Considerations on the Introduction of an International Language into Science



THERE exist more than sixty systems or attempts at an artificial universal language, and considering the great diversity of these languages, it might appear hopeless to arrive at unanimity concerning any one of them. When, however, one considers the question more closely, it appears that matters are not so bad as one might imagine. Whereas twenty years ago the systems which appeared were as different as day from night, at the present day one perceives great lines of convergence, pointing to the time when mankind shall have added to the other triumphs of civilisation that of an auxiliary language recognised and used by everybody, to the great advantage of all whose horizon is not limited by the boundaries of their mother country.

Is it possible in a single formula to express everything that is requisite for a practical international language? I think so, and a brief consideration of the two reasons which prevent us from choosing one of the natural languages as an international language will enable me to arrive very quickly at this formula. The first reason is, that such a procedure would unfairly benefit one nation at the expense of all the others and would infringe the fundamental principle of neutrality, which is necessary in all international affairs. The second reason is, that every language is too difficult for foreigners. All existing languages swarm with difficulties of pronunciation, spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and especially idiom. It is very seldom that a foreigner succeeds, even after years of study, in learning a language sufficiently well to avoid occasionally making one of those mistakes which instantly betray his origin to the natives ; it may be a false stress, or a word employed with an almost imperceptibly different shade of meaning, or placed in a position in a sentence where the native would never place it, or, finally, a phrase which, though logically correct, is nevertheless not permitted by the usage of the language. On account of their innumerable relationships and associations, which is indeed what makes them so dear to the nations that employ them, all natural languages are extraordinarily difficult, and therefore unsuitable for the purpose of international intercourse. We require, accordingly, a language which shall be not only neutral, but also as easy as possible: easy to learn, easy to use, and easy to understand.

These considerations bring me to the sought-for formula, which we may express in a form similar to the celebrated ethical dictum of Hutcheson and Bentham ("That action is best which accomplishes the greatest happiness for the greatest number") :--

That international language is best which offers the greatest facility to the greatest number.

It may be objected, however, that facility is a subjective idea: what is easy for one is not always easy for another. Quite so, and it is exactly that observation which will serve us as a guide in the investigation of the important conclusions which may be drawn from our fundamental principle.

In the first place, as regards the alphabet and the pronunciation, our fundamental principle leads to the choice of the Latin alphabet, with the exclusion of all accented or otherwise specially modified letters; neither ä, ö, á, à, â, ç, nor the circumflexed c^, g^, h^, j^, s^, especially invented by Dr. Zamenhof for Esperanto, can be tolerated, for they hinder, and sometimes even render impossible, writing, printing, and telegraphing. I have shown in the Introduction to the international dictionaries of De Beaufront and Couturat how our fundamental principle leads to the following alphabet and the following sound values: a (as in father), b, c (like ts), d, e (like e in net or like a in fate), f, g (always hard, as in go), h, i (like ee in sweet), j (either like E.(1) or like F.,(1) as in journal), k, l, m, n, o (as in go or as in not),p, q (qu, as in G. or as in E.), r, s (always unvoiced), t, u (always like oo, as in too), v, x (as in G. or as in E. F. in the words exist, exister), y (as in E. F., and therefore like G. j), z as in E. F. (and therefore like the voiced North German s in rose), further the two double letters ch (as in E., for example church) and sh (as in E., G. sch).

The strict phonetic canon "One symbol, one sound," is therefore followed in so far as the same sound is never arbitrarily written one way in one word and another way in another word, and the same letter is never pronounced differently in some words compared with the majority. The small exception that sh and ch are not equivalent to s + h and c + h respectively cannot cause the least difficulty to anyone, and the use of qu and x enables us to retain the international spelling of many words, and, moreover, permits two different pronunciations which cause no difficulty of comprehension and simplify the pronunciation for several nations. Otherwise we should be faced with the difficult problem of choosing between kwala and kvala, eksistar and egzistar. It must not be forgotten, too, that for our purposes the purely theoretical canon "One symbol, one sound," must be subordinated to the fundamental principle of greatest facility, of which phonetic simplicity is itself only a consequence. Practical considerations must, in fact, overrule theoretical objections whenever a small deviation from the fundamental principle "One symbol, one sound," produces greater facility.

