H. G. (Herbert George) Wells.

Anticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and thought online

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speedily a more extensive form of war, and in the
end either the wearing away of differences and
union, or conquest. Man is the creature of a

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THE CONFLICT OF LANGUAGES

struggle for existence, incurably egoistic and
aggressive. Convince him of the gospel of self-
abnegation even, and he instantly becomes its
zealous missionary, taking great credit that his
expedients to ram it into the minds of his fellow-
creatures do not include physical force and if
that is not self-abnegation, he asks, what is? So
he has been, and so he is likely to remain. Not
to be so, is to die of abnegation and extinguish
the type. Improvement in transit between com-
munities, formerly for all practical purposes iso-
lated, means, therefore, and always has meant,
and, I imagine, always will mean, that now they
can get at one another. And they do. They
inter-breed and fight, physically, mentally, and
spiritually. Unless Providence is belied in His
works, that is what they are meant to do.

A third invention which, though not a means of
transit like the wheeled vehicle and the ship, was
yet a means of communication, rendered still
larger political reactions possible, and that was
the development of systems of writing. The
first empires and some sort of written speech arose
together. Just as a kingdom, as distinguished
from a mere tribal group of villages, is almost
impossible without horses, so is an empire without
writing and post-roads. The history of the whole
world for three thousand years is the history of a
unity larger than the small kingdom of the Hep-
tarchy type, endeavoring to establish itself under
* . 241



ANTICIPATIONS

the stress of these discoveries of horse-traffic and
shipping and the written word, the history that
is of the consequences of the partial shattering
of the barriers that had been effectual enough to
prevent the fusion of more than tribal communities
through all the long ages before the dawn of history.
East of the Gobi Pamir barrier there has slowly
grown up under these new conditions the Chinese
system. West and north of the Sahara Gobi
barrier of deserts and mountains, the extraor-
dinarily strong and spacious conceptions of the
Romans succeeded in dominating the world, and
do, indeed, in a sort of mutilated way, by the powers
of great words and wide ideas, in Caesarism and
Imperialism, in the titles of Czar, Kaiser, and
Imperator, in Papal pretension and countless
political devices, dominate it to this hour. For
awhile these conceptions sustained a united and
to a large extent organized empire over very much
of this space. But at its stablest time, this union
was no more than a political union, the spreading
of a thin layer of Latin-speaking officials, of a
thin network of roads and a very thin veneer, in-
deed, of customs and refinements, over the scarce-
ly touched national masses. It checked, perhaps,
but it nowhere succeeded in stopping the slow but
inevitable differentiation of province from province
and nation from nation. The forces of transit that
permitted the Roman imperialism and its partial
successors to establish wide ascendencies, were not

242



THE CONFLICT OF LANGUAGES

sufficient to carry the resultant unity beyond the
political stage. There was unity but not unifica-
tion. Tongues and writing ceased to be pure
without ceasing to be distinct. Sympathies, re-
ligious and social practices, ran apart and rounded
themselves off like drops of oil on water. Travel
was restricted to the rulers and the troops and to a
wealthy leisure class, commerce was for most of
the constituent provinces of the empire a com-
merce in superficialities, and each province except
for Italy, which latterly became dependent on an
over-seas food supply was in all essential things
autonomous, could have continued in existence,
rulers and ruled, arts, luxuries, and refinements
just as they stood, if all other lands and customs
had been swept out of being. Local convulsions
and revolutions, conquests and developments,
occurred indeed, but though the stones were al-
tered the mosaic remained, and the general size
and character of its constituent pieces remained.
So it was under the Romans, so it was in the eigh-
teenth century, and so it would probably have
remained as long as the post-road and the sailing-
ship were the most rapid forms of transit within
the reach of man. Wars and powers and princes
came and went, that was all. Nothing was chang-
ed, there was only one state the more or less. Even
in the eighteenth century the process of real uni-
fication had effected so little that not one of the
larger kingdoms of Europe escaped a civil war

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ANTICIPATIONS

not a class war, but a really intertial war between
one part of itself and another, in -that hundred
years. In spite of Rome's few centuries of un-
stable empire, internal wars, a perpetual struggle
against finally triumphant disruption seemed to
be the unavoidable destiny of every power that
attempted to rule over a larger radius than at most
a hundred miles.

