genres. Directors’ lack of background in jazz inhibits the potential for jazz-related courses to be included in high school programs; thus, limiting the musical experiences of the students they teach. Data also suggest that teachers may be more willing to initiate courses in jazz if they were required to or were offered the opportunity to participate in jazz ensembles during their teacher preparation. To facilitate such participation, a college-level jazz ensemble that is specifically designed for the experience and pedagogical needs of future music teachers, in a non-intimidating and positive atmosphere where appropriate literature is performed at a high level, may be helpful to music education majors. Additionally, jazz may be more widely understood and appreciated if current and future school instrumental music teachers strive to provide opportunities in jazz instruction and performance to as many students as possible. Such an endeavor can be accomplished by incorporating an appropriate balance of ensembles and courses in their program.
Die Bilderschrift von China und Japan als internationale Weltschrift und ihre schnelle Erlernung nach der Mebiwegal-Methode. Berlin etc
  • Friedrich Gilbert
  • Robert
Gilbert, Friedrich Robert 1924, Die Bilderschrift von China und Japan als internationale Weltschrift und ihre schnelle Erlernung nach der Mebiwegal-Methode. Berlin etc.: O.G. Zehrfeld.