Sunday, June 28, 2020

English as a Sacred Language: the path to a global ecclesia

Latin was once considered a sacred language all over Western Europe. Today, we can see English as a global sacred language, but how long will it maintain this role?

Imagine living in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. With the collapse of the Roman government, Europe had fragmented in a myriad of cities and statelets, each one with its territory and its language. Starting from your home town, it was enough to travel for a few hundred miles to find yourself in a land where nobody could understand you, nor you could understand them. You didn't even need to cross the border of the main linguistic blocks of the European territory (Romance, Anglo-Frisian, Germanic, Slavic, and more). Just the internal variation of each block was enough to make communication impossible.  It was the Babel tower again.

But the old Roman Empire had left a heritage that kept Europe as a single cultural entity: Latin. Once the language of a small city-state in central Italy, it had spread all over the Empire as the language spoken by the legionnaires, the bureaucrats, the governors, and the tax collectors. All that was gone, but Latin had remained, too useful to disappear. It was the language of commerce, of diplomacy, of pilgrims. of travelers, of intellectuals, and, more than all, it had morphed into a sacred language used by the Catholic Church. It was the language of the holy Christian books. Even though God had never spoken in Latin to anyone (we are not completely sure of the language of the original Christian books: probably Greek, but perhaps Aramaic or Hebrew), Latin was sacred in the deepest meaning of the term: something set apart from everyday use. It was the language that kept together the ecclesia, the assembly of the citizens of Europe. Latin was not just a commercial language, it was a noble language, above and separated from all other languages.

Other languages had played and were playing the role of sacred languages in this sense. Sumerian had been perhaps the first, remaining in use long after the Sumerians had ceased to exist as a separate population in Mesopotamia. Then, contemporary to the Latin of Middle Ages, the Koine version of Greek remained the common language of the Eastern Mediterranean and the sacred language of the holy scriptures of the Orthodox Church. Earlier on, God had spoken to Moses in Hebrew and, around the same period, the Archangel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad in Arabic, giving a sacred characteristic to that language, too.

As universal languages, all these were rather provincial ones, used only in limited regions of the world. As the Middle Ages waned, Europe started to grow, moving along the trajectory that would take Europeans to dominate the whole world. The European armies could have taken Latin with them, restarting on a large scale the process that the Roman Legions had started long before. But that didn't happen. Latin didn't expand beyond Europe and it waned even as an intellectual language. Newton still wrote his Principia in Latin in 1687 but, a century later, Latin had become a relic of old times. It was still used by the Catholic Church for its ejaculatory prayers, but little more than that.

There were good reasons for the demise of Latin as a would-be global language. For one thing, it was too provincial: as soon as Europeans started expanding in faraway continents, Latin was useless for dealing with the locals. More than that, the development of the printing press gave a big boost to national languages. When books were handwritten, they were hugely expensive and it made sense to write them in a universal language (Latin) that ensured their widest diffusion. But the printing process made it possible to write books also for people who didn't understand Latin. The printing press was a powerful factor that caused the fragmentation of Europe in nation-states. Without a common language, people couldn't understand each other anymore. The result was the great massacre that we call today "the 30 years war."

Still, the loss of a universal language was a big handicap for commerce and for culture. For a few centuries, the struggle for world domination was at the same time a military struggle and a struggle for the prevalence of a specific European language. Spanish did well in South America, French made an attempt to dominate worldwide out of sheer boasting, German became diffuse as a scientific language, and Italian found a niche in the bel canto of Opera. Some people dabbled at reinventing new languages from scratch, such as Esperanto. Even more creatively, the Catholic Church attempted to develop a new kind of international language, not based on words, but on icons and images. It was a bold attempt, but it failed. In this age of European dominance, non-European languages, Swahili, Chinese, Arabic and others, had no chances to be anything more than regional languages.

Eventually, military might gave to English the right to become the first truly global language in history. Carried first by the British legions, then by the American ones, English is spoken nowadays by at least 1.5 billion people and probably understood by many more than that. It is the one language that gives you a chance to be understood and to understand the locals everywhere in the world.

In religious terms, English has never been as directly linked to God's words as Latin and older languages were, although many people claim to have received revelations in English directly from God. But English became the language of the Ecclesia, the assembly of the citizens of the world and, for this reason, it can justly claim to be sacred in the sense to be special, set apart. Besides, English does have a sacred corpus of scriptures: more than a century of scientific research, practically all of it written in English. It is from this corpus that a sacred creature called Gaia, may one day emerge. Not a Goddess, but the very spirit of the Earth, a new reference point for the human ecclesia.

