Armenian as Lingua Franca

Mary Catherine Bateson
With a Daughter's Eye: a memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson
New York: William Morrow & Company, 1984
pp. 85-86

She worked for years to improve international and cross-cultural communication, so at one time she was interested in the adoption of a world language and organized a conference on the question. At that time, it was becoming increasingly clear that two or three languages would emerge as the principal vehicles of cross-cultural communication, on the United Nations model. She worried that whether we relied on one or several major world languages, this would still enforce a line between those who were using their own native language and those who were trying to follow and express themselves in a second language learned in school, a continuation of colonialism. Instead, she argued, one of the world's minor languages, not associated with any great power, should be taken as a common world second language. In this way, all the effort of translation could be channeled in a single direction and the task of language learning distributed equally, while the other languages of the world would continue to be treasured as carriers of cultural diversity instead of being swamped.

When she produced this theory, my husband and I suggested that Armenian would make a good candidate because there are reservoirs of cosmopolitan and multilingual Armenian speakers all over the world and in both Eastern and Western camps. Afterward she referred to the idea in several speeches, along with other possible candidates. This made her a great favourite of the Armenian community who did not realize how their language would be changed in such a process and what it would mean for Armenian culture if the language ceased to be a private refuge.

In any case, the key element in her thinking was the notion that a real natural language would have to be used — not Esperanto, not Interlingua, not some computer construct — for only a real human language has the redundancy necessary for human communication. Artificial languages are designed by taking a set of abstract principles, observed universals or logically necessary components, and then using these as the basis for an efficient, consistent, and unambiguous system. In general, the task has been done badly, with the logic flawed and the characteristics of particular languages or language families treated as if they were logically necessary. The mistake is in the enterprise itself, however, as if human communication could be served by a system with no puns, no ambiguities, no lullabies, as if a human pattern could be constructed from first principles. In New Guinea she had observed the use of Pidgin English, now properly called Neo-Melanesian, which serves as a vehicle of communication among many different peoples who learn it as a second language, as Swahili does in Africa. She was more sympathetic to Pidgin than to artificial languages for it does provide an effective common ground, but it carries far to many of the marks of servitude and lacks the historical resources for nuanced communication.
Only a real human language has the redundancy necessary for human communication - puns, lullabies and historical resources - and variations on refuge.

And so for day 1426