So evident was this that many educated English
persons thought then, and many who are not in the
habit of analyzing operating causes, still think
to-day, that the wide diffusion of the English-
speaking people is a mere preliminary to their
political, social, and linguistic disruption the
eighteenth-century breach with the United States
is made a precedent of, and the unification that
followed the war of Union and the growing uni-
fication of Canada is overlooked that linguistic
differences, differences of custom, costume, preju-
dice, and the like, will finally make the Australian,
the Canadian of English blood, the Virginian,
and the English Africander, as incomprehensible
and unsympathetic one to another as Spaniard
and Englishman or Frenchman and German
are now. On such a supposition all our current
imperialism is the most foolish defiance of the in-
evitable, the maddest waste of blood, treasure, and
emotion that man ever made. So, indeed, it might
be so, indeed, I certainly think it would be if it
were not that the epoch of post-road and sailing-

244



THE CONFLICT OF LANGUAGES

ship is at an end. We are in the beginning of a new
time, with such forces of organization and uni-
fication at work in mechanical traction, in the
telephone and telegraph, in a whole wonderland
of novel, space-destroying appliances, and in the
correlated, inevitable advance in practical educa-
tion, as the world has never felt before.

The operation of these unifying forces is already
to be very distinctly traced in the check, the arrest,
indeed, of any further differentiation in existing
tongues, even in the most widely spread. In fact,
it is more than an arrest even; the forces of differ-
entiation have been driven back and an actual
process of assimilation has set in. In England, at
the commencement of the nineteenth century, the
common man of Somerset and the common man of
Yorkshire, the Sussex peasant, the Caithness
cottar and the common Ulsterman, would have
been almost incomprehensible to one another.
They differed in accent, in idiom, and in their very
names for things. They differed in their ideas
about things. They were, in plain English, foreign-
ers one to another. Now they differ only in accent,
and even that is a dwindling difference. Their
language has become ampler because now they
read. They read books or, at any rate, they
learn to read out of books and certainly they
read newspapers and those scrappy periodicals
that people like bishops pretend to think so det-
rimental to the human mind, periodicals that it

245



ANTICIPATIONS

is cheaper to make at centres and uniformly, than
locally in accordance with local needs. Since the
newspaper cannot fit the locality, the locality has
to broaden its mind to the newspaper, and to
ideas acceptable in other localities. The word
and the idiom of the literary language and the
pronunciation suggested by its spelling tends to
prevail over the local usage. And, moreover, there
is a persistent mixing of peoples going on, migra-
tion in search of employment and so on, quite
unprecedented before the railways came. Few
people are content to remain in that locality and
state of life "into which it has pleased God to call
them." As a result, dialectic purity has vanished,
dialects are rapidly vanishing, and novel differen-
tiations are retarded or arrested altogether. Such
novelties as do establish themselves in a locality
are widely disseminated almost at once in books
and periodicals.

A parallel arrest of dialectic separation has
happened in France, in Italy, in Germany, and in
the states. It is not a process peculiar to any
one nation. It is simply an aspect of the general
process that has arisen out of mechanical locomo-
tion. The organization of elementary education
has no doubt been an important factor, but the
essential influence working through this circum-
stance is the fact that paper is relatively cheap to
type-setting, and both cheap to authorship even
the commonest sorts of authorship and the wider

