I have friends who, in recent years, have expressed an interest in Esperanto, including one friend who is able to speak it. Without fail, they all profess this to be the language of the future. Even after having been shown that it has existed since the 1880’s, they persist by explaining that, thanks to the Internet, this language can become universal and soon our children or grandchildren will all be speaking Esperanto, and so everyone in the world will understand each other and we will have peace on earth and live happily ever after.
I find this a load of hogwash.
Universal languages have been around since the beginning of time. Ever since people started realizing that languages are different and change, they have been trying to overcome this. At first it was by trying to recreate the Adamic language form (or ancient Hebrew). To a great extent, Kabbalah scholars are still trying to do this. Once Latin fell into disuse among the masses in Europe, around the 4th or 5th century AD, philosophers have been trying to unite all languages into one. Dante’s Divine Comedy, in the common vulgate, is one example. He did not write in Italian, or in a Tuscan dialect, but gathered different expressions and forms from all the Italic dialects he encountered, trying to find the most communicative form in doing so.
On the other hand, Dante, unlike many scholars before and after him, understood that languages cannot remain the same. When in Paradise, Adam tells him that the language spoken at the time of the Tower of Babel is very different from that which he spoke, because it is the nature of man to change, and therefore his language will change throughout time.
There are some variations to this theory which I should mention. They came about when Europeans discovered the Chinese language and, more specifically, Chinese characters. When the first traders and missionaries came back from the Far East, Europeans were enthralled at the idea that, even though there were many different languages in China, everyone could be understood by writing down universally recognized characters. They could also communicate with the Koreans and Japanese in the same manner, although these also spoke completely different languages. Kircher spent his life trying to prove that Chinese characters derived from Egyptians Hieroglyphics, which had been a sublime form of writing for him. Leibniz, on the other hand, saw Chinese characters as a form of Binary code, or mathematical language (although he did so through a flawed translation of the I-Ching).
The more modern versions of these international auxiliary languages are Volapuk, Solresol and Esperanto. Out of these, Esperanto by far has had the most support. A country between the Netherlands and Prussia was supposed to be founded in 1908 with Esperanto as its official language, but this never came to fruition. Likewise China, after the Xinhai revolution, thought to establish Esperanto as its official language in order to break from the past. This also did not occur.
Therefore, despite all these studies, an international language has not emerged. There is one glaring exception to this: numbers. The Hindu-Arabic numeral system, as we know it today, is used by a vast majority of the world and is understood at sight by virtually every literate person. In other words, if I were to show the symbol “5” to someone, this person would know right away what it meant. Whether this person called it a different name, or spelled it in a different manner, would not matter. The concept would remain the same. Well then, why can we not expect the same out of a language in the future? In order to understand this, we should understand the past, or how the Hindu-Arabic numeral system came to be universally adopted.
The symbols themselves (from 1 to 9) came from India and were adopted by the populace and picked up by traders. From there they traveled through Arabia and Northern Africa, where Fibonacci picked them up. We can credit him with spreading their use in Europe, where people soon discovered they were easier to use than the current Roman numerals (imagine writing an algebraic equation in Roman numerals). But why was this so? It has less to do with the shape (there is nothing extraordinary in the shape of 4 or 5) than with the format. The structure of numbers fits a numerical system with a base number of 10. This is fortunate, since 10 is our base number (in earthly mathematics, at least). It is also relatively easy to writing long numbers and, most importantly, there is no ambiguity in these numbers.
Of course, our numerical system is not perfect. It would be nice to have concrete numbers for such important constants as π and e, as it would be nice if we could find the roots of a quintic equation by following the same methods as we do for a quartic, cubic, quadratic and linear equation. But so far, this is the best system we have, so we stick with it.
Another example, briefly, is chemical formulas. If one person wants to convey Sulphuric acid to someone else, he or she could do so by writing H2SO4 and it would be universally accepted. I mention this only briefly because chemical formulas are not commonly used among the populace of different countries. They are also not commonly found in everyday international conversation. I would be hard pressed to find an example of chemical compounds having been used over pints at a bar in order to convey a message between strangers of different nationalities. On the other hand, both patrons of this bar would understand the total numerical amount of the tab, even if they hadn’t been able to communicate one word between themselves.
Which brings us back to the initial question. Why couldn’t we expect a universal language in the future? It has worked with numbers and with chemical formulas. The next step should be languages, right? Wrong. Language is not numbers or chemical formulas. As much as we would like to find greater meaning in the words we use, linguistic patterns develop along a semi-chaotic sequence of popular abbreviations, borrowings and expressions which no one person can control.
If we say “I’ll talk to you later”, someone may abbreviate that to “Talk to you later”, and someone else to just “later”, while another person will start typing “ttyl”. Other expressions, such as “Late” and “Laters” will pop-up, and soon enough the language itself has changed to accommodate peoples’ perceptions. This is how we developed words like textbook and aqueduct, how Bucks became synonymous with Dollars (itself of Slavic origin) and how Milan took the place of Mediolanum. It is for this reason that the Dictionary needs to be updated at least as often as the Encyclopedia, while numbers and chemical formulas are updated only as new ones are discovered to add onto the list we already have.
In short, even if a universal and utopian language were invented, within a couple years there would be different forms of slang; within a generation there would be different dialects and, within 100 years or so, different languages altogether. At this point, a universal language such as Esperanto would just become the modern version of what Latin was during Dante’s time: a universal but dead and artificial language. Then someone may develop a new universal language that will grab peoples' imagination, and the cycle will continue.