Deputy Features Editor, Ally Addison, highlights the imbalances caused by English as the main language of academia by examining a scenario in which Esperanto had become a universal language.
In 1887, the Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist, Ludwik Zamenhof, set out his aims for a universal language that would foster world peace and international solidarity. The finished product (if a language can ever be said to be complete) was called Esperanto, translating as “one who hopes”. With no more than 50 000 speakers worldwide, it is fair to say that Zamenhof and the Esperanto movement fell short of their goal.
In the last issue, the Viewpoint Editor, Laura Beveridge, presented a thorough and enlightening analysis of the ways in which Fessdrews and other such anonymous pages are used and abused. She concludes that such pages are “positive at best and innocuous at worst”. Not only are they a source of amusement, but, since only a small proportion of followers can be expected to actually post on them, any toxic tirade is hardly representative of the student body taken as a whole.
Although I agree that we should not trump up the harmfulness of anonymous pages and their reflection of the state of the student community, the increase in hostile posts in recent months is proof that, devoid of the barrier-breaking influence of Raisin Weekend and alcohol-fuelled club nights at the Union, there exist social divisions at this university.
In the run up to my decision to “unfollow” Fessdrews (driven not least by the fact that it seemed to be taking up half my time), I observed with a mixture of fascination and horror as an anonymous feud played out between Scots and English, a common complaint being that the English come up to Scotland for an education only to patronise its people. Meanwhile, other derisive remarks were made about Americans, particularly with regards to their perceived ignorance.
I also noticed hostility between state and private-school educated students, as well as posts showing a deep sensitivity, and resentment even, surrounding comparative levels of intelligence at the University.
In this article, I will pose a scenario in which Esperanto had succeeded to become a universal second language, and imagine how St Andrews would look in such a situation. Might the use of Esperanto as a language of academia have broken down the barriers between different groups at universities, particularly rich and poor and local and international?
Zamenhof was born in what is now Bialystok, Poland, a town that was known for its ethnic diversity, comprising as it did large, segregated communities of Poles, Jews, Germans and Russians. Reflecting on his early life growing up in the eastern Polish city, he wrote, “In such a town a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies.”
Zamenhof was acutely aware of the disconnection between different groups exacerbated by the growth of nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. As a self-proclaimed “Idealist”, he felt a burning ambition to do something about it.
At the height of the Esperanto movement in the early 1900s, leaflets and posters talked of Esperanto as ‘the bond for international communication’. It was designed to be a language that everyone, no matter where they came from, would find easy to learn.
Among other attractive features, the language contains no irregular verbs, no grammar exceptions and only two cases. (As a Russian learner I cannot overemphasise how inconvenient it is having to work around six different grammar cases and about a million different exceptions). The language draws from a mainly Slavic inventory of sounds and a predominantly Romance-based vocabulary.
Another peculiarity of Esperanto is its prominent use of ‘root’ words. Whereas in English, someone who cooks professionally is a “chef” – a word that bears no relation to its associated verb – Esperanto makes use of prefixes and suffixes added to root words so that the formation of different nouns is purely logical. Compare kuiri (to cook) with kuiristo (a chef) – the four letters “isto” are added to the end of the root “kuir” to produce the occupation.
Although it never took off on nearly as grand a scale as its founders had hoped for, the constructed language proved remarkably enduring. Despite fierce persecution in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, who viewed the language respectively as a Jewish conspiracy and an internationalist plot, Esperanto speakers went on to set up various organisation and periodicals across the world, and thanks to the efforts of the likes of Duolingo, the number of learners has soared in recent years (there are over 400 000 active learners of Esperanto on Duolingo alone).
This leads me onto the question of: what if Zamenhof had succeeded in his goals and Esperanto had officially become a universal language, spoken in every nation at least as a second language? More specifically, what would St Andrews look like?
I should state now that I am under no illusion as to the absurdity of this idea. However, I think it is an inventive way of conveying that the use of English as a common language in academia is flawed and that Esperanto, no matter how hopeless a cause, might have offered some solutions to social barriers within universities.
English is widely viewed as the universal language of academia. If Wikipedia can be counted as a legitimate measure of intellectual output, then the fact that over six million Wikipedia articles are written in English compared to only two million in French is a clear indication that when it comes to academic writing, English is an unmatched lingua franca.
If anglophone universities were distributed evenly around the globe, there would be no problem with English being a dominant academic language – assuming there were plenty of opportunities for non-native speakers to get to a competent level. However, as it stands, nine of the top ten universities in the world, and an equally significant proportion in the top 100, are situated in English-speaking countries, namely America, Canada and Britain, meaning that students who grew up in these countries are in a far stronger academic position to begin with.
