There’s a joke which goes: What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.
It isn’t entirely a fair joke, of course. There are plenty of Americans who speak more than one language — but many of them are people for whom English is their second (or third, or fourth) tongue. People born in the U.S. to non-immigrant families often have no more than the tiny remnants of the Spanish or French or maybe German left over from their language requirement in school.
As a result, there’s an attitude here that treats multilingualism like a superpower. (Side-by-side with a racist tendency to excoriate anybody whose English isn’t perfect: never mind that we don’t speak more than ten badly-pronounced words of anyone else’s language; you must not only have the superpower, but exercise it flawlessly.) Being able to speak another tongue well enough to get by, much less fluently, seems like this enormous achievement, accessible only to geniuses.
But not only is multilingualism not a rare superpower, it’s actually pretty common. Not everywhere at every time, of course: if you spend your whole life in a village comfortably ensconced within the core of your linguistic territory, sans modern mass media to bring the outside world to your doorstep, then the most foreign speech you encounter might be a slightly different accent. But if you live near a border, or in a mixed community, or in a place that sees a lot of long-distance trade, or if you’re a scholar who needs to communicate with your peers in other places — in short, in a wide variety of circumstances that bring you into contact with diverse groups — then there’s both reason and opportunity for you to pick up another language.
That doesn’t necessarily mean full fluency, of course. You might have a highly specialized vocabulary tuned to your particular field of activity, and if you mostly conduct that work in writing, as scholars often do, then your pronunciation and listening comprehension might be abysmal. The more languages you have to learn to get by, the more limited your skill in each one is likely to be. (There are people who master half a dozen tongues or more, but they genuinely are exceptional. Also, I want their superpower.) The need for high degrees of multilingualism especially becomes a problem in trade, where you might travel along something like the Silk Road or receive merchants from a dozen different ports, bringing a truly dizzying array of languages to your ears.
One way to deal with this challenge is to use what sometimes gets called a lingua franca. That means “Frankish language,” though the original lingua franca (also called Sabir) was actually northern Italian in origin — it dates back to a time when all Western Europeans were called Franks. It was a pidgin language (about which more next week), but the base concept applies to a range of tongues from simplified pidgins to ossified literary languages: anything where people across a wide geographic area use the same language to communicate, some or all of them non-natively.
In the West, Latin served this purpose for a long time, thanks to its role in first the Roman Empire and later the Catholic Church. Clergymen had to learn Latin, and they were also the main body of literate individuals in Europe; as a result, not only religion but scholarship, diplomacy, and even some amount of trade were carried out in Latin — even though by then it wasn’t anybody’s mother tongue, having evolved into its descendant languages of Italian, French, Spanish, and so on. A similar situation prevails with Arabic: Classical Arabic persisted as a literary language across the Islamic world for centuries, and was updated in the last two hundred years to what linguists call Modern Standard Arabic, but in neither case is that what people speak at home. Instead they speak regional dialects of Arabic (more on that next week, too).
Empires frequently establish a lingua franca, because administering far-flung territories requires a common language. We see this with Mandarin Chinese, and also with Quechua, the language of the Incas: the Incan Empire was sufficiently well-organized that the Spaniards found it easier to simply take over the existing apparatus, language and all, rather than to force everyone to learn Spanish. As a result, Quechua is (I’m told) the only indigenous language of the New World commonly spoken by non-indigenous people today.
As the above examples suggest, the lingua franca can remain long after the empire that spread it has withdrawn. If you want to get around large swaths of Africa, the most useful tongue for you to learn is French; in many Indian tech firms, where employees come from all across the country, the shared language around the office is English. For all that it’s a reminder of British colonialism, it’s seen as a more neutral option than choosing one of the many Indian languages (such as Hindi) to be the standard.
In a globalized world like the one we live in, this kind of thing will continue to be necessary. Even a brief trip through Google Translate exposes the continuing limitations of machine translation: to choose an extremely memorable example from a Japanese Wikipedia page I recently tried it on (a description of the ceremony where samurai presented the severed heads of their enemies after a battle), “Equal total armor obi sul cavalry ceremonial ceremonial swordsman’s neck swordsman’s sword warrior’s cervical swordsman’s cervical sword it’s called ‘Nari, a junior person.'” Forget faster-than-light travel; the universal translator might be the most implausible concept in all of Star Trek.
Some people have attempted to deal with this problem by creating a universal language instead. The oldest conlang or constructed language that we know of was created by the twelfth-century nun Hildegard von Bingen. We don’t know why she created her lexicon of approximately a thousand words, but we do know that by the seventeenth century, John Wilkins was writing An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, a concerted attempt to design a mode of communication that would follow more coherent principles than natural language. But his attempt, like all of those who have followed in his footsteps, was riddled with oddities and biased or idiosyncratic decisions. Esperanto, the most well-known modern example of a supposedly “universal” conlang, is actually heavily European in its structure and vocabulary. It may well be impossibly to truly create a tongue that doesn’t favor one region and language family over others.
And even if we succeeded . . . would anyone speak it? Language isn’t simply a utilitarian thing, learned so we can conduct our business with a minimum of fuss. We use language for art; it expresses the subtleties of culture in a thousand ways. The very messiness and irrationality is part of its beauty. A top-down attempt first to create a more rational language, then to get people to adopt it, may be doomed to fail — short of some Esperanto or Kotava enthusiast managing to become a modern conqueror, bringing many states under their control, and then using their authority to force everyone to speak their conlang of choice.
Somebody’s probably written that novel. Possibly in Esperanto.