Considerations on the Introduction of an International Language into Science



ONE of the most important problems of present day civilisation is the introduction of an international auxiliary language.

We boast of our international intercourse. The civilised world has extended to new nations and has embraced whole regions of the earth, and yet, in spite of the magnificent means of material communication, nothing of a similar nature has been done for the purpose of uniting minds together in an equally practical manner. Recently, however, an event has occurred at Paris which brings us a step further in this direction. The Delegation pour l'Adoption d'une Langue Auxiliaire Internationale, which was formed in 1900, as a result of the Paris Exhibition, has, after an activity of seven years, arrived at a definite decision.

The very fact that modern international relations have brought about such a delegation and entrusted it with work should be sufficient to emphasise the importance of the problem. It is not true that the need for an international auxiliary language disappears with the knowledge of several national languages, as has been asserted by many who, on account of their personal knowledge, have not experienced it. This is especially true of some philologists who overlook the fact that languages form the object of their special studies, and draw conclusions from themselves concerning the needs of others. Expertness in the use of languages does not come so readily to the scientific investigator and the technologist, whose work lies in other directions, and so it is in these quarters that the movement for the introduction of an international auxiliary language receives the greatest support. To this must be added the fact that, as Ostwald has aptly remarked, the scientific investigator regards language only as a means of making himself understood. Language is not for him something "which thinks and poetises," hut rather an instrument for conveying his knowledge and wishes to other people, much after the fashion whereby the musician is enabled to convey his feelings by means of musical notation and the instruments of the orchestra. The question of the suitability of a language is important in this connection; and so it does not appear so very strange that it is just the scientific investigators, technologists, and philosophers who have never been quite satisfied with living or dead languages. How otherwise can we explain the fact that it is just they who are constantly solving philological problems and constantly occupied with the invention not only of new signs and symbols (mathematical, chemical, crystallographic), but also new words? The fact is that science, philosophy, and technology are constantly waging a fierce battle with existing languages. What they want is a language as simple and clear as the fundamental laws of nature, as logical as the precision of experiment, and as many-sided as the complexity of the facts which it has to describe. And so they are constantly working at the creation of this language, all the words invented by science finding their way unceasingly through the channels of technology into the general vocabulary. These words possess the special property of being international, that is to say, understood by all civilised nations, including the Japanese. We do not wish, however, to stop at this stage of development; we wish to be able to internationalise not only single ideas, but also the whole train of thought. For this purpose it is impracticable to make use of any of the national languages, since they are all so unsuitable, illogical, capricious, and complicated that the student must learn to steer clear of thousands of difficulties before he is able to express himself fairly correctly. It is possible to construct an artificial language with such a regular structure that it can be employed at once without making mistakes.

In accordance with these ideas, the programme of the Delegation was as follows :--

"(1) It is desirable that an international auxiliary language should be introduced which, though not intended to replace the natural languages in the internal life of nations, should be adapted to written and oral intercourse between persons of different mother-tongues.

"(2) Such an international language must, in order to fulfil its object, satisfy the following conditions :-- "(a) It must be capable of serving the needs of science as well as those of daily life, commerce, and general intercourse.

"(b) It must be capable of being easily learnt by all persons of average elementary education, especially those belonging to the civilised nations of Europe. "(c) It must not be any one of the living national languages.

"(3) The decision as to the choice of a language is to be referred in the first place to the International Association of Academies, but if the latter should refuse to consider the matter or come to no decision, to the committee of the Delegation.

"(4) Circulars are to be sent to learned, commercial, and legal societies requesting them to signify their approval of the above programme."

