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Is the Tower of Babel shakier than ever? The signs are mixed. When I was a boy, an ability to speak French was a proof of culture in Europe and in Latin American countries, especially Brazil. The decline of the international status of their language pains older Frenchmen. Le français langue morte? That is why President Jacques Chirac has revived the idea of Latinity, as exemplified in the Latinity Prize awarded to a Mexican at the recent Rio meeting. Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar held his tongue, but he is pushing the term Ibero American to encourage the "Latin" Americans to look to Spain and Portugal.
French is also fighting a domestic battle against regional languages. Chirac resists the regionalists' demands that the French constitution be revised, but Prime Minister Jospin agrees with them. However, on his recent visit to Bordeaux and southern France, Chirac tried to soften his opposition by saying that regional languages should be encouraged. His audience consisted mostly of young people. When I was in southern France a few years ago, it was the younger generation which was pushing provençal, presumably as a protest aganst suthority, especially that of langauge teachers who insisted that they obey even the more obscure rules of French grammer.
In the new European community, French is in danger of being drowned not just by English but also by German, the language of the biggest number of EC people. I still have not got a clear picture of the official status of the various languages in the EC and would appreciate any clarification. Germans hope their language may recover the prestige it had at the beginning of this century, and they were angered when the new Finnish chairman of the EC commission said that German should lose its official status in the EC. I am not sure what he meant: possibly that the use of English would solve the linguistic chaos in the Community.
In all of these discussions I have not seen a single mention of Esperanto, but it is still there, as witness the Spring issue of Esperantic Studies. The Esperanto League for North America is holding its 30th annual summer workship at San Francisco State University. The instructors are young people of various backgrounds. The leader is Mark Fettes, a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Toronto. He edited Europe's Babylon: Toward a Common European Language? (1988). A former member of the exective council of the Universal Esperanto Association, he is now on the board of the Center for Research and Documentation on World Languages.
The issue of Esperantic Studies opens with a review by him of two books: David Crystal, English as a Global Language and David Graddol, The Future of English? Crystal was the author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. He is more affirmative about the triumph of Emglish than Graddol, whch is natural as Graddol is a specialist in English as a second language.
It is a tricky subject, which I have followed at Stanford since the time when Frenchman Albert Guérard promoted here a strange variety of international languages--anything but English. His last fad was Vulgar Latin, since he was part of the generation which promoted the Latinity revived by Chirac.
I repeat that in all the current discussions I have not come across a single reference to Esperanto. English has a somewhat more complicated grammer (albeit much simpler than French or German). It has the advantage of an incredibly rich vocabulary. Unlike Esperanto, it is cursed with an absurd spelling, as Bernard Shaw pointed out. The supporters of Esperanto could make a valuable contribution to the timid movement to simplify English spelling.
Ronald Hilton - 07/06/99