By Otto Jespersen, 1931

A new science is developing, Interlinguistics - that branch of the science of language which deals with the structure and basic ideas of all languages with the view to the establishing of a norm for interlanguages, i.e. auxiliary languages destined for oral and written use between people who cannot make themselves understood by means of their mother tongues. Interlinguists contend, and to my mind, rightly, that there is here a field that can be treated according to scientific methods and which it is of the utmost importance to civilized mankind to see thus treated in order to obtain a satisfactory solution to a really harassing problem.

Linguistic conditions in Europe are desperate. No less than 120 languages are spoken in Europe, and even if we leave out of consideration those that are spoken by less than one million people, we have 38 languages, most of which are used as literary as well as spoken languages. German comes first with 80 million, then Russian with 70, English with 47 (remember that we are speaking here of Europe only), Italian 40, French 39, Little-Russian 33, Polish 23, Spanish 15, Rumanian 13, Dutch 11, and Hungarian 10 million; the other languages, headed by Serbian and Portuguese, have less than 10 million speakers. All these languages are mutually unintelligible, when two persons of different nationalities want to speak or write to each other, an interpreter is needed, unless one of them has taken the trouble - and it is a trouble - to learn the other's language, or both have taken the trouble to learn the same third language. We have statistics showing the amount paid in customs duties on material wares, but no statistics are available to show the fantastic sums and the fantastic length of time spent every year on translations from one language to another: the burden of intellectual "customs duties" is undoubtedly heavier than that of material ones.

The worst of it is that at the same time as technical inventions render communications between countries easy to an extent which our forefathers could not dream of, nationalism is everywhere raising its head and making each nation feel and maintain, even aggressively maintain, its own value. National jealousies are nowadays so strong that it is out of the question to have one of the existing languages adopted everywhere as the recognized means of international communication, which all educated persons would be supposed to know, and to use in their relations with no matter what foreign nation. Latin would be neutral and in so far escape one of the decisive objections which prevent English or French from becoming the universal auxiliary language, but then Latin is extremely difficult, and, moreover, totally incongruent with modern life and modern requirements. None of the living or dead languages can be recommended for the purpose that occupies us here.

One way of getting out of this impasse is so obvious that it is no wonder it has come into the heads of a great many people: why not construct an artificial language that is so easy that everybody can master it in far less time than it usually takes to learn one of the ordinary languages? Philosophers and laymen alike, at any rate from the time of Descartes, Leibniz and Comenius, have been enthusiastic for this idea, and a great many attempts have seen the light of day, most of them, however, to die without attracting one thousandth part of the attention that their fond fathers dreamt of. How much ingenuity has been spent on this task can be gathered from turning over the leaves of Couturat and Leau's great Histoire de la Langue Universelle with its continuation Les Nouvelles Langues Internationales, where are to be found short descriptive sketches of more than a hundred such languages; see also now the painstaking Bibliografio de Internacia Lingvo, compiled for the Universala Esperanto Asocio by P. E. Stojan - a bibliography which runs to no less than 560 pages, and contains over six thousand entries. Of these, over five thousand are titles of books and treatises on and in international languages, and the balance on various subjects including universal grammar, code and sign languages, pasigraphy and logic.

From the great number of these languages we may draw the conclusion that it presents no insurmountable difficulty to devise languages for international use, though when we come to examine them a little more closely, we see that too many of their inventors have contented themselves with a bare sketch of a skeleton grammar with some notes on the vocabulary, so that the material is far too scanty to be used even for the most humble purposes. Comparatively few projects have got so far that their vocabulary has been sufficient for practical use, and even more restricted is the number of those that have been actually used by more than a dozen people. It is thus seen to be easy enough to sketch such a language, more difficult to make it tolerably complete, and still more difficult to get it accepted by a considerable body of adherents - let alone by the world at large.

