Mark Starr

Communism and an International Language

Source: The Communist Review, February 1922, Vol. 2, No. 4.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THE backwardness of Englishmen in the acquirement and use of foreign languages is well known. Centuries of island insularity, coupled with British economic world dominance, which brought language dominance in its train, made the English tongue the only one that Britons in general cared to know. Even now some of our comrades think that Uncle Sam will carry on where John Bull left off, and that English will become the world language. But even the British Association for the Advancement of Science decided, recently, that English or any other national tongue would be too likely to excite national jealousies to make its success possible. In view of the Revolution in Russia, and the awakening of Asia, this opinion will arouse no dissent—least of all in the ranks of Communists.

Attempts to remove language barriers can be traced back in England to that of Urquhart in 1653, while earlier Descartes and Leihnitz devoted some thought to the problem. But these attempts were in the direction of an a priori or philosophical universal language, while the recent protects take as their basis the material furnished by the great languages of Europe. It is easy to recognise that only capitalism produced the objective conditions which made the practical application of the idea possible. When Latin was the common language among the scholars of medieval Europe, it could hardly be said to be an international or universal language, because nations had no existence in the modern sense and Latin was merely the monopoly of the cultured few. Needless to say the solution which has stood the test and triumphed over ridicule, and is breaking down the barriers of apathy and opposition and winning acceptance in every land, did not fall from heaven. The author of Esperanto, Dr. L. Zamenhof, saw in his native town, Bialystok, in the sixties of the last century, the evil resulting from the language differences of the four races living there. Being a keen student of language after years of study and many attempts, he took from each language not only the roots for the construction of the words, but also the best features of the grammars. Thus resulted the ease of acquirement and the wonderful simplicity of the grammar with its sixteen rules without exceptions.

But the most splendid effort of the most brilliant of linguists, though he might be imbued with the loftiest idealism, would not secure the adoption of an international language if economic forces were not at work creating the conditions favourable to its growth. Modern capitalism does this in several ways.

(a) By the introduction of an uniform system of education within each country which lessens the effects of local dialects and gives to the written word a fixed form.

(b) By the advancement of the technique of transport and the facilities of communication within and without each nation which tends to annihilate the former barriers of distance.

(c) By increasing international trade relations. This is at first the cause of (b), but that factor reacts in turn.

Here, then, are the conditions which make an international language no longer a Utopian proposal. To say that economic supremacy will decide which language will triumph is to fall into the “deadening fatalism ” which our opponents so love to pass off as Marxism. As well say that man need not have invented the steam engine, but left it to evolve itself. That the Comintern does not share this error is proved by the fact that at the last Congress it set up a commission to enquire into the practical possibility of an international language and how best the Third International could put it into use. Our comrades of the ESKI (Esperantist section of the Communist International) will have an easy task to prove that Esperanto fills the bill, and from every point of view answers to the demands that Communists are likely to make upon an International language. Unfortunately the previous decision of Soviet Russia itself to make Esperanto a compulsory subject in the schools has never been fully put into operation because of lack of teaching facilities due to the Whites, although many teachers and much financial help have been officially provided. (Let me say in passing that Ido, the only language with any pretensions of being a rival to Esperanto, buys its very dubious “improvements ” at too great a cost in complication. While it appears easy to read, it is most certainly more difficult to write, speak, or understand when spoken. The super-signs in Esperanto—one practical objection of the Idists—can easily be procured from type-makers or be placed upon the type-writer, and they are the means by which the perfect alphabet of Esperanto exists. One is almost inclined to think that Lord Northcliffe, in writing a foreword to the primer of Ido, did so, not so much in the hope of advancing any one particular international language, as of discrediting Esperanto—the progress of which seems to him inimical to his Imperialist hopes.)

