How to Build a Language

Copyright Notice

This material is copyright © 2000 by Donald J. Harlow. Hard copies may be made for personal use only. Any user may make one electronic copy for personal use only. All copies must contain this copyright notice, including the date given below. No electronic copy may be located elsewhere for public access. Links to this original copy on the World Wide Web are encouraged. Please respect the conditions of this copyright notice; I simply don't want to have various unofficial (and perhaps not up-to-date) copies floating around elsewhere. Date: 2006.07.04.

                "They all [reformists], after determining 
                that the public did not favor Esperanto, nor 
                adopt it with the same enthusiasm that they 
                did, blamed this lack of success on the failures 
                or imperfections they found in the language. 
                And since each of them had his own special 
                opinion about the points in need of reform, 
                each one of them presented his own proposals, 
                declaring those of the others to be absurd. ... 
                Only a few of these reformists had the constancy, 
                or the necessary means, to finish up their schemes, 
                publish them, and recruit adherents; the others, 
                unable to realize their ideal, either abandoned 
                the movement entirely or went over to one of the 
                fresh-baked projects."

                               --Gaston Waringhien, Lingvo kaj 
                                 Vivo, p. 358.  La Laguna: 
                                 Stafeto, 1959 (2nd ed. UEA, 1989).

Table of Contents

Basic English
Interglossa and Glosa
Loglan and Lojban
A Personal Analysis


Emotions and tempers are sometimes aroused among those who have dedicated much of their lives to the devising and/or promotion of one planned language or another, when someone (for whatever purpose, and with whatever justification) disses somebody's favorite planned language. Consequently, the following material has, at times, been accused of being (a) inaccurate and (b) biased.

No doubt, inaccuracies have crept in; and, as a proponent of Esperanto, I have never claimed to be unbiased. If you are looking for a totally objective, scholarly presentation of the history of the planned-language movement, I suggest that you look elsewhere. Another warning: you will probably not find it (everybody writing on the subject seems to have his own set of prejudices), and if you do it will probably be extremely boring. This presentation is, I believe, at least not boring.

I can sum up the conclusions that can be drawn from this historical introduction in a relatively few words. Some one thousand (perhaps more) planned languages have been sketeched or created during the past two centuries; the approximately a dozen treated here are those that have actually been devised to a fare-thee-well and have actually acquired a community of speakers, of whatever size. At the end of this period, the number of speakers of Esperanto now living exceeds, apparently by several orders of magnitude, the total number of speakers of all other planned languages in this list who have ever lived. I suspect that this demonstrates something; but I will leave it to you to decide what.



Languages have been constructed by many people, for many different purposes, with varying degrees of success. You may be familiar with such literary creations as Austin Tappan Wright's Islandian language, which he developed for his massive social novel Islandia, or with J.R.R. Tolkien's languages of Middle Earth, which served as inspiration for The Lord of the Rings.(30) Others have, at one time or another, dabbled at creating their own languages, just to see whether it could be done. The idea of creating an artificial language for actual use between people of different linguistic backgrounds, while not particularly recent, is less widely known.

The earliest such creation on record, although almost certainly not the first of its kind, was the Lingua Ignota, invented by Hildegarde of Bingen, the twelfth-century Abbess of Rupertsberg, a woman remembered only by artificial language buffs until she was recently resurrected by the feminist and gnostic movements as an early example of the Renaissance Woman. The Abbess Hildegarde probably had no intention of producing an international language, since in her world one already existed — Latin. More likely, it was intended as a means of secret communication, perhaps an early forerunner of Frank Herbert's battle languages as described in his Dune novels. Certainly its name (which means "Unknown Language") suggests that it was not intended for the common people.

Traditionally, constructed languages are classified either as a priori — created out of whole cloth — or a posteriori — derived from already existing linguistic material, usually the Western European languages. Several early Western European philosophers, for example Dalgarno and Bishop Wilkins, devoted much time to developing "philosophical languages" of the a priori type. Such languages were completely artificial, built to more accurately reflect the secret workings of the human mind. Since those secret workings remain largely a secret even today, such languages were effectively stillborn. I myself have never been terribly interested in them, and so I can't give you the full details. The most comprehensive treatment that I have seen is to be found in Ernst Drezen's Historio de la Mondlingvo.(1) There is a more readable one in a recent work by Janton. (2) For English speakers, Mario Pei touches on the subject in his popular work on constructed languages,(3) and Andrew Large (4) devotes a chapter or so to it. Here I shall dispose of such languages in a few words: if you understand the Dewey Decimal System, you already understand the principles behind their construction. While such languages generally went out of fashion two centuries ago, they have not disappeared completely, as Barnett's Suma and, more recently, Brown's Loglan prove.

The idea of the international language began to come into its own in the eighteenth century, when such men as René Descartes in France and Jan Amos Comensky in Czechoslovakia began to consider the problem and developed various criteria to be satisfied by an international language. Among these criteria were several that would play an important role in the development of later constructed languages, criteria such as phonetic regularity and grammatical rationality.

One late a priori language that deserves special comment is Solresol. Developed by the French scientist Jean François Sudré, Solresol — a language with only seven sounds, based on the standard Western tonic scale (the white keys on the piano) — attracted considerable interest in Western Europe during the nineteenth century. Its elements (words) were completely artificial, and highly categorized, but reflected concepts out of daily life rather than high-flown philosophical ideals. Furthermore, Solresol because of its unique construction could be sung, played or whistled, as well as spoken. Perhaps because music hath charms that soothe the savage breast, or perhaps because trumpets can be heard further than voices, the French military authorities at one time considered adopting Solresol for their own purposes — a peculiar role for a purported international language, although military authorities, among them those of Imperial Germany and the United States, would later use Esperanto for similar purposes. Solresol retained some of its popularity even after the development of Volapük and, later, Esperanto, finally disappearing from the scheme of things only around the time of the First World War, after an almost hundred-year-long run.


In contrast to the a priori, largely philosophical, languages we have the a posteriori languages, developed on the basis of material already existing in the various ethnic tongues and intended for general spoken use. Although a few such languages already existed early in the nineteenth century, the first to attain any degree of popularity was Volapük.

The father of Volapük, Johann Martin Schleyer, was a Catholic priest in Baden. According to Schleyer's own report, (5) the idea of an international language arose out of a conversation he had with one of his parishioners, a semi-literate German peasant whose son had emigrated to America and could no longer be reached by mail because the U.S. Post Office couldn't read the father's handwriting — an unfortunate situation, given that the father needed money from the son. Schleyer conceived a novel solution to this problem, a universal alphabet suitable for all nations and climes. From there the idea, once rooted, grew, until one night God spoke to Schleyer in a dream and suggested that he brew up a complete international language. Schleyer, always amenable to divine advice, proceeded to do so, and in 1880 he published his project, which immediately received international acclaim.

Volapük societies sprang up all over Europe, then quickly spread to North and South America and even some parts of Asia. The international language, it seemed in that more innocent age, was an idea whose time had come. Within a very few years, Volapük boasted well over a hundred thousand adherents — a figure that it would later take Esperanto decades to attain. The question of how many of Volapük's adherents actually spoke the language remains unanswered.

The first world congress of Volapük was held in Germany in 1884, the second in 1887, the third in 1889. At the first two congresses, business was carried on in German, the language of most of the participants. This may have been a good thing; at the third congress, business was carried on in Volapük, and it was then that the Volapük movement received its death blow.

The forces that shattered the Volapük movement were both linguistic and social in nature; language, after all, does not function in a vacuum. A quick look at them may be instructive, and help us understand the development and fate of later constructed languages, not least of Esperanto.

Volapük was a language with a heavily rationalized grammar and word-formation system; in many ways it was a structural precursor of Esperanto. Volapük's morphology was agglutinative, much like that of Esperanto. New words were formed either by the addition of affixes, or by the agglutination of smaller words — again, much like Esperanto. But similar as the two systems were in concept, in function they were quite different. Where Zamenhof's view of the international language was streamlined, Schleyer's was, to say the least, baroque.

As a single, simple example: there was only one noun declension in Volapük , but four cases indicated by different terminal morphemes — only one fewer than Latin. English and Esperanto each have only two such cases, the English genitive or possessive and the Esperanto accusative. Example:

              vol   =  world          vols   =  worlds
              vola  =  world's        volas  =  worlds'
              vole  =  to the world   voles  =  to the worlds
              voli  =  world (acc.)   volis  =  worlds (acc.)