At present there are only six language projects that have got far enough to be accepted by more than a handful of people, namely, Esperanto, invented by Dr. L. Zamenhof in 1887, Ido, elaborated by an Academy on a basis due to de Beaufront and Couturat in 1907, Nov-Esperanto by René de Saussure, which after various changes received its final shape in 1929, Latino sine flexione or Interlingua, begun by Professor G. Peano in 1903, Occidental elaborated by Edgar Wahl in 1922, and finally Novial published in 1928 by the present writer. Of these Esperanto has by far the greatest number of adherents - but even the most ardent Esperantists must concede that great as this number is, it represents only a small minority of those to whom such a language might be useful.

The general impression among the public at large is that these attempted interlanguages are created arbitrarily, and that they fight each other vigorously. It is by no means rare to hear the remark: The idea of a constructed international language is not at all bad, and I should be inclined to support it in every way, but an indispensable condition is that the champions of the idea come to an agreement as to which language to adopt; so long as that is not attained, you cannot expect the world at large to take an active interest in the matter.

Now it cannot be denied that there is some truth in this, and that partisans of some interlanguages have at times been fierce in their onslaughts on other systems; but, as will appear from what I shall say later, this war of all against all has to a great extent subsided - owing, partly, to a more general acknowledgement of the fact that the millennium of universal adoption of any one system is still far away, and that no system is yet perfect in every way. People also begin to realize that the uninterrupted rise of new projects and the criticism raised against these and the older systems have on the whole been helpful to the idea, because they have brought out with ever-increasing clearness the complexity of the problem as well as the fact that a good many, though not, perhaps, all points, admit of a scientific treatment. It has not been injurious to the production of good typewriters or automobiles that people have not been content with the models prevalent twenty years ago, but have been constantly at work experimenting and inventing new improvements, with the result that what we have now surpasses the earlier products very considerably. Correspondingly, it may be said of interlanguages that they have profited from the experimentation and discussion of the last twenty years or more.

Considerations like these, though formulated in a different way, underlay the foundation, in 1924, of the American International Auxiliary Language Association (abbreviated IALA), which has since worked assiduously and effectively in various ways, of which I shall here mention the pedagogical experiments carried out by Professor Edward L. Thorndike, of Columbia University and others, and the far-reaching and painstaking linguistic researches undertaken especially by Professors William E. Collinson of the University of Liverpool, and Edward Sapir of the University of Chicago.

In the spring of 1930 IALA thought the time was ripe for an international Meeting of Linguistic Research, and after due preparation this meeting was held at Geneva in March and April. It will be my task in the following pages to give my impressions of this Meeting, of which I had the honour to be "convener" and chairman, and which, it may confidently be hoped, will be mentioned in future as marking a significant step in the progress of the cause of an International Auxiliary Language.

The meeting fell into two parts of one week each. During the first week active interlinguists only were present, among whom the three originators of Nov-Esperanto, Occidental and Novial (de Saussure, Wahl and Jespersen); besides Siegfried Auerbach, during many years leader of the Ido movement; Pierre Stojan, author of the Bibliography already mentioned; and Reinhold Zeidler, who has for a great many years in his privacy carried on lexicographical work embodying extensive comparisons of national and international languages. After a week these were joined by three well-known university professors of comparative philology who had not previously taken an active part in the work for an auxiliary language - Albert Debrunner of Jena, Edward Hermann of Göttingen, and Otto Funke of Bern. Three prominent members of the faculty of the University of Geneva, Charles Bally, Serge Karcevski, and Albert Sèchehaye, as well as Pitman B. Potter of the University of Wisconsin, were also present at some of the discussions. IALA was thoroughly represented (in addition to the convener) by Professor William E. Collinson, Miss Helen S. Eaton and, last, but not least, the indefatigable organizer of IALA itself, Mrs. Dave Hennen Morris. During the last few days the President of IALA, Earle B. Babcock, of the University of New York, was also present. Seven States, six National and five International languages were thus represented in our little body - and each of these numbers would have increased by one if Professor Peano, the mathematician and symbolic logician, who had promised to come, had not, unfortunately, been prevented at the last moment.