There remains to be discussed a matter of very great importance for the phonetics of international language. Whilst all nations pronounce without difficulty a series of sounds in which the vowels alternate with single consonants, and almost all nations have no objections to certain groups of consonants which are easily pronounced (such as tr, sp, bl, etc.), the pronunciation of other heavier groups, especially at the end of words, presents the greatest difficulty to many nations. The French usually simplify too complicated groups by inserting an unwritten vowel (as, for example, in Felix(e) Faure), Italians who speak English do almost the same thing in the case of such groups as kstr (Greek Street) or ksp (sixpence), and the phonetic usages of other nations do not permit even as many successive consonants as the Italians. In order to make matters as easy as possible for everybody, one must avoid the mistake of Neutral Idiom, many of whose words contained very heavy groups of final consonants, endeavouring rather to follow the example of Esperanto, which succeeded very cleverly by means of its predominance of vowel terminations in producing not only grammatical clearness, but also as easy and flowing a pronunciation as possible. In this way the language becomes musical and pleasant to the ear.

We shall now proceed to the question of a vocabulary. In choosing the majority of his stems, Dr. Zamenhof had already followed the principle of maximum internationality, but the authors of Neutral Idiom were the first to carry out this principle scientifically for the whole language. Their procedure was, however, somewhat superficial, since in each particular case they calculated the number of languages to which a given word was common. One must not count the languages (and Latin especially must not be counted along with the living languages), but the people who use them, for languages are not organisms which possess an individual existence independent of those who speak them.

The proper rule, therefore, for determining the internationality of a word or stem is to count the number of people who understand it through their mother tongue. This definition of the principle of maximum internationality is simply a necessary consequence of the fundamental principle of the greatest facility for the greatest number. It is natural that each person would prefer the use of the greatest number of words which are familiar to him, and so, to be impartial, we must attach the same value to the individual preferences of the 120,000,000 who speak English as to those of the 75,000,000 Germans, the 70,000,000 Russians, or the 50,000,000 French or Spanish, etc. Even the languages spoken by the smaller nations must be taken into account in proportion to their numbers.

The choice of the words for our neutral language is, therefore, a pure question of arithmetic. Statistics of the number of people who speak the different languages will not, however, furnish us with a complete solution of the problem. In the first place, there are to be found in the dictionaries technical words and special terms which are only known to a minority of each nation. In the second place, there occur cases where a word, though it does not belong to a language, is, nevertheless, known through one or more derivatives. For example, 100 is in English hundred, in German hundert, in Danish hundrede, and yet the root cent (zent) has been long familiar to the world through the terms per cent. (G. prozent), centesimal, centimetre, centennial, century, centenary, G. zentner, Danish centner. In the third place, even when "the same word" belongs to several languages, it very often possesses different forms, due mostly to a different phonetic development, with the result that the choice of a proper form is very often a delicate matter. The sounds of the word "change," which the English and French write in the same way, are very different; but as we can employ neither the nasal vowel of the French nor the diphthong (ei) of the most usual English pronunciation, chanj would appear to he the most convenient form for all. In very many cases it is possible to find a common denominator for the different forms. Had not in English and German the external form of many etymologically closely related words diverged so much that it is impossible to find a middle form (for example, water, wasser; tooth, zahn; speak, sprechen; soap, seife; week, woche),the Germanic element would have been the dominating one on account of the great number of those speaking these two related languages. Such being the case, the Romance element in English usually decides the matter in the majority of instances, since it coincides with the French, Spanish, and Italian, or at least with one of these languages, the result being that our language necessarily possesses a Romance form in a much higher degree than one might have thought. Another very important circumstance (which I have hinted at previously) acts in the same direction, the circumstance, namely, that numerous Latin derivatives have passed over into the Germanic languages even when the stem does not occur there. For example, German possesses the words absentieren, abstinenz, artist, dentist, dental, moral, popular, which greatly facilitate for a German the understanding of the words absenta, abstenar, arto, dento, moro, populo, although he does not possess them in his own language (with the exception of pobel = populacho).

Sometimes there exists a very troublesome rivalry between two words. In order to render the substantive "arm" (limb) the proper word would seem to be the German, English, and Scandinavian "arm," until one makes the discovery that the same root "arm" in the sense of "weapon" is still more international (E., F., I., S. supported by armee G., E., F., R., armata I., armada S., armieren G., etc.), which compels us for "arm" (limb) to have recourse to a Romance form. In other cases a more or less arbitrary change of one of the series of words appears to be the only means of avoiding confusing homonyms (namely, for door pordo instead of porto, on account of port = carry), but this procedure must be employed with great caution. Before everything else it is necessary to avoid all disguising of words, which makes them unrecognisable, aptly described by M. Blondel as a masquerade. This was set up as a general principle in Volapük, and Esperanto is by no means free from it.