246



THE CONFLICT OF LANGUAGES

the area a periodical or book serves, the bigger,
more attractive, and better it can be made for the
same money. And clearly this process of assimi-
lation will continue. Even local differences of
accent seem likely to follow. The itinerant dra-
matic company, the itinerant preacher, the coming
extension of telephones and the phonograph,
which at any time in some application to corre-
spondence or instruction may cease to be a toy,
all these things attack, or threaten to attack, the
weeds of differentiation before they can take root.
And this process is not restricted to dialects
merely. The native of a small country who knows
no other language than the tongue of his country
becomes increasingly at a disadvantage in com-
parison with the user of any of the three great
languages of the Europeanized world. For his
literature he depends on the scanty writers who
are in his own case and write, or have written, in
his own tongue. Necessarily they are few, be-
cause necessarily with a small public there can be
only subsistence for a few. For his science he
is in a worse case. His country can produce
neither teachers nor discoverers to compare with
the numbers of such workers in the larger areas,
and it will neither pay them to write original matter
for his instruction nor to translate what has been
written in other tongues. The larger the number
of people reading a tongue, the larger other things
being equal will be not only the output of more or

247



ANTICIPATIONS

less original literature in that tongue, but also the
more profitable and numerous will- be translations
of whatever has value in other tongues. More-
over, the larger the reading public in any language
the cheaper will it be to supply copies of the desired
work. In the matter of current intelligence the
case of the speaker of the small language is still
worse. His newspaper will need to be cheaply
served, his home intelligence will be cut and re-
stricted, his foreign news belated and second hand.
Moreover, to travel even a little distance or to con-
duct anything but the smallest business enter-
prise will be exceptionally inconvenient to him.
The Englishman who knows no language but his
own may travel well-nigh all over the world and
everywhere meet some one who can speak his
tongue. But what of the Welsh-speaking Welsh-
man? What of the Basque and the Lithuanian
who can speak only his mother tongue? Every-
where such a man is a foreigner and with all the
foreigner's disadvantages. In most places he is
for all practical purposes deaf and dumb.

The inducements to an Englishman, Frenchman,
or German to become bilingual are great enough
nowadays, but the inducements to a speaker of the
smaller languages are rapidly approaching com-
pulsion. He must do it in self-defence. To be
an educated man in his own vernacular has be-
come an impossibility; he must either become a
mental subject of one of the greater languages or

248



THE CONFLICT OF LANGUAGES

sink to the intellectual status of a peasant. But
if our analysis of social development was correct,
the peasant of to-day will be represented to-morrow
by the people of no account whatever the classes
of extinction, the people of the abyss. If that
analysis was correct, the essential nation will be
all of educated men that is to say, the essential
nation will speak some dominant language or
cease to exist, whatever its primordial tongue may
have been. It will pass out of being and become
a mere local area of the lower social stratum
a problem for the philanthropic amateur.

The action of the force of attraction of the great
tongues is cumulative. It goes on, as bodies fall,
with a steady acceleration. The more the great
tongues prevail over the little languages the less
will be the inducement to write and translate into
these latter, the less the inducement to master them
with any care or precision. And so this attack upon
the smaller tongues, this gravitation of those who
are born to speak them towards the great languages,
is not only to be seen going on in the case of such
languages as Flemish, Welsh, or Basque, but even
in the case of Norwegian and of such a great and
noble tongue as the Italian, I am afraid that the
trend of things makes for a similar suppression.
All over Italy is the French newspaper and the
French book. French wins its way more and more
there, as English, I understand, is doing in Nor-
way, and English and German in Holland. And

249



ANTICIPATIONS

in the coming years when the reading public will,
in the case of the Western nations/ be practically
the whole functional population, when travel will
be more extensive and abundant, and the inter-
change of printed matter still cheaper and swifter
and, above all, with the spread of the telephone
the process of subtle, bloodless, unpremediated
annexation will conceivably progress much more
rapidly even than it does at present. The twen-
tieth century will see the effectual crowding out
of most of the weaker languages if not a posi-
tive crowding out, yet at least (as in Flanders) a
supplementing of them by the superposition of one
or other of a limited number of world-languages
over the area in which each is spoken. This will
go on not only in Europe, but with varying rates
of progress and local eddies and interruptions
over the whole world. Except in the special case
of China and Japan, where there may be a unique
development, the peoples of the world will escape
from the wreckage of their too small and swamped
and foundering social systems, only up the ladders
of what one may call the aggregating tongues.

