Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Rise & Fall Of Volapük As A Universal Language

Modern Universal Languages

I can understand the desire of individuals who want to create a universal language, although such a desire doesn't reside in me. Then again, the desire likely includes the need to create an easy and predictable single mode of communication among the hundreds of language and national groups—thus making a brave attempt to somewhat defeat the babel of languages common today. It also speaks about defeating the linguistic hegemony of a particular language.

An article in The Public Domain Review by Arika Okrent looks at one such language—Volapük—that gained popularity at the end of the 19th century, but was eventually replaced by Esperanto in its quest for an universal language.
Johann Schleyer was a German priest whose irrational passion for umlauts may have been his undoing. During one sleepless night in 1879, he felt a Divine presence telling him to create a universal language. The result was Volapük. It was designed to be easy to learn, with a system of simple roots derived from European languages, and regular affixes which attached to the roots to make new words. Volapük was the first invented language to gain widespread success. By the end of the 1880s there were more than 200 Volapük societies and clubs around the world and 25 Volapük journals. Over 1500 diplomas in Volapük had been awarded. In 1889, when the third international Volapük congress was held in Paris, the proceedings were entirely in Volapük. Everyone had at least heard of it. President Grover Cleveland’s wife even named her dog Volapük.
Though Schleyer was German, a large part of the Volapük vocabulary was based on English. “Volapük” was a compound formed from two roots, vol (from “world”) and pük (from “speak”). However, it was often hard to spot the source of a Volapük word because of the way Schleyer had set up the sound system of the language. “Paper” was pöp, “beer” bil, “proof” blöf and “love”löf. He had rational reasons for most of the phonological choices he made. For simplicity, he tried to limit all word roots to one syllable. He avoided the ‘r’ sound, “for the sake of children and old people, also for some Asiatic nations.” The umlauts, however, were there for löf.
The umlauts might have been the language's undoing in its race for popularity, Okrent writes. "By 1890 the Volapük movement was falling apart due to arguments about umlauts and other reforms. Schleyer left the Volapük Academy and formed his own academy of loyalists. Other Volapükists created their own versions of the language – Nal Bino, Balta, Bopal, Spelin, Dil, Orba – all of which immediately fell into the obscurity that soon swallowed Volapük itself."

Umlauts aside, it's almost impossible for a modern invented language to gain world acceptance. As the article notes, there have been hundreds of invented languages that never really see the light of day, let alone gain some semblance of acceptance; thus the chances of one becoming popular are slim indeed.

You can read the rest of the article at [Public Domain]