Project Optima

Welcome to the Project Optima website.

What is Project Optima?
Project Optima is a project which has as its aim to find and formulate the 'best' or optimal form of human language. It may be thought of as a continuation of the historical quest for the perfect language.

What does 'optimal' mean in the context of human language?
One of the premises of Optima is that the primary purpose of human language is communication - not just of factual information, but also of thoughts, feelings, desires, and anything else that people need or desire to express. Not that communication is the only purpose of language - but this project assumes that it is the central one.

The consequence of this assumption is that languages can be valued according to their fitness for their primary purpose, and this gives rise to the notion of communicative efficiency.

What is communicative efficiency?
The communicative efficiency of a language can be evaluated on the basis of how far it goes in 'accomplishing much with little means' (a formulation due to the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen). One language can be said to be more efficient than another in some respect if by means of it one can express the same idea with less (or less complicated) machinery, or if one can express rather more with the same (or comparable) machinery.

Although it is difficult in general to compare languages as wholes, it is sometimes possible to say with certainty that one language is more efficient than another, if on a great many points it is clearly more efficient than the other. It is also possible to compare different historical stages of the same language by the same criteria.

What is the inspiration for Project Optima?
The inspiration for Optima comes from two sources. The first is the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen's theory of progress in language. Jespersen studied the development of various (chiefly Indo-European) languages, and came to the conclusion that from the point of view of communicative efficiency, later stages tend to be superior to earlier ones. He concluded that all languages are subject to a law of evolution or progress towards greater efficiency.

If this is true, then there must be some ideal form towards which all languages are slowly moving. Although Jespersen never explicitly formulated his idea of the perfect language, I believe that it is implicit in his writings on linguistic progress and efficiency. His conception of an ideal language can also be seen to some extent in the artificial international languages he had a role in inventing, and especially in his own system Novial.

The second source of inspiration for Optima is the field of creolistics, the study of pidgin and creole languages. A pidgin is a simplified and restructured form of a national language which has arisen from a situation of contact between groups of people with no language in common. A pidgin is generally defined as having no native speakers. A creole is a language that has resulted from nativization of a pidgin, ie. acquisition of native speakers.

Creoles tend to have more elaborate grammatical structures than pidgins, closer to those of national languages. In fact, it has emerged in the last few decades that there is an astonishing degree of similarity among the various creole languages of the world, so much so that some creolists, most notably Derek Bickerton, have identified a basic common or prototypical grammar for creoles. Bickerton has gone further and proposed that the creole grammar prototype reflects the essential structure of the human cognitive capacity for language, an idea he refers to as natural semantax.

The theoretical basis of Project Optima is that there is a great deal of similarity between the forms of language favoured by Jespersen and the creole prototype. This suggests that there is a single basic answer to the question, what is the optimal form of human language. The central point of similarity is the preference for isolating structure and analytic methods. The aim of the project is to identify and build on the common elements in these two sources.

Will a complete language be the end result of Optima?
The aim of the project is to formulate the grammatical structure and phonology of an optimal human language. These will be developed in an abstract form, but grammatical words and a sample vocabulary will be given in concrete form for purposes of illustration of the structures arrived at. It does not lie within the scope of Optima to elaborate a complete lexicon for an ideal language, since lexical structure and the precise form of words are of only marginal importance for the evaluation of communicative efficiency. However, it is possible that the language will eventually be given a vocabulary sufficient for ordinary purposes.

Is Optima a project to construct a new international language?
This is not one of the goals of the project, despite the fact that there are some connections between it and the field of international auxiliary languages (IALs). I have already said above that Jespersen's ideas on efficiency can be found in the IALs he helped to create (Ido and Novial). In general, auxiliary languages were designed to be easier and simpler than national languages such as English. There is therefore a natural connection between the notion of an efficient language and the field of IALs, and it is possible that IAL design could draw in future from the form of language which results from this project.

Where can I find more information on Project Optima?
The project is in its infancy, and more information and details about it will be provided in time. For the moment, please follow the links below to further information on the project and related matters:

Disclaimer: This project is purely a personal investigation and the view expressed here is not approved or shared in full by any professional linguist, so far as I know. All opinions expressed here should be treated as tentative unless otherwise stated, and the position taken is not intended to be definitive.

James Chandler
England, UK
18th May 2001

This page by James Chandler 18-May-01.

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