HC Deb 28 February 1962 vol 654 cc1350-6

3.55 p.m.

Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to facilitate the formation of a common European language. The purpose of my proposed Bill is to facilitate the formation or evolution of a common European language. The term "evolution" is, perhaps, more appropriate, for I am convinced that events have already taken a hand and the pattern of things to come is already showing itself.

Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could we have more quiet in the Chamber, so that we may hear what my right hon. Friend is saying?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let what the right hon. Gentleman is saying be audible.

Mr. Woodburn

It is not a new idea, of course, to seek a common tongue for mankind. There are some remarkable achievements in the construction of second languages. Since I announced my intention to introduce the Bill, I have received many letters dealing with languages which are already in existence, of which Interlingua is probably the latest. Esperanto, of course, has been known for two generations.

It is not my intention today to pass judgment on these languages. I have to recognise that none of them has so far been accepted as public policy, and, in my view, the development of events is tending to pass them by. It is for that reason that I believe that the time has come for the Governments of Europe, and particularly our own, to take action. The need to adopt a common language which will serve Europe and, perhaps, the world is becoming urgent.

Scientific progress has annihilated distance and made national barriers anachronisms. People and industries are flowing across frontiers, and the peoples of Europe need to speak to each other. In more leisurely days, it was possible for a few people to learn languages, but when they acquired only one they might find that it was the wrong one. There are nearly 20 languages west of the Iron Curtain. It is simply not practicable for great numbers of people to learn five or six languages—perhaps not even two.

In any case, science and industry are rushing forward at such a pace that the claim on people's brain energy is becoming ever greater, and there is a strain on education in all countries to meet the need. A nation just cannot afford to use its scarce intellectual capacity on dilettante studies. We must, therefore, economise on our talent by getting rid of the waste of time spent in acquiring useless and confusing knowledge.

I am glad that the Government have already made a start. We are soon to count in decimals, measure our temperature in centigrade and, perhaps, drive on the right-hand side of the road. But there is another great waste of energy in the schools. Children spend quite unnecessary time and effort in learning the tricks of our language and how to spell it. Even now, most of us in the House could be tripped up if we were asked to spell certain quite common words. Much of it appears as a jumble of illogicality or a trap to trick children and break their hearts.

Some work is already being done in the schools to help. The hon. Member for Bath (Sir J. Pitman) tells me that experiments are being successfully carried out in schools with an extended alphabet and the use of one type. Children are learning in this way to read more easily and more quickly, and this in itself shows that progress can be made.

Spoken English can be broken down into forty different sounds but there are over two thousand different ways of spelling them. The vowel "y" can be spelled out in "by", "bye", "buy", "island", "eye", "rhyme", "aye", and so on. The vowel "o" can be spelled in "flow", "sow", "sew", as with a needle, "no", "dough", "boat", "gone", "done", "home", "one", and so on. Bernard Shaw reduced this to an absurdity by spelling "fish" as "ghoti". The "gh" was as in "rough"; the "o" was as in "women"; and the the "ti" was as in "nation". That made the spelling of "fish".

Our grammar is almost as tricky. One hears well-educated people saying, "Between you and I". It is a common conceit for people to look down their noses at those who fall down on spelling, grammar, pronunciation or construction. It is said that even now the French aristocracy can recognise each other because only they can pronounce the names of the French noble families. This is illustrated by the story of the sergeant who was calling the roll. When he came to the name "Montague", he called, "Montaig", and when there was no reply he repeated the name "Montaig". Again, there was no answer. Looking at the person he suspected of owning the name, he asked, "What is your name?" The answer was "Montague". He said, "Very well, Montague. All right Three days fatigewe."

I used to suspect that one of our greatest Cabinet Ministers of recent days deliberately refused to comply with the accepted rules of speech. He gave up trying to master the code. Even today we had a Minister on the Front Bench talking about "Burntissland". The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour talked about "Burntissland", which shows that even a person of his ability cannot possibly master this code. He was referring, of course, to Burntisland. Any numbers of these mistakes are made.

The importance of our dealing with our own language is that English is rapidly becoming the most used second language in the world. We all, I feel sure, are a little ashamed when we hear Russians, Germans, Danes, Dutchmen, Frenchmen and Spaniards speaking English even better than we do. Even here in the House we must bow to our Welsh colleagues, who show a greater mastery of their second language than most of us do of our first.

