08 November 2006
Quentin Newark
Quentin Newark

As closer integration of the European Union continues, is there a need for a single European language? How might designers contribute?

In January 2000, the first notes and coins of the Euro, the single European currency, appeared. One of the most cherished dreams of all those who had wanted a united Europe became real. Next, tax rates will gradually become uniform and a single European army is under discussion. We already have one flag, one Parliament, one overarching set of laws: How soon can it be before we have one language, and with it, a new alphabet, or new typography?

Of course, in reality, "local" languages - English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Dutch, and so on - will probably always remain. After all, there are still strong bands of Catalan and Breton speakers, outnumbered in their own countries by Spanish and French speakers, respectively.

But we will need some common way to discuss and describe the things that we will soon share, including many of the artifacts for which designers are responsible: packaging, advertising, signage, TV graphics, and official documents.

The obvious language, one might think, is English; surely, most Europeans speak some English already? Not according to one survey (Van der Sandt, 1989), which found that only six percent of the total population had a "truly correct comprehension of the English language [in Western Europe]," which "falls noticeably beneath our most pessimistic expectations."

Anyway, the problem is more complex than merely picking a language from the selection on offer: "Closer integration" sounds smooth and natural, but the countries are not like a newly married couple, eager to coil together, full of understanding and generosity. The reality is that the nations are more like prisoners forced into the same cell: suspicious, territorial, with any sign of backing down seen as a weakness that will bring terrible retribution in the showers. Traditional animosities still simmer under the surface; the countries of Europe may have decided to make a go of it together, but to the extent of officially adopting another's language? Never.

Efforts to select a common language have already met with failure more than once. In 1946, at a conference of World War II allies to discuss the economic rebuilding of Europe, the U.S. and Britain proposed that English be the accepted common language at the meeting. Charles de Gaulle insisted that French, as the traditional language of international diplomacy, should be the language used. Britain's Prime Minister Clement Attlee agreed that, yes, French was a wonderful language - for menus. The conference was held in English, but the remark did nothing for relations between Britain and France.

One might think that, today, the countries would be a little less precious than in that tense, postwar atmosphere. But during Finland's recent presidency of the European Union, Germany insisted that if Finnish was going to be recognized as an official language for the length of the presidency, alongside French and English, so should German be. If it wasn't, they said, they would stay away from a critical summit. A thorny issue indeed, but how best to resolve it?

If we can't use English, could we use BASIC (British, American, Scientific, International, Commercial) English? C.K. Ogden's 1929 language is a subset of English containing just 850 words (the average college student has a vocabulary of 12,000 words). The language consists of words describing operations, things, and qualities, and according to its creator, could be learned in 40 hours by anyone who spoke a Germanic or Romance European language. While perhaps not appropriate for poetry, it should be more than adequate for signage and packaging-even some technical literature. Alas, it is still English, which might make it unacceptable in the current political climate.

With it go other "reduced" languages such as Simpli ed English and the Caterpillar Tractor Company's 1971 language, Caterpillar Fundamental English. Everyone understands road signs and airport pictograms, so perhaps these point the way forward. After all, hieroglyphs were used by ancient cultures successfully for thousands of years, and arguably the longest-lasting language in the world - Chinese - has a pictographic alphabet.

Could all Europeans learn a set of pictographic building blocks through which simple ideas could be expressed? Probably, but the inhibiting problem with visual alphabets is expressing even slightly sophisticated ideas. Icons are ne for expressing ideas that are physical. The icon matches something we can see in the physical world; it is in effect a drawing, an image; man, woman. But the problem begins when you try to show ideas that are not physical; how do you show "marriage" rather than just "relationship," or "older Spanish man, from a tacky rock band, and younger, wealthy Slavic woman?"

It is the ability of words to describe subtlety and nuance, in such a short space and so quickly, that makes them such efficient carriers of information. Picture languages need far more room and time to do the same job; whereas our alphabet uses just 26 letters combined to make different words, the Chinese pictographic alphabet has 3000 characters, and even they are combined to make more complex words. And there were some 5000 ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

While it is diverting to think about new kinds of alphabet, the rst step toward some sort of common European language has actually been taken, and it has been driven by soup and chocolate. As the Union expands-potentially to more than 20 countries in the next three years-the list of languages grows: Czech, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, Slovakian. Soft-drink cans and packs of batteries, with their already long strips of translated ingredients on the back, will not get any bigger. There will be more and more text, and less and less space, for branding and pictures of the product; we will be in danger of entirely typographic packaging (which, however good that sounds to designers, will probably harm sales in the long run). In an effort to deal with this, all of the most common ingredients listed on packs will be spelled out in one language-Latin. So milk, m lk, milch, latte, lait all turn into the Latin word - lac. Of course, this is ne if you were once invaded by the Romans and they left you their linguistic legacy, but for the Poles and Finns, Latin might as well be double Dutch. Latin is unlikely to nd wider currency outside the little 6-point world of packaging, if only because it has so much cultural baggage. The Germans resisted Latin culture ercely for 2000 years, inventing Gothic architecture and Protestantism in the process. So rather than reaching back to a mother tongue, perhaps we could go further to join languages and make a daughter tongue.

Kuragon, Esperanto! Invented in 1887 by a polyglot Jewish Pole called Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhoff, Esperanto means "hope." It consists of a lot of root words, which are combined or changed with suffixes and prefixes. It is part French, part Latin, German, and Slavic. In case you thought it was confined to the margins of history as a slightly risible experiment, Bill Auld, a Scottish poet who writes exclusively in Esperanto, was recently short-listed for the Nobel Prize for Literature. An estimated 15 million people speak this language without a country. Quite amazingly, as a sign of how successfully it works, in 1966 a petition with a million signatures proposing Esperanto as the official language for the whole world was put to a vote at the United Nations. It was only barely defeated.

Esperanto aside, I rmly believe there will eventually be a single European language, if we wait long enough. It will be a creole, an alloy, a salad. Indeed, this article is written in a language that is a perfect example of how this will work. English is a blend of two languages, Teutonic Anglo-Saxon and Latinate Norman French, with notable words and phrases from Norse, Celtic, modern French, Urdu, and Chinese. The biggest transition took about 300 years, from 1066 when the Normans invaded Anglo-Saxon England to around 1300 when a language that was recognizably English was rst spoken. While this might seem like a vast time span, it is only ve times the period from World War II to the present.

Perhaps it is best to see language less as the protected possession of a nation state and more as the currency of a cultural and economic area that ignores national boundaries. English is the language most spoken throughout Europe, and indeed the world. Estimates vary, but about a billion people will be speaking English this year; that is utility that is impossible to resist.

The next most important language in European terms is German. Germany is the true heart of Europe, both geographically and in terms of nancial and political influence. German is spoken by 100 million people, and it forms the root of several other European languages - Dutch, Flemish, Danish, and Swedish. It is the European language most favored and used by a further 20 million - Czechs, Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, and Russians. Any new tongue will almost certainly use English as its base, combined with German. The other prominent nations, France and Italy, will nd their vocabulary used as color to describe the ne things in life like food and art, supplementing the new practical and guttural verbal currency. Every expensive restaurant in England already prints its menu in French. These delicious words will simply increase the quantity of Latinate words already present in English. Greek had its input, 2500 years ago, and I can confidently predict that the Slavic languages, Finnish, Basque, and Latvian, will have no influence on the new tongue whatsoever. Oh, and by the way, all Americans will speak this new creole. How can they not? The slow development and the pressure of economics will ensure it.

It might be a little way off, but designers will be dragged into this new world along with everyone else. They will not only need to speak the new language, whatever it turns out to be, but also use its typefaces and understand its eccentricities. The words and names of everything they know now will change; they might well have to go to the Rathaus to pay their local tax, vote on their komputer, swim in the local piscine.

So the new language the designers of the 21st century will be attempting to develop typographic rules for will be recognizably English with logical and predictable German-style grammar and lots of Latinate words. What might we call such a language, using the usual endings: Eurish, Euroea, Europese, Europan, or given the cultural aggressiveness of the French, Eurench perhaps? My favorite possibility is the shortest and simplest, if not the most auspicious: Eurin.

Anyone for Esperanto?
Nobel-nominated Scottish poet Bill Auld writes in Esperanto. Here is an extract in Esperanto and with a translation in English from Auld's most highly regarded work, cited by the Nobel Prize committee, La Infana Raso (The Infant Race). Exploring ideas about the brotherhood of man and utopias, it could be seen as a comment on European Union. It's called "Links."

Kuragon, homofratog de ciu hautkoloro
la tempmirago, kiu dialgis nin damninde
nin fine rekunigoa!
Kag dume, palpe, blinde,
ni venas, iras, eroj en ceno kies finon,
ne formas ni nek vidos, Kuragon kaj obstinon!

Courage, my brothers of every hue,
the time mirage that scattered us unkindly will reunite us!
Meanwhile, feebly, blindly,
we come and go, links in a chain whose end,
we are not and shall not see, take heart, be strong!

Not Spoken Here
Although there are currently 15 member states in the European Union, there are only 11 official languages. This is because several countries share a main language; Germany and Austria both speak German, for example. The Union has a harshly reductive impulse when it comes to language. The term "expansion" refers to more countries joining in order to expand the single marketplace: Their languages will not be welcome. Rather than expand our linguistic culture, the official desire is to abbreviate it. The "language" of each country is taken very literally to be the majority language: All the other languages, spoken by millions of Europeans, are excluded. So no Basque or Catalan, no Gaelic or Breton, no Yiddish or Romany.

