The Universal Creole

Michael D. Gordin

Linguistically speaking, the world is rather inconvenient. Depending on how you count — the boundary between a “language” and a “dialect” is one of the great blurry zones in humanity’s conceptual map — there are between 5,000 and 7,000 languages on the Earth’s surface. As far as we seem to be able to tell, that astonishing range is typical of humanity’s linguistic diversity. Languages die out all the time, and new languages are simultaneously born. Our linguistic vista is an astonishing, evolving patchwork quilt, not a monochromatic coat of paint.

But does it have to be this way? Surely it would be easier if everyone used only one language, whether that means everyone sharing the same second language, or just eliminating this pesky diversity altogether and only using a single tongue for the entire planet. The dream of a global language has often been high on the to-do list for futuristic speculators.

Science fiction is littered with visions of a common humanity bound by a common auxiliary or vehicular language. In the universe of Star Trek, for example, everyone seems to speak “Federation Standard.” Given that the starship Enterprise began its voyages in the 23rd century, you might think this language would have transformed quite a bit from late-20th-century English, but Kirk and Spock rescued some whales from the 1980s in Star Trek IV with little linguistic difficulty. (They do encounter some shocking reminders of ’80s hair.) In that universe, language barriers emerge only with peoples who also have their own language, such as the fearsome warrior race of Klingons, who speak tlhIngan Hol. Klingon is more diverse than Standard and has dialects, though they comprise one more or less mutually intelligible language. Attention to this kind of detail is surely related to the fact that Klingon was constructed by a talented linguist, Marc Okrand, whereas the plotline of the original television series was not.

The other option, a single language for an entire world, has been the more common hope for futuristic utopians. In Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star, a 1908 novel depicting a socialist society on Mars, the entire planet speaks one language. As Menni, the explainer of all things Martian, tells the narrator: “Long ago, however, several centuries before the socialist revolution, all the various dialects drew closer to one another and merged in a single common language. This occurred freely and spontaneously” (p. 54). It happened on Mars, and — according to Bogdanov — it happened on Mars naturally: without coercion, even without conscious reflection.

To linguists of today, such monotonic linguistic progress seems completely wrong-headed. It’s just not how humans use language. Most of what we know about linguistic behavior suggests that dialect/language differentiation is an intrinsic corollary of group-formation. Before the middle of the twentieth century, however, quite respected linguists, even pioneers in the field like Otto Jespersen of Denmark, argued that some kind of convergence, at least in grammatical structure, was “progressive.” In his fascinating The Philosophy of Grammar, he claimed that features like the trial number form or excessive cases and genders tend to drop away over time. (The evolution seems to be in the direction of Jespersen’s scholarly specialty of English and also — somewhat predictably — toward Danish.) Likewise, Frederick Bodmer’s 1944 classic, The Loom of Language recognizes that there will always be some fragmentation among languages, but considers some more “modern” (English) and others more “archaic” (Russian), a characterization largely based on eliminating or retaining inflections (see p. 420, for example).

Intelligent and curious laypeople could easily pick up such books and draw upon this model of future language change. Of course, there were other linguistic models at play in this moment of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and I will address those in later essays. My point here is that a particular vision of increasing homogenization, the creation of a Global Language, was imaginable, linguistically, in this period in a way it would not be later.

Although the scholarly consensus on linguistic change no longer supports this vision of progressive simplification to a single tongue, the idea continues to appeal to non-specialists. Globalization (of media, of transportation, of finance, of the Internet) provides the most obvious reason for the hardiness of this presumption. Anglophones can travel to almost any corner of the planet today and never have to transition out of a language once confined to the southern part of a particular North Sea island. Why wouldn’t this expansive trend simply continue? To those sharing this cast of mind, the only thing stopping it is parochial nationalism. Shed that vestige of pre-modernity and we are well on our way to bringing Bogdanov’s Mars to Earth.

Which brings us to nuclear war. To some science-fiction authors of the mid-twentieth-century, only a tremendous conflagration — World War I or II on steroids — could shatter these atavisms and allow the ostensibly “natural” state: one language for the world. In this reading, ironically, nuclear war could help the cause of human understanding. To illustrate this particular vision of how humanity would talk after a nuclear war, I will focus on two examples, one utopian and one dystopian.