As an example of the conflicts which occur now and then may be quoted the expressions for the idea of "soul." "Soul" is the word which would be immediately understood by the greatest number of people, but we cannot employ the English diphthong ou, as we must be very sparing in the use of diphthongs, since they cause very great difficulties in pronunciation. We cannot take over the word in the form sol, because we require this for the word "alone" (I. S. solo, internationally used in music, E. sole, F. seul). G. seele, supported by the Scandinavian sjal, is not familiar to a sufficient number of people, and, besides, we require the word sel for "saddle" (F. I. S.). The French word ame will not do either, because it is not sufficiently well known outside France, and, besides, there is a difficulty here too, for am- is absolutely required for the idea of "love" on account of F. I. S. and many derivatives in E., not to mention the god Amor. The use of the Latin anim-, which is the basis of the Romance forms, is impossible, since we cannot do without the adjectival termination -al, and animal would then mean partly "relating to the soul," partly "animal," which cannot be permitted in an international language. We must resort to the device of changing anim- a little, whereby we get anmo. This example will show how complicated the task frequently is of finding an international word which will give rise to no confusion or misunderstanding.

The degree of internationality of the language of the Delegation will be evident from the statistics of Couturat; he counted the roots of the first dictionaries (5,379 in all) and found that of these the following numbers occur in the national languages:--

French 4,880, i.e. 91 per 100, Italian 4,454 " 83 " ", Spanish 4,237 " 79 " ", English 4,219 " 79 " ", German 3,302 " 61 " ", Russian 2,821 " 52 " ".

For all these languages the above numbers are relatively higher than in the case of Esperanto.

One of the most effective means of simplifying the vocabulary of a language is a carefully worked-out system of word formation, which enables everyone, by means of a series of regular prefixes and suffixes, to form with the greatest ease a large number of new words, which are immediately intelligible to all who know the rules.

When one has judiciously chosen the roots which occur under different forms in the various natural languages and also selected the derivative terminations with all possible care, it is astonishing to observe how great a number of words derived with perfect regularity agree with the forms occurring in living languages.

With regard to grammar, the fundamental condition to be required of every system claiming to be an international language is that of perfect regularity. Every exception to the rules only serves to produce complications and to render the employment of the language difficult and uncertain. If one knows the conjugation of one verb, one must know the conjugation of all verbs, and so on.

In the choice of grammatical terminations the statistical method, which served us for the purpose of the vocabulary, cannot be strictly applied, because living languages diverge too much in this matter. Nevertheless it does not leave us entirely in the lurch.

Such cases as the dative and genitive and also the ablative, etc., must be expressed by prepositions in conformity with the tendency of Western European languages. It is advisable to have an inflection for the accusative, although this is only intended for occasional use, because in the great majority of instances there is no necessity to distinguish it from the nominative. As neither the Romance languages nor English and Scandinavian possess any accusative inflection, and as the Slavonic languages do not give us any help here, we are obliged to fall back on German, which in the feminine and neuter has no inflection. The masculine, however, in many cases has an -n (den guten knaben). The fact that this termination is also mostly used for the dative, as well as for the infinitive, need not prevent us employing it in our language for the accusative. It necessitates the use, however, of forms ending in a vowel for the nominative of substantives (and adjectives and pronouns). It may be remarked that -n as an accusative inflection is also found in Greek and Finnish.

The only vowels that can be employed in this connection are o and a, which, as a matter of fact, occur very frequently as the terminations of substantives and adjectives in the Slavonic languages, as well as in I. and S. Since grammatical gender, as distinct from sex, cannot be permitted in an artificial language, it is not possible to employ o and a as in natural languages, where the former is often, though not exclusively, used for the masculine (I. S. but in R. and Polish for the neuter), and the latter similarly for the feminine. One might be inclined to employ o for the male and a for the female sex, with the result that one would have no termination for inanimate things, abstract ideas, or living beings whose sex is not a matter of importance at the moment. The carrying out of this rule, however, leads to considerable difficulties which would take too long to enter into here. (This is one of the points which led to most discussion in the Delegation Committee.) As a matter of fact, a very great deal can be said in favour of the Esperanto usage of o for the substantive and a for the adjective, and, as Couturat has remarked, la bona viro is not any stranger than the Italian il buono poeta.

