Since the dawn of history (or so the Bible tells us in the Tower of Babel story) human beings have grappled with the problem of communicating between different cultures with mutually unintelligible languages. The idea that there was once a universal human language, and that a universal language is an essential feature of some future return to a Golden Age, is firmly rooted in many mythologies and religious traditions.
Universal communication as envisioned by the Golden Age myth can either involve everyone literally speaking the same language, or everyone being able to understand a communication no matter what language is used to express it. The most usual interpretation of the Pentecost story is that the Apostles were speaking in some unknown language, gifted to them by the Holy Spirit, which was intelligible to people from the farthest corners of the Roman Empire. However, the enumerated gifts of the Holy Spirit also include interpreting tongues, so it is possible to view the scene as a gift of the Spirit, enabling people of diverse backgrounds in the audience to understand a sermon given in the Galilean dialect of Aramaic.
Efforts to establish a world language historically have concentrated on establishing a normative language and teaching people to speak it, either alongside or to the exclusion of what was traditionally spoken in the home. The administratively imposed use of Latin in the Western Roman Empire and in Medieval Europe, Greek in the Eastern Roman Empire, Arabic for liturgical purposes under Islam even to the present day, and English in the British Empire (including the US) represent top-down, politically imposed linguistic conformity which has at times broken down the communication barrier, at least between the ruling classes.
Examples of attempts to create a universal language by synthesis and voluntary association are rarer and tend to be more local. Historically, trade associations of tribal groups have led to the spontaneous emergence of composite, creolized languages like Swahili and Chinook. Esperanto, a modern synthetic Indo-European language, has some limited applications, and Bahasa Indonesia, a synthetic Malay-Polynesian language, was successfully introduced as the public and official language of 200 million people due to its being taught as an obligate subject in primary schools.
Twenty years ago I attempted to learn Bahasa Indonesia, but never got to the point where I could communicate with an individual who spoke only that language. I speak three foreign languages with reasonable fluency and read another six languages well enough that texts are accessible, but Indonesian is one of hundreds of world languages, some of them spoken by tens of millions of people, that were completely unavailable to me unless someone had translated them or I had the means to pay someone to translate a document.
All that has changed dramatically with the introduction of computerized translation software. As long as I have a document in electronic format, in a widely-spoken modern language, I can run it through a translation program to produce intelligible text in English. Translation programs are constantly being improved. I have noticed, for example, that they have gotten considerably better at recognizing grammatical forms in Russian that have no English equivalent and rendering them in a way that is less confusing and clumsy. We are at the point where the long email from a friend in Indonesia and the scholarly paper on Avicenna in Turkish will communicate to me a close approximation of what the writer intended, without much more effort on my part than would be required to read an email and a scholarly paper from Great Britain.
We have, in effect, a universal world language. It’s English, and Turkish, and Russian, and Bahasa Indonesia, and a host of other languages connected through translation software. Including minor languages like Chuchki and Guarani would require a major programming effort, but it would only need to be done once.
While writing this article I received an email which illustrated the point about universal communication quite nicely. It came from an Internet discussion group devoted to historic knitting techniques and responded to a query about hinged knitting needles. The writer pointed out that there was a recent Chinese patent for hinged knitting needles and directed us to a website containing the electronically translated text of the patent itself. That text:
”The utility model discloses a knitting needle constituted by an upper hinge, an upper needle body, a middle needle body, a lower needle body, and a lower hinge. The knitting needle is characterized in that the upper hinge is disposed on the middle needle body, the upper needle body is disposed on the upper hinge, the lower hinge is disposed on the middle needle body, and the lower needle body is disposed on the lower hinge; when in use, the upper needle body and the lower needle body can be expanded by using the upper hinge and the lower hinge, therefore the knitting can be realized. The knitting needle has advantages of simple design, low costs, and large practicality.”
It is awkward, but it is intelligible to a knitter. Considering the enormous differences in grammar and vocabulary between English and Chinese, it is quite remarkable that a machine produced a usable result. At present computerized translation programs are best at rendering factual material like patents and business communications, but they are constantly improving. Perhaps some day they will be able to handle literature and spiritual concepts, or perhaps, conversely, humans will decide that those texts that can only be faithfully rendered in the source language are specific to that culture, and require a living human being who is not only truly bilingual but uncommonly wise to translate at all.