ZKM | Museum of Contemporary Art, 09|17|2011 – 02|05|2012
Legend Neutral

‘Languages Are Natural Organisms’:

On 24 November 1859, the Englishman Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species. The book introduced a scientific theory which certain experts at the time were also edging towards, namely, that living organisms evolve over generations through a process of natural selection. This was a highly controversial theory that challenged prevailing Western Judeo-Christian beliefs of the day. While Darwin did not say directly that humans descended from apes without the aid of a higher power in On the Origin of the Species, he paved the way to allow for this possibility.

Ernst Haeckel, a visionary professor of the Natural Sciences was Darwin’s most prominent defender in Germany. Throughout his impassioned career, he sought to provide concrete evidence for his interpretation of Darwin’s theories of natural selection, incorporating his staunch form of monistic religious principles to his scientific discoveries and analyses. Haeckel recommended that his friend August Schleicher read a German translation of Darwin’s controversial book.

As a professor of linguistics, Schleicher became convinced that evolutionary theory could be confirmed by the facts of language descent. He believed that, because the development of language was crucial to the development of human beings, tracing the roots of languages could therefore provide direct evidence of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In his book Die Darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft of 1863, Schleicher maintained that contemporary languages had undergone a process of evolution. It was already an established empirical phenomenon at that time that complex languages had descended from one simple Urspachen. Schleicher thought it was therefore obvious that the linguist’s language descent tree could therefore be substituted for depicting the evolution of plants and animals. He also maintained that there are more linguistic fossils in the world than geological ones. These written records of earlier forms of language, in his opinion, clearly illustrated a process of ‘natural selection’, eliminating weak elements to gradually develop into sophisticated and complex systems of communication.


Schleicher’s Language Descent Tree from Die Darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft (1863)

In a later book, Über die Bedeutung der Sprache für die Naturgesichte des Menschen, 1865, Schleicher went on to propagate the theory that, while it was difficult to classify the often superficial differences between the different races of human beings, language provided a constant trait.

“How inconstant are the formation of the skull and other so-called racial differences. Language, by contrast, is always a constant trait. A German can indeed display hair and prognathous jaw to match those of the most distinctive Negro head, but he will never speak a Negro language with native facility. . . Animals can be ordered according to their morphological character. For man, however, the external form has, to a certain extent, been superceded; as an indicator of his true being, external form is more or less insignificant. To classify human beings we require, I believe, a higher criterion, one which is an exclusive property of man. This we find, as I have mentioned, in language.”

- August Schleicher, Über die Bedeutung der Sprache für die Naturgeschichte des Menschen (Weimar: Böhlau, 1865)

In effect, he compared the evolution of the brain to the evolution of speech. On the basis of this hypothesis, he suggested that languages with more simple forms do not give full expression for complexity of thought. African and Chinese languages (referred to as isolating languages) were therefore the least developed, compared to the more advanced Turkish and Finnish languages (agglutinating languages), with the most highly developed being Indo-Germanic and Semitic ones (flexional languages). Schleicher believed that the three basic language types evolved at varying rates in different directions and that the Indo-Germanic and Semitic languages achieved a kind of perfection not realized in the other groups. While isolating and agglutinating languages simply did not have the potential to move beyond primitive structures, he believed each language form still had its own internal organic unity.

Schleicher’s ideas were supported by Haeckel and Darwin. Elements of the linguist’s theories were later co-opted into the Nazi and Neo-Nazi Aryan Race doctrine in Germany. [1]

Today, Schleicher is also remembered for writing a fable in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language. This artificial fable was published in 1868, for the purposes of illustrating what the language now looked like after 140 years of scholarly research on it. He was the first scholar to write a text in Proto-Indo-European.

The Volapük Legend:

“On the night of March 31, 1879, the good Roman Catholic bishop Schleyer, curé of Litzelstetten, near Constance, could not get to sleep. From his over-active brain, charged with the knowledge of more than fifty languages, sprang the world speech, as Athene sprang fully armed from the brain of Zeus. At any rate, this is the legend of the origin of Volapük.”