We need have no compunction in leaving the qualifying adjective without inflection, as is done, for instance, in English. The ending -i is very suitable for the plural of substantives, being used for this purpose in Italian, in Russian and the other Slavonic languages, as well as in modern Greek; it is also tolerably familiar to the English in foreign words, such as banditti. The only termination which might dispute the honours with -i is -s (F., although usually silent, S., E., G. partly, and Dutch), but -s cannot be used if we employ the accusative termination -n, as neither virosn nor virons could be permitted.

As regards the inflections of verbs, we are bound, if we want a termination for the infinitive, to choose, according to our fundamental principle, the -r of all the Romance languages, because neither the German -n, which we have used for other purposes, nor the palatised Slavonic -t (or -c), can be employed, and English possesses no inflection. We require a vowel before the -r, the choice of which will be evident from what follows. For the active and passive participles we need only consider -nt and -t respectively, the vowels being also left undecided for the present. The greatest difficulty, however, is caused by the finite tenses, in which we must distinguish present, past, and future. In this respect living languages differ so much amongst themselves that the principle of maximum internationality does not suffice, especially as the inflections of tense are inextricably mixed up with those of person and number, which for our purposes are quite unnecessary. The Delegation Committee have, therefore, for the moment been unable to find anything better than the Esperanto usage of -as for the present, -is for the past, and -os for the future. The same series of vowels may also be employed for the infinitive and participles, so that the normal forms are -ar, -anta, and -ata (the final vowel a here being the adjectival termination), whilst -ir, -inta, -ita, and -or, -onta, -ota, respectively may be retained for the less frequent cases where one wishes to indicate expressly another tense in the infinitive or participle. A few a priori inflections will not cause much harm in a grammar which is so easy that it may be mastered in half an hour.

I have now arrived at the end of my investigation, in which I have endeavoured to show the method whereby the language of the Delegation has been constructed. The result is a language that everyone can easily master, and which possesses the advantage over other languages that it is based on rational scientific principles and, therefore, need not fear that some fine. day it will be replaced by another and sensibly different language. Naturally improvements will be effected in details where the fundamental principles have not been sufficiently worked out, but the foundation is sound, and the common auxiliary language of mankind cannot differ very much from our "Internaciona linguo," or, to give it a shorter name, "Interlinguo," or, still shorter, "llo " (from the initial letters).


(1) Here and elsewhere the following abbreviations will be used:-- G. = German, E. = English, F. = French, I. = Italian, R. = Russian, and S. = Spanish.


IN connection with the foregoing some critical remarks on Esperanto may be made, from which one will readily perceive the reasons which made it impossible for the Delegation pour l'Adoption d'une Langue Internationale to adopt Esperanto in its present form as the international auxiliary language.

Dr. Zamenhof has given us an interesting account of the way in which his language gradually developed in his mind while he was at the Warsaw Gymnasium. Before he arrived at the conviction that the material for the vocabulary must be obtained from the Romance and Germanic languages, and that the already existing stock of international words must be used, he had "simply invented" his words, that is to say, chosen them quite arbitrarily, but with as much regard to system and brevity as possible. Although he himself noticed that such words are difficult to learn and still more difficult to remember, he has unfortunately retained in the finished language a whole series of such a priori formations, which appear in words of such frequent occurrence as who, how, where, never, everywhere, etc. The nultempe and pro quo chosen by the Delegation agree, however, much better with the general character of language than the neniam and kial of Dr. Zamenhof.

