Universal Language Theory (International Pigeon Speak)

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Universal Language Theory (International Pigeon Speak)

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1plodet
sep 23, 2011, 4:49 am

I speak Portuguese, English, and Japanese. For years I have dabbled with the theory that, with all the modern words common to hundreds of different languages, there must be a way to create an international language, a kind of pigeon speak, understandable in hundreds of different countries. Or am I just being wacky? Any thoughts?

2LesMiserables
sep 23, 2011, 4:56 am

Esperanto?

3plodet
sep 23, 2011, 5:04 am

Crossed my mind. I don't know much about esperanto. If I learned it, would I be widely understood in most romance languages as well as Germanic languages and in Asia?

4AnnieMod
sep 23, 2011, 5:10 am

Not really unless if you talk to Esperanto speakers :) There is some chances Western language speakers to understand parts of what you say but same is true for Latin for example. Asia is a whole different story. The Slavic languages as well.

The closest there is to a language understood everywhere is English - but not because of the similarities with other languages.

Language understandable in a lot of country without the people there learning a new language? You can hardly have that in one language group... let alone across all of them...

5LesMiserables
sep 23, 2011, 5:25 am

> 4

You are referring to immersion? That is unavoidable and accounts for much 'English' knowledge, though the immersion is usually crass nonsense; soap operas, crime shows, advertisements.

Esperanto of course is technically artificial, a Frankenstein's monster; but it is made up of various parts of languages but with the idiosyncrasies cut out.

6plodet
sep 23, 2011, 5:29 am

Interesting. I've never heard of immersion. Maybe I will start small, like take the romance languages and study commonalities, then the Germanic. Find a pigeon common to Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Then maybe English and German. Might make for a good summer project if nothing else.

7prosfilaes
sep 23, 2011, 8:20 am

#1: It's a long-held theory, but hasn't tested out very well. Esperanto is supposed to be easy to learn, especially for those who already have some familiarity with European languages, but isn't designed with the theory that you can understand it without learning it. Interlinguists claim you can understand Interlingua without learning it; that's been far from my experience.

There's two stories I remember apropos to the subject; I think they've both come through Language Log, but I can't find them. John Cowan talks about reading a short plaque on a ship written in French. Through his knowledge of international vocabulary, he read every word except for one; and that single preposition, that any French child would have had no problem with, left him without comprehension of the sentence; did it mean "by", "before", "after"? Understanding the big words is great, but it's the small ones that hold everything together.

Another example is a trade between a speaker of Old English and a speaker of Old Norse. They're very close languages, so it goes well, until the final exchange comes, and the speaker of Old Norse points out that they agreed to trade "horsen", not a horse; because unlike Old English, Old Norse retained the dual.*

* (Harrumph. I can't find the source for this language, but I do find some evidence that Old Norse no more retained the dual than Old English.)

One last thing; you speak Portuguese. If you haven't already, try watching a Spanish channel, something on the level of Sesame Street. There is no way you're going to make an international pidgin that is more coherent to the monolingual speakers of English and Spanish then Spanish is to Portuguese.

#6: Before you start doing, I'd start studying. Look at Esperanto, Interlingua (which claims to be understandable to non-speakers) and Lingua Franca Nova (which is more creole like.) Look at Tok Pisin, or another real pidgin or creole. They're not magic; try:

Papa bilong mipela
Yu stap long heven.
Nem bilong yu i mas i stap holi.
Kingdom bilong yu i mas i kam.
Strongim mipela long bihainim laik bilong yu long graun,
olsem ol i bihainim long heven.
Givim mipela kaikai inap long tude.
Pogivim rong bilong mipela,
olsem mipela i pogivim ol arapela i mekim rong long mipela.
Sambai long mipela long taim bilong traim.
Na rausim olgeta samting nogut long mipela.
Kingdom na strong na glori, em i bilong yu tasol oltaim oltaim.
Tru.

Even being a speaker of English, one of the birth languages of this creole, Tok Pisin, even going so far as knowing the text it's a translation of, I can't decipher more than one word of five or ten. If you can't even recognize this text, then I wonder if how you expect to make a language that speakers of English and Tok Pisin (an English creole) can actually communicate in, much less a speaker of Georgian or Arabic.

(In the Land of Invented Languages is a great book, which is why I mention it here. It will give you an idea of just how many attempts have been made in this direction, but it doesn't really mention Interlingua or LFN. The Esperanto section might be interesting, but Klingon, Lojban and the philosophical languages aren't really what you're looking at. Blisssymbolics is actually, in a way; a solid attempt to create an obvious language that everyone can understand, and why it's not so easy.)

8PeterKein
sep 23, 2011, 8:29 am

#7 great post- thanks.