It was gratifying to hear the three "outsiders" express their surprise and joy at observing the feeling of goodwill and comradeship prevailing among the adherents of different interlanguages, and no less gratifying to hear their unanimous appreciation of the scientific spirit in which the work of IALA and of this meeting was carried on. Professor Hermann recalled the anything but friendly attitude which professional linguists had in previous decades taken towards endeavours in this direction, and said that his own and his colleagues' presence showed a considerable change in the views of at any rate some philologists. He ascribed this change partly to the fact that interlinguists have to some extent struck new paths, partly by the increased interest taken now by philologists in problems of general linguistics and the philosophy of speech. Personally, he regretted not having been active hitherto in the interlinguistic movement, but hoped for the best results of collaboration of linguists and interlinguists on a scientific foundation. Similarly, Professor Debrunner rejoiced that interlinguists were getting away from the dilletantism and called their attention to the fact that a great amount of work already done by philologists might be useful for the purposes of further research. This should be systematically gathered by someone versed in scientific method and competent to single out and to make easily accessible what has already been achieved in the science of language.

In this connection it is worth mentioning that the problem of artificial languages will be taken up by the second international linguistic congress to be held in 1931 at Geneva.

Professor Funke made some interesting remarks on the way in which he was brought to take an interest in the problem of artificial languages. First as an Austrian officer in the Great War, when he had an Ukranian chauffeur, Polish soldiers, a Hungarian servant and possibly Czech privates. In Poland he had five different nations under him and could make himself understood with none of them except by means of interpreters. Austria's problem was, among other things, a linguistic problem. Later he heard of the experiences of some colleagues who had been prisoners in Siberia and were there thrown together with people of the most diverse nationalities from East and West. The necessity of mutual comprehension led groups of them to set up courses of Esperanto; one of his friends came back an enthusiastic believer in that language and its possibilities even among non-Europeans. The chief reason, however, why Funke was interested in these questions was his scholarly interest in the philosophy of speech. This branch of knowledge starts from the conviction that the human psyche has everywhere a common structure, which must find its expression in language and must be capable of a simpler and more uniform expression in a constructed language.

One day during the conference a practical demonstration gave those present an opportunity of judging, however, superficially, of some of the qualities of the six artificial languages mentioned above: the first few pages of one of Maupassant's short stories had been translated, one part into Esperanto, another into Nov-Esperanto, etc., and these pieces were read aloud after a few explanatory remarks. There was one thing which could not be brought out by this demonstration and which is felt to be extremely important by all those who have practised any one of the constructed languages: the beneficent ease with which they are handled and which frees one from the feeling of constraint and uncertainty with which most of us are embarrassed when speaking or writing a foreign language. "We face our foreign audience", says Collinson, "without that haunting and paralysing fear of making a ridiculous mistake or at best of speaking in a grandiloquent way. In writing a letter it is a positive relief not to have to balance up the possibilities of sentiments distingués or cordiales salutations" - not to speak of hesitations as to case and gender or word-order. All those idiomatic caprices which abound in natural languages are as a matter of course eliminated in constructed languages.

The following list was drawn up of the chief points on which all the International Languages (abbreviated ILs) represented at Geneva agree:


1. Alphabet.- All ILs use Latin characters.
2. Pronunciation.- All ILs agree in principle in the pronunciation of the following letters: a, e, i, o, u ("continental" values, u as in Italian, not as in French); b, d, f, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, t, v.
3. Substantial roots.- The substantial roots (expressing things, actions, qualities) of ILs represented are, as a matter of fact, drawn chiefly from the Indo-European languages.
4. No vowel changes.- None of the ILs represented at the Conference permit vowel change within the root itself.
5. Plural.- All ILs represented form the plural by an ending. In each IL there is but a single method of forming the plural to which all substantives conform. No IL has a separate form for a dual number.
6. Expression of "dative".- In all ILs represented the normal way of rendering the "dative" of inflected languages is by using a preposition of direction (Lat. ad.).
7. No gender in substantives or adjectives.- Substantives have no grammatical gender, but can be made to show distinction of natural sex. Adjectives have no gender and normally show no distinction of natural sex.
8. Conjugation.- In every IL represented, one single paradigm of conjugation is provided to which all verbs conform.
9. Tenses.- There is no distinction of person or number within the finite tenses of the verb.
10. Prepositions.- Prepositions as such do not govern any particular case of the noun.

