An International Anthem or
A Perfect Accent for Students of all Languages
to be written and composed by a skunk works posse
Is it time for the UN (United Nations) to have an international anthem? If you agree, let us share ideas. Perhaps facetiously, I may be talking about “world chauvinism” * with various paraphrases and translations such as ”[I enthusiastically support] my Earth, right or wrong [because it’s the only planet we’ve got]” written in several languages as widely spoken as, say, Arabic. Appropriate libretto would need to be transcribed into phonetic script for aid in coaching children to sing it in languages selected to encompass all the phonemes of all human languages. These children, even as adults, could learn all languages with a near perfect accent. A brief account of how this idea got its start follows.
I tried to learn Farsi (Persian) at age 44. My vocabulary was good enough for ordinary conversation, but illiterate people couldn't understand me---they thought I was speaking English. My eight year old daughter knew fewer words than I, but she had a perfect accent. The uncanny thing was that she could be my "translator" without even knowing all that she was saying. In other words she corrected my pronunciation of words that she didn't know. The following idea occurred to me 30 years later---simple to express, but quite difficult to carry out. I will appreciate any comments that you may have.
Our primary purpose will be accomplished by including all the phonemes of human languages in a children’s play song (phonemes are the smallest discrete elements of spoken language). As a result all humanity would be empowered to learn each other's languages with a perfect accent even starting as adults because we would know all the phonemes already from our universal children's play song.
Children all over the world sing play songs. From my childhood I remember for jump rope, “…’pendicitis said the doctor, ‘pendicitis said the nurse, ‘pendicitis said the lady with the alligator purse….” even though it is close to nonsense. Meaning can be imposed upon nonsense as illustrated by Lewis Carol’s Jaberwoky or by a joke from the internet:
“How do we know that Mahatma Gandhi had bad breath? Otherwise, how else would Mary Poppins have written, “super-calloused, fragile mystic hexed by halitosis?” (Say it out loud in cadence.)
Our skunk works posse (a phrase coined by early Ford Motor Company engineers) would be a self-assembled group of experts undertaking an important oeuvre as volunteers without commercial sponsorship.** Our posse, like the original skunk works posse, would need to be composed of experts in diverse fields including a well-known and competent coordinator (such as a recently retired editor of Science), multilingual literary people (Isabelle Allende for example), many linguists, and others to be recruited as needed such as UNESCO and various religious leaders. Initial music could be borrowed from sources from Bach to Sir Arthur Sullivan; but, for the final version, newly composed
music compatible with various cultural traditions would be highly desirable. A lab school with access
to multilingual students could provide children’s voices for the recording. Persuading the children not to attempt any phonemes they, as individuals, couldn’t avoid mispronouncing would be only a minor problem.
Meaningful humanitarian, conservation, and universal religious precepts could be subtly incorporated with exotic phonemes into a scaffold of languages and hopefully be nearly comprehensible in some of the languages. Commentaries in many languages giving a key to meaning as Lewis Carol did in Alice through the Looking Glass would be useful—most of our song will be near nonsense for all of us. (Much later in the book Lewis Carol finally told us the meaning of the poem Jaberwocky’s nonsense).
* Nicolos Chauvin was a semi-mythical soldier in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army noted for unwavering patriotism. In spite of many personal reverses and disabilities, he continued to say “my country right or wrong.” Let us hope that world chauvinists will not insist on competing with extraterrestrials before we are even sure that they exist--for instance, by appropriating vast sums of money sending out signals because they believe that we alone have been told the laws and purpose of the universe.
** I googled “skunk works posse” and got the 2007 version of this article as the second or third item. I also found that the first skunk works effort was in 1904 about how to decrease the weight of automobiles. I first heard of skunk works posses as an intern at Henry Ford Hospital in 1946. My recollection of what I heard then is that some Ford Motor Co. engineers had an idea that the boss did not immediately accept; so they developed it on their own time and had it all ready to go when Henry finally perceived its merit. Bottom line: I may be a minor expert on the history of skunk works posses.
Or our posse might prefer, if all the phonemes could be sufficiently concisely included, to use proverbs from many cultures as a nonsense equivalent—the various exotic languages would result in “nonsense” for most of the text for most users. Many proverbs would be needed to select those with universal messages to be parsed into their phonemes for computer processing to find a combination concisely incorporating most of the phonemes. Such a song could be shortened by substituting some foreign phonemes and still be quasi-comprehensible to speakers of the original language of that proverb. Any left over phonemes could be a chorus of (total) nonsense for the verses of proverbs distorted by exotic phonemes. Imposing nonsense on meaning should be at least as easy as its opposite.
If it becomes necessary to omit exotic phonemes, those from languages with few native speakers could be trimmed from the list of phonemes to be used in our song. Speakers of rare languages are most likely to need and learn a second language such as the official languages of the UN: Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. Perhaps a few others should be added; Swahili comes to mind. Accordingly, all the phonemes from this shorter list might be sufficient for our primary purposes.
There are already several songs associated with the UN and translated into their official languages. One of them is quite an attractive poem by W. H. Auden and set to music by Pablo Casals. None of them are widely known, and the use of multiple translations would not permit success in the purpose of teaching all the world’s children all of the phonemes of (almost) all languages.
Of course these details are merely illustrative of how our posse might organize its task—originality would be sought in all aspects of the effort. And our coordinator might deem it desirable to get some grants for housekeeping expense such as postage, or even travel expense of key people to get together face to face in the final stages such as making sound tracks. The song would be played on radio and television, made into records available in libraries, and utilized by a generation of the world’s children. Ultimately international travelers could join children in their songs at play enhancing the unity of our species—the international anthem idea. It would be appropriate to publish these suggestions, competently edited of course, in many places in order to help recruit appropriate volunteers for the posse.
If you prefer to organize your own skunk works posse to carry out this assignment, I will applaud you in the spirit of Harry Truman when he said, “It is remarkable what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
My hope is that this idea will take on a life of its own and I will become merely one of the volunteers with the coordinator fully in charge, recruiting co-leaders from linguistic, literary, musical fields, and perhaps even computer science to ensure that no vital phoneme is inadvertently omitted.
John A. Frantz, MD, NASW
October 14, 2007, revised January 21, 2010