9PaulFoley
sep 23, 2011, 9:02 am

Even being a speaker of English, one of the birth languages of this creole, Tok Pisin, even going so far as knowing the text it's a translation of, I can't decipher more than one word of five or ten. If you can't even recognize this text,

I can do a lot better than that (there are a few words I can't make head or tail of, and more whose meaning I wouldn't guess if I didn't know what it said -- it's obvious what it's translating. If I looked up the English version I might be able to work out the other words; I only know the first couple of lines off the top of my head. "kaikai inap long tude" is the only part that doesn't appear to be based on English in any way...though, on second thoughts, I guess "tude" is from English, and I can see where "kaikai" comes from ("kai" is Maori for food)..."inap" I can't guess, and "long" doesn't seem to be related to the English word...)

10AnnieMod
sep 23, 2011, 9:02 am

>5 LesMiserables:

Kinda. Plus the fact that the language is actually taught pretty much anywhere. For some reason they tend to use immersion for teaching it in the last decade or so (at least in some places) while I am old school -- I like my grammar and rules.

>7 prosfilaes:
A lot of things are claimed for Interlingua... understandable it is not though... :)
Great stories by the way.

11plodet
sep 23, 2011, 12:51 pm

In a word...wow! I'm humbled and amazed by some of the thought that has gone into this. Especially from you, #7. I suspect I am over simplifying , but maybe the answer is a combination of verbal and non-verbal, which we seem to do naturally when traveling abroad. Or I could stop being lazy and simply learn more languages, as that seems like less work. Oh, and while my LT moniker is plodet, I think I would prefer my Klingon name, K'rang. Gotta look into changing that.

12Conachair
sep 24, 2011, 5:01 am

# 7 I am 99% sure Old Norse does NOT have a dual. I susspect it is the difference is that Old English had a plural in -en (e.g oxen) while Norse has a suffixed article, so that it might be that one understood "horses" while the other meant "the horse". (Although I learned hestr as Norse for horse)

13erilarlo
sep 26, 2011, 10:20 am

First of all, it's not the bird.

pidgin |ˈpijən|
noun often as adj.
a grammatically simplified form of a language, used for communication between people not sharing a common language. Pidgins have a limited vocabulary, some elements of which are taken from local languages, and are not native languages, but arise out of language contact between speakers of other languages.

There have been several, more or less created as trade languages, reaching WELL back into the past.

As for modern, deliberately-created languages, we've had more than one of those for some time. None has ever really entered general use. What we've usually had is some language that becomes a useful second language for certain purposes. In medieval Europe it was Latin. Nowadays it tends to be English.

14plodet
sep 27, 2011, 12:58 pm

Thanks 13.

15plagosa
dec 20, 2011, 2:46 am

Not to make you too sad, but a verbal and non-verbal combo probably won't work either. I'm a hearing girl who's fluent in American Sign Language. Many people assume that signed languages are all mime and are universally understood. Not so.

Take for example the sign for "baby" in American Sign Language (ASL)- arms cradled and rocking, as though you were holding a baby and rocking it to sleep. In some signed languages from Africa, the sign for "baby" is the hand at the breast area, as though you were nursing a baby. That same hand-at-the-breast movement, in ASL, simply means "breast." You might see the ASL sign for baby and think "baby is such a basic word, and that is such a natural sign for such a thing." Then to see the African sign you realize that even "basic" concepts vary wildly in how they are signed from language to language.

There is a whole other issue of how to agree to sign things that don't have a physical form, like "love" or "dream."

There have been attempts to create an artificial language on the same lines as Esperanto. It is called Gestuno, and you can read about it here-

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestuno

As with Esperanto too, Gestuno is based on the signed languages of the Western world, leaving Asian and African signers (or speakers, as is the case with Esperanto) out in the cold.

And i think even if you were considering just using "mime" or "gestures" rather than any formalized signed languages as your non-verbal component, all you need to do is go to your local bookstore or library and go to the travel section. There you will find book after book showing you all the different "basic" gestures you can't make in other countries because they are considered vulgar or gravely insulting. This alone should show you the difficulty of finding a workable non-verbal method of communication.

anyhow, won't having a universally understood language just more quickly eradicate all the already-endangered languages?

it would be interesting to see though, if we created one universal language, how quickly it would splinter into new languages, as the speakers went back to their respective lives in their respective, separate countries. (i'm thinking of all the French and English creoles out there when i think of this.) in my library i have a book that teaches you how to understand Indian English (or Hingrish, as some people call it.) there must be a need for that sort of book, or lonely planet wouldn't have written it!

16prosfilaes
dec 20, 2011, 6:14 am

#15: anyhow, won't having a universally understood language just more quickly eradicate all the already-endangered languages?

I don't see why it would. What's the difference between learning Navaho, English and Spanish, and learning Navaho, English and Esperanto? If Swahili and English haven't stopped you from knowing and using Iramba, why would Esperanto?