The success of this appeal was extraordinary. It was now evident for the first time how many thousands of people of all nations were enthusiastically in favour of the introduction of an international auxiliary language. The Etat de la Delegation, which the latter published yearly, included on October 1st, 1907, in the list of corporate bodies alone, the names of 310 clubs, societies, and congresses, not a few of which possessed a membership exceeding 1,000. It is interesting to rapidly pass in review the extremely varied character of the societies included therein. We find, for example, commercial schools, chambers of commerce, merchants' clubs, stenographers, the printing trade, correspondence bureaus, photographic clubs, associations of municipal and other officials, societies of shipping employees) legal clubs, pedagogic and religious societies, officers' clubs, institutes for the deaf and dumb and for the blind, sociological, medical, and health societies, peace clubs, political and graphological societies, touring, bicycle, and automobile clubs, sport clubs, bibliographic societies and library staffs, and finally all sorts of special scientific societies and congresses. Arranged according to nationality, we find representatives of France, England, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Spain, Greece, Italy, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Holland, Russia (including Poland), Roumania, Austria (including Bohemia and Hungary), Mexico, Peru, the Argentine, Algeria, Tunis, the United States, Chile, etc. There is also the "academic list," which contains the names of no less than 1,250 professors, belonging to 189 universities, technical high schools, and academies of science, and coming from 110 parts of the globe, extending as far as India and Japan. It may be stated without exaggeration that the programme of the Delegation found an enthusiastic response in all parts of the world and from people of nearly every occupation and profession, many persons and societies expressing themselves in favour of the introduction of an international auxiliary language on the condition that it should not be one of the living languages. During the seven years of its existence the Delegation has carried out the duties entrusted to it in an exemplary manner, and has performed a gigantic amount of work. In May, 1907, the Delegation considered the time had come to lay the matter before the International Association of Academies. At that time the report was very widespread that the Association had altogether refused to consider the matter. In reality the Vienna Academy, as President of that year, decided to bring the question before the Association, but the latter declined to take the matter up (twelve votes to eight, one member not voting). At this point the Delegation had the right and the duty to speak out. It obtained an expression of opinion from the representatives of all the associated societies and clubs. The result of this was the formation of a working committee, consisting of sixteen members, almost entirely scholars and men of science of reputation and members of the different scientific academies. With the representatives of natural science and mathematics were associated philologists and linguists. The committee began to sit on October 15th, 1907, and, after eighteen sittings held in the College de France, arrived at a decision.

Before we enter into this matter more fully it will be desirable to give a brief sketch of the historical development of artificial language.

Anyone desiring to go more deeply into the history of this question (already three hundred years old) and the practical attempts at its realisation may be referred to the masterly work of L. Couturat and L. Leau, Histoire de la Langue Universelle (Paris, 1903). In what follows only a few of the most important points will be mentioned.

The oldest extant reference to the problem of an international language appears to be contained in the letter written by Descartes on November 20th, 1629, to his friend Mersenne. The great philosopher here explains the principles which convinced him that it would be possible to construct an artificial language which could be used as an international auxiliary language. As for Leibnitz, who was attracted throughout his whole life by this problem, his language projects have been recently investigated by L. Couturat by means of documents, many of which have never before been published (La Logique de Leibnitz and Opuscules et Fragments Inedits de Leibnitz). There may further be mentioned the Ars Signorum Vulgo Charakter Universalis et Lingua Philosophica (London, 1661) of George Dalgarno, and the recently discovered memoir of an unknown author entitled Carpophorophili Novum invenienda Scripturee (Ecunenicee Consilium) (Leipzig, 1734). The last-mentioned system in particular strikes one as highly modern in principle.

