Artificial Languages after the World-War

By Otto Jespersen


[Translated into Ido from the Danish by Miss Gunvar Mönster and published in Hjælpesprogstidende for March and April 1918 and turned from Ido into English by Gilbert H. Richardson.]

When, after the end of the war, the whole relationship between the nations as it was before 1914 is renewed, - and it will be renewed, just simply because the nations can't do without each other - then the question of a world-language, or let us rather say of an art-made means of communication between the peoples, will again become a burning one. It was well on the way to being solved when the catastrophe occured and seemed for a short time to paralyse all such efforts. To stop them altogther, that even the world war could not do, for in spite of censorship and in spite of the nations' mutual hatred and suspicion the idea of an auxiliary language is not dead, but has its enthusiastic adherents, who have firm faith in its realization and hope that immediately after the coming of peace it will have new vitality. Quite recently I have received very many evidences of this from Germany, Sweden, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey, U.S.A., and not least from England, where - from natural causes - the movement hitherto has not been very extensive.

It is true that there are sceptics who allege that such an international universal language will be needed after the war less than before, because the nations for long will remain hostile and suspicious towards each other. Each will prefer his own, and will maintain it against the others. But exactly in that connection, many of the voices, to which I have just referred, have objected that even if we should not end up with what many imagine (and not only dreamers but people of influence, practical politicians from both belligerent sides) "the United States of Europe," a still greater federation of nations, we shall nevertheless have at all events two powerful unions: the Central Powers and their confederates on one side and on the other the outer powers France and England with America on the west, with Russia on the east and Italy on the south. And in any case within each of these groups consolidated by the war, an auxiliary language will also be wanted, because neither of them possesses a single language which appears naturally as the sole means of getting understood among the different members of the group. So even if the world should be divided into two parts sharply separated by tariff walls and trenches, nevertheless an auxiliary language will be needed within each group - to say nothing of the poor neutrals with their smaller populations, for whom it is almost a necessary condition of life to be able to do business and to communicate with both the groups.

There are not a few, however, who indeed recognize the desirability of such a common auxiliary language, but who do not believe that it will be possible to realize the idea, because agreement can never be reached on the question: which of the proposed languages is the best? We must admit that such agreement is a most important condition for the realization of the idea. Let us then enquire what possibility there is of obtaining this desirable agreement.

We shall perhaps be best able to judge of this if we examine the history of the affair. There have been offered actually about a hundred projects for world language - so it is evident that it is easy enough to construct such a more or less artificial system. But only three of these have succeeded in winning a fairly large group of adherents, beyond the inventor himself, namely: Volapük by the Bavarian priest Schleyer, Esperanto by a Polish doctor Zamenhof, and Ido by an International Committee. The first aroused great enthusiasm among many people during the decade 1880-1890, and at the beginning of the following decade for the first time it was seen to be possible to get one's self understood in international relations both spoken and written by the help of a made language. But it failed: it was easy enough to notice the defects of the language, yet the critics could not agree about the words and forms to be used in place of the bad ones. There was too much to correct; one insisted on one point, another on another and the result was confusion and dissolution. The wisest Volapükists took what was the most drastic and most prudent course; they set up a small academy which slowly and systematically discussed principles and details, and at last after many years presented Idiom Neutral in which there remained hardly anything of the original. Instead of most European words being massacred and deformed past recognition in Volapük, they appear in Idiom Neutral in their true form so that everyone understands the greater part of all ordinary phrases.

When, however, this language appeared Esperanto had already begun its triumphal march across many lands. It has many advantages over Volapük, mainly because it has adopted very many words common to Europe in a style easy to recognize. But Zamenhof has not applied this principle as fully as it ought to be, and in many points one meets strange caprices of the inventor, which among other things hinder understanding at first sight and make the practical use of the language difficult. These points have, indeed, been criticised pretty largely in a benevolent tone by adherents of the idea of auxiliary language, and pretty sharply by persons outside the affair, who, by pointing to the defects of Esperanto, think they can injure the whole artificial language movement. However after a short period during which the inventor himself had started projects for reform more than anyone else, he was influenced more and more by those of his followers who were afraid of any reform; they became anxious chiefly because of the fate of Volapük believing that the many proposals for reform caused the failure of that language. By stopping such proposals they therefore thought they would make the existence of Esperanto secure, and with increasing passion they persecuted every one of their group who began to talk of this word or that word which surely might need enquiry and improvement. Thus they did not notice that the failure of Volapük was not really due to the projects of reform, but fundamentally to those qualities of the language itself which invited reforms; and if their own language invited improvements in many points (tho' in a much smaller number than Volapük) then the proper thing to do would have been to examine these points dispassionately and to try by what kind of reforms it might be possible to come to an agreement before it should be too late. For the more such a language has already been used and the greater the number of people who have learnt it in one form, the more difficult it will be to get them used to anything other than what they have learnt. For that reason, the best course is: first the reforms, afterwards the adoption of a language already purified and perfected. The better the language, the better the chance of its being universally recognised and adopted by private people and by public authorities. These are the principles which from the beginning have guided the Ido movement.