The utopia is The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933 by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), arguably the most influential writer of science fiction in the English language. I’m somewhat cheating by selecting this book, because the war depicted in it is not a nuclear war per se, although it is certainly global and utterly devastating. This slight fudging is perhaps ameliorated by the fact that Wells himself had coined the phrase “atomic bomb” in his earlier novel of aerial warfare, The World Set Free (published in 1914). The Shape of Things to Come so precisely prefigured the tropes of nuclear novels — somewhere between Sepia and Epic — that it would be remiss to omit it on the technicality that it was composed almost a decade before the first nuclear chain reaction.

The novel presents itself as the blandest of genres, a history textbook. The trick is that the tome hails from the future (after 2106), glimpsed by a (imaginary) League of Nations diplomat, Dr. Philip Raven, as he drifted between slumber and wakefulness. These notes from Dr. Raven’s twilight state were posthumously edited by Wells into the book before us. The history is a Whiggish one, written from the point of view of a global Modern State which has eliminated warfare, money, and poverty. The teleological narrative begins with the shattered polities of World War I (to Wells, simply the Great War), descends into a global conflict (using poison gas) that destroys industrial civilization in the 1940s, finds order haltingly restored by an Air Dictatorship of futuristic pilots, and then concludes with the Modern State. (There are a lot of gaps in the details about how that latter part unfolds, pasted over by Wells’s “editorial” conceit.) Strewn throughout the text are Wells’s views on political economy, science, philosophy, race, and much more. I will concentrate on the linguistic features of the text.

We hear of many languages by the by, but only two receive any sustained attention: Basic English and “English” (which I put in quotation marks for reasons that will become obvious). In the aftermath of the war, languages began, naturally, to evolve closer to each other. By the late twentieth century, “Spanish and English were already on their way to become the interchangeable languages they remained throughout all the earlier twenty-first century.” This is somewhat odd, because Basic English — not at all interchangeable with Spanish — was the path to future English.

Basic English was part of Wells’s cultural milieu. Charles Ogden, an English philosopher and pundit, together with the literary critic I. A. Richards, proposed a form of English compressed to a list of 850 words, governed by the rules of standard English grammar. In Wells’s future, the Air Dictatorship is built up around Basic English, because that is the language of international air travel. (In fact, in 2008, The International Civil Aviation Organization mandated English — ordinary, unBasic English — to be the international language of aviation.) The Basra Conference of 1965 lays the foundation for the Dictatorship; the Second Basra Conference of 1978 formalizes Basic as a tool of propaganda and education. (In our Universe, the Bandung Conference of African and Asian states in 1955 also used English as its common tongue.)

The Modern State speaks English, no longer Basic and no longer our English either. This makes for a stylistic issue, because The Shape of Things to Come is patently, manifestly, obviously not written in Basic English or Future English. It’s written in English English, the kind a man such as Herbert George Wells liked to scribble. Wells ducked the issue in a parenthetical aside at the beginning of Section 7 of Book 5, “Language and Mental Growth”. :

I print this section exactly as Raven wrote it down. It is, the reader will remark, in very ordinary twentieth-century English. Yet plainly if it is a part of a twenty-second-century textbook of general history it cannot have been written originally in our contemporary idiom. It insists upon a refinement and enlargement of language as if it had already occurred, but no such refinement is evident. It must have been translated by Raven as he dreamt it into the prose of today. If he saw that book of his at all, he saw it not with his eyes but with his mind. The actual page could have had neither our lettering, our spelling, our phrasing nor our vocabulary.

This is immediately followed by a description of future English:

One of the unanticipated achievements of the twenty-first century was the rapid diffusion of Basic English as the lingua franca of the world and the even more rapid modification, expansion and spread of English in its wake. The English most of us speak and write today is a very different tongue from the English of Shakespeare, Addison, Bunyan or Shaw; it has shed the last traces of such archaic elaborations as a subjective mood; it has simplified its spelling, standardized its pronunciation, adopted many foreign locutions and naturalized and assimilated thousands of foreign words. No deliberate attempt was made to establish it as the world language. It had many natural advantages over its chief competitors, Spanish, French, Russian, German and Italian. It was simpler, subtler, more flexible and already more widely spoken, but it was certainly the use of Basic English which gave it its final victory over these rivals.

