Tech’s ability to close language gaps deserves cautious support

WHY does humanity speak so many languages? Our ancestors decided it must be the result of divine intervention: when the people of Babel decided to build a tower to the heavens, God “confused” their tongues to scupper work on their hubristic project.

Today, we think languages “speciate” much as organisms do. Biological speciation is a complex process with many disparate triggers; languages, too, may split for reasons ranging from genetic mutations to changes in the environment. Some celebrate this diversity, but others wonder what humanity might achieve if united by a common language. In an obscure sequel to the biblical tale, Fénius Farsaid, legendary patriarch of the Irish people, directed 72 wise men to spend a decade studying Babel’s confused tongues before reintegrating them into a single perfect language: Gaelic.

Gaelic has yet to catch on as a global lingua franca, but there are plenty of other candidates, most famously Esperanto, devised by Polish linguist Ludwik Zamenhof in the late 19th century. Although its fans claim that 2 million people have learned it, it cannot be said to have caught on: Klingon could, by some measures, be seen as much more successful.

Many constructed languages were created in the hope that a linguistically unified humanity would become socially unified, too. Another, Lojban, is designed on the basis of logic, enabling any person to communicate with any other without ambiguity – or perhaps even talk to a machine.

Read more: New Scientist

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