The Proposed Universal Language
— Public attention has of late been frequently called to the Volapük, or universal language, invented by the German linguist, John Martin Schleyer. It is said to consist of the best of over twenty languages, omitting their irregularities, the majority of the words being taken from the English language, and the other’s being represented in proportion to their importance.
The inventor of the new language does not propose to suppress other tongues, but’merely to supply a new one for the common purposes of all mankind. The arguments most urgently insisted upon in favor of tire adoption of the Yolapuk language are that it would be a convenient medium for commercial intercourse, and an important agency in promoting the universal brotherhood of mankind.
The advantages of a universal language are numerous, and so obvious as not to require to be pointed out. It is not certain, however, that the best way of obtaining the desired object would be by the formation of a new language. While the proposed Yolapuk might take the place formerly held by the Latin, as a common channel by which scholars throughout the world might communicate ideas to each other, it would not come into use for popular literature, and hence it would necessarily remain stiff and formal.
What is really wanted is a itniversal language for popular use ; a living language ; a language subject to the laws of growth and development, which operate to give life and vigor to speech in actual use by progressive communities of mankind. There do not seem to be any good grounds for the success of a Volapiik made to order, but it is possible that a “ world-speech ” may result from the orderly development of human affairs. The signs of such an event are plainly observable. Suck extensive portions of the world have already been brought under the control of Englishspeaking people, and the prospects for the still more extensive dominion of our race are so bright, that the problem seems likely to be ultimately solved by the spread of the use of the English language into every region of the globe.
In case such a result should be worked out by time, the future history of our language would he no more marvelous than its past. Four hundred years ago our language was confined to a portion of the island of Great Britain. Now it possesses large regions in every quarter of the globe. It is destined, through the expansive energy of the United States, to spread through the whole of North America by displacing the Spanish in Mexico ; while in India, as the language of the governing power, it must ultimately prevail over the native tongues.
There was a time when doubts prevailed as to whether unity of language and literature would be preserved by the dispersed descendants of Englishmen. Noah Webster, just at the close of the Revolutionary War, in writing in favor of reform in the spelling of our language, recommended the adoption of a policy intended to give America a distinct language. In his work on this subject he says, —
“ A capital advantage of this reform, in these States, would be that it would make a difference between the English orthography and the American. This will startle those who have not attended to the subject; but I am confident that such an event is an object of vast political consequence. For the alteration, however small, would encourage the publication of books in our own country. It would render it, in some measure, necessary that all books should be printed in America. The English would never copy our orthography for their own use; and consequently the same impressions of books would not answer for both countries. The inhabitants of the present generation would read the English impressions ; but posterity, being taught a different spelling, would prefer the American orthography. Besides this, a national language is a bond of national union. Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national; to call their attachments home to their own country, and inspire them with pride of national character. . . . Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language as well as a national government.”
In process of time Webster gained more enlightened views. In the preface to his dictionary, he expressly says that it is desirable to perpetuate sameness between the language of England and America. He refers with pride to the fact that the country has writers who present as pure models of genuine English as Addison or Swift. He exultantly looks forward to the time when the standard of our vernacular tongue will be respected by five hundred millions of people in America alone.
The earlier British writers had very contracted notions as to the extent of the field for their fame. They thought they were writing for only a part of one small island, in a language not destined to endure. Bacon sought to perpetuate his fame by translating into Latin the works he had written in English. In a letter written to Tobie Matthew, in 1023, he says, —
“ It is true my labors are most set to have those works which I formerly published, as that of the Advancement of Learning, that of Henry VII., that of the Essays, being retractrate and made more perfect, well translated into Latin by the help of some good pens which forsake me not. For these modern languages will at one time or another play the bankrupt with books ; and since I have lost much time with this age, I would be glad, as God shall give me leave, to recover it with posterity.”
Pope, in the preface to his poetical works, after speaking of how much more care the ancients took than the moderns to correct and finish their writings, says :
“ If we can pretend to have used the same industry, let us expect the same immortality ; though, if we took the same care, we should still lie under a further misfortune : they writ in languages that became universal and everlasting, while ours are extremely limited both in extent and duration. A mighty foundation for our pride ! when the utmost we can hope is but to be read in one island, and thrown aside at the end of one age.”
So, too, the poet Daniel, in the Elizabethan age, laments the contracted bounds which then confined the knowledge of the English tongue to his “ scarce-discovered isle : ” —
Within these strict and narrow limits so ;
But that the melody of our sweet isle
Might now he heard to Tiber. Arne, and Po;
That they might know how far the Thames does outgo
The music of declined Italy ! ”
He also predicts, in lines written some years before the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock, that the English language would in future times he more widely spread, when he says. —
“ Who knows whither we may vent
This gain of our best glory may be sent,
T’enrich unknowing nations with our stores?
What worlds in the yet unformed Occident
May come refined with accents that are ours ? ”
If Bacon’s works, especially his Essays, upon which his popular fame chiefly depends, had survived him only in the Latin tongue, how little would now be heard of him outside of scientific circles ! Pope’s fears as to the narrow limits of his fame seem very ridiculous, now that he probably has in Australia alone, then scarcely known, as many readers as he had in England in his lifetime ; in America, fifty times as many ; to say nothing of those in India, South Africa, and the other possessions of Great Britain.
Moreover, in every civilized country a knowledge of the English language is now an essential part of a liberal education. On the continent of Europe, those who read the plays of Shakespeare with facility exceed in number the Englishmen who, in the days of Pope, were familiar with the literature of their own country. In Germany, in particular, the study of English has of late been increased by a disinclination to study the French language and literature, growing out of political hostility to France. It is very certain that if the English language shall continue to spread in the same ratio in the future as it has during the past three hundred years, it will soon become practically the worldspeech, instead of that which Professor Schleyer and his followers are advocating.