Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why Volapük Failed

It hasn't failed until everyone gives up!
The post-mortem for Volapük was delivered in the pages of the Evening Times[1] of Washington, D.C. on September 6, 1902, by none other than a man described as the “Chief Volpukian in the United States.“ By that time, there wen’t all that many Volapük speakers to be chief of, but that was the lot of Charles E. Sprague, the author of the Hand-Book of Volapuk.

Wikipedia has a interesting fact on Mr. Sprague that puts me literally one handshake away. At the 1986 World Science Fiction Convention in Atlanta, George, I got to meet the great science fiction writer, L. Sprague de Camp. I just happened to be at hand for the question, “excuse me, young man, do you know where the elevators are?”[2] Mr. Sprague was Mr. de Camp’s maternal grandfather.

The article, written five years before the birth of Mr. Sprague’s grandson, was titled “Why Volapuk Failed to Become the Language of the World.” And yet, though Mr. Sprague has come to bury Volapük, he has also come to praise it. He also hits on a number of reasons why Volapük failed. Given that even now there are people who expect to write the international language that succeeds in become a world interlanguage, though the piece is long, it’s tempting to quote it at length, since there’s so much good stuff in it. I don’t want to deprive you.

By Charles E. Sprague,

Chief Volapukian in the United States and Author of “Hand-Book of Volapuk.“

The opening up to trade of remote regions and the extension of civilization among barbarous people have called the attention of scientists to the need of a universal language which all may understand. There are today hundreds of different languages and dialects spoken in the four quarters of the globe. No one has mastered them all; and few persons, comparatively speaking, know any other tongue than that of their parents. Those to whom a knowledge of the principle languages is essential are travelers, merchants engaged in foreign trade, and professional linguists.

A universal language—one that may be written and understood by all the human family—has been the dream of linguists for a hundred years. Various artificial languages have been invented to answer this purpose, the most notable being the “Esperanto” devised by Prof. Zamenhoff,[3] of Moscow, and “Spelin” by Prof. Bauer, of Agram, Croatia.[4] Both failed to become popular.[5] As the result of the experiments that have been tried from time to time in this direction, it has become the general opinion that the world will not take up any artificial language until it is fully adopted by the English-speaking nations.

The attempt made to establish Volapuk as a universal language has, I am sorry to say, been a failure. Despite the efforts made by some of the leading linguists to create wide interest in the subject, the experiment did not result as we had hoped it would. The failure was due to the fact that the percentage of those who really need to know several languages besides they own is not yet sufficiently large to insure the success of a universal language.

Volapük was the most practicable artificial language that had been devised for the purpose. It was invented by the Rev. Johann Martin Schleyer, of Constance, Germany, a celebrated linguist,[6] and he worked out the vocabulary and other details more thoroughly than most of his competitors, so that it was an actual language in working order. It was found to work all right in practice, but not enough people could be found who were willing to devote their time to its mastery to make it a success.

The trouble was that Volapuk was from fifty to a hundred years ahead of its age.[7] I am satisfied that some such universal language, greatly improved upon perhaps, will one day be adopted by the leading peoples of the earth.

The Volpuk experiment was the most notable ever tried, either here or abroad. Thirteen years ago, when it was at the height of its popularity, no less than 265,00 persons had become familiar with the speaking and writing of Volapuk, and 150 societies had been formed for its propagation. While it was strong in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Sweden, and Denmark, in the United States there were only 6,000 students of the new language.

Perhaps the chief reason why Volapuk was not taken up more extensively here was that our young men had not the patience to master a language that was not then in general use. They felt that French or German or Spanish was much more practical, and therefore much more desirable.
1902 was, perhaps, a little early to call Esperanto a failure. As I’ve pointed out earlier, Volapük flamed out fast: created in 1880, first congress in 1884, and the last one in 1889. Esperanto followed Volapük by only seven years, but its first congress was still three years away. Esperanto was to soon reach heights that Volapük never saw. Sprague would actually live long enough to be alive when Esperanto beat the Volapük record for the largest number of consecutive congresses of an artificial language.

Nevertheless, Sprague is dead on for why Volapük failed:
not enough people could be found who were willing to devote their time to its mastery to make it a success
our young men had not the patience to master a language that was not then in general use
It’s the endless circle of achieving a network effect. If enough people are were using the language, others would use it because of its use. Conversely, why learn a language that no one speaks? Yes, there are reasons. Linguists learn languages so they can study them, despite that they won’t be whiling away the hours reading the great novels of a vanishing culture with a few thousand speakers (and no novels, great or otherwise).

You could convince people to learn a language if they were going to get a lot of chances to use it. The problem is, how are they going to get a lot of chances to use it if everyone else is waiting for someone else to learn it?

No planned language—including Esperanto—has ever reached that hurdle, and literature alone is not going to be sufficient. Esperanto certainly has more original literature than any other planned language, but even with that, it's a pale shadow when you compare it to the great works of English, French, German, and many other languages. It really is the question of getting the language into general use, which if you could ever get there, tends to be self-perpetuating.

All of the great world languages have in their favor, not only great literatures (a product of leisure time), but also the force of military conquest. The hand that pens a sonnet can also wield a sword. Volapük may have had its poets, but there was never a mighty Volapük army forcing its conquered peoples to speak Volapük. (The idea of the Esperantists at battle is too risible to consider.)

The dominant world languages got to where they were, not because of their excellence for communication, but in part by force of war. Recently, the French were criticized for their reluctance for joining into (ill-advised) American military adventures. But those "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" were once a feared military presence. I noted once to someone who was claiming that the French were known for surrendering that until about the middle of the nineteenth century, You Did Not Fuck With The French.

And for all the elegance of French poetry, French became the language of diplomacy because that was the only way in which you could get them to listen if you wanted them to take the elegantly shod foot off your neck. For a long time, the French were the dominant power in continental Europe. Just how do you say "jackbooted thug" in Esperanto?

  1. The publisher of the Evening Times was Frank A. Munsey. Munsey’s magazine The Cavalier would ten years later experiment with publishing short fiction in Esperanto.  ↩
  2. He extended his hand to thank me for the very minor help of finding the elevator. These were glass-sided ones; Catherine Crook de Camp found the trip quite alarming.  ↩
  3. Not a professor.  ↩
  4. Modern-day Zagreb.  ↩
  5. And he’s not the slightest bit smug about their failures.  ↩
  6. Not a linguist.  ↩
  7. Sprague’s contention “that Volapük was from fifty to a hundred years ahead of its age” seems to put it more into his grandson’s line of trade. Of course, fifty years after the last Volapük congress was 1939. We passed its centennial twenty-five years ago.  ↩

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