How encouraging to see the agreement emphasized instead of squabbles on petty points of disagreement.

These points of agreement are again alluded to in the following Declaration, which was unanimously accepted at the final meeting and which is sure to be remembered as a landmark in the history of the International Language movement.


The undersigned, invited by the International Auxiliary Language Association in the United States, Incorporated (IALA), to a Meeting of Linguistic Research in Geneva, desire, in their personal capacity and not as delegates from any organization, to make the following declaration:

1. They agree that the six systems of international language represented among them have a great many points in common, of such a nature that their adherents can understand one another without much difficulty, orally as well as in writing, each one using his own system.
2. They unanimously recognize the need for a universal auxiliary language, simple in form, politically neutral and destined to facilitate relations between peoples.
3. They agree that each system presents certain advantages peculiar to itself, but that no one of them can claim to be perfect, and therefore that any decision tending to determine definitely the international language of the future is still premature.
4. They hope to see the collaboration between linguists (comparative philologists and philosophers of language) and interlinguists continue to grow, and they hope for important results from this co-operation and from the extensive work planned by IALA.
5. They consider extremely desirable the best possible understanding among all interlinguists, regardless of any particular system, as well as their co-operation in the study of certain problems common to them all. If such co-operation could contribute to the creation of a united front, the cause of international language would greatly benefit thereby and its definite adoption would be hastened.

Geneva, April 8, 1930.

With regard to linguistic research the Meeting accepted "in principle" a plan, submitted to it by Professor K. Asakawa of Yale, according to which the work should proceed in concentric circles of study, viz.:

1. A more philosophical study of the "Foundations of Language" (according to a scheme drawn up by Professors Sapir and Collinson).
2. A scientific comparison of languages: an objective examination of the structure of selected languages, national and international, both with regard to details and to the languages as wholes.
3. Preparation for synthesis: a comprehensive survey and criticism of the results of the first two circles with a view to finding data for a synthetic scheme of a definite language for international use.

In connection with the work on the first circle, an interesting remark was made by Collinson, much of whose work has been directed towards "a study of the principles which would seem to control the linguistic activities of a man's mind". But how he has been "slowly and almost reluctantly" driven to the view that "it is precisely through our own individual use of and reaction to our mother tongue that we can approach these general and fundamental problems of thought-structures and realize to the full their complexity and subtlety". At the same time he recognizes the great importance which the work of recent logicians and "logisticians" like Peano, Whitehead and Russell will have for these studies.

The second circle, which occupied much of the time of the meeting, aims at an objective presentation and comparison of the actual facts and existing national and proposed international languages. Here the question first arises: What languages to compare? While everybody agreed that the chief European languages, i. e. those spoken by the greatest numbers, should be primarily examined, opposition was raised to the idea of confining comparisons to these languages. It was justly said, for instance, that the Scandinavian languages were often more valuable to the framers of an international language than High German, because their form are easier and more fluent. On the other hand, much could be learned from the smaller and less-known European languages, even from those that do not belong to the Aryan (Indo-European) family of languages.

I may be allowed to say here that this question is apt to throw some light on the proper understanding of Asakawa's system of three circles. If the end to be kept in view is the abstract one of understanding human speech activity, then all languages are of equal importance, and the dialect of any smallest negro tribe ranks equal with English and Spanish. But if the ultimate end is the synthesis of a language to be used in international relations, if, therefore, in dealing with the second circle we are allowed, as I think we should be, to "squint" more or less continually towards the third circle, then we at once perceive that languages are of very unequal importance. It would be vain to aim at a real "world-language" in the sense of one that should be perfectly impartial to human beings of whatever nationality and language, for that could be done only by carefully eliminating all words and even elements already found in any of the existing languages - that is, by making the contemplated artificial language as difficult as possible for everybody. The task of constructing and even of learning such a language would be beyond human power. But the matter assumes a different aspect as soon as it is recognized that we should utilize as much as possible any community in linguistic form already existing, for it turns out that there is nowhere in the world anything that can be compared with the community existing among West-European nations and their offshoots in the other parts of the world. Thanks to the Greco-Latin culture and its expansion, especially after the Renaissance, an enormous number of words have spread over the greater part of Europe, over America and Australia, and great parts of Africa, and are even penetrating into Asia. It would be absurd in trying to create a language for international purposes, to abstract from it what may already be said to be international, if not in the fullest sense of that word, yet approaching that ideal more than any other body of words. But this amounts to saying that the languages which contain the largest number of such words and from which they are still being chiefly drawn should be taken into consideration before and more than any other languages. There can be no doubt that the vocabulary of the future auxiliary language must be predominantly based on the Romanic languages and English; but such widely spread cultural languages as German and Russian must on no account be neglected. The minor European languages can only play second fiddle; a study of them will chiefly be of use by showing how far the Romanic and other cultural words have penetrated into them as cultural elements. If it is objected that in this way we can obtain at best a means of communication for Europeans and Americans, it may be answered that this would already be an important gain and that European culture is rapidly spreading to other parts of the world; it must be left to the future to work out the problem of a real world-language, if people are not content with a European-American tongue.