According to a survey made by the magazine Life, which seems to have used its last two issues to support my case, English is spoken by 250 million people today and English can reach 600 million people. One in ten of the world's population speak English and one in four can be reached by English. Spanish comes next with 140 million people, then French with 65 million, and then Italian with 55 million. These languages, which have much in common, can reach nearly half the population of the globe. In addition, 100 million people speak German and 130 million people speak Russian.

English is now the language used by international aviation, and India has reverted to English as a common language to bridge her various dialects. The Russians and the Chinese use English for their propaganda to the Far East and Africa, and I am told that they send more printed matter in English to these countries than we do.

In view of our reluctance or inability to learn foreign languages we ought, of course, to be pleased that the use of English is now so widespread, but if it is to become the principal second language of the world, we have a responsibility to make it easier to learn, speak, and write. Since it is no one's business at the moment, the Bill proposes that we should establish a British Academy of Language. It would, I hope, do for our language what the Académie Français does for French and similar authorities do in Germany and other countries.

The position, however, is becoming daily more difficult, for every day brings new words into all the European languages. One of the duties of the Academy would be to co-operate with other academies to avoid further diversity by recommending an agreed spelling, pronunciation and form for all new words. In this way, from now on there would be a steadily increasing proportion of common words added to all the existing languages. Together the different countries might form a European Academy of Language. At present, there is still a tendency to insist on being different. We give an English form to our words and the French give a French form. I read that the Office du Vocabulaire Français discourages the use of English words where French words are available. Curiously enough, it uses the English word "snobisme" to denounce the practice.

Of course, every country is proud and jealous of its traditions and literature. Every language has contributed to the already common fund of words. We can all think of words in French, German, Italian and Spanish which we have in daily use concerning cars, aviation, science, music, art and sport. English itself has contributed many words to other languages. In this way all languages have been enriched. What is now wanted is to build on this foundation.

The Academy would make a great contribution to the spread and use of English in this way if we made it easier to learn. Every teacher and pupil would welcome a decision to eliminate anomalies and to improve the use and teaching of English. I believe that a basic English course with about 1,000 hard-core words was successfully provided for foreign volunteers during the war and that it was possible to learn these in about sixty hours.

In this improvement the collaboration of the United States might be sought, for they, too, are faced with this problem—indeed, inside their own country. The joint Academies, as I see it, should then proceed to select from all existing languages all similar or identical words and recommend for them, too, a common form and pronunciation. To this could be added words from every language which commend themselves as suitable for assimilation into all languages. The Academies might also recommend the elimination of anomalies which complicate existing languages with a view to making them easier to learn and to speak. A Dr. Drove, who has spent much time on this subject, says that it is far more difficult for an English child to learn its language than for either a French or German child to learn its language.

It may be thought that this is all a romantic vision, but the fact is that it has already been done. My proposals are based on what has already been proved to be successful. After all, our own modern English is vastly different from that of Chaucer, and is itself evolved out of and superimposed on the many dialects and languages in Britain.

The greatest example, however, of which I can think is the creation of the German language. I have forgotten much of the German that I learned, but I never forget the thrilling story of its origin, and it is this that has inspired my proposal today. Like our own modern English, it owed its standardisation to the Bible. Luther wanted his Bible to be read. He was faced with a large number of tribes and dialects—a miniature of our present European Tower of Babel. He set about creating a common German language out of the existing tongues. All the words common to all the dialects were collected, and to these were added a number from every dialect.

In this way, most of the words in the Bible were understood by all and the others were quickly learned. For a common pronunciation he went to the strolling players, who had had to solve this problem for themselves, and they carried the common pronunciation throughout the land. With these two media, modern German was standardised into a language.

Science has given us nearly perfect instruments if we want to repeat this process for Europe as a whole. We have the Press and the power of broadcasting and television. A common language would, in turn, benefit both the Press and broadcasting by multiplying their audiences many times. Because of the extension of travel and trade, there will be eager students everywhere ready to learn the new language.

In time, we may be able to get a perfectly logical language accepted, as many of the pioneers have tried to do. If enthusiasm had been enough, such a language would already have been in use. The Bill suggests that for the moment we should speed up and channel a trend already in being—to facilitate and encourage the assimilation and development of our existing languages.

This is happening before our very eyes. However, the development should not be left to chance but be given intelligent control. Friendship and human relations require careful cultivation and for us all in Europe to be able to speak to one another in a common tongue would be one of the greatest steps forward we could take towards the brotherhood of man.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Woodburn, Sir David Campbell, Mr. Thomas Fraser, Sir Myer Galpern, Mr. James Hoy, Mr. Roy Jenkins, Sir James Pitman, Mr. G. M. Thomson, and Mr. Willis.

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