In the past Esperanto has been chiefly an interesting hobby for linguists, travellers and for stamp and other type of collectors, although there has always been a certain amount of “humanism” in its supporters. These “humanists” believed that if men only understood each other then universal peace would result. That phase is passing. The business world, Chambers of Commerce, Scientific Associations, the League of Nations and other bodies are beginning to use and enquire into it. The International Labour Office has issued several leaflets in Esperanto. And while the success of Esperanto on neutral grounds has never been so great as note, wherever the workers are sufficiently strong they organise themselves separately and regard Esperanto as a weapon in the class struggle (e.g., Paris has its own revolutionary Esperanto classes, and is the seat of the Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda, and in Germany there exists the G.L.E.A.). For reasons of efficiency the language question is of vital importance to the international working-class movement. If we want effective organisation we must have a common language. The time, energy and clearness lost in translation at Congresses are very obvious. Think how the literature of the movement would be enriched if each book by a single translation, or written originally in the international tongue, would be available at once to every speaking section of the working-class. The “neutral” Esperantists already have a weekly newspaper in Esp. (Esperanto Triumfonta, published in Cologne.) Why should not Communists follow suit? The pictures that Keynes gave us of the Supreme Council with only Clemenceau independent of interpreters must not be duplicated by anything in the Third International.

Granted that English stands a greater chance of adoption than French, German or Russian, this solution of the difficulty, even if it were technically possible, would not be the best way out. Why should we make others learn our language? Why not let each nation come half way to a neutral language and neither make the other stutter in a foreign tongue? After its simplicity, the neutrality of Esperanto is its greatest advantage. The result is that when Esperanto is used at International gatherings it is difficult to tell the nationality of the speaker; the experience of freely discoursing thus with comrades of other lands is an experience never to be forgotten. Apart from these considerations the adoption of English is impossible for technical reasons. Consider our spelling—the dead letters and irregular pronunciation—from the point of view of a foreigner who would need years of laborious effort to become proficient. The experts tell us that “our imperfect alphabet of 23 effective letters (c, q and x have no value of their own) have to represent about forty sounds. Compare this with the alphabet of Esperanto, in which each of the 28 letters has its one particular sound.” Spelling and pronunciation are never in conflict.

Ease of acquirement in Esperanto is secured by the fact that its grammar is the simplest imaginable. English suffers from its numerous irregularities. Esperanto has no “irregular” verbs, but by means of twelve unchanging endings the expression of every shade of time is attained. Then there is the system of word building, which by the use of unalterable prefixes and suffixes enables a dozen or more words to be constructed from one root. The roots themselves are taken from existing languages and all words already international, e.g., hotel, telegram, etc., are readily absorbed. A fairly well read person would recognise either by sight or sound seventy-five per cent. of the words used.

The practical successes of Esperanto are too great to be given here. After a debate in the Finnish Parliament, 25,000 marks were voted in aid of the Esperanto Society of Finland. Its introduction into the schools was favoured and is being further investigated by the League of Nations. The Chamber of Commerce of Paris, with those of other French towns, favours it. It is already being taught in day schools in Britain at Eccles, Keithley, Barry, Leeds, Rutherglen and Worcester and elsewhere. [Incidentally in these schools it has been found to greatly improve the English of the students and helps as an introduction to other languages.] Abroad it is making still faster progress. It is being taught in day schools in twenty towns in Germany; and the Canton of Geneva has introduced if into its schools; in Bulgaria twenty-nine Real-gymnasia have Esperanto classes. These successes are quoted merely to show that we are not endeavouring to interest Communists in a new fad which has not stood the test of experience. Our Party is out to achieve an international aim for which an international consciousness is necessary. The matter cannot be left merely to party leaders, to polyglots, linguists, or to Conferences. The rank and file must come in. The classes already started in our movement must be increased. Here is scope for practical activity. The Communist Youth Movement can here not only talk about internationalism and indulge in flag-wagging, but help to prepare the way for direct international contact. Why not an ESKI section in Great Britain? Cannot we in England contribute something to the culture of the future?

The herd group had its inarticulate cries which, with man, grew later into articulate speech. By language thought was transmitted from man to man and from age to age, and a great chasm in due time divided man from the beast. Again the conditions are ripe for another leap—man’s horizon is again to be widened by increasing his means of understanding. We need and shall need the weapon of an auxiliary language in the class struggle.