What has been said here applies to the vocabulary only, but language consists not of the bare words alone: by the side of them we have grammar, that is, the linguistic structure that enables the speaker or writer to knit full words together so that they give an intelligible coherent meaning. If it is admitted that the vocabulary must chiefly be drawn from Romanic-English sources, a natural consequence must be that many derivative endings found in such words must be utilized as well as the stems themselves, and thus a good deal of structural material is given at the very outset. But apart from such elements, interlinguistic grammatical study should not confine itself to any one group or two groups of languages, for here is a field in which it is possible and even highly probable that valuable hints may be found in the most diverse languages, even in those whose vocabularies is on the whole out of the question. The object must be to find the simplest grammatical structure that is compatible with the necessary clearness and precision of thought. Very much can be learned in that respect from such grammatically simple languages as Chinese and also from those generally despised corruptions of European languages which I have elsewhere designed as makeshift languages or minimum languages: Pidgin English, Beach-la-mar, Papiamento and Creole languages generally. It was interesting to hear the philologists at Geneva make the objection to some of the proposed auxiliary languages that too much weight had been laid on capability of expressing subtle shades of thought instead of on greater simplicity. I may be allowed here to quote a remark by a fully competent Chinese scholar, Professor Chiu Bien-Ming of the University of Amoy, who says that the selection of words could only be "international" in the European sense, a principle which the Chinese should not seriously contest; but, on the other hand, the syntax should be easily accessible to the Chinese or, if possible, be in reality similar to the Chinese construction. Both these postulates he found very ably fulfilled in the auxiliary language in which he wrote (see the periodical Mondo, March, 1929).

There is work enough for scientific interlinguists to take up, and it seems evident that much of it cannot be achieved in a satisfactory way without systematized collaboration of theoretical students of linguistic science and active interlinguists. The former alone cannot hope to arrive at completely satisfactory solutions of all the difficulties; for, as in other domains of human activity, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and only those who have for years practised constructed languages can penetrate into all their possibilities and hope to avoid some of the pitfalls into which beginners are apt to fall. But, on the other hand, active adherents of recent schemes are more and more conscious of the desirability and even necessity of support from professional philologists if the great cause of linguistic understanding among nations is to be brought to a victorious close. Too much of the work done in this field bears the stamp of dilletantism, and though the best recent schemes are based on conscientious painstaking work along scientific lines - and this is true in even higher degree than appears on the face of their dictionaries and grammars, because the originators have had neither time nor money enough to publish detailed accounts of those reasonings which have led them to adopt this or that word, this or that form - even if much good work has thus already been accomplished, there is more still to be done, and there is a pressing need for enthusiastic and competent workers in this field.

IALA therefore deserves the highest praise for bringing the two camps, theorists and practicians, into close relations with one another. It is greatly to be desired that the funds necessary to carry out the research projects so carefully planned at the Geneva meeting will be secured, and that the planned collaboration on a large scale will be brought to a successful end. The advent of a simple and adequate International Auxiliary Language will prove a boon to philologists, philosophers, medical men, scientists, technicians, politicians, merchants, tourists - in short, to everybody whose horizon is not limited to his native country.

From International Communication, 1931.

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