Pük, Memory

Why I Learned a Universal Language No One Speaks

O Fat Obas

I first read about Volapük in the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine so violently opposed to anything out of the ordinary that it once studied the dates of thousands of shipwrecks to prove that the moon has no influence on maritime disasters. In his survey of artificial languages from Esperanto to Klingon, the critic Martin Gardner paused to describe the first really popular man-made language in the world, Volapük, and to poke fun at its odd-sounding words. In Volapük, the Lord's Prayer begins,

O fat obas, kel binol in süls, paisaludomöz nem ola!

He received a communication from God, instructing him to make a new language that everyone could speak.
illustration by Charlene Potts
He received a communication from God, instructing him to make a new language that everyone could speak.

No wonder the language died out, Gardner says. Who would want to call "Our Father" fat obas? Who would want to speak something called Volapük? I could think of at least two people: me and my friend Herb. For years he and I had spoken our own language, an idiom made up of old jokes and references to things we did when we were children. Volapük was just what we needed: If we spoke it, we could be sure that absolutely no one would understand us. For a few months we mouthed O fat obas to one another at parties, expressing—and, no doubt, confirming—our distance from everyone else. In secret, of course, we wanted to be understood. One night I told Herb, "If I met a woman who knew Volapük, I'd marry her on the spot."

A dark-haired woman turned around. "Oh my god," she said. "You know Volapük?"


An old German peasant once wrote to his son in America, asking for money. The U.S. postal authorities returned his letter because they couldn't decipher the address—understandably, given that the old man knew no English and didn't write German very well. He complained to his neighbor, a retired priest named Johann Martin Schleyer: now I have no money. Schleyer was sympathetic. His health was poor, and he had to support his own aging father on the small pension he received from the Church. What was needed, he decided, was a better means of international communication. So Schleyer invented one: He called it the National Alphabet, a system of 37 letters which could express the sounds of any language in the world.

Was his neighbor grateful? All we know is that no one used the National Alphabet, that letters continued to go astray, and that Schleyer, saddened by the failure of his system, developed insomnia. One sleepless night in March 1879, he received a communication from God, instructing him not to despair, and to make a new language that everyone in the world could speak. Schleyer already knew more than 60 languages (although how well he spoke any of them, other than German, isn't clear; see "Umlauts"). In a year, he distilled his knowledge into a single, rational idiom. He called it Volapük, or "world-speech." He based its words on English roots, using a simplified phonetics that eliminated the sounds th and ch, and replaced the letter r (difficult for the Chinese) with the letter l. These changes made many of Schleyer's new words hard to recognize. You could, for example, look at the word flen for a long time and not guess that it was derived from the English friend; even if you knew that flen means friend, you would be unlikely to guess that Flent was the new word for France.

Even so, Volapük was a vast improvement over the other universal languages available at the time. These ranged from the "philosophical language" of John Wilkins, in which each letter stood for a distinct concept, and the meaning of a word was—in theory—evident from its spelling, to Jean François Sudré's Solresol, a language based on musical scales, which, although almost impossible to speak, could be whistled or played on the trumpet. Ordinary people could both speak and understand Volapük, and many of them soon did.

Nine years after Schleyer published his grammar, the language had a quarter of a million speakers; some accounts put this number as high as a million. Volapük primers were printed in 21 languages, and the dictionary had grown from 2782 to more than 20,000 words. At the Third Volapük International Congress, held in 1889, everyone spoke Volapük, even the porters and the waiters. There were Volapük societies from Sydney to San Francisco, at least 25 Volapük periodicals, including the Cogabled ("Jest Book"), which printed nothing but Volapük humor. The language was so popular that many people considered the question of universal communication settled once and for all. An English scholar named Alexander Ellis, in a report to the London Philological Society, concluded that "all those who desire the insubstantiation of that 'phantom of a universal language' which has flitted before so many minds, from the days of the Tower of Babel, should, I think, add their voice to the many thousands who are ready to exclaim lifom-ös Volapük, long live Volapük!"


Only how do you pronounce the umlauts? Pük? Like, as in . . . ? Yes. Yes. And the more you think about them, the less sense the umlauts make. The majority of European languages don't use the umlaut; few non-Western languages have anything like it. The vowels ä (halfway between the e in keys and the a in case), ö (like the o in word), and ü (no English equivalent) are difficult for almost everyone but Germans; even Germans sometimes confuse their umlauted and non-umlauted vowels. If the vocabulary of Volapük is based mostly on English words, why did Schleyer use sounds that Anglophones can't pronounce? The most likely explanation is that his English wasn't very good. He believed that the English language already had umlauted vowels: Weren't the words a, sir, and much pronounced ä, r, and müch? It's as if Schleyer had peppered his language with the letter z, and justified it with reference to the word ze—you know, ze book, ze table, ze dog. Or, more likely, ze dög. No one could convince Schleyer that English didn't work that way, and by the time anyone tried, it was too late. Getting rid of the umlauted vowels would involve rewriting the Volapük grammar and vocabulary, and the 250,000 speakers would have had to start again from scratch.

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