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.


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)