Volapük – Esperanto for losers

by Mary Jackson (December 2006)

Recently a New English Review reader reminded me of David Lodge’s excellent eighties novel Nice Work. The novel attacks the mean-spirited utilitarianism that has been destroying our universities. It also pokes fun at structuralist and post-structuralist nonsense. One passage describes how the main character, a lecturer at the University of Rummidge, attempts to get into her car on a cold day:


The little Renault already looked sculpted out of snow, and the key would not turn in the door lock. She freed it with a patent squirt imported from Finland, and hastily discontinued, called Superpiss. Charles had given it to her for a joke, suggesting she used it as a visual aid to introduce Saussurean linguistics to first year undergraduates, holding the tube aloft to demonstrate that what is onomatopoeia in one language community may be obscenity in another.


Later in the novel, a rather coarse character chimes in: “Superpiss? I’d rather use my own. It’s free and it’s always on tap.”


Superpiss was a branding error. To paraphrase Monty Python, it’s a joke name, like Nautius Maximus, Sillius Sodus or Bigus Dicus. It makes you snigger, like Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, and the lake with a doubly silly name.


I remember years ago being delighted to hear that there was a French lemonade called Pshitt. A hair products company, Clairol, introduced the “Mist Stick”, a curling iron, into Germany, only to find out that “Mist” means “manure”. When Vicks first introduced its cough drops on the German market, they were chagrined to learn that the German pronunciation of “v” is f – which makes “Vicks” in German the phonetic equivalent of “sexual penetration”. And rumour has it that the Chevy Nova never sold well in Spanish speaking countries. “No va” means “doesn't go” in Spanish.


And so to Volapük. Volapük is an artificial language, created in 1879 to 1880 by a Catholic Priest called Johann Martin Schleyer, possibly because God told him in a dream to create an international language.


The vocabulary is mostly English with some German and French. However, this is not English as we know it. The word Volapük consists of two elements, “vol” and “pük”, which are derived from the English words “world” and “speak”. Derived and contrived. I doubt any British readers, or American if they use the same slang, will be able to read the word Volapük without thinking of “puke” (to be sick). I develop this theme in my November article on Ruritania.


Schleyer must have had a tin ear. Did it not occur to him that an international language, especially one based on English and hence designed to appeal to English speakers, should have a sensible name? Never mind God, Schleyer needed a Brand Manager. 


Let us take a look at some Volapük. Here is the Lord’s Prayer: 

O Fat obas, kel binol in süls, paisaludomöz nem ola! Kömomöd monargän ola! Jenomöz vil olik, äs in sül, i su tal! Bodi obsik vädeliki govolös obes adelo! E pardolös obes debis obsik, äs id obs aipardobs debeles obas. E no obis nindukolös in tendadi; sod aidalivolös obis de bas. Jenosöd!  

Ugly, isn’t it? Savour the first three words. And look at all those umlauts. Who needs them? Now, let’s see the Lord’s Prayer in Esperanto:  

Patro nia, kiu estas en la chielo, sankta estu via nomo; venu regeco via; estu volo via, tiel en la chielo, tiel ankau sur la tero. Panon nian chiutagan donu al ni hodiau; kaj pardonu al ni shuldojn niajn, kiel ni ankau pardonas al niaj shuldantoj; kaj ne konduku nin in la tenton, sed liberigu nin de la malbono.

That is much better. I know which I would buy if I were shopping in a boutique that sold artificial languages. Never mind the product – it’s the packaging that counts. Today there are around twenty speakers of Volapük. I imagine them all getting together over a glass of superpiss, mourning the good old days and deploring the rise of those upstart Esperantists – all 1.6 million of them.

Both Esperanto and Volapük are bad products, but at least Esperanto has good marketing. Volapük is a poor man’s Esperanto. And that is saying something.

Esperanto was created in the late 1800s by Lejzer Ludwig Zamenhof.  Zamenhof’s creation employed a modified version of the Roman alphabet, minus q, w, x and y, and with the addition of six accented letters.


Grammar was minimal and the vocabulary consisted originally of 1,000 roots, many of them derived from Latinate European languages. From these building blocks, 12,000 or so words could be constructed.


