IG’s Peace Blog

Peace and its many aspects

Language(s) and peace

I haven’t written about the “language problem”, so I thought I would say a couple of things.  First, there is no doubt that the multitude of languages  in the world has not facilitated the kind of clear communication necessary for peaceful coexistence among peoples.  There have been many instances where a mistranslated word here or there has increased problems between/among countries.  Even more importantly, perhaps, when an international organization such as the U.N. or the E.U. is required (as they should be) to produce versions of treaties, declarations, directives in a variety of languages, there can be subtle nuances of difference among the various terms and phrases used in the different versions, even though to the eye of experienced (and usually quite well paid, btw) interpreters and translators they are basically the same.  This can create loop holes for clever politicians and lawyers.

So, why not use one language to facilitate communication and promote peace, you say?  Certainly.  However, language is culture is identity.  So, whose do you use, and what do you say to people(s) to explain why theirs was not taken for the medium of communication?  Tricky.  But somebody practical will always say “hey this is not such a big problem, just take the language that is de facto used the most and or has the most literature” (typical argument of English speakers btw).    But there are big problems with this approach.  For instance, if one language sort of dominates, how did it achieve a dominant position?  Probably not by holding a referendum and asking people if they wanted to use that language.  No, more likely because the country in question has an imperial past, and a generally belligerent and aggressive foregin policy that had as a side effect the “implanting” of their language in many different places (sound familiar?).

OK…so what about an artificial/synthetic language?  This could certainly be an alternative, since it would be largely politically neutral.  Esperanto is one (not the only) example of such a project.  Whatever you may think of the idea, I would suggest you look into the history and nature of Esperanto (people tend to write it off without really knowing much about it).  It has a lot going for it, and presents many advantages.  Just one example:  it has been constructed so that you can translate into and out of Esperanto from nearly any other language, so it is very useful for electronic translation systems.  It is at least an interesting model of what a world language could be.  I speak a little, so I might be considered biased.

That being said, it seems to me that what we need is an auxiliary (ie second) world language, that is not politically charged.  Everybody keeps their own native language, but learns one more.  Imagine you could go anywhere and read the signs, avoid ordering the chef in foreign restaurants, know without asking where the restrooms were, etc…  However, I think the selection has to be a conscious decision of the world’s leaders, since it would have to be taught in all the world’s schools.  In theory, it could be any language since kids can learn just about anything; in practice, it would be helpful if there was some simplification if an existing language were chosen (there are too many words in English, for instance, and don’t even get me started on homonyms!

Anyhow, this is a big subject, and I have just touched the surface.  Seems to me though that anything that makes “world language” less of an identity issue and more of a practical concern, is taking us in the right direction.


May 22, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,


  1. This topic is really vast and interesting. As a linguist, I wanted to work on the topic of how language influences the culture of peace, when I was thinking of my Degree project. I was not necesarily centered in translations, though, but in certain phrases that are part of the culture and, of course, part of the language that keep us from advancing to a new level of peace-thinking. Phrases such as “no pain, no gain” are a sample of how our culture models us to compete instead of collaborate to get a goal.

    Spanish is my mother tongue and we have lots of examples, too. Also, if we think of translations, it is interesting to consider that sometimes, no matter if we speak the same words, the ideas must be translated. We can see that in social and environmental conflicts. We, “civilized people”, invent a word such as “ecology” to try to focus our culture in taking care of our world, however, if we speak about “ecology” to our native people (people who leave in the Jungle, for example), that is totally redundant and obvious, as nature is part of their daily live and nature is alive.

    Language, as it captures the culture of their speakers, is an unlimited territory to explore and is a very important part in the construction of peace.

    Comment by Marina | June 18, 2010 | Reply

  2. Thanks so much for your comment. There is much to learn (and apply) in this area.

    Comment by igbarb19 | June 18, 2010 | Reply

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