Sunday, October 5, 2014

An Egalitarian Volpük

Charles Ezra Sprague
Charles Sprague, the chief Volapükist in the United States[1] was clearly delighted with one decision of the 1887 Volapük congress in Munich: they dropped a pronoun, specifically, the second person formal. From Sprague’s report, most people were content with the second person in singular and plural forms.

I've glanced at other Volpük materials by Sprague from the same time period. While an advocate for Volapük, he was certainly unsparing in his criticism. By 1889, he was questioning Schleyer's use of umlauts (pointing out, for example, that even Germans didn't make a distinction between i and ü). Thus, without the umlaut, the name of the language would be pronounced the same if it were named "Volapik." Sprague would later offer the postmortem for Volapük in the American press.

The article ran in something called the Home Journal, and then reprinted in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette on October 5, 1887. They liked it so much that they used it two days later in the Fort Worth Weekly Gazette of October 7, 1888.
The New Universal Langauge.
Home Journal
The latest appearance of the question of Thou vs. You is in the Volapuk congress held last month in Munich. In Volapuk all the pronouns begin with o and form the following series.
Singular Plural
1. Ob — I. Obs — we.
2. Ol — thou. Ols — you
3. Om — he Oms } they.
    Of — she Ofs.
    Os —it.
On — one, everybody

Besides these Father Schleyer gave in his grammar a form of politeness, “ons,” but hoped that volapukists would address each other by the more brotherly “ol.” The Germans were the only ones who seemed to think it necessary to have a form of courtesy, and the volapuk periodicals have had a lively, but good natured, discussion of the matter, But, although the Munich congress had a larger number of Germans than of any other nationality present, yet it was resolved, after a warm debate, that the word “ons” no longer exists in volapuk, and all volapukists must employ “ol” in the singular and “ols” in the plural. Thus the knell of feudalism has sounded!
Charles E. Sprague
The “knell of feudalism”? French managed to be the language of “liberty, equality, and brotherhood” without losing the formal use of its second person plural (and there are still cases in which one would address a stranger with “vous”[2]). English, with its one form of the second person, actually dropped the familiar form. Thou may sound formal to some ears, but while archaic, it is actually the familiar, not the polite form.

In any case, Sprague was declaring the end of “ons,” and the end to a form that he seems to think was more suited to the chivalric romance than to the end of the nineteenth century. If this is the end of feudalism, the end of serfs expressing their obedience to their liege, it conjures up the though to knights on horseback speaking Volapük. Surely, even for those who used the formal "you," Volapük was never feudal.

Update: Two small corrections. The type was worn, and I failed to notice that the second letter of Obs was a b with a worn, almost invisible ascender. I blame the second one on my text entry program, correcting the Volapŭk ols to the English old. Thanks to the commenter who brought the first to my attention.

  1. And grandfather to the science fiction writer L. Sprague DeCamp.  ↩
  2. French has verbs for “to use the ‘tu’ form” (tutoyer) and “to use the ‘vous’ form” (vouvoyer). German has similar verbs meaning to use “du” or “Sie.”  ↩

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  1. Modern Volapük has a new formal "you" which is, however, rarely used:
    or = formal you (singular)
    ors = formal you (plural).
    Such forms are quite useful to show respect and even subservience in addressing somebody.

  2. Oh dear! "Respect and subservience"! Poor Mr. Sprague must be spinning in his grave!


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