You might want to note, however, that these case and number endings are obviously agglutinative rather than inflected. What this means is that each part of the ending's meaning is changed by changing only the corresponding part of the ending, not by having to change the entire ending as in Latin — or, for instance, in modern Spanish, German, or French. Esperanto was to use a similar system — but considerably simplified.

Verbs in Volapük are even more complex. There is only one conjugation, but that one is a real bear, containing agglutinable endings for person, tense, mood and voice; one authority calculated that Volapük had several hundred thousand different verb forms — more verb forms than speakers! English has only a few regular verb forms — though these must be augmented by some three hundred strong and irregular verbs — and Esperanto has only six verb endings and no irregularities.

Yet the most common criticism of Volapük — and, I must add in all fairness, from a global perspective the least important — arose from Schleyer's insistence upon deforming standard European roots to make them fit his rather unlikely phonology. It may be hard for the English-speaking reader to recognize that the very name "Volapük" comes from English, but in fact this is the case — vol comes from "world," and pük from "speech." This criticism is valid only if the constructed language in question is meant to serve as an auxiliary to one or a group of already extant languages, not as an autonomous language in its own right — something not true of either Volapük or Esperanto. Nonetheless, with many people this criticism bears much weight.

Within the Volapük movement there developed a desire for reforms to simplify the language's relatively complex (though not necessarily complicated) grammar and bring its lexicon more into line with Western European practice — a desire that we shall see expressed elsewhere, later on. The leader of the reform faction was a French professor, Auguste Kerckhoffs, who at the second Volapük congress was elected to head the Volapük Academy. Friction immediately developed between Kerckhoffs and Schleyer, since the latter perceived himself as the fount from which all wisdom about Volapük must flow. By the time of the third congress, affairs had reached the status of open warfare. Kerckhoffs, formerly Director of the Academy (equivalent of chief of government), was elected its President (head of state), a slap in the face to Schleyer. The autocratic Schleyer refused to recognize the Academy's authority, and within a few short acrimonious years the whole movement collapsed, with most of its members converting either to Esperanto or to other constructed languages.(6) By the turn of the century, Volapük had all but disappeared. An attempt to reform Volapük by Dutch doctor Arie de Jong in the early 1930s had the effect of creating a new standard version of the language, but the parallel attempt to revive the Volapük movement was unsuccessful, partly due to the onset of World War II. Large (7) quotes the survival of one Volapükist periodical until 1960; but Bernard Golden,(8) in trying to hunt up speakers of Volapük for the language's centennial in 1980, found only ten — all of them also speakers of Esperanto who had apparently learned Volapük only out of linguistic curiosity. (50) Still, rumors persist that a small Volapük movement endures in Europe to this day, its members awaiting a sign from on high to become active once again in the interlinguistic field.(9) The Wikipedia article on Volapük reports 25-30 speakers extant, though a YahooGroups mailing list for Volapük aficionados reports more than 100 subscribers.

If modern constructed-language aficionados reject Volapük as being complex and unhandy, it should not be considered that they similarly reject what Schleyer did for the international language movement. In a sense, he created legitimacy where none had previously existed. In his essay Esenco kaj Estonteco ("Essence and Future [of the International Language]"), and in several public speeches, Zamenhof explicitly emphasized the debt the international language movement as a whole owed to Schleyer, and at one point he even encouraged an Esperanto Congress to send a telegram of congratulations to the creator of Volapük on the occasion of his birthday.

Addendum 2003.02.08: The Volapük movement "appears to have been given a new lease on life by the internet". This is an expression that outsiders, myself included, seem to use regularly to describe the effect of the internet on every planned language, including the (prior to the internet) quite healthy Esperanto. In practice, this should be interpreted as meaning that, for these smaller and far less successful planned languages, the internet has given them the opportunity to demonstrate at least the tenacity of their supporting movements, to the extent that such exist.

Totally aside from the internet, in the past few years a movement (spearheaded by Esperanto speakers — what else would you expect?) has arisen in Germany to beatify Johann Martin Schleyer, the creator of Volapük.


Unlike Father Schleyer, who created Volapük because God told him to do so, Lazar Markovitch Zamenhof had far more personal reasons for creating an international language; he believed, not that an international language would be sufficient to turn the world into a utopia, but that it would be necessary to make it a tolerable place in which to live.

Even Zamenhof's name shows the difficulty of the conditions under which he had to live. I have called him "Lazar Markovitch" above, and this is in accord with the name his parents intended for him; but the laws of his native country, In Imperial Russia, the practice was to add a Christian name as well, even though his family was Jewish. Consequently, the name "Ludovic" was added to his birth certificate, and he became known outside the Jewish community as Ludovic Lazar Zamenhof. Early Western reports about his work invariably referred to him by this "Christian" name, or Westernized variants — Ludwig, Louis, even Lewis.

Zamenhof, by whatever name, was born and spent his early years in the city of Bialystok, in what is now Eastern Poland and was then part of the Russian Empire. The population of the city was half Jewish, the rest being Russians, Poles, Lithuanians and Germans.(10) The mutual distrust and hatred between the various ethnic groups, much of which he attributed to language differences, deeply impressed the young Zamenhof, and it was at this time that he resolved to initiate an international language. Later life in almost equally polyglot Warsaw only intensified his enthusiasm.

Much has been written about Zamenhof's early life, and about his work on Esperanto. Unfortunately, the only authoritative source is Zamenhof's own letter to Borovko, written (in Russian) long after the fact. Zamenhof himself does not mention certain events which have become part of the mythology of Esperanto; for instance, his father's destruction of his papers may well be a product of Edmond Privat's fertile imagination.(11)

What we do know for sure is that a version of the language, apparently as well-developed as Volapük, already existed at the time of Zamenhof's nineteenth birthday party in December, 1878 — before Schleyer had even conceived the idea of Volapük! We know that Zamenhof was not satisfied with the shape of the language, and spent what free time he had during the next few years, as a medical student at Moscow University and later back in Warsaw, polishing and reworking the language, largely through practical use in translating from the two or three ethnic languages that he knew well. We know that the language, as it existed in 1881, was considerably different from Classical Esperanto as we know it today, at first glance even more so than the prototype version of 1878. We know that the language had taken on what was essentially its present form by 1885, and that Zamenhof's next two years were spent in trying to find a publisher. And we know that after his marriage to Klara Zilbernik in 1887 she used part of her dowry to help him publish the first Esperanto textbook (in Russian) in July of 1887.

The history of Esperanto, from that takeoff point, deserves at least a chapter or two all to itself. Leon Courtinat dedicates three volumes to it, but I am not so ambitious. In the context of this chapter I only want to touch upon its general relationship with other constructed languages, from 1887 until the time, in the early nineteen-fifties, that the movement to construct an international language began to languish, at least temporarily.

By the early 1890's the same sort of sociolinguistic forces that had already broken the back of the Volapük movement were beginning to develop in the budding Esperanto movement. One of the main reformists, a German surveyor named Wilhelm Heinrich Trompeter, was at that time the chief financial support of what was then the only Esperanto magazine, La Esperantisto. As a sop to him and the other reformists, in 1894 Zamenhof actually proposed a reform project of his own, made up of suggestions offered by the reformists. The result was a heavily-Europeanized variant of Esperanto that attempted to satisfy all the reformists and therefore bore little similarity to Classical Esperanto. This patchwork, in my opinion, could not have emerged fortuitously from the same brilliant mind that produced Classical Esperanto, and I suspect that Zamenhof deliberately created as unacceptable a reform project as he could manage, for the express purpose of killing off the reform movement. The tactic was at least temporarily successful; this reform, and any others, were overwhelmingly rejected by the five hundred readers of the magazine — except for a few local groups, the only organized body of Esperantists in the world. The reform movement was put to rest, a figurative stake through its heart; but, like a comic-book Dracula, it would reappear some thirteen years later in even more virulent form. Following the plebiscite, Trompeter, as expected, withdrew his support from the magazine, which was to disappear shortly in any case because of political considerations which I'll go into in another chapter.


Around the year 1900, Esperanto, which had been gradually making progress in such out-of-the-way corners of the world as Russia, Germany and Sweden, was brought to the Civilized West by a group of French intellectuals, and during the next five years made significant headway in France and Britain. But not everyone west of the Elbe was pleased with the structure, phonology, and vocabulary of Esperanto. The supersigned letters, the many Germanic and occasional Slavic words, the agglutinative morphology, the Slavic syntax, all these seemed to some leading Western adherents of Esperanto a deviation from the world's linguistic norms — French and English. This basic theme — that The Way We Do Things Is The One And Only Right Way — would be reiterated over and over again, ad tedium, in the international language movement during the next half century.