It was only, however, at the end of the last century that the era of practical things began with the Volapük of Schleyer. The success of this language was very considerable. It possessed about thirty journals, published in the most different countries, even in Japan, and its literature has been estimated at from 300 to 400 works. The official lists published in 1889 contained the names of 255 local groups belonging to the "Universal Language Society," some of which possessed a very considerable membership. The teaching of the language was highly organised, there being 900 teachers, 200 head teachers, and 50 "professors." This great linguistic experiment was very instructive, and its significance cannot be underrated. Important conclusions concerning the theory and practice of artificial language can be drawn from it, and especially from a consideration of the circumstances which finally led to the downfall of Volapük. It turned out that this was due to the errors which Volapük itself contained, showing us that in these matters, as in others, practical experience is the best teacher. The fate of Volapük was sealed when its supporters, in the year 1889, made the experiment of organising a congress at which Volapük should be spoken. Although a few Volapükists succeeded in speaking the language, it was only too painfully evident that such a goal could not be reached with this system. Almost simultaneously with Volapük another artificial language had been invented. The Russian medical man Dr. Zamenhof published his system in 1887 under the pseudonym of "Doktoro Esperanto." But as Esperanto arrived while Volapük was at its zenith, it failed at first to attract general attention. It found, however, in France, an enthusiastic supporter in the Marquis de Beaufront, who had himself worked out an international language called "Adjuvanto." He gave this up as soon as he came to know about Esperanto, and founded the Société Francaise pour la Propagation de l'Esperanto and the journal L'Esperantiste (now in its tenth year). France soon became the centre of the new movement, and indeed almost the whole existence and magnitude of the Esperanto movement was due to the influence of this man. Since then Esperanto has extended to all countries. The Esperanto journals appear mostly in a bilingual form, the number of them being, as in the Volapük movement, about forty-five, whilst there exist a few journals and periodicals published exclusively in Esperanto. A special significance attaches to the international congresses organised by the Esperantists, at which only Esperanto is spoken. In 1905, at Boulogne-sur-Mer, there assembled 600 members, belonging to about fifteen different nationalities. The differences of pronunciation which, on account of certain peculiarities of construction in Esperanto, must necessarily appear amongst the Romance nationalities and the English, were not, we are told, sufficiently marked to prevent mutual comprehension. The second congress took place at Geneva in 1906. At the third congress, in Cambridge, in 1907, there were present about 1,400 members, whilst at the fourth congress, in Dresden, in 1908, there assembled also 1,400 members. Whatever opinion one may hold about these congresses, at which much confusion and misunderstanding, and indeed even much that was ridiculous, took place, they represent, without doubt, a great and remarkable philological experiment, and one which demonstrates the possibility of synthetically constructing a language that can be spoken. On the other hand, however, the Esperanto congresses showed, according to the concordant testimony of all persons of unbiassed opinion, that the Esperanto language in no wise represents the final solution of the problem. All farsighted leaders of the Esperanto movement have been for a long time the more fully conscious of this state of affairs the more profound their knowledge of the Esperanto language. Chief amongst them may be mentioned M. de Beaufront himself, who has come forward as one of the leaders of reform, a reform which in many important respects was recognised as necessary by Dr. Zamenhof himself in a series of interesting memoirs. The recommendations of Dr. Zamenhof were, however, rejected in 1894 by the so-called "Fundamentists" (157 votes to 107), who were supported by a few great publishing firms interested in the preservation of Esperanto. By reason of the fact that the Esperanto alphabet contains no fewer than six special letters to be found in no ordinary printing fount, the firms referred to possess the monopoly of the very considerable trade in this literature. The Fundamentists hold the view that, in spite of a few errors in the auxiliary language, its success can only be assured by absolute conservatism. They have, therefore, declared the grammar, together with the reading book and vocabulary, published by Zamenhof under the title of Fundamento de Esperanto, to be sacrosanct, and go so far in this matter as to revere as "correct" and "classical" Esperanto the infringements of his own rules, the grammatical errors, and even the misprints to be found in the Fundamento.

The idea of a powerful organisation has undoubtedly at first sight something very attractive about it. One must, however, not forget, even in the case of an international language, that no organisation in the world can arrest the progress of a necessary development. Every human contrivance and invention is subject to change, errors and deficiencies being corrected. Especially is a rational development inevitable in the case of things, such as an international language, which are subject to the control of our intelligence. Conversely it is not difficult to reply to the question, How is it then possible, when a system has once been chosen, to carry it out and preserve it? For there are two fundamental qualities which, happily for us, are apparent in the history of inventions, and each of which confers stability quite apart from any conventions, namely, a high degree of rational development based on the most profound knowledge and an extraordinary empirical perfection. As examples of the latter may be mentioned the notation of music, which since Gruido d'Arezzo (born in 990), or at any rate since Johann Sebastian Bach, has not appreciably changed; the division of time into twenty-four hours and of the hour into sixty minutes, which is at least three hundred years old; the face, mechanism, and hands of a watch, which date, with unimportant changes, from the Renaissance; and, finally, the violin, which retains up to the present day the characteristic form which the ancient Italians gave it. Is it not wonderful that this strangely carved piece of wood must possess just that particular form in order to yield its harmonious tones?

