Interlingua: A Universal Language?

Gepatroj Amas Siajn Bonajn Kaj Fidelajn Knabinojn Le Parentes Ama Lor Bon E Fidel Pueras Parents Love Their Good and Faithful Children

Almost fifty years ago, a professor tried to persuade the Harvard Faculty to approve a proposed half-course in the international language known as Esperanto. He explained at great length the advantages of a supra-national system of communication and clinched his point--or so he thought--by estimating that any one could learn Esperanto in three weeks. His motion, however, was defeated almost unanimously. "It's not worth devoting a half-course to anything which can be learned in three weeks," one of his colleagues observed at the time.

The Faculty's decision, in rerospect, was a wise one. Despite the fanatical enthusiasm of a small group, Esperanto never really caught on either in the Western Hemisphere or in Europe. Some 200 publications tried using it; all but six failed to survive.

Other international languages have had equally ill-fated experiences. But this has not deterred the belief that a successful one of universal value would someday be found. The latest and most serious attempt is now underway with a language called Interlingua. For the past three years Science Service, the Institution for the Popularization of Science, has been conducting an intensive publicity campaign to popularize this comparatively new tongue. Under the energetic direction of Alexander Gode, the Service's efforts have been notably successful-so far.

Many international scientific conventions, for instance, have adopted Interlingua as a third or fourth official language. Still more significant is the increasing number of medical and scientific journals which are publishing a synopsis of each article in it. Other accomplishments include the publication of an Interlingua--English dictionary, containing some 27,0000 words, and grammars in English, German, and French. Spanish and Italian editions are forthcoming. And at least one university in the United States--New York University--offers a course in the language.

'Chance for Success'

With such progress, Gode is convinced Interlingua will succeed where other universal languages have failed. Connected with its development ever since the early beginnings in the 1920's, he insists that Interlingua, unlike Esperanto, is not artificially constructed, which accounts for a good deal of its success. No words have been invented or constructed; they were all extracted from a common European base including the Romance tongues, English, German, and, to a degree, Russian. Gode claims the language is simultaneously French, English, Spanish, and so on. Each language is streamlined by elimination of idiosyncratically distinctive features.

This derivation of Interlingua makes it particularly appealing for Westerners, who can understand virtually every word without any previous knowledge of the language. Such is not the case with Esperanto, the grotesqueness of which illustrated in the sentence, "La gepatroj amas siajn bonajn kaj fidelajn knabinojn." In Interlingua, it reads, "Le parentes ama lor bon e fidel pueras" (Parents love their good and faithful children).

But despite such case of comprehension, there are still many opponents to Interlingua. One of them is Joshua Whatmough, chairman of the Harvard Linguistics Department. "We won't teach that language here, unless it's over my dead body," he says. And, like the Faculty with its Esperanto decision, he may have a point.

Whatmough claims that any international language, regardless of how it is formed, has no chance at present for permanent success. There are 3,000 languages in current use, he points out, and it is ridiculous to assume that any one tongue, necessarily based on one culture, can be imposed on the world. Only in a one-culture world will any language become supra-national of its own accord, and such a situation does not exist today. The Soviet Union is currently waging a successful campaign to teach Russian to every one in the USSR--there are about 100 different languages spoken--but it is accomplishing this only through force.

Whatmough further asserts that the language barrier is not removed by Interlingua in any case, since it would be completely unintelligible to the average man in the Orient. Even educated Asiatics acquainted with Western culture, would not find Interlingua more international than English or French.

Barring the unification of East and West, Whatmough believes the eventual answer to the problems of language barriers lies with electronic machines. As he puts it, "In this age it is by no means inconceivable to have electronic symbols which would transcend all linguistic symbols." Whatmough asserts such a system would eliminate the need for Interlingua.

One person sharing Whatmough's views concerning the eventual use of machines in translations is Y. Bar-Hillel, a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Unlike Whatmough, however, Bar-Hillel believes ther is a real place for Interlingua in such a system. After two years of work on this subject, he is convinced that the only real problem confronting an electronic system of translation is syntax.

The varying sentence structures of languages would be much harder for a machine to handle than the obvious vocabularly differences. But by using Interlingua, with its relatively simple sentence structure, he believes, as an intermediary, the machine could be perfected much sooner. If, for instance, a person wanted to translate, electronically, Russian into English, it would be simplest, cheapest, and best to feed the machine an Interlingua translation of the Russian, which would then be electronically changed into English. Such a system would make Interlingua and Electronics complementary to each other, rather than in opposition.

No Artificial Words

For this very special application of an international language, Bar-Hillel admits he would rather use Esperanto, which has an even simpler syntax than Interlingua and is thus "closer to the heart of the logician." Its superficial construction, however, considerably weakens Esperanto's position, since it is not the type of language which many people could be persuaded to learn. Most educated people would on the other hand have an immediate common meeting ground in Interlingua, provided they had some knowledge of a western language. Bar-Hillel's hobby is international language, he admits his views are highly subjective; he nevertheless thinks Interlingua has "great chance for permanent success."