And from now on? Despite the ongoing fall of the American Empire, English could follow the path that Latin had followed centuries before. It could expand and maintain its leading role as the world's global language. Or it may not. Just as Latin was destroyed by a technical improvement, the printing press, the same could happen for English. It could be mercilessly replaced by a new language that we could call "Googlish," the result of the Google translating engine.

I am not so happy at seeing English disappear, because it is a language I know reasonably well, even though I am not a native speaker. But I can see the writing on the screen. For one thing, my Italian students can't speak English anymore and they seem to be surprised, at times shocked, when they discover that science is normally written in English. Even my Italian colleagues sometimes seem to write in English with the same ease and attitude of someone undergoing a root canal treatment (with some commendable exceptions). 

What surprised me even more, recently, is how efficient automatic translators have become. A friend of mine, a professional translator, used Google to translate one of my posts in English and publish it in his blog in Italian. The result was far from perfect, but it was readable and it required just a few retouches to be made smooth to read. 

Even more than that, I was amazed at seeing the discussion that's taking place on my Facebook pages. I tend to write mostly in English on Facebook, but I write in Italian about subjects that I think are of more local interest. The interesting thing is that people often comment in both languages, in Italian on the English pages, and in English on the Italian pages. They understand each other. Evidently, it is a small miracle worked by the automatic translator embedded in Facebook. The beauty of this way of communicating is that you don't have to be ashamed of your poor English (or your poor Italian). You speak in the language you know best and the mistakes are a fault of the translating engine. And you can communicate with almost everyone on this planet. It had never been possible up to now.

So, are we going to build a true planetary ecclesia, realizing the dream of those who invented Esperanto? Maybe. So we can conclude with a quote from the Ecclesiastes (it means "the person who convenes the assembly"). It goes as, "there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." It sounds very wise when applied to our social media.


  1. English is becoming somewhat like the "laws of thermodynamics". 0: If you have so heard of the game, you're in the game. 1: You can't win. 2: You can't break even. 3: You can't get out of the game.

    As recently as the late 1940s there were courses in German at American Universities to enable science students to read the relevant German publications. Today air traffic controllers and pilots worldwide have to be (and are) able to converse in English.

    My parents spoke different vernacular Indian languages, but because they were comissioned officers in the Royal Indian Army in the Second World War, English became my native language with Urdu as a second native language. One disadvantage was that I had to unlearn English when I moved to 'mericuh, but I do believe that that process is complete.

  2. The problem with English is that it is not pronounced the exact way it is spelled like with Italian, German, Russian, Spanish and Esperanto.
    If these following examples apply:
    * 'slaughter' and 'laughter' do not rhyme
    * 'anger' and 'danger' do not rhyme
    * the 'ough' in 'bought', 'cough', 'through', 'dough' and 'tough' are pronounced differently
    * the 'ea' in 'heart', 'heat', 'head' and 'heard' are pronounced differently
    * there are two ways to pronounce 'tomato', and one of them does not follow the same convention as 'potato'
    * in some regions the L in 'solder' is not pronounced
    * the H in 'hour' and 'honor' are silent even when the letter is normally pronounced elsewhere
    These are the few examples that are in the back of my head.

    I don't know about you, but speaking as a native English speaker, these are my reasons for unseating English as the world language. I'd prefer that it be replaced with a relatively more phonemic language.

    (Unusually for a Germanic language, modern English has no grammatical gender.)

    My two cents worth,
    - Josep

    1. Add 'bough' to the list of 'ough' pronunciations.

    2. Instead of getting rid of English because of its spelling, just change the damn spelling (which is an artifact of all the other languages that contributed their vocabulary to English).

      I once came across a few pages of a novel that had been "translated" into international phonetic alphabet. It only took a page or two of initial struggle, but it then became very easy to read.

      English would be so much easier for everyone, even well educated native speakers, if it had rational spelling.

  3. "Thirty year war" after the introduction of the printing press, got me thinking about social collapse after the introduction of the internet. At least in the US, we use to share the news media. Now each branch gets its own set of facts. Reality is twisted. A major war seems inevitable.

  4. It is the incredibly energy-dense, perfectly portable fossil fuels what have made the food chain MacDonald seen today everywhere globally, English so dominant - since the steam engine.

    Now fossil fuels are gone, let us see what happens.

    Diversity in languages, life style and beliefs over geographies is a natural safety net for humans against single cause of failure.

    If face masks prove harmful overtime, it is fossil fuels to be blamed for allowing the mass and rapid production, communication and making the masks used all over the world.

    Diversity is a demonstration of a natural future.

    Fossil fuels kill the future, rendering it a history before it is born - with Huxley's 'Over Organisation', despite we see the future unfolding before our eyes anew every second.

    The future has died - in the hands of the Western Civilisation's Economics trading fossil fuels on the basis of supply-and-demand cheaper than bottled water as if looted, not on the basis they are finite - and became history.

