It’s not clear how many Volapük speakers were still around in 1909. I doubt even those who forsake it totally forgot it. Wikipeda notes that at its height, it had a million speakers, but in 1900, the total number of active Volapukists was 159. A decade later, who knows?
I wish we could wish a happier birthday to Johann Martin Schleyer, but feel free to raise a glass in a toast to the man who felt that God had revealed to him the tongue that all mankind should learn. And if you can’t make the toast in Volapük, don’t worry. Few can these days.
Biographical CalendarI will admit that Esperanto hit its thirtieth birthday with pretty grim prospects. In 1917, there hadn’t been an World Esperanto Congress in two years (three more would elapse), though there had been nine of them (three times as many as the Volapük movement saw). In 1909, as the Fifth Esperanto Congress neared, sure the movement looked healthy, but look at where Volapük had been at the same time.
Johann Martin Schleyer
Those enthusiastic linguists who see in Esperanto the universal language of the future will find little consolation in the life story of Johann Martin Schleyer, who was born in Oberland, Baden, seventy-eight years ago. Schleyer was the inventor of Volapuk, a so-called universal tongue which which had its origin only thirty years ago but is already numbered among the dead languages.
Schleyer was educated at the University of Freiburg, and at the age of 25 became a priest of the Roman Catholic church. From his youth he was fond of languages, and when 30 years old he was one of the best practical linguists of Europe, having some twenty-five languages at his tongue’s end, and a fair acquaintance with as many more.
Being in his own person a veritable human tower of babel, Schleyer finally became convinced that the confusion of tongues instituted by Jehovah was no longer necessary, and was a stumbling block in the way of human progress and universal brotherhood. Thirty years ago he conceived the idea of a common language, to be learned by the educated of all nations, and Volapuk was the result.
More than sixty works dealing with his pet project issued from Schleyer’s pen, including a complete grammar and dictionary of Volapuk. A Volapuk academy was established in Germany, and an imposing periodical was issued. The fame of the new world language soon spared and its study was taken up in scores of countries. For a time it had quite a vogue in the United States, and conventions were held, journals established and schools founded to spread the Volapuk propaganda.
Soon the critics got out their hammers, and in the end have succeeded in almost killing the movement which started off so auspiciously. Professor Zamenhof’s Esperanto has taken the place of Volapuk in the affections of those who believe a universal language to be practicable. In Germany, there are still a few Volapuk adherents who remain true to the Schleyer system, but in the minds of the majority of men Volapuk exists only as a faint memory of a baseless dream.
Actually, twenty-two years after its creation, the third Volapük convention (the only one held in Volapük) was thirteen years in the past. Esperanto had four more conventions to come before World War I forced the cancellation of the 1914 Paris convention.
Update: Zamenhof felt that Esperantists should honor Schleyer for pointing the way, but did feel that numbering the Esperanto congresses as starting with the three Volapük congresses was a step too far.
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