- W.J. Clark, International Language, 1907

Father Johann Martin Schleyer[2] first introduced Volapük to the world in 1879. He believed God had visited him in a dream and told him to create an international language that could be spoken across the globe. This divine intervention followed a conversation Schleyer had held with one of his parishioners. The latter was a semi-literate peasant whose son lived in America. The parent was distressed because he could no longer keep in contact with his child, due to the US postal service being unable to read the father’s handwriting. This led Schleyer to start considering the possibility of creating a common alphabet that could be understood by all nations. The idea for an auxiliary global language grew out of this.

Schleyer set about developing his artificial language a priori. That is, out of a combination of existing languages. He was fluent in fifty languages himself and claimed that each of these influenced the construction of Volapük. However, English and German appear to be the most prominently embedded.

In 1879, Schleyer first launched his ideas for a world language in a sketch published in Sionsharfe, a Catholic magazine that usually featured poetry, of which he was the editor. A full length book followed in 1880 and Volapük was launched. The constructed language gained popularity extraordinarily rapidly, starting in Schleyer’s region of South Germany and soon spreading to France and the rest of Europe as well as some of the British colonies, with numerous enthusiastic American practitioners following suit. In Volapük journals from the time, a handful of enthusiasts are mentioned in Japan, China and South Africa.

Volapük conferences occurred first in Friedrichshafen in 1884, then in Munich in 1887 and, finally, Paris in 1889. Thirteen countries sent representatives to the latter, including China and Turkey. While the first two conventions were held in German, the Parisian one was conducted entirely in Volapük. In 1889, there were an estimated two-hundred-and-eighty-three clubs, twenty-five periodicals in or about Volapük and three-hundred-and-sixteen textbooks in twenty-five languages. In 1889, nine years after its inception, the estimated number of Volapükians in the world was one million. How many of these actually spoke the language fluently has not been documented. What is certain is that all of its proponents were well educated and literate. Most Volapük handbooks suggest that a certain degree of linguistic knowledge is necessary to be able to learn the language.

World Language:
The aim of Volapük was never to replace a person’s first language. Rather, it provides an additional language that can be shared amongst people of different nations:

“Each man’s mother tongue will always be the one best to use when speaking or writing to his fellow-countrymen on all subjects appertaining to the social relations of life, whatever the language by birth he may happen to speak. The acquired or foreign language can never stand in place of the naturally instilled mother tongue. There are nationalisms and peculiarities and verbal idiosyncrasies about one’s own tongue which will always put a foreigner at a disadvantage, how long soever he may have studied, written and spoken it.”

- Samuel Eadon, from A Complete Grammar of Volapük, 1888

Volapük therefore provided a solution to the diversity of language that was creating massive barriers in international commerce. While English seemed set to be the next lingua franca, many deemed it too inflexible and bound up in the Imperialist project to ever be fully embraced by non-British cultures. In The Complete Grammar of Volapük from 1888, Samuel Eadon makes a point of appealing to the tender feelings of patriots who might find learning the language of another nation wounding to their sense of national pride. Volapük was presented as a neutral common alternative, free of any perceived jingoistic associations.

These ideals could be seen to be encapsulated in the word ‘Volapük’ itself, meaning, quite literally, ‘World Language’ (vol = world; pük = speak/speech). While other world languages with similar aims have been developed, with Esperanto gaining particular popularity,[3] Volapük was the first to come to prominence.

Schleyer’s central principle in constructing Volapük was rationality and convenience, intended to match the rapidly-advancing progress of the time. New inventions like the telephone and the trans-Atlantic cable were cited as inspiration in Volapükian promotional material. While Volapük was never intended as a tool of empire and rather as one of global idealism, mass colonial expansion at the time and the language problems involved in this may well have contributed to the popularity of its cause. The base of Schleyer’s artificial language was certainly entirely Eurocentric, with no attempt to incorporate any Islamic, Chinese, African, or any form of non-European languages.

Using organic Teuto-Romantic languages as a base, Schleyer proceeded to eliminate what he saw as defects in these natural models to create a more compact and logical structure. As a result, Volapükian grammar is heavily rationalized, as is its system of word formation. Words in Volapük are formed by either adding affixes or agglutinating smaller words. From one basic core structure, a word is then built up to denote gender, number, tense and type.[4]

Alterations Bring Dissention:

Despite its sensational initial rise, Volapük’s popularity declined at a rapid rate. While other global constructed languages, such as Esperanto and Idiom Neutral, may have played a role in this, ultimately, it was internal dissention that dismantled the once-substantial network of Volapük societies across Western Europe.

Throughout his lifetime, