VI. A Priori and A Posteriori Principles

VI - 1. Classification of language systems

LOUIS COUTURAT AND LÉOPOLD LEAU classified the systems of constructed languages, as far as they were known to them, into three groups, (1) a priori systems, (2) mixed systems, and (3) a posteriori systems. Professor Guérard has given a good definition of these two terms in his short history, `an a priori language is one which is based on some logical conception without any reference to existing forms; an a posteriori language is one that derives all its elements from natural tongues.'

The first a priori systems were called pasigraphies, i.e., languages fit only for writing. The most important ones were quoted and reviewed by Couturat and Leau in their Histoire. They are mentioned to show that the beginnings of the thought of an artificial means of communication developed about 300 years ago. Descartes expressed his ideas on the subject in a letter to Mersenne in 1629, a thought which was taken up by Dalgarno in 1661, Wilkins in 1668, Leibniz in 1679, and Delormel in 1795. One of the first languages intended for speech was Solresol by Sudre (1817), which was based on the seven monosyllabic names of the gamut tones. From that time onward more and more systems were devised by various authors profiting by the experience of the predecessors. The most important of them were Langue universelle et analytique by Vidal (1844), the proposals by Renouvier to the to the Société de Linguistique (1855), Lingua-lumina by Dyer (1875), Langue Internationale étymologique by Reimann (1877), Langue naturelle by Maldant (1887), Spokil by Nicolas (1900), Zahlensprache by Hilbe (1901); and Völkerverkehrs-sprache by Dietrich (1902).

The mixed systems are those which take some elements from ethnic languages and add other elements and rules based on logical conceptions not found in any existing languages. The best known system in this class was Volapük by Schleyer (1880). The name, vola-pük, is a deformation of world speech. Volapük binom puk nen sesuns, means Volapük is a language without exceptions. It was archaic, difficult to learn, and not comprehensible without previous study. Other mixed systems were created at the same time but none of them survived the projects based, more or less, on the linguistic material of the ethnic languages, Bopal (1887), Spelin (1888), Veltparl (1896), Langue bleue (1899). The later systems have developed in the direction of greater ease of learning. A text in any modern system of constructed language can be understood at first sight by those who know several European languages while a priori or mixed systems retained the aspect of a code unintelligible to the outsider.

Of the a posteriori systems Esperanto had the most outstanding success. Ido, Occidental, Novial, and Interlingua have been briefly reviewed in previous chapters, being described as of demonstrated usefulness by IALA. Interlingua (Latino sine flexione) is a reformed system of Latin without inflections but otherwise based on the vocabulary of Latin. Professor Yushmanov (University of Leningrad) collected data of over three hundred projects more or less fully developed, but only the five previously mentioned claim any following in different countries or a literature or magazines of their own. The experiences gained with these systems form the recognized basis for all future research for the planned language.

VI - 2. An interpretation of the terms

Professor Collinson, in his commentary to the criteria of IALA, differentiates between extreme a priorism and modified a priorism, as well as between extreme a posteriorism and modified a posteriorism. Extreme a priorism has already been described as having no reference to existing forms. Modified a priorism is one in which the logical view-point prevails over the principle of conformity with ethnic languages. Extreme a posteriorism describes forms which are used with no or only slight modification of the forms of one or more ethnic languages. Collinson says that a extreme a posteriori language may be one which is entirely based on an ethnic language, reforming one part of it, for example English with a simplification of its spelling, or English with a restriction of its vocabulary, or Latin stripped of its inflexions and adding a number of auxiliary and international words.

Modified a posteriorism is a term applied by him to structural features of constructed languages which are adopted from ethnic languages to conform to certain rules and to the principles of a particular language. These modifications are examined in regard to roots, to word-building, and to grammatical structure. (1) The majority of roots are in international use and of Latin origin and a number of other roots have been added from other ethnic languages. (2) The affixes of ethnic languages which may have several functions are taken into the system and assigned one function only, i.e., they become monosignificant (Esperanto, Ido). (3) Affixes may be taken from ethnic languages and their meaning may vary according to the usages in ethnic languages (Occidental). (4) The various grammatical patterns of the ethnic languages may be followed, and more or less rigidly adhered to.

The different existing systems of constructed language vary considerably in degree as to the principles of derivation, use of auxiliary verbs, meaning and selection of roots, and other word-building elements. We can say that the authors of modern systems prefer on the whole a posteriori forms.

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James Chandler 1997.