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!
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, sör, 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.
Even if this had been feasible, Schleyer would probably have been unwilling to give up the umlaut. Without it, he felt, a language would be incomplete, “like a coloured picture without violet, brown, grey or rose.” When you think about the hand-painted photographs of the 1880s, which had scarcely any colors but brown, gray, and a lurid dark red, you realize that, for Schleyer, the umlaut was life itself, or at least as close as you could come to it in the late 19th century.
Translate the following into Volapük:
1. The scholars are in the garden and have the man’s dogs.
2. His bosom-friend is a good man, but he has certainly not invented the gunpowder.
3. Egypt, as Herodotus said, was the country of the Egyptians.
4. O mother, the men are bad! They have knives and books also.
These exercises appear in Klas Linderfelt’s Volapük, published in Milwaukee in 1888. A contemporary reviewer noted that Linderfelt “seems imperfectly acquainted with English.” I prefer to think that he was demonstrating the difficulty of international communication, or the accidental beauty of sentences written in a language that is not your own.
The Tower of Babel
The Third Volapük International Congress was held in Paris. The Eiffel Tower had just opened, part of the Exposition of 1889; thousands of visitors gawked at the elevators, the ironwork, the view from the top, and, far below, the new electric street lamps on the Champs-Élysées. Things that had seemed impossible 50 years ago were now on sale at reduced prices, and the wonders promised never to end. In this giddy spirit the delegates—speaking to one another entirely in Volapük, remember—voted to establish an International Academy to govern the language’s future. They elected a French-speaking Dutchman, Auguste Kerckhoffs, as the academy’s president. Lifom-ös Volapük! they cried. They couldn’t know that they had gone too far, or that their language would soon fall apart.
Kerckhoffs was the author of a popular Volapük grammar (as well as a study of monumental art and a history of military cryptography, among other works). He believed that Volapük was too complicated—not unreasonably, given that, by combining prefixes and suffixes, you could make as many as 504,440 forms from a single verb. Kerckhoffs proposed reducing the number of noun cases and verb tenses, which would have simplified things considerably. But Father Schleyer would not allow anyone to change the language he had created at God’s behest. He demanded the right to veto the academy’s decisions; Kerckhoffs refused, and they fought for control of the language until Kerckhoffs resigned from the academy in 1891. Schleyer, meanwhile, had decided that no one but him should have any say in Volapük at all; he formed his own academy, composed entirely of people who agreed with him.
The Volapükists didn’t know whom to support. Some local societies sided with Schleyer, others with Kerckhoffs. Worse, now that Kerckhoffs had pointed out a few of Volapük’s flaws, everyone wanted to tinker with the language. Because Schleyer retained absolute control over Volapük, their only recourse was to invent languages of their own. Dialects multiplied: The years 1893-1907 saw the emergence of Dil, Veltparl, Dilpok, Idiom neutral, Lingua european, and Idiom neutral reformed, all of them derived from Volapük. It was the Tower of Babel all over again, only this time the humans managed to confound their tongues without supernatural help. The story of Volapük’s disintegration makes you wonder whether the evolution of language was nothing but a series of spats between people too proud to compromise. One hominid wants to call fire fuh and the other wants to call it ig; they go their separate ways, and a few thousand years later they have become Germans and Romans, and they’re still bickering.
I am speaking with Brian Bishop, the Cifal or Supreme Boss of the international Volapük movement. He is on his way to a conference of Latin speakers. For a week, educated Europeans will greet each other, Quis agis hodie, how’s it going today? They will ask after the wives (uxores) and the kids (filii). If the world is going to speak one language, Bishop believes, then why not Latin, which already has a literature, and doesn’t belong to anyone? People might as well speak Latin; they certainly won’t speak Volapük.
Johann Martin Schleyer lived until 1912 (although American newspapers, sensing perhaps a disturbance in the Volapük community, printed his obituary in 1888). By the time he died, almost everyone had forgotten his language. Some former Volapükists clung to their splinter tongues; many more rallied to a new universal language, easier to learn and pronounce, called Esperanto. Volapük, what was left of it, was reformed in the 1920s by a Dutchman named Arie de Jong, who reintroduced the letter r—noting, with a certain wisdom, that the Japanese had trouble with all those ls. It was taught in Germany and the Netherlands until the 1930s, when it was banned by the Nazis, who wanted the world to speak German; Volapük went underground and resurfaced after the war.
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
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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 1, 2000