I suppose Wells couldn’t be bothered to render either passage in Basic English, so I did it for him. Click here to render each in my basic translation. It is straightforward to see how Wells epitomized a vision of language that emerged from a hyper-simplification of Jespersen’s description of gradual simplification. Once war smashes nation-states, the peoples of the world are free to speak a unified language, the language of science and technology. Conveniently for Wells, this turns out in his future — as it has in our present — to be English (although not an English we would recognize right away, given the evolution from Basic English).

My second example, the dystopia, is one of the most uncomfortable of nuclear novels: Farnham’s Freehold (1964) by Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988). There is something in this book to offend everyone. It’s the early 1960s, and we are introduced to the Farnham family — a nuclear one, of course, with two grown children — and a few friends. Farnham is ribbed for building a bomb shelter, but this comes in handy when a nuclear device is detonated overhead, catapulting the family into the distant future, but in their precise spatial location. (The physics is left unexplained.) What is at first a survivalist, Robinson-Crusoe novel (complete with explicit invitations to incest) turns into a nightmare as the group is enslaved by dark-skinned overlords. Nuclear war had wiped out the infrastructure of all the continents except Africa (a trope in several nuclear fictions, such as Michael Swanwick’s 1980 story “The Feast of St. Janis”), and the inverted racial order combines high-tech gizmos with serfdom. Oh, also, the overlords consume white people for dinner.

One could spend several essays dissecting this book, perhaps the most controversial in Heinlein’s career of courting controversy, but I will only focus on his tongue of the future: the elites call it Language. They force Farnham to learn it in a matter of sixteen days. Part of the reason he can learn it so quickly is the Pavlovian teaching method (via electronic whip), but Heinlein makes it clear that Language’s structure helps. The most difficult things in Language are the elaborate status markers to indicate whether you are speaking to a superior, inferior, or equal. Beside that, “Hugh found the language simple and logical. It had no irregular verbs and its syntax was orderly; it probably had been tidied up at some time. He suspected, from words that he recognized — ‘simba,’ ‘bwana,’ ‘wazir,’ ‘etage,’ ‘trek,’ ‘oncle’ — that it had roots in several African languages. But that did not matter; this was ‘Speech’ and, according to his teachers, the only language spoken everywhere” (160; all references to the 2011 Baen paperback). As Farnham later learns, Language came from a blend of Swahili, French, and Arabic — though it includes clicks, which none of these languages do — and he felt it had been cleaned up, “was as free from traps as Esperanto” (185). It’s a shame Heinlein didn’t show us any of it.

Heinlein’s model of linguistic change in a post-nuclear world seems clear enough: languages converge into a creole that eventually becomes universal. This is not the history of any known language. That’s part of what Heinlein is getting at — that nuclear war wipes the slate clean, and old allegiances are replaced with a new order. Language is an epiphenomenon of the new African hegemony. But it is not how creoles really work, either, as linguistic objects. It’s perfectly possible to imagine that two or more languages can combine into a pidgin — say, borrowing a lot of the lexicon from one language, and aspects of the syntax from another — and then that such a pidgin could develop into a full language once children adopt and adapt it as their native language. What’s not plausible is that a single creole easily standardized in the same way across geographic space as large as Africa. Heinlein has taken the fiction of seamless standardization and projected it down from his global Language to a regional creole. Part of the reason this doesn’t happen locally has to do with code-switching, oscillating between different dialects or languages. (If you’ve watched Hindi cinema, think of the way English is deployed at the sentence- or word-level to develop characters.) Even when creoles take root, the original languages can persist in some form precisely to allow stylistic variety. My point is that the diversity is ineluctable, and nuclear war wouldn’t change that.

The assumption for both Wells and Heinlein was the naturalness of global evolution toward one language. When you removed the barriers, universal communicability simply would happen. Here is the problematic part. This doesn’t correlate with what we observe about language, or even with our own experience. We have all witnessed slang develop regionally and then sometimes spread, or sometimes not (compare “wicked” with “OMG” or “fabbo”). Slang identifies sub-groupings, which is why it does not standardize. Of course, this is part of the reason why people identify the persistence of linguistic variety with nationalism, but that is only one subset of group identity. The linguistic change we notice right now has little to do with nationalism, but it happens all the same. We can see this, and so could nuclear novelists of the Cold War era. Writers who were fascinated with the mutability of language — not simply frustrated by its diversity — approached the linguistic consequences of nuclear war rather differently, as we will see in the next essay.

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