What will these aggregating world-languages
be? If one has regard only to its extension during
the nineteenth century, one may easily incline to
overrate the probabilities of English becoming the
chief of these. But a great part of the vast exten-
sion of English that has occurred has been due to
the rapid reproduction of originally English-speak-

250



THE CONFLICT OF LANGUAGES

ing peoples, the emigration of foreigners into Eng-
lish-speaking countries in quantities too small to re-
sist the contagion ^about them, and the compulsion
due to the political and commercial preponderance
of a people too illiterate to readily master strange
tongues. None of these causes have any essential
permanence. When one comes to look more closely
into the question one is surprised to discover how
slow the extension of English has been in the
face of apparently far less convenient tongues.
English still fails to replace the French language
in French Canada, and its ascendency is doubt-
ful to-day in South Africa, after nearly a century
of British dominion. It has none of the contagious
quality of French, and the small class that mo-
nopolizes the direction of British affairs, and prob-
ably will monopolize it yet for several decades, has
never displayed any great zeal to propagate its
use. Of the few ideas possessed by the British
governing class, the destruction and discourage-
ment of schools and colleges is, unfortunately,
one of the chief, and there is an absolute incapacitj^
to understand the political significance of the
language question. The Hindoo who is at pains
to learn and use English encounters something
uncommonly like hatred disguised in a facetious
form. He will certainly read little about himself
in English that is not grossly contemptuous,
to reward him for his labor. The possibilities
that have existed, and that do still in a dwindling

251



ANTICIPATIONS

degree exist, for resolute statesmen to make English
the common language of communication for all
Asia south and east of the Himalayas, will have
to develop of their own force or dwindle and pass
awaj^. They may quite probably pass away.
There is no sign that either the English or the
Americans have a sufficient sense of the impor-
tance of linguistic predominance in the future of
their race to interfere with natural processes in this
matter for manjr years to come.

Among peoples not actually subject to British
or American rule, and who are neither waiters nor
commercial travellers, the inducements to learn
English, rather than French or German, do not
increase. If our initial assumptions are right, the
decisive factor in this matter is the amount of
science and thought the acquisition of a language
will afford the man who learns it. It becomes,
therefore, a fact of very great significance that
the actual number of books published in English
is less than that in French or German, and that
the proportion of serious books is very greatly
less. A large proportion of English books are
novels adapted to the minds of women, or of boys
and superannuated business men stories designed
rather to allay than stimulate thought they
are the only books, indeed, that are profitable to
publisher and author alike. In this connection
they do not count, however; no foreigner is likely
to learn English -for the pleasure of reading Miss

252



THE CONFLICT OF LANGUAGES

Marie Corelli in the original, or of drinking un-
translatable elements from The Helmet of Navarre.
The present conditions of book-production for the
English-reading public offer no hope of any imme-
diate change in this respect. There is neither
honor nor reward there is not even food or shelter
for the African or Englishman who devotes
a year or so of his life to the adequate treatment
of any spacious question, and so small is the Eng-
lish-reading public with any special interest in
science, that a great number of important foreign
scientific works are never translated into English
at all. Such interesting compilations as Bloch's
work on war, for example, must be read in French ;
in English only a brief summary of his results
is to be obtained, under a sensational heading.*
Schopenhauer, again, is only to be got quite stupid-
\y Bowdlerized, explained, and " selected " in Eng-
lish. Many translations that are made into Eng-
lish are made only to sell ; they are too often the
work of sweated women and girls very often quite
without any special knowledge of the matter they
translate they are difficult to read and untrust-
worthy to quote. The production of books in
English, except the author be a wealthy amateur,
rests finally upon the publishers, and publishers
to-day stand a little lower than ordinary trades-
men in not caring at all whether the goods they