17plagosa
dec 20, 2011, 1:18 pm

i was rambling at that point and only meant if we tried to supplant all languages with one universally understood, artificially created language. clearly if everyone kept their own languages in addition to a universal language then it probably wouldn't do any more damage than any language already has.

i should have been more clear; thanks for pointing that out!

18thorold
dec 21, 2011, 3:49 am

Just a little sidelight on the intelligibility of Esperanto: in Monday's episode of the British quiz show "University Challenge" they showed the teams the lines:
Ĉu esti aŭ ne esti, — tiel staras
Nun la demando...

and asked them to identify the language and say which play of Shakespeare they came from. None of them had a clue, though I think anyone who'd got as far as looking at lesson one of an Esperanto course would have identified at least the language immediately from the accented letters.

19AnnieMod
dec 21, 2011, 4:41 am

With the clue that it is Shakespeare, even if someone that does not know the language at all should have seen that the first 5 words are forming a nice familiar group...

20thorold
dec 21, 2011, 5:17 am

>19 AnnieMod:
Yes, I was surprised they didn't get it. For that particular task, they didn't need to confront the "John Cowan" problem (7 above) - as with the Tok Pisin example, it should have been very easy to guess what text it is translating, without knowing any of the "small words". I wonder if English native speakers who aren't accustomed to looking at texts in other languages have a kind of mental block and simply register "this is foreign" when they see something like that?

21AnnieMod
dec 21, 2011, 5:23 am

>20 thorold:

Maybe... Or at least some English native speakers. It's really weird not to to be recognized.

PS: Esperanto is not the only language with accented characters. :)

22hdcclassic
dec 21, 2011, 7:04 am

Had I been asked to guess the language, I'd have gone for Romanian, they have a fair share of accented characters too and there's a Latin-based ring in that...
But yeah, that should be got once you know it's Shakespeare.

23thorold
dec 21, 2011, 7:44 am

>21 AnnieMod:
I realise that! - it's the only one I know that definitely has that combination of accents, though. That would be enough to make me look at it more carefully to find Esperanto words or grammar. "la demando" is probably a give-away, once you realise that "demando" is a noun: "real" latin languages don't often use "la" with nouns in -o. But of course it could be a verb in the first person...

If I didn't happen to know something about Esperanto, I might well have guessed Romanian for the same reasons as hdcclassic.

24jjwilson61
Redigeret: dec 21, 2011, 10:37 am

They may well have guessed the text but if they didn't know the language as well it seems it would have been a tactical mistake to answer since it might give a clue to one of your competitors.

25AnnieMod
dec 21, 2011, 12:25 pm

>24 jjwilson61:

I do not know how the game is played so you might be right.

>23 thorold:,22

I would have gone for a Latin-based language if I did not know Esperanto as well - exactly because of the demando. :)

26prosfilaes
dec 21, 2011, 8:36 pm

#21: It's the only one with Ĉ, and ŭ is only used in Esperanto, Belarussian, and romanized Korean and Malayalam. The orthography is pretty easy to guess.

#22, 23: I guess I am really a script geek; characters like ă, â, ş and ţ are the sign of Romanian.

27madpoet
dec 21, 2011, 9:14 pm


At present, if you speak just 4 languages you can communicate with more than 2.5 billion people (over 1/3 of the world's population).

Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi and Spanish

If you speak Esperanto, you can communicate with... a few thousand speakers? (There are probably more speakers of Estonian, or even Icelandic!)

28AnnieMod
dec 21, 2011, 10:03 pm

>27 madpoet:

A bit more than that believe it or not. A lot more that a few thousand actually.

I learned it because I was bored. And because I like languages.:)

29PaulFoley
dec 21, 2011, 10:16 pm

According to Wikipedia, "100,000 can use it actively. 10,000 speak it fluently."

30madpoet
dec 22, 2011, 1:24 am

Icelandic: 310,000 speakers (according to Wikipedia)
Esperanto: 100,000 speakers (?)

And Icelandic has a rich literary tradition going back 1,000 years. I think I know which one I'd rather learn...

31anglemark
dec 22, 2011, 3:43 am

Sure, no argument there. But Icelandic won't enable you to talk with people all over the world and it's more difficult. But go ahead, it's a wonderful language I think.

For me, the main reason for learning more Esperanto would be that it's fun and relatively effortless.

32AnnieMod
dec 22, 2011, 1:45 pm

>30 madpoet:

Both? :) I do not know why you choose Icelandic but that is one of the languages on my to-learn list :)

Other from that - noone forces you to learn anything. I find Esperanto a fun language and the more languages you learn, the easier it gets to pick up different grammars and to wrap your head around different languages. Besides - I have been using it for communication with people that I share no language with and it works perfectly. As much as I wish I could, I cannot learn all languages and not everyone knows English (or knows it on a level which allows communication without them going to a dictionary and a grammar book every 2 sentences)