In 1900 the renowned French mathematician Louis Couturat, with the help of his inseparable amanuensis Leopold Leau, undertook an ambitious program to convince a number of major international organizations that they should give their support to an international Delegation for the Adoption of an International Language. Couturat himself was apparently "an Esperantist," but I hope that I may be forgiven for supposing that his Esperantism was at best epidermal; his correspondence with Zamenhof seems to have been exclusively in French. Nonetheless, to gain support for his plan from the already very large French Esperanto movement, he basically promised them that such a committee could not help but put its imprimatur upon Zamenhof's language.

Over the next few years, in spite of massive help from the French Esperantists in recruiting organizations to his Delegation (it ultimately contained several hundred companies and associations), such support was not forthcoming; in May, 1907, the association of international organizations upon which Couturat called to make the selection rejected the request. Undaunted by this failure, Couturat went ahead with plans to establish a Committee within the framework of his Delegation, ignoring objections by Zamenhof (and others) that such a committee, without authoritative backing, would be a aughingstock. The Delegation Committee met in Paris in October, 1907.

Esperantists on the Committee might be forgiven for being confused by its activities. Although Couturat had all but guaranteed that Esperanto would be the language selected, he seemed determined to bury it in a flood of strange artificial tongues with stranger names — Balta, Bolak, Bopal, Dil, Orba, Spelin, etc., etc., etc. There were rules of procedure, but these were often selectively flouted or ignored. Zamenhof, for instance, was not allowed by the rules to present his own "project," but had to be represented by the chief French Esperantist, the ultra-conservative Marquis Louis de Beaufront who could be counted on to support Esperanto to the death; but the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano, the creator of a competing planned language Latino sine Flexione — later known as Interlingua (but not to be confused with the Interlingua discussed below) — was invited to be a member of the Committee itself.

The resulting comedy is best described in the words of the chief Esperanto speaker in the Committee, in his report to the 1908 World Esperanto Congress in Cambridge.

Most Esperantists felt betrayed, and they were no happier when Couturat quickly delivered an ultimatum to the Language Committee, demanding acceptance of Ido's reforms and insisting on a reply within a month. In a world without transoceanic aircraft or wireless electronic communications, an organization that already had members as far away as the Americas might be forgiven for considering this an unreasonably short time. Negotiations between the Esperantists and the reformers, henceforth to be known as Idists, proponents of a separate language known as Ido, broke down in short order.

A number of leading Esperantists, particularly in the French contingent, actually did go over to Ido, but a vast majority of those who had learned Esperanto simply to be able to use it did not — which led to a comment, popular at the time even outside the international language movement, that the Esperantists were an army without generals and the Idists were generals without an army. Relations became even more strained when Couturat, by accidentally switching a couple of letters, revealed to the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, a leading proponent of Ido but not part of the francophone conspiracy that had created it, that it was De Beaufront, presumably with the knowledge of Couturat, who had invented Ido. Jespersen, an honest man, insisted that Couturat reveal all details of the conspiracy to the world, under threat of losing his support for the "reforms." Since Jespersen was essential to the progress of Ido — he was one of only two linguists in the committee, and the only one who ultimately supported Ido (51) — Couturat finally 'fessed up.

More recent evidence suggests that "Ido" was a cooperative venture between a group of French-speaking reformists, including De Beaufront (who, it later turned out, was not a Marquis — but that's another story!), Couturat, a Belgian Esperantist named Lemaire, and another French Esperantist named Michaux. This was not their first attempt at instituting reforms; the story of how Zamenhof, the poverty-stricken Jewish oculist, refused a bribe of 250,000 francs, offered secretly by Lemaire and Zamenhof's close friend Emil Javal in return for his support for reforms, is not just a part of Esperanto mythology, but is documented by Lemaire himself.(13)

Ido had a number of things going for it, not least the use of Jespersen, who was internationally respected, as a front man, and financing from Wilhelm Ostwald's Nobel Prize for Chemistry. But Ido, just as Volapük and Esperanto before it, suffered from problems that the mathematician and logician Louis Couturat had not anticipated, that he did not understand, and for which he had made no provision.

"Reformomania" is an addictive disease. Once the precedent had been set, there was no dearth of Idists willing to make their perfect international language yet more perfect. At times, Ido seemed to be in a constant state of flux, one modification replacing another with lightning speed, so that the language you learned one day might not be quite the same as the language you were expected to speak on the next. This is not surprising, given that there is no evidence that the language, as an independent entity, every went through the same sort of "beta testing" that Zamenhof had visited upon Esperanto before going public. Eventually, a "period of stability" was declared; one joker suggested that during this period reforms were permitted only every other day. (52)

Even though Couturat, the motor of the Ido movement, died in an auto accident in 1914, the movement itself went on by momentum well into the 1920's. A rump Ido movement exists even today. In 1988 I was given a copy of 1987 issue #2 of Ido Vivo, the 24-page typed and xeroxed official organ of the International Language (Ido) Society of Great Britain; there was no indication of how often it appeared. Three other magazines were mentioned: Progreso (the main Ido organ) and Nia Torcho, both of which appear once every four months; and Komuniki, whose first issue appeared in April, 1987. There is some discussion about correcting the numerous "errors" (a possible reference to linguistic dissension among the remaining Idists?) that apparently disfigure the pages of Progreso; and there is also some discussion of changing the name of Ido to something more like "Esperanto" (Esperido is proposed). This question is not new; the original name of the language was intended to be Esperanto Reformita ("Reformed Esperanto") or Esperanto Plisimpligita ("Simplified Esperanto"), and Andrew Large reports Louis Couturat's complaint to Bertrand Russell that such scum as Esperantists should have a monopoly on such a euphonious word as "Esperantist," and why couldn't Idists have something as nice? (Russell's suggestion of the term "Idiot" was apparently not well received.)(14)

There is also a long letter from Russia, describing Ido's obvious superiority over Esperanto; but the letter was originally written in Esperanto, and had to be translated into Ido for publication. This reminds me of the letter that once appeared in (the now defunct) Revista di Interlingua from a minor Polish Esperantist poet (Eugeniusz Matkowski), who praised Interlingua to the skies and lauded its apparent superiority over Esperanto — and then, at the end of this letter written (and printed) in Esperanto, plaintively asked for replies in Esperanto, as he knew no other language but his own. The proof of the pudding, gentlemen!

The surface differences between Ido and Esperanto are relatively minor. It is often said — correctly — that a person who can read one language can read the other. But the structural differences are major. Ido, like French and English, is a language with a relatively strict word-order; Esperanto is not. Esperanto has added some extra letters to ensure that it is phonetic; Ido uses only the standard twenty-six, and is not. Esperanto has an agglutinative word-formation system that allows easy creation of new words; Ido has a complex word-derivation system that does not.

Perhaps the best empirical demonstration of the difference comes from a study done at Columbia University in the 1920s, under the auspices of the International Auxiliary Language Association (whose name will appear later in this chapter). Two groups of students were asked to learn corresponding sets of words from Ido and Esperanto. The next day they were tested on their knowledge. The two groups did equally well in terms of passive recognition, but when it came to active knowledge — the ability to write the words down when given their English equivalents — the Esperanto group did about twice as well, to the surprise of the experimenter, whose own prejudices (as he admitted in his report) told him that the Ido group would do better, their set of words being more "natural".

The Ido schism was catastrophic for the international language movement as a whole; among those outsiders who had already begun to accept the idea of a constructed international language, it cast doubt on the whole matter. But it was far from being an unmitigated catastrophe for the Esperanto movement; it served as a safety valve for drawing off the most vociferous forces in favor of "reforms." Henceforth linguistic dissension within the Esperanto movement, although at times relatively acerbic, would restrain itself well short of the level needed to provoke another schism.

The proponents of Ido, on the other hand, having already shown their interest in reforms, were certain to be fertile ground for recruitment for the next major language project to come along.