As examples of the former may be quoted almost all modern achievements. The metric and decimal systems have come to stay. The bicycle, the motor car, and the typewriting machine have undergone successive improvements till finally they have attained to their more or less definite form. We see from this that when inventions have once reached a certain degree of suitability they are not afterwards easily replaced by others. There is, therefore, only one adequate criterion of the stability of an international language, namely, that of suitability or adaptation to its purpose, and we maintain that it is only by means of continuous reforms and improvements that it will succeed in satisfying this criterion and finally attain to stability. In the work of Couturat and Leau, referred to above, there are described about ten artificial languages which have sprung up during and after the period of Volapük and Esperanto, and in which the experience of their predecessors has been more or less made use of. A study of these attempts leads to the surprising result that they often differ amongst themselves less than, for example, the Romance languages. If, then, one were to choose any one of these languages and to direct its systematic development according to the principles which experience and knowledge have shown to be requisite for the construction of an international language, one would in each case arrive finally at approximately the same result.

At the present day the rapid development in every department of life has made us only too ready to regard everything around us as transient. We forget, however, that the rapidly accumulating inventions and discoveries which startle and surprise us always refer to new things. One must bear in mind that there also exist things which in their essential features can only be invented once, and that the international language in its final form is one of these.

An excellent means of convincing the incredulous is to demonstrate the absence of arbitrariness in the character of an invention or improvement, and the degree of general consent which a given system has already obtained. Whenever one has recognised the natural and logical basis of a discovery one perceives relationships which restrict the ideas of chance and haphazard originally associated with it in one's mind. It is, therefore, quite unnecessary in the case of an international language to be afraid of "the arbitrary action of private persons who possess neither the right nor the authority to introduce reforms into Esperanto," as Dr. Zamenhof has recently stated. One ought rather to feel sure that the best means of defending an international language against arbitrary changes is the degree of its concordance with sound theoretical principles.

Wilhelm Ostwald has given us an account of the work of the Delegation. The commission consisted of representatives of the English, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and Slavonic languages. Famous philologists such as Otto Jespersen, of Copenhagen, and Baudouin de Courtenay, of St. Petersburg, as well as the philosopher L. Couturat, of Paris, rendered priceless services. The proceedings, which were held in the College de France, began with the interviewing of a number of the inventors of artificial languages or their representatives, all such people having been invited to the conference. Where this procedure was not possible the corresponding writings and documents were examined and discussed. Concerning this work Ostwald writes, "Although these labours were very fatiguing, they proved all the more effective for the progressive elucidation of the problem in hand. From the very multiplicity of the attempts at a solution and their discussion there arose in the minds of the workers, in a manner never to be forgotten, a clear conception of the main conditions required for a successful solution of the problem, and a recognition of the errors which a disregard of one or other of these conditions had produced in the existing systems." Whilst an account of the nature of these principles and of their application to the construction of an international auxiliary language will be given by competent authorities in the following chapters, we may here mention that the Delegation decided that none of the existing systems satisfied the conditions necessary for an international auxiliary language, but that the widely known Esperanto could serve as a basis for the working out of such a language, although it would require to undergo a certain number of changes.

A standing committee was elected, including Ostwald, Couturat, De Beaufront, and Jespersen, which was entrusted with the task of determining the new forms of the international auxiliary language on the basis of the principles laid down in the sittings mentioned above.

The changes carried out by the committee of the Delegation are embodied in the form of new grammars and dictionaries. The Delegation succeeded not only in recognising, but also in correcting in a competent manner, the errors of Esperanto, with the result that we are to-day in possession of a language which in respect of facility, lucidity, variety, and elegance of expression, represents the high-water mark of international speech.

The success which this reform achieved amongst the public and also in Esperantist circles immediately after the publication by the Delegation of the first specimen of the new language was astonishing. That which the Esperantists had scarcely succeeded in doing during six years of their existence took place with astonishing rapidity before our eyes, and in scarcely as many months there were formed in sixty towns of Europe and America local groups of enthusiastic people affiliated to the Delegation.

Unfortunately the Fundamentists persist in their obstinacy and continue to manifest their discontent. Although the new language has sprung from Esperanto and is based upon it, the Esperantists have forbidden that the name Esperanto should be used. The conventional name Ido (i.e., a descendant) has therefore been given to it. There exist already some periodicals in the linguo internaciona. The chief organ of the new movement is the periodical Progreso (pronounced Progresso), "oficala organo di la Delegitaro por adopto di linguo helpanta internaciona." It is edited by Professor L. Couturat in Paris, and owes its name, programme, and policy to the advice and initiative of Ostwald.