Already when it first appeared in 1907 Ido was a combination of the best in Esperanto, Idiom-Neutral and other such artificial languages: and regard has been had in it for the criticisms of linguists as well as of others with reference to Esperanto; but the international committee which at its beginning recommended it were yet of the opinion that "the last word had not been said," and invited general criticism and discussion open to all. For this purpose the monthly review "Progreso" was conducted; in its six thick volumes are to be found very many articles about general principles and details written by contributors from very many countries. For it is important to regard the question from as many points of view as possible; what may seem reasonable and unambiguous to a Dane, may cause difficulties to a Hungarian, and misunderstanding to a Spaniard; but if many different nations combine in helping to test every detail, then there is great probability that nothing important would escape attention. After detailed deliberation votes were taken in an international Academy elected by the members of the Ido-Union. It is true that by this means the language was changed little by little, so that now it looks in some points different from what it was at first; still we submitted to the resulting disadvantages, trusting that "prevention is better than cure". It turned out that the number of projects for reform diminished gradually; we came to an agreement on the most important points and obtained a language so practically usable and theoretically defensible that we could unhesitatingly consider it in its present form as fixed, and we therefore established what we have termed a period of stability. Then was the time seriously to begin getting for the language a still greater diffusion in wide circles than it had yet obtained by entirely quiet growth.

But immediately afterwards occurred the world war; and it not only stopped, of sheer necessity, that kind of international collaboration, but it killed already at its commencement, the most eminent chief of the Ido movement, the famous French philosopher, Professor Couturat, whose motor-car collided with a large military motor-carriage. He had succeeded in finishing of his large French-Ido dictionary (the most copious dictionary so far edited in any artificial language), but it could not be disseminated so widely as would have been the case if the war had not hindered its sale and delivery. The corresponding German-Ido dictionary is now completed but remains in France as a pile of paper for the time being useless. The English one is nearing its completion, and in our country Miss Gunvar Mönster has been perseveringly at work on a Danish-Ido dictionary planned on a large scale.

If we now come back to the main question: the chances of success of artificial language after the war, the state of the case is, then, in my opinion this: that for Esperanto there is only to be said its greater number of adherents compared to that of the Idists - but on the other hand the Idists are not as few as their adversaries generally say, and among them are a good many who before 1907 were leaders and editors of Esperanto in the various countries. Everything else tells in favor of Ido. It is not the product of a single person, and for that reason it is free from the caprices, fancies and individual preferences which a single person can with difficulty avoid. It uses the already existing international vocabulary more extensively than does Esperanto, so that every educated European or American can understand at first sight almost every text, at any rate in his own speciality. It can be printed and telegraphed straight away, while Esperanto is defaced by several arbitrary consonants with circumflexed accents; consequently special types are necessary in printing-houses, and an Esperanto text must be transcribed in a special manner before it can be sent via telegraph. Ido has a vocabulary more extensive and worked out more exactly; it has in general a better conscience in all respects. This is shown by the simple fact that the Ido magazines do very often what the Esperanto reviews avoid, namely, print for comparison the same texts in two columns, in Ido and Esperanto. To this I will add a further circumstance which concerns not the language directly but those who use it: during the world war the Idists as such have observed the strictest neutrality, not wishing to use their language as war-propaganda, neither for the one nor for the other side, while the German Esperantists regularly every month have edited a review paid by the German government and containing a defence of German methods of war and spiteful attacks on other nations. At the beginning of the war a similar magazine was published on the French side too, "Por Francujo per Esperanto." I do not know whether it has ceased to be conducted; but in any case paid work of that sort will not promote co-operation, when once we have peace.

In my article I have used the term artificial language in contrast to the languages which have developed naturally. But the reader must not suppose that we are dealing with anything altogether unnatural or artificial; on the contrary: The modern artificial languages such as Esperanto, Idiom Neutral, and even more so Ido, seem exceedingly natural to those who see and hear them. What has been attained by the long labor of recent years is just this: more and more to avoid the artificial, which in Volapük existed to a large extent and which also in large measure deforms Esperanto. The material used is that of the existing languages, the more universal the better - and what is discarded from the natural languages is merely whatever by its variability, irregularity and awkwardness hinders quick, easy and sure understanding and learning. By this means we have actually got a rich adaptable, easy and beautiful language, which deserves to be adopted for ordinary use whenever any one alone of the existing national languages does not suffice.

From Two Papers on International Language in English and Ido, 1921.

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James Chandler 1997.