Postnote 2001:

The era of the internet may or may not have given Ido a new, though very tenuous, lease on life (for the meaning of this expression, see above). Books in or, more often, about Ido continued to be published through the 1990s, numbering perhaps a dozen in that decade, about as many as were published in the 1970s before a slump in the 1980s (the record decade appears to have been the twenties, with perhaps half a hundred books in or about Ido published). In addition, as of 2001 one web page ( lists some six Ido serials currently in publication: El Correo Idista of the Spanish Idist Society; Ido-Saluto, published in Germany; Ido-Vivo of the International Language Society of Great Brittain [sic!]; La Kordiego Geyal, aimed at gay and lesbian Ido speakers; Letro Internaciona, a magazine of various non-linguistic topics; and the unkillable Progreso. There are several Ido mailing lists, of which one has more than two hundred subscribers.


The next major language project to come along appeared shortly after the Great War. The inventor was an Estonian with the un-Estonian name Edgar von Wahl (later de Wahl; confused by this, I will simply refer to him as "Wahl"). Wahl had been interested in language projects for many years, and had in fact been one of the first to learn Esperanto, to the point at which he became the proponent of the only modification to the language's structure that Zamenhof found worthy of adoption after publication of the First Book. But he found Esperanto unsatisfactory in many ways; it simply was not Western enough for him. He left Esperanto early, and experimented with a number of "naturalistic" projects before, in the 1920's, emerging with his own, a language with the appropriately Western name Occidental.

"Naturalistic" is a term that is widely used (and even more widely misused) in the movement for a constructed international language. It is generally used to refer to a posteriori languages which attempt to reproduce, although in a somewhat rationalized way, (South)Western Indo-European linguistic norms. A rationalized variant of Japanese, to the contrary, would not be considered "naturalistic." Most of this century's constructed languages have been "naturalistic" in this sense, for reasons about which I will theorize in the conclusion to this chapter. The best known examples are Occidental and Interlingua, which is discussed below. Languages such as Esperanto (and, to a lesser extent, Ido), whose structures are rationalized beyond similarity to the European languages, are referred to as "schematic."

Occidental was developed by Wahl on the basis of an earlier project, Julius Lott's Mundo-Lingue. The language itself, although heavily rationalized, resembled an ethnic Romance language far more than any of its predecessors, and a linguist unfamiliar with it might be forgiven for assuming it to be a minor Romance dialect that had grown up after the collapse of Rome, somewhere in the Northwestern reaches of the former Empire — Northwestern because of the number of German and Scandinavian words incorporated into the language.

Occidental, like Ido, sacrificed phoneticity, but it did restore supersigns — if only to show stress-location on words which were stress-irregular. The derivational system, in an effort to reproduce words of the Romance Languages, was consciously analytical; that is, four or five affixes might have the same meaning, and which one was to be applied in any particular case was etymologically, not logically, decided. So while the person familiar with several Romance languages might find it easy to recognize a particular derived word, it was impossible for him to derive new words on his own; he must depend on the dictionary.

It should be added, in all fairness to Wahl's work, that the set of rules he developed for analyzing any derived word was simply brilliant. These rules deserve the attention of any student of any of the Romance languages, starting with Latin, inasmuch as they seem to be generally applicable to that family of languages. The problem, of course, as far as an autonomous language is concerned, was that they permitted analysis of a compound Occidental word, but — because of the multiplicity of affixes — not synthesis.

But perhaps the worst thing about Wahl's language was the apparent philosophy of those who supported it. Wahl and his disciples were interested in the West, and to him the rest of the world was unimportant; it was doomed, or destined, to play, not merely a minor role, but no role at all. Civilization was a European phenomenon; only Europeans could be interested in international communication (plus those few Asians — Africans may not have entered into his world-view at all — who would consciously adopt the trappings of the West: seersucker suits, neckties, Catholicism and a Romance language), and so an international language should be intended only for Europeans. (41) More specifically: Western Europeans; Wahl's followers, like many Westerners of his day, generally expressed a cordial detestation for things Slavic, and this may have been the Estonian Wahl's attitude, as well.

In an era when Italy was dumping mustard gas on Galla warriors armed only with spears, and German crowds were screaming their delight as Adolf Hitler pumped out his anti-Semitic nonsense, it was to be expected that such a philosophy would strike a chord. One Occidentalist author, writing in the magazine Cosmoglotta in 1936, greeted the Nazi ban on the teaching of Esperanto in Germany as proof that there was something wrong not with Naziism but with Esperanto. In fact, it is a surprising, and perhaps hopeful, sign that the Esperanto movement in Western Europe was never even remotely threatened by the Occidental movement. (53)

Occidental survived the World War, and endured in straitened circumstances into the 1950's; but eventually it disappeared, its remaining adherents attracted away by yet another variant of reforms. In 1985 Occidental's last periodical, Cosmoglotta, ceased publication, and its editor, Mr. Adrian Pilgrim, is quoted as having described Occidental as a "dead language." (40)

Basic English

Basic English is something of a deviation from our general discussion, as it was a deviation from the general development of constructed languages. Published in 1930 by C.K. Ogden, Basic claimed to be English reduced to a vocabulary of 850 words, yet still suitable for uses in commerce, science, and the arts.

Over its relatively short lifetime, Basic gained support from a number of famous English speakers such as Winston Churchill, whose enthusiasm may later have waned somewhat when he was told that "Blood, toil, tears and sweat" translates into Basic as "Blood, hard work, eyewash and body water" — the last term, of course, being somewhat ambiguous. But Basic never succeeded as a language in its own right, except in science-fiction novels, such as H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, which predicts its eventual success, or H. Beam Piper's A Planet for Texans, which offers an entire courtroom scene in Basic. Its claims were exaggerated; far more than 850 words turned out to be necessary for any reasonable form of communication, and even among the 850 words many special expressions (e.g. phrasal verbs) had to be separately learned. Furthermore, many people saw Basic English as a Trojan Horse for Standard English. The event proved them right; in the postwar era, the British Council, an organization devoted to the promulgation of English around the world, purchased the rights to Basic English, and since that time it has been used primarily as an introduction to standard — i.e., British — English for foreigners.

It should be mentioned that Basic English had not only proponents but opponents among famous English-speakers. It was long assumed that George Orwell based the mind-controlling language Newspeak in his novel 1984 on Esperanto — Orwell, it happens, was closely acquainted with Esperanto and had what he considered good reasons — personal, not linguistic — to dislike the language (15); but a radio report in the early 1980's indicated that recently discovered papers proved that Newspeak had, in fact, been a satire on Basic English, which Orwell considered far more of a crime against the English language than Esperanto.

There have been a certain number of other "simplified" ethnic languages proposed as international languages as well; e.g., Basic Spanish. The Nazis apparently intended a sort of "Basic German" to be the international language of a postwar united Aryan Europe.(16) There were also various constructed tongues aimed at the speakers of particular groupings of languages; e.g. pan-Teutonic, pan-Slavic, pan-Celtic. I have ignored these in this chapter, though an objective observer might insist that "naturalistic" languages such as Occidental and Interlingua belong to this group in the "pan-Romance" category.

The Basic English legacy also lives, at least in spirit, in the English-speaking world, with such "limited" or "controlled" Englishes as those used in international civil aviation and by Voice of America.


Novial, which was the brainchild of famous Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, mentioned earlier as an important supporter of Ido, is invariably mentioned in books about constructed languages. I am not sure why. It was a language of the same general type as Occidental, but less well known and perhaps a bit more schematic, at least prior to later evolution in the direction of Occidental. Jespersen created it, I believe, as an attempted compromise between the schematic languages (Esperanto and Ido) on the one hand and the "naturalistic" languages (Occidental) on the other. As far as I know, few people ever spoke it, and the only movement backing it was Jespersen himself. Its author modified it several times before it disappeared into the landfill of linguistic history. Its main impact on the history of constructed languages is that it served to decimate the Ido movement when it appeared in the late twenties by attracting away a substantial minority, or possibly a majority, of the earlier language's proponents.

Commenting on the above, James Chandler (39) notes:

You say [Novial] never had a movement, then you say that it took perhaps more than half the Ido movement with it when it was published. How can both be true? I believe that a few of the top Idists did go over to Novial, and also some Occidentalists. But I doubt that as many as half the Idists went over. The Ido journal Mondo (editor: Per Ahlberg) was renamed Novialiste from 1934, and served as the official Novial journal and organ of linguistic discussion, of which there was much. A Lingue-Jurie Novialisti was formed in 1937, and made some reforms. I am sure that Novial did have enough support during 1928-1939 that we can say it had a movement. But, unlike Ido, Novial was it seems killed off by WW2. Jespersen's death in 1943 may also have contributed to its demise.