    Civilisations come and go, the Laws of Physics remain supreme.

  5. jacaculators, no ejaculatory prayers, please.

  6. This last scenario can only happen if the internet is to survive the following crisis. Meanwhile, I'll keep improving my knowledge of the language.

    Besides, learning to think in another language opens up new ways of thinking.

  7. "They are not a philosophical race—the English: Bacon represents an ATTACK on the philosophical spirit generally, Hobbes, Hume, and Locke, an abasement, and a depreciation of the idea of a "philosopher" for more than a century. It was AGAINST Hume that Kant uprose and raised himself; it was Locke of whom Schelling RIGHTLY said, "JE MEPRISE LOCKE"; in the struggle against the English mechanical stultification of the world, Hegel and Schopenhauer (along with Goethe) were of one accord; the two hostile brother-geniuses in philosophy, who pushed in different directions towards the opposite poles of German thought, and thereby wronged each other as only brothers will do.—What is lacking in England, and has always been lacking, that half-actor and rhetorician knew well enough, the absurd muddle-head, Carlyle, who sought to conceal under passionate grimaces what he knew about himself: namely, what was LACKING in Carlyle—real POWER of intellect, real DEPTH of intellectual perception, in short, philosophy. It is characteristic of such an unphilosophical race to hold on firmly to Christianity—they NEED its discipline for "moralizing" and humanizing. The Englishman, more gloomy, sensual, headstrong, and brutal than the German—is for that very reason, as the baser of the two, also the most pious: he has all the MORE NEED of Christianity. To finer nostrils, this English Christianity itself has still a characteristic English taint of spleen and alcoholic excess, for which, owing to good reasons, it is used as an antidote—the finer poison to neutralize the coarser: a finer form of poisoning is in fact a step in advance with coarse-mannered people, a step towards spiritualization. The English coarseness and rustic demureness is still most satisfactorily disguised by Christian pantomime, and by praying and psalm-singing (or, more correctly, it is thereby explained and differently expressed); and for the herd of drunkards and rakes who formerly learned moral grunting under the influence of Methodism (and more recently as the "Salvation Army"), a penitential fit may really be the relatively highest manifestation of "humanity" to which they can be elevated: so much may reasonably be admitted. That, however, which offends even in the humanest Englishman is his lack of music, to speak figuratively (and also literally): he has neither rhythm nor dance in the movements of his soul and body; indeed, not even the desire for rhythm and dance, for "music." Listen to him speaking; look at the most beautiful Englishwoman WALKING—in no country on earth are there more beautiful doves and swans; finally, listen to them singing! But I ask too much...
    " 1/2

  8. "253. There are truths which are best recognized by mediocre minds, because they are best adapted for them, there are truths which only possess charms and seductive power for mediocre spirits:—one is pushed to this probably unpleasant conclusion, now that the influence of respectable but mediocre Englishmen—I may mention Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer—begins to gain the ascendancy in the middle-class region of European taste. Indeed, who could doubt that it is a useful thing for SUCH minds to have the ascendancy for a time? It would be an error to consider the highly developed and independently soaring minds as specially qualified for determining and collecting many little common facts, and deducing conclusions from them; as exceptions, they are rather from the first in no very favourable position towards those who are "the rules." After all, they have more to do than merely to perceive:—in effect, they have to BE something new, they have to SIGNIFY something new, they have to REPRESENT new values! The gulf between knowledge and capacity is perhaps greater, and also more mysterious, than one thinks: the capable man in the grand style, the creator, will possibly have to be an ignorant person;—while on the other hand, for scientific discoveries like those of Darwin, a certain narrowness, aridity, and industrious carefulness (in short, something English) may not be unfavourable for arriving at them.—Finally, let it not be forgotten that the English, with their profound mediocrity, brought about once before a general depression of European intelligence.

    What is called "modern ideas," or "the ideas of the eighteenth century," or "French ideas"—that, consequently, against which the GERMAN mind rose up with profound disgust—is of English origin, there is no doubt about it. The French were only the apes and actors of these ideas, their best soldiers, and likewise, alas! their first and profoundest VICTIMS; for owing to the diabolical Anglomania of "modern ideas," the AME FRANCAIS has in the end become so thin and emaciated, that at present one recalls its sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, its profound, passionate strength, its inventive excellency, almost with disbelief. One must, however, maintain this verdict of historical justice in a determined manner, and defend it against present prejudices and appearances: the European NOBLESSE—of sentiment, taste, and manners, taking the word in every high sense—is the work and invention of FRANCE; the European ignobleness, the plebeianism of modern ideas—is ENGLAND'S work and invention."
    (better read the whole chapter)



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)