The superiority of Ido over Esperanto is so striking and is so incontestably borne out by practical experience that one can now really speak, after the Volapük and Esperanto periods, of a third world-language movement which has started off with a reaction-velocity hitherto unknown in this department of knowledge. It is characteristic of the new language that it has been taken up by the English and Americans, whilst an introduction of primitive Esperanto amongst the Anglo-Saxons encountered insuperable obstacles, for, as was pointed out with good reason, the English language, especially in regard to its grammar, was superior to Esperanto on account of a number of clumsy constructions and errors which the latter contained. But, apart from the regularity of pronunciation, Ido excels the English language both in regard to grammar and, what is of great importance, brevity, a printed Ido text being even briefer than the corresponding English one.

For the benefit of those who are unacquainted with the nature of international language and who still regard an artificial language as an impossible monstrosity, we may remark that the new vocabulary contains in round numbers 5,400 stems, and that, in spite of the Romance character which the international language necessarily possesses, 40 per cent. of these are common to the following six languages: German, English, French, Italian, Russian, Spanish (and to many others). Moreover, there are naturally innumerable other stems which occur simultaneously in five or four of the great languages. In the face of this overwhelming evidence, no one can contest the possibility of an international language, for the above numbers tell their tale with unmistakable clearness. They prove the existence of the international language apart from every theory. It is only necessary to select judiciously the words common to the living languages, that is to say, by an artificial process, in order to construct the international language.

Besides the purely linguistic standpoint, the Delegation considered the whole question of an international auxiliary language from another and an essential point of view. It is natural, and sufficiently well known, that in both the Volapük and Esperanto movements the linguistic issue was mixed up with a large amount of disorder, error, misunderstanding, and illusion. This was due to the fact that these movements were largely directed by scientifically untrained persons, and partly also fell into the hands of fanatics and Utopians. Added to this was the desire to soar to the summits of literature instead of confining themselves to practical matters, and the truly childish confidence which led them to spoil the classics of different nations by translating them into a language intended for other purposes. This latter trait was even more markedly pronounced in the Esperanto than in the Volapük movement. The Delegation, as a commission of serious men of science, has steadily laboured to free the question from all extraneous considerations, of which we have mentioned only the best known, and the standpoint which is taken in the periodical Progress is in all respects a serious and scientific one. In this way it has been possible to attain finally to a stage at which the whole question can be discussed on its merits. The action of the Delegation marks, therefore, without doubt the beginning of a rational period in the history of the movement for a universal language. Henceforth he who comes to mock will have nothing to say, and the sceptic will have to search for serious and competent reasons if he wishes to maintain his case.

The point of view which the Delegation has taken is that the solution of the problem of an international auxiliary language is a purely scientific and technical question. Scientific in a double sense of the word: in the first place, because the living germ of an international language is already to be found in science and as an expression of the civilisation of Europe and America, requiring only an artificial development to bring it to maturity and to give us the international auxiliary language in its final form; in the second place, because the method of artificial development of the international language forms itself the object of a science, and that indeed a new one, namely, the philology of auxiliary language. The question is also a technical one because the result obtained by theory is destined for a practical purpose, namely, the daily use of mankind. Our modern civilisation is signalised by the application of science to practice. We are no longer pure empiricists. Science penetrates into every department of daily life, and all enlightened people are aware that the age of pure empiricism is over.

The movement for a universal language possesses its epochs, like other things, but we may rest assured that the era of the attempts to solve the problem of auxiliary language in a purely empirical, or even indeed romantic, manner has passed away with the Volapük and Esperanto periods.

The work of the Delegation has also been in a high degree an organising one. The beginning of the year 1909 gave birth to a Uniono di l'Amiki di la Linguo Internaciona, extending over all parts of the world. From this union are derived by election two directing bodies : firstly, the Komitato, a commission which looks after matters of organisation and business; and secondly, an Academy, entrusted with the scientific investigation of the international auxiliary language, which sees to its steady progress, corrects the errors and deficiencies which are sure to make their appearance, decides in doubtful cases, and regulates the introduction of new words and constructions.

The carrying out of this scientific and technical programme has now become the duty of all who feel the necessity for an international means of communicating thought.


Return to Contents page

This page hosted by Geocities.
James Chandler 24-Nov-97.