Home > anthropology, consciousness, semiotics, society > Why can’t the world have a universal language?

Why can’t the world have a universal language?

Answer by Marc Ettlinger:

To answer this question we need to consider why we have multiple languages in the first place.

Presumably at some point, about 100,000-200,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens started using language in the way we mean language now. At the time, we were spread out over a relatively confined space on the globe and it is practically impossible that language spontaneously arose in more than a handful of places.

Our route out of Africa

So, at one point, there were some limited number of languages among groups of people that had some amount of geographic proximity. It could have been relatively easy for one language to emerge then or that everyone all spoke the same mother tongue anyway and for things to have stayed that way till now.

But that didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite happened. As humans spread across the globe and popultion growth exploded exponentially, so too did the number of languages. In fact, it’s estimated that there were approximately 10,000 languages spoken only a couple of hundred years ago.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that languages change. The second is that language is identity.

It’s easy to see that languages change. Remember struggling through Shakespeare? Yeah, me too, and that demonstrates the change that English has undergone over the past few hundred years.  When that continues to happen and the same language changes in different ways in different geographical regions, you eventually get new languages. The most obvious example is Vulgar Latin dialects turning into the Romance Languages. From one language to many.

So, the first part of the answer is that the general tendency is for languages to propagate and diverge.

Your response may be that we are in a new world order, now, with globalization homogenizing the entire world into one common culture, facilitated by internet technology. America’s melting pot writ large.

The world as melting pot?

This is where part two of the answer comes in. Language is not simply a means for communicating. Language is also identity. We know that people communicate more than ideas with their language, they communicate who they are, what they believe and where they’re from. Subconsciously. So the obstacles to one language are similar to the obstacle to us all wearing the same clothes. It would certainly be cheaper and more efficient, but it’s not how people behave. And we see that empirically in studies of how Americans’ accents have not homogenized with the advent of TV (Why do some people not have accents?).

The same applies with languages — in the face of globalization, we see renewed interest in native languages, for example the rise of Gaelic (Irish language) in the face of the EU.

Having said that, colonialism and statism have lead to a decline in number of languages from its peak of 10,000 to about 6,000+ today, which you can read about here: Is English killing other languages?

Therein you’ll also see discussion of your question. The conclusion there, and what I’d similarly suggest here is that “so long as countries exist, English won’t encroach further.” In other words, the world doesn’t really want a universal language.

As long as humans aspire to have their own distinct identities and form different groups, the same aspirations that drive them to wave different flags, root for different teams, listen to different music and have different cultures, they’ll continue to have different languages.

View Answer on Quora


S33:  Interesting to think about how language changes prolifically even though what language represents often doesn’t change. I’ll have to think about that, re: diffraction of private experience into public spacetime. The cognitve level is more generic than the emotional level of expression – a more impersonal aesthetic.  Ironically, the intent is to make gesture more enduring and objective, yet the result is more changes over time and space, while the language of gesture is more universal. Of course, verbal expression offers many more advantages through its motility through public media.

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