Some peculiarities may be accounted for by the Slavonic mother tongue of the author: for example, his preference for sibilants and diphthongs, which is especially evident in the invented words (e.g., chi, here; chiu, each; ech, even; ghi, that; ghis, until, gh and ch being pronounced as E. j and ch). In an article in Zamenhof's Krestomatio I find, for example (p. 288), chiuj tiuj senantaujughaj kaj honestaj homoj, kiuj, anstatau filizofadi pri ghi, and (p. 293) tion chi ankorau antau la apero de la unua arta lingvo antauvidis kaj antaudiris chiuj tiuj eminentaj kapoj, kiuj, etc. The method of writing x is also Russian: ekzameni, ekzemplo, etc., and also ekspedi, eksplodi; also kv for qu. French words with oi take ua in Esperanto when they are spelt in this way in Russian, e.g. trotuaro, tualeto, vuala; otherwise they are spelt with oi or oj, e.g. foiro, fojo, foino. Nacio, tradicio, etc., instead of -iono, is also Russian. Russian usage has doubtless also inspired such word formations as elparoli and senkulpigi instead of the international pronuncar and exkuzar (R. vygovarivat' and izvin'at', corresponding to G-. aussprechen and entschuldigen). The peculiarity of using the adverb instead of the adjective in such cases as estas necese vidi, "it is necessary to see," is probably to be ascribed to the correspondence of the Russian adverb with the neuter predicate adjective. This rule cannot be permitted, however, in an international language, because, with a free word order, it would be impossible to say whether estas vere necese means "it is really necessary" or "it is necessarily true." The compound perfect (mi estas aminta, "I have loved" = "I am having loved") reminds one of the Polish kochal-em. Finally, the frequent use of the adjective (in -a) instead of the genitive (Zamenhofa lingvo) and of the two sorts of action expressed by ek and ad (ekvidi and vidadi used in many cases where the simple vidi would be sufficient) are to be accounted for by Russian usages.

Naturally I do not object to the importation of national peculiarities into the international auxiliary language when the latter is enriched thereby. For example, one must make use of the facility for forming compound words common to the Germanic and Slavonic languages in preference to the poverty of Romance languages in this respect, and combine it with the more Romance characteristic of forming new words by means of derivative syllables. But peculiarities of national language which render mutual comprehension and international usage difficult must be most carefully avoided.

The unpractical nature of the circumflexed letters has been indicated previously. It may be remarked here, however, that in point of system Zamenhof's letters are very inferior to the similar ones employed in the Czech language, since the parallelism in sound between s and s^, z and j^, dz and g^, is disguised by the choice of letters. This produces a very amateurish affect.

Besides the familiar parts of speech which are indicated by special terminations, Zamenhof invented a new class characterised by the termination -au (kontrau, almenau); but the limits of this class, which includes some, but not all, adverbs and prepositions, are not clearly defined.

Many words taken from existing languages are disguised, almost after the fashion of Volapük: boji, F. aboyer; parkere, F. par coeur; shvit, G. schwitzen, E. sweat; char, F. car; faruno instead of farin; lerta, F. alerte (with a changed meaning), etc. In this category is to be classed the astonishing nepre (entirely) which is derived from the Russian nepremenno, just as if one were to take from the German word unbedingt the two first syllables and propose unbe as an international word instead of absolute. The economy in the use of stems was carried much too far in Esperanto, necessitating the employment of all sorts of compound words, the discovery of whose meaning requires much racking of one's brains. The employment of all the derivative syllables also as independent words is very ingenious, but produces a very strange impression on the uninitiated.

The method of word formation is greatly wanting in precision, the limits of the so-called direct derivation in particular being not sufficiently clearly indicated. One example will suffice. Starting out from kroni = to crown, krono ought properly to mean crowning, instead of which it signifies crown, so that one is forced to use kronado for crowning, whereas, according to the rules of Esperanto, kronado must mean continuous or repeated crowning, as if a king were being constantly or repeatedly crowned.(1)

I have brought together here the most important defects in Esperanto, the removal of which formed one of the tasks of the Delegation Committee. The knowledge of these imperfections does not prevent me from recognising the meritorious services of Zamenhof, who, at a time when the question of the best construction of an international language was not seriously discussed, succeeded in producing one which was in many respects superior to the attempts of that time, and which has proved in practice a serviceable, though very imperfect, means of international communication.


(1) Concerning the criticism of Esperanto, cf. also Zamenhof, Pri Reformoj en Esperanto, 1894, represita per zorgo de E. Javal, 1907 (containing many important suggestions which the Esperantists have now unfortunately forgotten); A. Liptay, Eine Gemeinsprache der Naturvolker, 1891; E. Beermann, Die Internationale Hilfassprache Novlatin, 1907; K. Brugmann and A. Leskien, Zur Kritik der Kunstlichen Welfsprachen, 1907; Couturat and Leau, Conclusions du Rapport, 1907; L. Couturat, Etude sur la Derivation en Esperanto, 1907; Ido, Les Vrais Principes de la Langue Auxiliaire, 1908; many articles in the periodical Progreso, 1908; F. Borging, Warum ich Esperanto verliess, 1908.

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James Chandler 24-Nov-97.