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The Princess of Asturias Foundation

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George Steiner

Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities 2001

Dreams are the neutral ground of contradictions.

The dream of a common language, spoken and understood by all human beings on this small, fragile planet is as ancient as history itself. In innumerable versions, expounded by theology, by liturgy, by myth, we find the motif of an "Adamic" tongue. At his creation, man spoke a divinely imparted language. This language was tautological, this is to say that words correspond exactly, with no possible falsehood or ambiguity, to that which they designated and communicated. Speech was identical with truth. Hence the possibility of direct exchange with God, of a direct comprehension of His discourse. In the beginning was the Word (logos) common to both man and creator. This single language would, presumably have sufficed for all mankind had the children of Adam and Eve dwelt in Paradise, had there been no original sin and expulsion from Eden. For a time, and although tainted with possibilities of error and of falsehood, this primal idiom continued to be spoken. The second Fall came at Babel, with the shattering of an Adamic and unified tongue into countless other languages, mutually incomprehensible. There is hardly any mythology or cultural legend known to us which does not include some version of the Babel story. The causes of the disaster are narrated in many different modes: a crime against the gods, a fatal oversight, a mysterious accident. But there is universal agreement as to the consequence: henceforth, human communities and individuals are divided by linguistic barriers, by reciprocal deafness or misunderstanding. Every act of translation carries within it a trace of this primal catastrophe.

The dream of repairing the damage, of restoring the human condition to the unison of pre-Babel, has never ceased. At various points in history, different languages have put forward claims to original universality. Hebrew has never renounced an aura of original and originating privilege. Classical Greek aspired to uniqueness and supremacy as contrasted with "barbarian chatter". Via the Roman empire and the Catholic church, Latin sought to demonstrate as self-evident its rights of universality, of legislative auctoritas over mankind. Calvinist divines argued for the purity, for the closeness to man´s pre-destined origins, of Dutch. The French have perennially, harboured the suspicion that God speaks French. Charles Vth voiced the same intuition with regard to Castilian.

But as it became clear that no natural language would restore the world to universal harmony and accord, the search began for an artificial interlingua, for a linguistic system which all men would want to share. From the XVIIth century onward, this dream has engaged great minds and energies. Among them a Commenius, a Leibniz and all those who, like Spinoza, were persuaded that human quarrels and errors would cease if all men and women could communicate with each other in a shared tongue. Esperanto is only one among a dozen systematic constructs of a "world-speech". Today, and for the first time, such a "world-speech" is tiding across the planet. It is Anglo-American which, by virtue of economic, commercial, technological and mass-media domination will soon be spoken, either as a first or a second language, by three-fifths of the human species. All computers derive from Anglo-American and immensely reinforce the codification of all other languages into a basic Anglo-American.

The benefits are manifest. International trade, the collaborative evolution of science and technology, the storage and accessibility of information, the packaging of entertainment and sport on a global scale, ease of travel, are immensely facilitated. A Turkish pilot lands safely when he speaks Anglo-American to a Japanese air-controller. In India, cancer specialist, with some four hundred languages otherwise dividing them, can collaborate at conferences held in English. Using Anglo-American, communication satellites can help overcome the political, ideological fanaticism and censorship of despotic, backward régimes. Solitary confinement of the human spirit is becoming less and less enforceable.

The dangers, the losses, are no less evident. When a language dies, a total vision of life, of reality, of consciousness - a vision like no other - dies with it. When a language is swept away or reduced to impotence by the planetary idiom, an irreparable diminution occurs in the fabric of human creativity, of the ways in which we can experience the verb "to hope". There are no "small languages". Certain languages in the Kalahari desert comprise more nuances of futurity, of the subjunctive, than were available to Aristotle. Far from being a curse, "Babel" has, in fact, been the very foundation of human creativity, the richness of the mind as it maps different models of being. (I have tried to show this throughout my entire work.) Even more drastically than the destruction of flora and fauna now taking place, the elimination of human tongues - there are an estimated five thousand left of what may, recently still, have been some twenty-thousand - threatens to vulgarize, to standardize, the social, the inward resources of the human race.

Thus, I know of no more urgent problem than that of the preservation of what is left of the Pentecostal gift of tongues. Of the défense et illustration, to use a famous Renaissance phrase, of each and every language, however reduced the number of its native speakers, however modest its economic and territorial matrix. To learn a language, to read its classics, to help in its survival is, at however modest a scale, to be more than oneself.

Yet here lies the contradiction. Linguistic autonomy, the determination of ethnic speakers to preserve their identity, to keep alive their inheritance under pressure of a more and more standardized planetary order, is also a source of hatred and violence. A little more than half a century after the massacres and suicidal barbarities of two world wars, our Europe is again rife with ethnic conflicts. In these, languages play a crucial, atavistic rôle. "Ethnic cleansing" - a hideous phrase - is often triggered by and organized around linguistic cleansing. Totalitarian and racist interests prohibit the teaching, the publication of minority languages. They seek to uproot the strengths of remembrance and of hope inherent in a language. It is not, in Oviedo, that I need say more about the Balkans, about Northern Ireland or about tragedies closer to here.

How are we to handle these fateful contradictions? How are we to reconcile the indispensable instrument of human creativity and the dynamics of history implicit in a language with the need, equally indispensable, of co-existence, of ethnic tolerance and co-operation? Only education, only a multilingualism allowed, encouraged in early childhood, in primary schooling, holds out any chance of a solution. Precisely because Spanish is at this time second only to Anglo-American in its expansionist genius - witness the Hispanic United States - yet is, at the very same time, subject to bitter internal conflicts and claims for local independence and apartheid, this intractable paradox and problem has its special immediacy here.

I have no answer. A global mass-media créole founded on American English is a soul-destroying prospect. So is the continuation of inflamed regionalism and language-hatreds. May those wiser than myself address this issue. It is urgent.

I mean that, under circumstances as they stand, some problems are larger than our brains. That might be a cause for concern, but it is also a source of hope.

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