Universal language

A universal language is a hypothetical historical or mythical language said to be spoken and understood by all or most of the world's population;or, in some circles, is said to be understood by all living things, beings, and objects alike. In some conceptions, it may be the primary language of all speakers, or the only existing language; in others, it is a fluent secondary language used for communication between groups speaking different primary languages. Some mythological or religious traditions state that there was once a single universal language among all people, or shared by humans and supernatural beings; this is not supported by historical evidence; however, Sanskrit is often referred to as akin to this universal language.

The idea of a universal language is at least as old as the Biblical story of Babel. The biblical story of Babel's fall states that there was once a time of a universal Adamic language (now often associated with the Kabbalah) and then something happened, the confusion of tongues, analogous to the Fall of Man. In the Judeo-Christian tradition there are various attitudes to regaining the supposed golden age, before Babel; these include optimism, pessimism, and recourse to parody and warnings on hubris, depending on the wished interpretation of the story.

In other traditions, there is less interest in or a general deflection of the question. For example in Islam the Arabic language is the language of the Qur'an, and so universal for Muslims. The written classical Chinese language was and is still read widely but pronounced somewhat differently by readers in different areas of China, in Vietnam, Korea and Japan for centuries; it was a de facto universal literary language for a broad-based culture. In something of the same way Sanskrit in India was a literary language for many for whom it was not a mother tongue.

Comparably, the Latin language (qua Medieval Latin) was in effect a universal language of literati in the Middle Ages, and the language of the Vulgate Bible, in the area of Catholicism which covered most of Western Europe and parts of Northern and Central Europe also.

Seventeenth century

Recognizable strands in the contemporary ideas on universal languages took form only in Early Modern Europe. A lingua franca or trade language was nothing very new; but an international auxiliary language was a natural wish in light of the gradual decline of Latin. Literature in vernacular languages became more prominent with the Renaissance. Over the course of the 18th century, learned works largely ceased to be written in Latin. According to Colton Booth (Origin and Authority in Seventeenth-Century England (1994) p.174) "The Renaissance had no single view of Adamic language and its relation to human understanding." The question was more exactly posed in the work of Francis Bacon.

In the vast writings of Gottfried Leibniz can be found many elements relating to a possible universal language, specifically a constructed language, a concept that gradually came to replace that of a rationalized Latin as the natural basis for a projected universal language. Leibniz conceived of a characteristica universalis (also see mathesis universalis), an "algebra" capable of expressing all conceptual thought. This algebra would include rules for symbolic manipulation, what he called a calculus ratiocinator . His goal was to put reasoning on a firmer basis by reducing much of it to a matter of calculation that many could grasp. The characteristica would build on an alphabet of human thought.

Leibniz's work is bracketed by some earlier mathematical ideas of René Descartes, and the satirical attack of Voltaire on Panglossianism. Descartes's ambitions were far more modest than Leibniz's, and also far more successful, as shown by his wedding of algebra and geometry to yield what we now know as analytic geometry. Decades of research on symbolic artificial intelligence have not brought Leibniz's dream of a characteristica any closer to fruition.

Other seventeenth-century proposals for a 'philosophical' (i.e. universal) language include those by Francis Lodwick, Thomas Urquhart (possibly parodic), George Dalgarno (Ars signorum, 1661), and John Wilkins (An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, 1668). The classification scheme in Roget's Thesaurus ultimately derives from Wilkins's Essay.

Early modern ideas about philosophical language were motivated by various theological preoccupations, ones not necessarily associated with Pentecost (see below).

Eighteenth century

In the 18th century, some rationalist natural philosophers sought to recover the Edenic language. There were two general approaches. In one, it was assumed that education inevitably took people away from the innate state of goodness they possessed, and therefore there was an attempt to see what language a human child brought up in utter silence would speak. This was assumed to be the Edenic tongue, or at least the lapsarian tongue. However, the more common and vigorously attempted project was to either discover the most ancient language (assuming that it would be nearest to Edenic) or to compare all languages and discover their common structures and thus to understand what language God had built into humans. There were, therefore, multiple attempts to relate esoteric languages to Hebrew (e.g. Basque, Erse, and Irish), as well as the beginnings of comparative linguistics.

On the other hand, Voltaire's Candide took aim at Leibniz as Dr. Pangloss, with the choice of name clearly putting universal language in his sights, but satirizing mainly the optimism of the projector as much as the project. The argument takes the universal language itself no more seriously than the ideas of the speculative scientists and virtuosi of Jonathan Swift's Laputa. For the like-minded of Voltaire's generation, universal language was tarred as fool's gold with the same brush as philology with little intellectual rigour, and universal mythography, as futile and arid directions.

Nineteenth century

At the end of the nineteenth century there was a large profusion of constructed languages intended as genuine spoken language. Among these were Solresol, Volapük, and Esperanto, with Esperanto becoming the most popular.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith (Bahá'u'lláh) called on the governments of the world to effect the establishment of an international auxiliary language. Since then, the international Bahá'í community has promoted this goal, particularly through the United Nations, as a means of facilitating "the transition to a global society".

Twentieth century

Global media, the legacy of the British Empire, the status of the United Kingdom as an economic superpower in the first half, and the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century led to the informal adoption of English as the primary language of international business and the default language in worldwide social communication. In origin English developed as an interlanguage and is on the rise. It is suspected by some, to become the official language of the world within a few generations. The constructed language movement gave rise to a more naturalistic approach, producing such languages as Latino Sine Flexione, Occidental, and finally the auxiliary language Interlingua. Of these, only Interlingua has any backing today..

Contemporary ideas

The early ideas of a universal language with complete conceptual classification by categories is still debated on various levels. Michel Foucault believes such classifications to be subjective, citing Borges' fictional Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge's Taxonomy as an illustrative example.

A recent philosophical synthesis has also connected Leibniz's interest in environmental engineering with Systems Ecology. It has been proposed that a modern form of Leibniz's Characteristica Universalis is the Energy Systems Language of Systems Ecology, which has been used to develop ecological-economic systems overviews of landscapes, technologies, and Nations. One consequence of this seems to be that Leibniz's Enlightenment project is alive and being applied globally in the evaluation of ecological sustainability.


A Bible-centered discussion of the question would pick up on the glossolalia (speaking with tongues) of the New Testament Pentecost story, where in the Book of Acts

''And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house"..."And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire"..."they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues"..."devout men, out of every nation under heaven"..."the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?" - Acts 2:1-13

In the story, Saint Peter proceeds to explain this miracle as the fulfillment of the prophecy by Joel. A Christian interpretation views this event as the reconstitution of the division brought about at the Tower of Babel. The tower to reach heaven represents a Titan's (futile) quest, but the descent and acceptance of the Holy Spirit upon the men at the Pentecost represents that quest's fulfillment.


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