This is a valid criticism, and I might better have said that Novial virtually never had a supporting movement. While it took strength from the Ido movement (e.g. Chandler's comment on the magazine Mondo and its editor), the Ido movement by that time had already been greatly sapped by Occidental, and it would seem that the individuals who went over to Novial lacked either the numbers or the enthusiasm to constitute a movement. The disappearance of Novial can indeed be attributed largely to Jespersen's death; note that no planned language with a functioning movement at the beginning of the second world war disappeared on account of the war, as witness the rump Ido movement itself. That Novial could not survive its creator indicates that it had no functioning support movement.

As of early 1997 a few individuals on the internet were engaged in attempting to revive Novial; the title of this section is linked to the Web page of one of them (last updated five years ago as of this note, however). As is usually the case in such attempts, the would-be revivers were also attempting to modify the language to clean up what they consider to be the errors made by the original creator. By 2001 this attempt seems to be in abeyance.

Interglossa and Glosa

One interesting constructed language of this period was Interglossa. Interglossa was created by Prof. Lancelot Hogben of Great Britain, who is best remembered in the United States for such works of scientific popularization as Mathematics for the Millions and Science for the Citizen.

Hogben attempted to fuse two completely distinct linguistic traditions by creating a tongue whose vocabulary consisted entirely of roots from Greek — presumably a part of the common linguistic heritage of the west — but whose grammar was syntactically borrowed almost en bloc from Chinese.(17) Very few people followed up on this invention, possibly because it appeared during World War II, and the language fell into desuetude for a quarter of a century. Then, in 1972, it was given a second chance when Ronald Clark in England discovered the language, decided that with some slight modifications it could be turned into the perfect international language, and — after obtaining permission from Hogben, and with the help of a second English enthusiast, Wendy Ashby — began to modify the language, renaming it Glosa. By 1985, Andrew Large felt justified in devoting several pages of his book to Glosa (18); and in 1992, thanks largely to comments by one British Member of Parliament, the language had become fairly well-known in England, at least by name. (19) But it remains almost totally unknown elsewhere in the world, and there remains some question as to how many people actually speak it. (20)


The International Auxiliary Language Association was founded in 1924 by Mrs. Alice Vanderbilt Morris, wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium and member of the Vanderbilt family. During its early years it did much useful work in the study of the language problem; the experiment at Columbia, referred to earlier, was carried out under IALA auspices. IALA also sponsored a number of conferences in the 1930's; their main purpose was to try to reach some sort of compromise among the proponents of the various language projects. Compromise, however, was unattainable; the "naturalists" were unwilling to accept further "artificial" elements into their languages, and the Esperantists — who were the vast majority of all proponents of an artificial international language — saw no value in compromising with competitors who were no threat. In the absence of such a compromise, IALA set out to resolve the situation by building its own language. (45)

I don't know how much of IALA's work was the result of dispassionate scientific research, and how much of it developed out of the organization's internal politics. IALA appears to have been a primarily American organization, founded by Americans, incorporated in New York, and with a long sequence of strictly American presidents, (43) and several of its early Directors were speakers of Esperanto; (44) this was during the period when compromise was its goal. But when World War II broke out, the organization was completely centered in New York. This was when it started to work on its own language. Preliminary work was done under the directorship of the French linguist André Martinet; but most of the substantial linguistic development was carried out in the late 1940's by an Americanized German linguist, Dr. Alexander Gode.

Dr. Gode made no bones about the fact that, despite the name of the organization paying his salary, he personally did not even subscribe to the concept of an international language. Gode, in fact, once stated that he referred to proponents of his Interlingua as an international language as "Esperantists," because their world-view more closely resembled that of the Esperantists than it did his own. (21) Gode always insisted that his purpose was to produce a definitive Standard Average European vocabulary, based on the common word-stock of the European (i.e. Romance) languages. When Interlingua was finally published, in 1951, that was essentially what it was — a pan-Romance vocabulary with a minimal grammar and an only vaguely defined phonology and syntax.

Gode must have been a bit rushed at the end. IALA's Maecenas of several decades, Mrs. Morris, died at about that time, and it was made evident to IALA that no more money would be forthcoming; it is quite possible that she was not totally pleased at the direction the organization was taking. (46) IALA folded, and Gode had to get into print quickly or lose his project.

Interlingua had a ready-made constituency. Almost thirty years had passed since the creation of Occidental, whose strength in the "naturalistic" world had prevented other "naturalistic" projects from developing their own movements. But Occidental's star had waned since the war. Now, like a bolt from the blue, came this heaven-sent gift: a new constructed language even more "naturalistic" than Occidental. In spite of attempts by diehard supporters of Occidental to stave off the inevitable — for instance, by such tactics as renaming their language Interlingue — most remaining Occidentalists made the short pilgrimage to the shrine of Interlingua.

Interlingua is an even more restricted and restrictive language than Occidental. Its only concession to non-Romance languages is a nod in the direction of English; the other Germanic languages are ignored, as are the Slavic languages. Where Wahl attempted to establish a logical, though strictly analytical, system of word-derivation, Interlingua's is neither; every word must be learned anew. Interlingua has three verb conjugations, and it reintroduces one of the banes of Latin students, the double-stem verb. (22) Gode made few, if any, concessions to rationality in this regard; irregularities are permissible if they can be justified etymologically.

All this is understandable once we recognize that Gode was trying to produce, not an international language, but a language that was intended for strictly passive use by people who already spoke one or more Romance languages. This is emphasized through much of the language's grammar. How do you pronounce the letter "c" in Interlingua? "As you would in your own language." What about certain syntactical usages? "As in Spanish or French." Nowhere is it suggested that Interlingua is intended to be an autonomous language such as Volapük, or Esperanto, or Ido, or even Occidental. It is a crutch-language — intended to solve part of the language problem for certain selected people under certain selected conditions, but nowhere granted the breadth of action that belong to Esperanto and, potentially, to Ido or Occidental.

Interlingua gained much publicity but relatively few adherents in the United States and Western Europe during the fifties and sixties. The Science News Service, which used to put out Science Newsletter, acquired Gode's services and the rights to his and Hugh Blair's reference work on Interlingua's grammar (49) shortly after IALA folded, and published a short monthly column in the language until Gode's death. The only Interlingua magazine I myself ever saw — although, as with Ido, several may still exist (54) — was Revista di Interlingua, which used to come to the ELNA office, and which apparently died with its publisher, Swiss former Esperantist-former Idist-former Occidentalist Ric Berger. As with Ido, a rump Interlingua movement still exists today — a Union Mundial pro Interlingua operates out of the Netherlands, and an international Interlingua conference is held biennially and generally attracts on the order of 50 participants — but publicity for the language seems to have dried up, though I am assured by a Swedish Interlingua proponent that the language is still going strong,(23) and activity in several internet mailing lists indicate that it is certainly not dead, though the last Executive Director of the recently liquidated Interlingua Institute, described as "the successor organization to IALA," suggests that it is indeed dead: "There was no need (and no use) ever for the 'international' languages of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and today, with the unparalleled ascendency of English, there is no longer any need for Interlingua" (47) and "Interlingua, the only interlanguage every [sic] adopted for use in the sciences, survived little more than a quarter of a century, and there is no reason to believe that it could now be revived." (48).

Loglan and Lojban

In the late fifties a constructed language somewhat out of the mainstream, as we have described it, appeared: James Cooke Brown's Loglan. Loglan is a language that in many ways harks back to the older a priori languages, not to the "naturalistic" projects that have characterized language construction in this century. Unlike the other languages discussed here, Loglan does not appear to have been originally intended as an international language, although some of its proponents have touted it as such throughout its lifetime, not excepting, recently, its inventor. Its original purpose seems to have been to test the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, codified by linguist Benjamin Whorf, in its most extreme and simplistic form states that human behavior is determined by the structure and lexicon of the language in which the person in question actually thinks. To illustrate: a person whose language contains no word for falsehood cannot tell a lie; he cannot even understand the concept. The idea has been a popular one for many years, especially with science-fiction authors; it formed the basis of Jack Vance's excellent science-fantasy The Languages of Pao.

Loglan might actually be a good language with which to test this hypothesis; it differs considerably from those languages with which we are all familiar. Originally, it was created as a shake-and-bake tongue, mixing the vocabularies of the five most spoken languages in the world (Chinese, English, Hindi, Russian, Spanish); the resulting construct was interesting. It was not, however, particularly fruitful; no actual test of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis using Loglan was ever carried out, for reasons given below. Furthermore, most modern linguists deny the validity of Sapir-Whorf, and would probably be unwilling to fund a major test of the hypothesis. Fortunately for Dr. Brown and his successors, his solution looking for a problem encountered a problem looking for a solution: the international language problem.

A minor Loglan movement, encouraged by a widely read article about the language (24), developed in the sixties and, to some degree, persists even today. But the language has two major problems.

First of all, Loglan is so complex that it is unlikely that it will ever be viable as a spoken language. Since a valid test of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis would involve raising a child, or children, in a strictly Loglan-speaking environment, at least a few Loglan speakers able to handle the language as easily as they speak their own native languages are a necessity; but to my knowledge the language has never actually been used for free-wheeling conversation by anyone, including the inventor. A friend of mine once asked Dr. Brown about this; he is reported to have replied, proudly, that "we once sustained conversation in Loglan for fifteen minutes." (25) The author of the language, scarcely more optimistic, himself writes: "In 1977-1978 the competence of four early (sic) speakers was attested by their ability to sustain daily conversation in Loglan unaided by English for 45-minute periods over intervals from two weeks to 30 days. ... At least two other competent speakers, one self-taught, the other taught by one of the original set, have since been identified; and an unknown number of users have taught the language to themselves." (37) This achievement is somewhat muted, however, by the recognition that "because of the low geographic density of the loglaphone population, no true speech-communities have formed; so there are still no fluent speakers of the language," (38) though the experience of at least Esperanto would tend to show that the lack of a geographically oriented speech community will not hinder the development of fluency in an easily learnable language.

Secondly, despite a complete lack of speakers, the Loglan movement has already undergone schism, and for much the same reasons as the Volapük movement in its time. Dr. Brown claimed copyright authority over the language; a splinter group in Fairfax, Virginia, developed its own version of the language, called Lojban. Both groups have published newsletters, which at last report appeared almost completely in English. That of Dr. Brown's Loglan Institute in Gainesville, Florida, is relatively professional in appearance, but not too thick and generally representative only of his own viewpoint; that of Mr. Bob LeChevalier in Fairfax is massive, rather amateurish in appearance, represents several different viewpoints (including that of the Esperantists), and usually contains pleas for funding. The conclusion of a long legal battle over the right of the Fairfax group to use the name "Loglan" — the result was favorable to the Lojbanists — has not, it seems, resulted in any change of name of this latter language, since it now appears to be better known and advertised than the original.


In the early 1960's Floyd and Evelyn Hardin of Colorado put out a very interesting mimeographed magazine, The International Language Review, which was intended as a forum for proponents of the various international language projects. This was really where I had my first introduction to Ido, Occidental and Interlingua, all of which were well-represented there — better, in fact, than Esperanto, whose proponents deigned to be represented on its pages only occasionally, and usually in English (for the benefit of the magazine's almost exclusively English-speaking clientele) rather than in Esperanto. I remember that magazine with very great pleasure, and every now and then I almost go out into my garage to try to dig up back issues out of old, dust-covered boxes. Almost.

I mention this because the magazine was, as far as I can tell, instrumental in introducing a new language, and began to show a certain partisanship in its favor. This was Neo, invented by a Mr. Arturo Alfandari of Belgium.

Neo was born full-blown, complete with beautiful little dictionaries, grammars and readers bound in red plastic. Mr. Alfandari and the Hardins founded an organization, Friends of Neo, and it looked for a while as though Neo might be a major competitor to the declining Interlingua, if not to Esperanto.

But Mr. Alfandari died, and Neo died with him. Rumor has it that all those beautiful plastic-bound dictionaries, grammars and readers rotted away in a warehouse somewhere in Belgium. For which I am genuinely sorry — for all his work and expense, and for his dream, Mr. Alfandari deserves a better monument than that. I mention him here only to make sure that he and his dream are remembered for just a little bit longer.

And, in a sense, Mr. Alfandari's fate, and that of Neo, is really symbolic of the situation in the movement to create an international language since the early 1950's.


Despite the fact that the word "Klingon" sounds remarkably like a sometime competitor to Velcro, it would be hard to find anyone in the Western world today who would not recognize that a Klingon is a member of a race (species) of hereditary warriors — some might justifiably prefer the term "low-browed thugs" — who grace our television screens in the various Star Trek television series and movies. (32)

The Klingons first appeared, if I remember correctly, on Dec. 1, 1967, as a throwaway competitor empire in a single Star Trek episode. They seem to have struck fire, and were revived for two or three more episodes, including the instant classic "The Trouble With Tribbles". Klingons in the original Star Trek were slightly darkened humans with beards who spoke English. But by the time that the first Star Trek movie came out, twelve years later, Klingons had evolved the distinctive brow ridges that we know and love,(35) and spoke their own language, complete with subtitles.

The original Klingon language consisted of a few ad hoc words invented, it is said, by the late James Doohan (Enterprise Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott). It was a remarkably terse language, at least the dialect spoken by the Klingon navy: the single semisyllable "Chrkt!" according to the subtitles apparently meant something like "Swab the yardarm, keelhaul the mizzenmast, run out the foppish cannon, prepare for boarding, and laggards get salt beef and weevilly tack for a week!" In fact, there were no more than half a dozen or so such syllables heard in the entire movie, all in the first scene.

The Klingons did not reappear in the second movie, though Ricardo Montalban anachronistically refers to their proverbs at one point; but they were apparently quite popular, because with the third movie, in which they reappeared in the persons of Christopher Lloyd, John LaRocquette and others, Paramount had decided that they needed their very own language, and had hired linguist Marc Okrand to create one for them.

Okrand compiled a basic vocabulary for the language, later to be collected as The Klingon Dictionary, and since that time Klingons in all the Star Trek movies and TV series have had their own language.

That would not rate more of a mention in this chapter, any more than Tenctonese or Jordan's Old Tongue, except that some Trek fans seem to have actually bought into the myth that Klingon is now being used for international communication, and has a good chance of becoming an international language.

The Klingon Dictionary has sold about a quarter of a million copies to date (1995), not counting its companion tapes Conversational Klingon and Power Klingon; however, these seem to be considered more in the nature of curiosities than anything else by most of their owners. One authority is quoted as saying that "all the fluent Klingon speakers can comfortably go out to dinner together."(33). On the other hand, a satirical article in The Onion (55), which claimed that there were more speakers of Klingon than of Navajo, gave rise to the popular urban legend that there are more speakers of Klingon than of Esperanto. The Wikipedia article on Klingon claims some 7500 speakers, but this is without attribution and likely exaggerated. Annual Klingon conferences (qep'a'mey) generally attract on the order of 15-30 participants.

Klingon, intended to be a totally alien language, has a made-up vocabulary along with grammatical features taken from various earthly sources, a few of which resemble those of Esperanto to some degree. (42) Some Klingon aficionados claim that Klingon is, at least theoretically, easier to learn than Esperanto, though practice and results do not seem to bear this out. Nevertheless, there has even been a certain amount of literary output in the language (by coincidence, I heard my first example of Klingon opera while typing these lines(36)). At least two of Shakespeare's plays have been translated into Klingon by an Australian linguist, part of a presumably ongoing program inspired by a throwaway line of Christopher Plummer's in the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In 1994, a number of newspapers published stories about a project to translate the Bible into Klingon; but since that time, so I understand, the primary translators have agreed to disagree over the perennial question of whether to create new words by internal agglutination or to borrow them from Terrestrial languages. Klingon, it appears, is sadly short on words that the Prince of Peace might have used, though it would seem to be an ideal language into which to translate No Time for Sergeants. In addition, it is worth noting that one individual even tried raising a son to speak Klingon as one of his two native languages.(34)

Any enduring success of Klingon would appear to be predicated on the ongoing popularity of the Star Trek phenomenon, and what part the Klingons may or may not play in that phenomenon. Interest in Klingon waned somewhat after the termination of the Next Generation TV series. It was hoped that with the reassignment of the Klingon Worf (Michael Dorn) to the cast of Deep Space 9, and the role played by the Klingon Empire in the struggle between the Alpha Quadrant political entities and the Gamma Quadrant Dominion, interest might wax again; and one could later hope for a resurgence with introduction of a somewhat anachronistic Klingon presence in the relatively short-lived precursor series Enterprise. Nevertheless, given Klingon's lack of success as an actually spoken language to date, it is unlikely to become a serious contender for the mantle of international language.

