Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters


Diversity in Oneness

A common language versus diversity

Is it possible that a common language could foster the cause of world-unity? That would require a sacrifice of the advantages of the diversity of languages. This could only be worthwhile if the common language was not merely an imposition or namesake but would foster a living unity. However, historical evidence has not been convincing to date. Sri Aurobindo examines the history of universal tongues spoken by people to whom they were not natural. He finds that they became dead tongues and survived only ‘when they were decomposed and broken up into new derivative languages’. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.518)

He gives the example of Latin which after a period of domination during the 1st century, became practically dead and could not be rejuvenated by Christianity. ‘A rapid and vigorous new life only grew up when the languages which appeared out of the detritus of dying Latin or the old languages which had not been lost took its place as the complete instruments of national culture. For it is not enough that the natural language should be spoken by the people; it must be the expression of its higher life and thought’. (Ibid, pg.519)

It is after a gap that developed between classical Latin and the common spoken vulgar Latin that the Romance languages developed from the dialects of the latter (Britannica Ready Reference Enclyopedia,2005, New Delhi,pg.21). It is the spoken language that is more important for viability, a reason why Romance languages were derived not from classical Latin but from the popular vulgar version. Likewise , ‘A language that survives only as patois or a provincial tongue like Welsh after the English conquest or Breton or Provencal in France or as Czech survived once in Austria or Ruthenian and Lithuanian in imperial Russia, languishes, becomes sterile and does not serve all the true purpose of survival’. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.519).

Breton, an insular Celtic language has already been classified as ‘severely endangered’ by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Provencal, an older version of Occitan language had several subdialects but in 2007, all Occitan dialects were merged. Ruthenian is now considered to be a predecessor of modern Belarusian, Rusyn and Ukrainian languages though it is not known whether Ruthenian was a separate language or set of dialects of Old East Slavic.

As language is the index of cultural uniqueness, its diversity can contribute to the richness of culture. ‘Diversity of language is worth keeping because of diversity of cultures and differentiation of soul-groups are worth keeping and because without that diversity life cannot have full play; for in its absence there is a danger, almost an inevitability of decline and stagnation’.(Ibid)

However, if a common language could replace the linguistic diversity, it would have facilitated ‘political peace, economic well-being, perfect administration, the solution of a hundred material problems, as did on a lesser scale the Roman unity in old times’. (Ibid)

The danger is that it could also lead to an ‘uncreative sterilisation of the mind’ (Ibid) and the stagnation of soul-qualities. Whenever a great upheaval occurs in a nation, there is a stirring of the national culture commensurate with the political, economic or practical crisis. Could a common language be helpful to tide over such a crisis in a nation with great diversity? It could actually cause a greater problem if the zeal for inducing harmony compromised the sense of freedom. ‘The peace, well-being and settled order of the human world is a thing eminently to be desired as a basis for a great world-culture in which all humanity must be united; but neither of these unities, the outward or inward, ought to be devoid of an element even more important than peace, order and well-being, -- freedom and vigour of life, which can only be assured by variation and by the freedom of the group and of the individual. Not then a uniform unity, not a logically simple, a scientifically rigid, a beautifully neat and mechanical sameness, but a living oneness full of healthy freedom and variation is the ideal which we should keep in view and strive to get realised in man’s future’.(Ibid, pg.520)

The question is whether a common language could satisfy variability and yet induce a settled peace without compromising freedom?


Date of Update: 25-Sep-18

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu