An Immodest Proposal

( This appeared in The Hoot in April 2008)

Pic Courtesy : Christopher Haines

When Jonathan Swift wrote ‘the Modest Proposal’ in 1729, the height of sustained irony that he used in the article gifted the English language with a modern phrase loaded with meaning. Swift created a not-quite-gentle shock when he proposed eating Irish babies as a solution to the poverty in that part of the world. It was true Latin satire in the line of Juvenal and Horace, and the educated reader of the time would probably have the sensibility and sense of humour to enjoy the rhetoric.

On the first day of this month, I received my customary newsletter from the English, and was shocked beyond words to see the title article –  “UN TO BAN ‘UNNECESSARY’ LANGUAGES”. The article went on to announce “first debate on language redundancy amid warnings that the problem is ‘a major contributor’ to climate change, a ‘massive threat’ to international security and the cause of “rifts and divisions” within society.”

This was no casual write-up, it was a well laid out, cleverly argued and excellently researched piece supported by graphs and tables. It quoted an Andrew Steiner, the head of the United Nations Environment Program as concerned about ‘the impact on climate change of the huge number of languages in use worldwide’. The current plan, according to the article, was to begin phasing out all non-English languages, which are seen as redundant and “unnecessary” due to the overwhelming dominance of English in the world community.

The reasons were several; international security and terrorism (terrorists use non-English languages to communicate), environment (unnecessary languages require enormous amounts of paper for translations, resulting in huge losses of forested areas, and these losses have become “a major factor” contributing to climate change) and from the social front, there was a hampering of communication on the international front due to the multitude of languages.

There were other urgent reasons to phase out other languages too; the human brain is programmed to learn just one language, learning a second language causes stress and consequent psychological disorders. The article even quoted a Dr Wong as saying that all this multi-language business causes multiple personality disorder. So all the ‘lingua non-grata’ were to be phased out by a well charted time-plan, which was also laid out. So the plan was to phase out all non-English languages by 2049, and French too would then be in the non-E group, and the ESL concept (English as Second Language) will be replaced by the EOL (English as Only Language). The last issue would of course be which version of English to use. The argument used in each line was extremely convincing and the writer brilliantly managed to hold the interest of the reader till the last word.

The article unleashed a whole gamut of reactions from the readers of the blog, and till I write this, 323 responses have been posted. They ranged from the indignant to the desperate to the laughing-it-off as an April fool joke; yeah, it was posted on the 1st of April 2008.  There was no punch line anywhere in the piece indicating it was all a joke, it is written in a truly Horacian manner.

It is a pity the way this has been received by the reading public, totally without a sense of humour. The comments indicate fear, outrage and comparison to Nazism. The odd person who sees the joke is a rarity. Perhaps we have been so used to slapstick comedy and are so far away from classic education that we no longer understand true satire when we see it?

The next day this appeared !


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