Ranto Appendix – X


Propagandists for Esperanto seldom turn out to be well informed about the ordinary languages of the world (especially outside Europe).  That's always a pity, but there are some particular cases that I wish my correspondents would read up on instead of launching straight into spiels about the unique greatness of Esperanto.

  1. There was one man in the nineteenth century who was inspired with the original brainwave of constructing an artificial international auxiliary language using a regular, supposedly simple grammar, a macaronic lexicon, and a pseudo‐agglutinative morphological groundplan.  Some people thought this was brilliant, and started evangelising to persuade everybody in the world to learn it.  They met with little success; it struck the few members of the wider public who noticed it as laughable.  But its supporters rejected any suggestion that they were backing the wrong scheme.

    Yes, I'm talking about Volapük, created in 1879 by the Reverend J. M. Schleyer.  Well, in fact there were even earlier attempts; Volapük was just the first to collect any speakers (claiming nearly a million at the height of its popularity), so it's still remembered… as the only prominent competitor to Esperanto that I would be prepared to agree is a worse design.  When the auxiliary language movement abandoned it there was a surge in membership – demonstrating that there's nothing wrong with changing horses in midstream when the one you're flogging is dead.  And since then, any number of more sophisticated designs have become available.  You aren't using a computer built from Charles Babbage's blueprints, so why would you want a nineteenth‐century prototype auxiliary language?

  2. Only one of the languages Zamenhof knew went during his lifetime from being a dead tongue artificially taught from grammar books to being a genuinely living one, with a millions‐strong community of speakers using it as their everyday medium of communication.  This singular success story was due largely to the work of one individual language‐planning fanatic born in a Tsarist Russian province in the 1850s.

    I am of course referring to Hebrew.  Before it was resurrected through the efforts of Eliezer Ben‐Yehuda, it had spent 2000 years as the common tongue of the polyglot Jewish diaspora, working quite adequately as an international auxiliary language even though it was stone dead (with no mother‐tongue speaker community).  Mind you, the Zionists themselves were more fluent in European languages like German, so the Hebrew they brought up their children in was a rather westernised version.

  3. Millions of people in the world today use as their primary medium of communication something that started as a constructed language, deliberately developed within the last couple of hundred years.  Indeed, the most successful such creation is bigger than most “natural” languages, showing that an “artificial” origin is no handicap as long as people have a solid practical reason for adopting it.

    Yes, I'm talking about Chinese Sign Language.  It may have been fully developed only in the late 1950s, but don't make the mistake of thinking sign languages for the deaf are somehow not real languages!  CSL has a flexible, powerful grammar, a well stocked vocabulary, and a community of native speakers several million strong.  Runners‐up include Brazilian, Indo‐Pakistani, and American Sign Language.

  4. Sometimes it's argued that the big problem with adopting an existing language as an international auxiliary is that nobody wants to be a “second‐class citizen” speaker.  But if that's really the objection to World English, how about an alternative that's about as close as you can get to English in its core syntax and vocabulary, though with, for instance, a simpler inventory of vowel distinctions (barely half as many as my own native dialect)?  One whose speakers are never going to be in a position to mock you for having a non‐prestige accent, failing to use “proper grammar”, or forgetting some absurd spelling rule?

    Naturally, I'm referring to Scots.  It's just like English, but those nasty Americans don't speak it, and it has no official “standard” form, either spoken or written!  Or you could pick a creole with a handful of speakers and a flavour of the Pacific, like Pitcairnese.  Yet such options have never attracted any interest, because outside their local region nobody ever needs to learn them, and most of the world's population will never learn a language unless it's necessary.