A Personal Analysis

As I explained at the end of the last chapter, there have been at least a thousand different language projects constructed or outlined during the past two centuries. This figure is probably conservative; Mario Pei, one of the few American linguists to take an active interest in this entire field, once said that he would receive, for comment — preferably, for approval — an average of one new artifical language project per week.(26)

Of these projects, at most a few dozen have been developed in detail. Very few have gone on to generate supporting movements. Of these latter, besides Esperanto with its several million speakers, the only survivors appear to be small Ido and Interlingua movements, a handful of Volapük aficionados, and a number of supporters of Loglan or its variant Lojban who apparently do not, for the most part, speak the language. (31)

The contrast between the situation of Esperanto and that of its predecessors and erstwhile successors is striking. Why has Esperanto succeeded — given that it has succeeded, at least in maintaining its viability — when all other constructed languages have failed?

The failure of the a priori languages, from those of the Reformation period all the way down through Loglan, is easily explained. The inventors of these languages attempted to create a pattern for human thought. In doing so, they failed to reflect human thought as it is. Loglan, for instance, aims to remove all ambiguity from the language. But human beings thrive on ambiguity. A disambiguated language is not an impossibility; people write computer software in such languages every day. But human beings do not use them to communicate with each other, and never have. Mr. Bob LeChevalier's comment (27) that his variant of Loglan more closely resembles the computer language Prolog than it does such languages as C or Pascal does nothing to increase my faith in his language's eventual success.(28)

With the rise of descriptive linguistics in the 19th century came a new concept in interlinguistics: the language that tried to select and rationalize the common elements of a number of other languages. Schleyer's Volapük was not the first such language, but it was the first to catch the public imagination. But Volapük did not carry the process far enough. It took Esperanto to really streamline the rationalization procedure.

There can be no question in the mind of anyone who has actually studied Esperanto: it is a work of artistic genius. Not, as is often claimed for it, a "scientifically constructed language" — Zamenhof was a schoolboy and later an ophthalmologist, not a scientist — but a work of art. It may well be possible to improve on Esperanto, just as it might be possible to improve on the Mona Lisa; it seems impossible to create a language of the same type that is significantly superior to Esperanto. And, let's face it, most of the so-called "improvements" proposed for Esperanto, for example by the Idists, are the linguistic equivalent of drawing a mustache on La Gioconda.

It appears that, even if Zamenhof never explicitly stated this, Esperanto was constructed with the dual criteria of facility and versatility in mind. Given that in this regard Esperanto is close to being an optimal language, all subsequent language creators either had to admit the inferiority of their products to Esperanto or else base them upon quite a different set of criteria. And so we have the "naturalistic" languages of the twentieth century — those which strive to outdo each other in adherence to pan-Romance norms. Ido was the first rather hesitant move in this direction; Occidental and Interlingua marked its apogee.

In retrospect, it appears that Zamenhof's criteria were the ones with the greatest chance of success. It is no accident, I suspect, that the three languages which most clearly adhered to them were the three that generated the largest and most successful bodies of speakers.

Up to now I have spoken mainly of linguistic comparisons. At this point, most critics of Esperanto and other constructed languages stop, certain that such matters as Esperanto's N-ending or Volapük's umlauted vowels were the cause of their respective failures to be instantly accepted as The World Language. In fact, social and political factors have always played a much more important role in the evolution of constructed languages and their supporting movements. Volapük had some success because, as French gradually lost its privileged place in the international world, the time seemed ripe for the adoption of an international language. The Esperanto movement developed around not just the language but also an associated ethic, the "inner idea." (29) Many of Ido's proponents, coming as they did from the Esperanto movement, shared some of the idealism surrounding that language and injected it into the Ido movement; much of Ido's failure, on the other hand, seems to have been due to the fact that all of its leading proponents came from a rationalist society (the French intellectual élite) that was constitutionally incapable of accepting such an ethic. The latter point has also been, to a greater or a lesser degree, true of other subsequent language projects. Zamenhof's injection of this idealism into the complex of ideas surrounding his language may be what gave it the impetus it needed to survive and flourish.


Loglan and Neo are not the only constructed languages to have emerged since the early fifties; but I know little or nothing about the others. I, like most Esperantists, became convinced very early on that the future lay strictly with Esperanto, and not with any of its would-be supplanters, which, for reasons mentioned above, have never gone very far, and very likely never will. Yet I do feel sure that, from time to time, new constructed languages will appear, flourish in a small way for a short time, and then fade away again; the appearance of such new projects as Unitario, Uropi, and Eurolengo, and the recent revival of such earlier projects as Loglan, Romanid and Interglossa, suggest that this is the case. And I hope that a new generation of would-be Esperantists will take as much interest in these new irritations as I did in my time. They really are a lot of fun.