Universal Universal
How will we write our new single European language? How many letters will it have, and what will they look like? Most of the much-reported developments in typeface design of the last few years are changes or modifications at a surface level: changes to minor aspects of how the letters are drawn (drawn like chrome or frankensteined from two fonts), or drawing them so that they are barely recognizable, or replacing them with other shapes like photographs or fingers (much like the infamous Mr. Bear, the Letraset alphabet of the 1970s that was made up of polar bears).

Almost no one recently has repeated or taken further the thinking of the early modernists like Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold, who saw that a substantial redesign depended on understanding the big historical developments that lie inside the alphabet. Both of their most successful alphabets were called Universal. And they both felt that the curious doubling of the alphabet into "lower-" and "uppercase" could be challenged and reversed -after all, Bayer argued, speech does not use capital letters. This allowed them to reduce the quantity of letters and settle on a simple set of forms. Bayer used only lowercase for his font; Tschichold selected one case by choosing from both cases. The simplification of the forms was not a stylistic choice, but deeply felt. They believed in rational thinking. Rational as in dispassionate, mathematical, pure. Le Corbusier pointed at the influence most clearly when he said, "The engineer, inspired by the law of economy and governed by mathematical calculation, puts us in accord with universal law."

Two other notable new editions of the alphabet are those by the Pole Wladyslav Strzeminski and the Dutchman Wim Crouwel. Rather than reinvent or re-select letters, both these typefaces involve editing the existing letterforms. Strzeminski's letters rely on each other to supply the visual information we need to read them. Crouwel's decision-making is similar, although less radical and therefore more legible. The geometry is as far as it can be from the hand-drawn pen shapes of the alphabet we are used to; this is typography made with the ethos of machines.

Guessing Game
In 1966, two Swedes, Jan Oloo Stundstrom and Sunniva Kellquist, won a competition to design an international ideogrammatic alphabet. The graphic resolution of the icons is very successful and handsome: Each emblem is a ring with very elementary shapes inside it. The thinking by the two designers at rst seems clear. "Port," for example, shows a boat-like shape entering a harbor-like curve. And "money" is clever - two equal bars. This exactly parallels the idea of money as an exchange system, the value of labor, or a service or a product having an equivalent money value. But in important areas, the combined imagination of the two designers lets us down. Why is the icon for "women" two dots? Are they nipples? Ovaries? Pig's nostrils? In the end, the scheme fails in the way that all picture-based writing systems fail: It is unable to sustain its own simple logic as the concepts it tries to depict become more complex or more ambiguous.

No Accents, Please
The next time someone tries to be clever and says that Chinese is the world's most-spoken language, laugh. It is not. There are eight spoken forms in Chinese, some completely unintelligible to large numbers of Chinese: A native of Guangdong has no idea what someone from Beijing is saying. What is powerful and unique is that there is only one alphabet. A book in Chinese can be read by a billion people.

If we are going to develop one tongue, like the Chinese we will need one uniform alphabet. We are close: The Latin alphabet is used throughout Europe, although its form is modified from country to country with accents (and a few additional letters for the Slavic and Greek alphabets). But are these features, which make foreign languages appear so intimidating, really necessary? After all, there are no accents in Braille for the blind, understood by millions. In fact, could Braille be a candidate for the new universal font? It has the advantage of looking quite fantastic, way more radical than even Wim Crouwel's best efforts; it has no accents, only one case-no division into upper- and lower-), and it is fast to learn and wonderfully easy to reproduce.

Well, It Looks Simple
Otto Neurath, a Viennese social scientist, devised a picture system in the 1920s. It started as a fancy way of drawing charts in dry, heavy sociological textbooks, a laudable aim. Neurath had grand ambitions: He believed that pictures are objective-no cultural or regional differences-and could therefore be understood by anyone. (Things were simple in 1920s Austria; he obviously never tried to find a toilet in an Saudi airport, where the icon of a man is dressed in a long dish-dash.) He called his protolanguage ISOTYPE, which he explained as an acronym of "International System of Typographic Picture Education." But this is thinking backwards-the real origin is etymological: The Greek word isos means equal and typos means form. His work never developed far beyond a theory, although the geometric simplicity of the drawing style, and the assertions about universality, were to influence the development of later symbol systems, such as Otl Aicher's 1972 Munich Olympics signs and the bland, sexless silhouette figures peopling every airport.

About this article

The following article by Quentin Newark originally appeared in the March/April, 2000 issue of Print Magazine's European Design Annual and appears here with permission. Copyright 2000 Print Magazine.

About Quentin Newark
Quentin Newark is a partner in the design company Atelier Works. He has written for Graphics International and Circular, the journal of the Typographic Circle.

About Print Magazine
Print is "America's Graphic Design Magazine."