Our recent roundup of language in the news linked to a BBC report on a new phonetic alphabet, asking if it could “promote world peace”. The project is called SaypU, short for Spell As You Pronounce Universal project, and its website explicitly expresses the hope that this novel alphabet “might help making the world a more peaceful and harmonious place”.
Moral and political aspirations have motivated inventors of languages and other communication systems for centuries. Esperanto is perhaps the most famous. Its creator, Ludwik Zamenhof, was an idealist who felt the “heavy sadness” of linguistic diversity and believed it was “the only, or at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts”. So he created Esperanto to foster communication and understanding between people of different languages.
But would speaking the same language really make people more inclined to get on? There are groups of speakers with very similar dialects and phonologies but who insist they speak different languages, because they wish for their cultures to remain distinct. This wish is sometimes accompanied by outright hostility. Such mutual antagonism between cultures is common and will hardly be dissolved by a shared alphabet.
Promoting peace with an alphabet is an admirable but quixotic aim. For one thing, I can’t see how a 24-character set of symbols could even come close to covering the complex sounds of so many languages, many of them heavily reliant on tonal subtleties. For another, there’s no reason to assume greater communicative overlap would engender significantly more kindness and mutual consideration among people.
A post at Language Log reminded me of Douglas Adams’s memorable line in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “The [poor] Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.” Hyperbolic humour, certainly, but no less probable an outcome than world peace, given what we know of human history and nature. For more practical criticisms, the comments at Language Log are worth reading.
Of course, there’s already an International Phonetic Alphabet, used widely by linguists and language enthusiasts. The BBC alludes to it dismissively with the phrase “indecipherable squiggles”, but while the IPA may seem forbidding at first, it doesn’t take long to adjust to. Macmillan Dictionary shows it right after a definition’s audio file – looking up phonetic, for example, we can follow how /fəˈnetɪk/ corresponds to the sound. And yes: the IPA enables greater linguistic understanding. But world peace will take change of a very different order.Email this Post