(1) Drezen, Ernst: Historio de la Mondlingvo ("History of the World Language"). Oosaka: Pirato, 1969 (3d ed.). A new edition, edited and updated by Sergei Kuznetsov, is now available from Ruthenia Press in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
(2) Janton, Pierre: Esperanto. Rotterdam: Universala Esperanto-Asocio, 1987.
(3) Pei, Mario: One Language for the World. New York: Devon-Adair, 1958.
(4) Large, Andrew: The Artificial Language Movement. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
(5) In a letter reproduced in translation by Reinhard Haupenthal in Literatura Foiro, April 1977, pp. 6-8.
(6) The best account of the third Volapük congress and the collapse of Volapük that I have seen is to be found in Clark, W.J.: International Language Past Present & Future, London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1912 (second Edition), pp. 95-97.
(7) Op. cit.
(8) In one of the last issues of Eco-Logos, 1979.
(9) Prof. Gyöngyi Selyem, personal communication.
(10) See Zamenhof's famous "Letter to [Nikolai Afrikanovitch] Borovko," dated 1894, available here. For a very interesting description of the environment of the Central European 19th Century Jewish Enlightenment, in which Zamenhof's, like those of Freud and Einstain, evolved, see Maimon, Naftali-zvi: La Kaŝita Vivo de Zamenhof ("Zamenhof's Hidden Life"), Tokyo: Japana Esperanto-Instituto, 1975.
(11) Privat, Edmond: Vivo de Zamenhof ("Life of Zamenhof"). Several editions are available, including an English-language translation.
(13)"Kulisaj manovroj" ("Maneuvers in the Wings"), in Waringhien, Gaston: 1887 kaj la sekvo ("1887 and the Sequel"), Antwerp: TK-Stafeto, 1980.
(14)Op. cit.
(15) Apparently, Orwell, during his down-and-out phase in Paris, had to accept a room in the lodgings of a cousin. The fact that she and her live-in lover spoke only Esperanto together at home — a language he could not understand — left him less than enthusiastic.
(16) Discussed in Lins,Ulrich: La danĝera lingvo ("The Dangerous Language"). Moscow: Progress, 1990 (2nd ed.)
(17) Whether Hogben was actually using Chinese syntax, or how much of his syntax has actually been carried over into later Glosa, is the subject of some argument. It is a fact that almost all specimens of written Glosa that this author has seen to date indicate that Glosa is merely recoded English — which may simply be due to the fact that most or all of its proponents are native English speakers.
(18) Op. cit.
(19) Various communications from Robin Gaskell, Conlang mailing list, Internet.
(20) Communication from Edmund Grimley-Evans, Esperanto mailing list, Internet; also, personal observation.
(21) In a letter to Esperantist William Auld, originally published in The International Language Review, readable here.
(22) E.g. vid/er = "to see," but vis/ion = "sight."
(23) Personal communication from Kjell Renström. The letter in question was, however, written in Esperanto. See comments under Ido, above.
(24) In Scientific American, June, 1960.
(25) Personal communication from Dr. David K. Jordan.
(26) Talk to the Esperanto Club of Los Angeles in 1963.
(27) Personal communication.
(28) Loglan and Lojban, to my untutored eye, appear to be based, like Prolog, on a particular variant of symbolic logic known as predicate calculus. A good basic description of predicate calculus can be found in Rudolf Carnap's book An Introduction to Symbolic Logic and Its Applications. When I last looked (and got my copy), this book was available in paperback from Dover. Predicate calculus notwithstanding, however, Carnap was an Esperanto speaker...
(29) See chapter 11.
(30) When this was originally written, Robert Jordan's massive fantasy novel The Wheel of Time had not yet begun to appear. Aaron Bergman's compendium and analysis of Jordan's Old tongue, used heavily in the novel, can be accessed here. Other interesting well-developed artificial languages used in science-fiction and fantasy include Suzette Haden Elgin's Láadan, Alien Nation's Tenctonese, and, of course, Star Trek's Klingon.
(31) Gary Jennings believes that Esperanto's "only current competitor of note is Interlingua," which, however, he has apparently confused with Peano's Latino Sine Flexione. Jennings also points out that this competition occurs "in a fairly limited area," though he does not define what area this might be — presumably North America and Western Europe. See Jennings, Gary, World of Words, New York: Atheneum, 1984 (originally 1965).
(32) In 1977, at a meeting of astrophysicists at a well-known western university, when one individual quoted an Astro 10 ("Astronomy for Basket-Weaving Majors") student as saying that he was studying astronomy because he "wanted to learn about things in outer space, like Romulans and Klingons," one famous specialist in globular cluster dynamics stood up and diffidently said: "I hate to display my ignorance in public, but ... what are Romulans and Klingons?"
(33) Dr. Laurence Schoen of the Klingon Language Institute, quoted by Gavin Edwards in "Dejpu'bogh Hov rur Qabllj!", Wired, Aug. 1996, pp. 84-93, available online here.
(34) D'Armond Speers, mentioned by Gavin Edwards, op. cit. This attempt to raise a native speaker of Klingon apparently fell through shortly after the articles was written; see Edwards' follow up in "Babble On Revisited", Wired, Aug. 1999, p. 66, available online here.
(35) Hence the popular, if somewhat pejorative, sobriquet "ridgehead" often applied to Klingons by fans. The distinctive Klingon forehead ridges set a trend; most alien races on Star Trek, e.g. the Kardassians, are today distinguished by similar ridges. In what may be a conscious attempt at parody, we have the minbari of Babylon 5 — a competing space station where not only English, but a "galactic Esperanto", is spoken — whose major distinguishing feature is an upstanding bone, like a crown, around the backs of their heads.
(36) Star Trek: Deep Space 9, episode titled "Looking for Par'Mach In All the Wrong Places".
(37) Brown, James Cooke, Burson, Scott Layson, Handley, Christopher C., Kennaway, J. Richard, and McIvor, Robert A.: "An Unambiguous Grammar for Loglan, a Speakable Language", in La Logli 1996/1; p. 72, footnote 2.
(38) Ibid., p. 44.
(39) Personal communication from James Chandler, 1997.07.28.
(40) An attempt to revive Occidental by Mr. Robert J. Petry is now under way, though Mr. Petry appears to be implementing yet another name change, this time to Auli-PRIM. It is worth noting that naming any planned language "dead" is perhaps indulging in over-optimism, or over-pessimism, depending on your preferences. More recently (1999-2000) it appears that Cosmoglotta continues in publication, though whether in Europe or from Mr. Petry's headquarters in Tucson remains unclear to me.
(41) For some thoughts on this philosophy, see e.g. Wahl, Edgar de, "Psychologic e sociologic caractere del lingues", particularly part 3, "Li sociologic caracter" (in Occidental).
(42) Proechel, Glen: Klingon and Esperanto: The Odd Couple, from Esperanto U.S.A., 1994.
(43) Comment by Frank Esterhill, in private communication to Jay Bowks, 2000, posted by Bowks publicly in the Auxlang mailing list. An earlier comment here, that it was originally headquartered in Great Britain, would seem to have been in error, though pretty obviously much of IALA's productive scientific work was carried on in Britain in the thirties by its scientific secretary, the linguist (and Esperantist) Edward Collinson, for whom a special Chair in Esperanto was later founded at the University of Liverpool.
(44) Some of IALA Director Ezra Clark Stillman's Esperanto poetry can be found in the Esperanta Antologio, ed. William Auld, Rotterdam: UEA, 1984, p. 328.
(45) Frank Esterhill ("Interlingua — R.I.P.", in Verbatim, Autumn 2000) suggests that IALA's idea was always to construct its own language: "...In 1937, realizing that all of the previously elaborated languages were fundamentally flawed and that compromise was impossible, IALA reverted to its original intention of doing its own independent work." However, Edo Bernasconi (Esperanto aŭ Interlingua? La Chaux-de-Fonds: Kultura Centro Esperantista, 1977), citing from W. J. A. Manders (Vijf Kunsttalen. Purmurend: J. Muuses, 1947), suggests that "the purpose of IALA in 1924 was the scientific study of the problem of a planned language and the promotion of the generalized introduction of a planned language project, but not at all the creation of a new one" (p. 120). Certainly nothing in IALA's activities through the twenties and early thirties indicated that it intended to play such a role. The idea of creating its own planned language was apparently first officialized in a decision of 1933, a set of criteria for such a language (criteria to which the ultimate Interlingua did not very closely adhere) was proposed in 1937, and only by 1939 did actual work begin. (Bernasconi, p. 123) Esterhill's Verbatim article may also be read here.
(46) Esterhill (private communication cited in note [43]) suggests that this is not the case, but then refers to savings bonds presented to IALA several years earlier but not cashed in until after Morris's death as proof of a bequest.
(47) Frank Esterhill, article in Verbatim quoted above, p. 26.
(48) Frank Esterhill, article in Verbatim quoted above, p. 27, note (5). The "quarter of a century" estimate suggests that Esterhill dates Interlingua's death from shortly after its use in the Multilingual Compendium of Plant Diseases (1976 and 1977), though his own Interlingua Institute lasted for almost another quarter of a century, and Union Mundial pro Interlingua continues to function even today.
(49) In the original version, "the rights to Interlingua." Thanks to Chris Burd for the correction.
(50) This may, however, have been a "selection effect".
(51) Until 1928, when he abandoned Ido in favor of his own project Novial.
(52) Ido in the early 21st century may be more stable than I have indicated here; but it is at least suggestive that, after the formation of the original Ido mailing list, a secondary list for supporters of a "stable" Ido was independently created.
(53) More recent proponents of Occidental have argued that, in fact, the Third Reich banned the teaching of any planned language, including Occidental. The author of the note in question may have been less aware of this, however, since the ukase banning planned languages in general mentions only Esperanto by name.
(54) The Web page of the Union Mundial pro Interlingua lists eight serial titles available.
(55) The Onion, July 28, 1999.


To a great extent, as indicated in the initial "Warning", the material contained above may be considered polemical by some. Those who would like a somewhat different (and usually more optimistic) view of the history and fate of constructed languages other than Esperanto may wish to investigate what on-line materials exist for these. A good place to start is my Planned Languages Web Page, which contains links to several other sites — from which, as usual, one can progress.

While "How to Build a Language" has been treated on the Web as an independent document for a long time, it is really part of a longer work titled The Esperanto Book. If you are interested in seeing some other aspects of Esperanto, including its structure and uses, you might want to check out the following documents. Note that some of them are not up to date, since the original work was written at the beginning of the 1990s.

  • The Problem ... Discusses some aspects of the "language problem" and their impact on ordinary human beings.
  • A Plethora of Solutions ... General approaches to solving the "language problem", and why the concept of a constructed language is probably best.
  • A Personal Odyssey ... My own personal introduction to Esperanto and life in the Esperanto movement.
  • A Language Made for the World ... A discussion of the structure of Esperanto. Those who have enjoyed "How to Build a Language" might find this chapter of particular interest.
  • History In Fine ... A history of Esperanto and how it has related to the world around it, from the end of the 1880s up to the beginning of the 1990s.
  • The Literary Scene ... A history and discussion of Esperanto's literature, both translated and indigenous, and the effect they've had on the development of the language in use.
  • Right Makes Might ... A discussion of how Esperanto has been used by the world outside the Esperanto movement for its own purposes over the years.
  • The Inner Idea ... The philosophy behind Esperanto, as well as a discussion of some of the dialectics that drive the Esperanto movement today.
  • Esperanto and Science-Fiction ... My own view of the relationship between Esperanto and the science-fiction and fantasy subculture, the use of Esperanto in science-fiction, and science-fiction available in Esperanto.
  • Some Worthwhile Reading ... An overview of those books in and about Esperanto that the inveterate reader might find interesting, either as a novice learning about Esperanto or as an experienced speaker of the language.

Materials about Esperanto on the net are too numerous to list here. A good place to start would be my Esperanto Access Page. Another good starting point, if you know some Esperanto, is the Virtuala Esperanto-Biblioteko (Virtual Esperanto Library).


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[E-mail] Don Harlow <>