*Is War Now Impossible? and see also foot-note, p. 226.
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ANTICIPATIONS

sell are good or bad. Unusual books, they allege
and all good books are unusual are "difficult
to handle/' and the author must pay the fine
amounting, more often than not, to the greater
portion of his interest in the book. There is no
criticism to control the advertising enterprises of
publishers and authors, and no sufficiently in-
telligent reading public has differentiated out of
the confusion to encourage attempts at critical
discrimination. The organs of the great profes-
sions and technical trades are as yet not alive
to the part their readers must play in the pub-
lic life of the future, and ignore all but strict-
ly technical publications. A bastard criticism,
written in many cases by publishers' employes
a criticism having a very direct relation to the
advertisement columns distributes praise and
blame in the periodic press. There is no body
of great men, either in England or America,
no intelligence in the British court, that might
by any form of recognition compensate the
philosophical or scientific writer for poverty and
popular neglect. The more powerful a man's
intelligence, the more distinctly he must see
that to devote himself to increase the scien-
tific or philosophical wealth of the English tongue
will be to sacrifice comfort, the respect of the
bulk of his contemporaries, and all the most de-
lightful things of life, for the barren reward of
a not very certain righteous self-applause. By

254



THE CONFLICT OF LANGUAGES

brewing and dealing in tied houses,* or by selling
pork and tea, or by stock- jobbing, and by pandering
with the profits so obtained to the pleasures of
the established great, a man of energy may hope
to rise to a pitch of public honor and popularity
immeasurably in excess of anything attainable
through the most splendid intellectual perform-
ances. Heaven forbid I should overrate public
honors and the company of princes! But it is
not always delightful to be splashed by the wheels
of cabs. Always before there has been at least a
convention that the court of this country, and its
aristocracy, were radiant centres of moral and intel-
lectual influence, that they did to some extent
check and correct the judgments of the cab-rank
and the beer-house. But the British crown of
to-day, so far as it exists for science and literature
at all, exists mainly to repudiate the claims of
intellectual performance to public respect.

These things, if they were merely the grievances
of the study, might very well rest there. But they
must be recognized here because the intellectual

* It is entirely for their wealth that brewers have been ennobled
in England, never because of their services as captains of a great
industry. Indeed, these services have been typically poor.
While these men were earning their peerages by the sort of pro-
ceedings that do secure men peerages under the British crown,
the German brewers were developing the art and science of brew-
ing with remarkable energy and success. The Germans and
Bohemians can now make light beers that the English brewers
cannot even imitate ; they are exporting beer to England in
steadily increasing volume.

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ANTICIPATIONS

decline of the published literature of the English
language using the word to cover all sorts of
books involves finally the decline of the language
and of all the spacious political possibilities that
go with the wide extension of a language. Con-
ceivably, if in the coming years a deliberate attempt
were made to provide sound instruction in English
to all who sought it, and to all within the control
of English-speaking governments, if honor and
emolument were given to literary men instead of
being left to them to most indelicately take, and
if the present sordid trade of publishing were so
lifted as to bring the whole literature, the whole
science, and all the contemporary thought of the
world not some selection of the world's litera-
ture, not some obsolete encyclopedia sold meanly
and basely to choke hungry minds, but a real
publication of all that has been and is being done
within the reach of each man's need and de-
sire who had the franchise of the tongue, then
by the year 2000 I would prophesy that the whole
functional body of human society would read,
and perhaps even write and speak, our language.
And not only that, but it might be the prevalent
and everyday language of Scandinavia and Den-
mark and Holland, of all Africa, all North Amer-
ica, of the Pacific coasts of Asia and of India,
the universal international language, and in a
fair way to be the universal language of mankind.
But such an enterprise demands a resolve and

256



THE CONFLICT OF LANGUAGES

intelligence beyond all the immediate signs of
the times ; it implies a veritable renascence of intel-
lectual life among the English-speaking peoples.
The probabilities of such a renascence will be
more conveniently discussed at a later stage,
when we attempt to draw the broad outline of
the struggle for world- wide ascendency that the


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Online LibraryH. G. (Herbert George) WellsAnticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and thought → online text (page 15 of 21)