The number of roots would increase in the following decades, as the Esperantists’ ambitions grew, and to keep pace with new inventions. But the principle of simplicity never changed. By 1905 it was agreed that Zamenhof’s grammatical template should be regarded as immutable. Esperanto had signalled its intention to stick around…


These days nobody is quite sure how many people speak Zamenhof’s language. Estimates vary from 800,000 to a (wildly optimistic) 8m. The most frequently quoted number, from a University of Washington survey, suggests that 1.6m people are able to converse in Esperanto to a reasonable level. 

Yes. With each other. About Esperanto. What’s the point of that? Esperanto, we are told perhaps a little too often, is “not just for cranks”. There may be Esperantoids – sorry, Esperantists – who are not cranks. “Cranks”, by the way, is the name of a vegetarian restaurant. The name was used ironically. While I cannot imagine being a vegetarian, I know plenty of vegetarians who aren’t cranks. But what if  you were both a vegetarian and an Esperantist? 

Here, courtesy of the “International Vegetarian Union”, is an account from 1908 of the activities of  the Tutmonda Esperantista Vegetarana Asocio, which, for non-Esperantists or merely aspirant Esperantists, is the World Association of Esperantist Vegetarians: 

The Esperantist Union has decided to co-operate with the International Vegetarian Union, and will do all it can to assist in the propagation of ideas for which the both Unions are working. The Esperantists at Dresden crowded out all the vegetarian cafés, and had menus printed in Esperanto. Their Union at future congresses can do much good in this direction. Esperantists are the most sane and practical of enthusiasts, and we heartily welcome their co-operation in our movement….

Enthusiasts, certainly. Their enthusiasm leaps off the page:

At the recent International Congress in Dresden there was opportunity for observing the part which language can play in the spread of a movement.. The present writer is an Esperantist and a vegetarian who attempted to attend both series of meetings. After one of the vegetarian meetings, he found a German regarding him with friendly eyes, and at once tried to fall into conversation with him. But no! after each had cudgelled his brains for a few stray words in the other's language, the whole and sole result was the following scene : – 'Vegetarian? Yes!' 'Vegetarian? Yes!' violent and delighted handshake. When this had been repeated two or three times, one began to feel a need for further details, and the interest waned. How different was the case with a charming vegetarian, who, oh joy! Spoke also Esperanto! It was a noticeable thing, too, that whereas the day meetings consisted largely of just the delegates who had come to lay down the foundations of the future International Vegetarian Federation, the four vegetarian restaurants were filled day by day with Esperantists, who were actually vegetarians, or that way inclined. What delightful places those Dresden restaurants are! Picture a little group of half-a-dozen sitting round a table and vastly amused with everything around, and especially one another, all speaking with interest and animation

Not potty at all. Not the slightest bit barking. No nuts to be found, except in the roast.

The whole idea of an artificial international language is fundamentally misguided. There is no reason to speak Esperanto or Volapük. There is no Esperanto literature worth reading, and no country of Volapukes to visit. Rightly or wrongly, most people learn a foreign language for business purposes. An international language is useful for this, and we have one – English. But an artificial language is no use at all. Proponents of artificial languages may point to the successful revival of Hebrew as a mother tongue, but Hebrew had been a living language and was bound up with a history, a religion and a homeland. Esperanto is not merely rootless – it is soulless.

Then there is the regularity of the made-up language, a regularity which, according to its founder and its proponents, will ensure that it is successful. This idea is Utopian. It presupposes, as did Communism and Socialism, that human beings will behave in a predictable and ideal way. Neither humans nor their languages have ever been regular. Even if a language has been created regular, to be successful it must cease to be artificial and come alive. If it does so, like all languages, indeed all living things, it will change. Languages always change. It  will develop irregularities, dialects, slang, pidgins or Creoles. Some dialects – those of a  commercially or politically dominant group – will come to prominence, and perhaps, in time, become languages in their own right; others will die out. Language change will be seen as decay. Curmudgeons will write to the Daily Telegraph, or Doelligkhyy Tugglibarf, complaining how young Volapukes today say “vädelik” when they mean “nindukolös”.

Of course, damning with faint praise, I acknowledge that Esperantists and Volapucians, with their “immutable grammar”, are harmless. The Koran is said to be immutable, and it advocates eternal war against the Infidels. You do not see hoards of rampaging Esperantists, wielding courgettes and yelling (in Esperanto): “Slay the Vernacularists wherever you find them!”

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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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