Pük, Memory

Why I Learned a Universal Language No One Speaks

The title of Cifal has been handed down in unbroken succession from Father Schleyer to Bishop, a semiretired teacher and civil servant with a donnish voice and a remarkable ability to be consumed by his hobbies. He once took up paper-folding, he says, because he thought it would be manageable, but found it so engrossing that he had to limit himself to "origami of a Spanish interest." He studied Volapük because it seemed like a smaller subject than Esperanto; now he is Cifal, and he's had to learn Esperanto anyway. Bishop does not see the two languages as rivals. He compares Volapük to the steam locomotive: It's worth preserving, so you can see what it was like to ride in one, but you wouldn't want it to replace the diesel or the electric train. To speak Volapük, he says, is to "translate yourself in time"—and, along the way, to question your assumptions about the modern world. The language gives you a glimpse of what international culture was like before global capitalism reduced the world's shared vocabulary to the names of a few commodities: Coca-Cola, blue jeans, Big Mac.

This is an experience worth having, but Bishop doesn't know how much longer people will be able to have it. There are by his count about 20 Volapük speakers in the world today, and, despite the existence of Volapop!, a Volapük magazine on the Web, their number doesn't seem to be growing. Bishop is looking for a young person to be the next Cifal; if he can't find one, the language may die out altogether. Are you tired of Coca-Cola-pük? Would you like to be the next Cifal? If so, write to Ralph Midgely, who offers a 10-lesson course in Volapük Vifik ("Rapid Volapük"). It is available from the Flenef Bevünetik Volapüka, 24 Staniwell Rise, Scunthorpe, DN17 1TF, United Kingdom.

O Fat Obas, 2

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.

We failed to marry on the spot, or at any time afterwards. I see her from time to time in New York, though, and when we don't have anything else to talk about, one of us mentions Volapük and we sigh and shake our heads and reflect on how much we have in common, and how fortunate it is that Volapük slipped through the fingers of the bad men, the ones who have books and also knives (see "Exercises"). Because Volapük was forgotten, it unites us in a way that a real international language never could. It's as though we've unearthed the original tongue people spoke before the Tower of Babel—only now it's even better, because hardly anyone speaks it but us.

The Native Speaker

A language that arises to fulfill certain communication needs among people who have no common language is called a pidgin. Pidgins are limited in what they can express; they're good if you want to hire a crew for your sampan, or barter for food. When people adopt a pidgin as their native tongue, though, it becomes a creole, a living language in which you can forge the uncreated conscience of your race, or whatever else you want to express. Volapük may have had a short-lived existence as a pidgin, but it never became a creole—if it had, there would be more Volapük speakers in the world today (see "The Cifal"). This is a problem with planned languages in general: They don't perpetuate themselves, which means that they last only as long as a group of eccentric and short-tempered grown-ups can agree on how they work (see "The Tower of Babel"). And yet . . . Alexander Ellis, the British philologist, mentions that a girl in Chicago was being raised to speak Volapük. Her name was Corinne Cohn; she was the daughter of Henry Cohn, a professor of Volapük, and in 1888 she was six years old.

There's no record of what became of Corinne. I imagine her speaking Volapük with her father at the kitchen table, after dinner. She chews on the end of her braid, and tells him, tears in her eyes, how no one understands her, no one but him! Only the problem is that even he doesn't understand everything she says. Corinne has invented new Volapük expressions, new idioms to describe what it's like to be a 12-year-old girl in Chicago, an experience for which old Father Schleyer had absolutely no words. For a few years, until she gives it up for boys and boat rides on Lake Michigan, Volapük is a living language.

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