Had Esperanto come to the fore as a universal language then there would have been no intellectual epicentre towards which every ambitious student would scramble, and, as a result, there would surely have been a more equitable distribution of learning and research.
Furthermore, native speakers of English have a tendency to underestimate the difficulties of learning the English language. Despite the fact that the seemingly universal reach of English language films and media have allowed for young people across the world to race ahead in their English studies, the fact remains that English is a difficult language, full of irregularities, exceptions and inexplicable spellings.
Had Esperanto attained worldwide recognition as a universal language, the painful process of learning a language whose contradictions and inconsistencies baffle native and non-native speakers alike could have been avoided. What is more, everyone would have shared the burden of language learning; rather than forcing 90% of the globe to learn a difficult language, surely it would be fairer to make 100% acquire a simple one.
For as highly international a university as St Andrews, Esperanto would have helped to bridge the gap between the diverse student body. No longer would international students from non- anglophone countries feel the pressure to get their English to such a high level. Assuming a situation in which all universities operated in Esperanto and the language attained its goal as a uniter of nations, St Andrews would have been simply another place of study in a borderless, interconnected world.
Another issue with the use of English at universities lies in the power of accents in determining how people interact with each other. In recent years, many studies have been conducted showing how those with regional accents are generally viewed as being less intelligent than those who speak in RP (received pronunciation) English. This is particularly obvious in Britain, where having a Birmingham accent, for example, can severely affect your chances of being regarded as an academic equal. On Fessdrews, I noted a few posts from people who felt intimidated in tutorials as a result of their accent in relation to others.
Esperanto, though admittedly more natural to speakers of Romance language, would surely have got rid of such arbitrary distinctions between accents had it been adopted as a universal tongue. Languages like English have evolved over centuries to create divisions based on class, place of origin and level of education. Esperanto on the other hand might have offered an academic environment free of language-based bias, where no one felt shy to raise their voice and convey their opinions. Masked by the sounds of a language that sounds like a mixture between Russian and Spanish, would Americans be identified as Americans and Scots as Scots?
Some would argue that English is a superior academic language because, with its wonderfully rich vocabulary shaped by the fusion of French, Latin and Germanic influences, it lends itself to literature. While there is certainly some truth in this view, the wealth of English vocabulary also means that it is very easy to flatter to deceive – the act of using intelligent sounding words to cover up fallacious arguments.
Having a broad-ranging vocabulary is not necessarily a sign of intelligence, it is something that can be brought out through education. Many state-school students at the University complain that their independently-educated counterparts are generally more well-read and well-spoken. I put this down at least partly to the ability of the English language to be manipulated to make its user appear more intelligent.
Although I am sure that our professors are able to see past any deceptive use of the English language, from the perspective of students who are under-confident in their command over English, fraternising with people whose higher quality of education has left them with a wider vocabulary might be belittling and create a feeling of insecurity about their place at an elite university.
If Esperanto had thrived to become a universal language of education, then the frivolities of the English language could be sidelined and students could communicate without feeling the need to show off. With its more limited and accessible vocabulary, Esperanto would have been an ideal academic language, allowing for a straight-forward expression of intellectual ideas in a way that everyone could understand and adopt.
Others might point out that Esperanto’s condensed vocabulary would have been a double-edged in the world of academia – although it would have allowed for a more direct and less pretentious exchange of ideas, it might also have imposed limits on intellectual thought. However, just as we use loan words in English such as the German ‘Schadenfreude’ and the French ‘laissez-faire’, so too could English have been treated as a sort of inventory whenever Esperanto impeded free expression.
Nor can the dark colonial past of the English language be entirely pushed aside. Under the British Empire, as we are constantly reminded, English was a language of imperialism, facilitating the subjugation and economic exploitation of whole continents.
If it came to a choice between using a language whose express purpose was to bring people together and a language whose history is tied up in a messy knot of imperialism, I would certainly choose the former.
Imagining a St Andrews where Esperanto is the dominant language is a pointless exercise from the point of view that Zamenhof’s project was doomed to failure, but it at least highlights that we should not see the creeping universality of English as a wholly good thing, nor should we look upon Esperanto as an irrelevant and senseless endeavour. The domination of English can lead to a splintering of social groups and an imbalance in the world of academia. Esperanto, on the other hand, was a language of international solidarity: it promised to put everyone on an equal linguistic playing field and diversify the academia away from its anglophone centres.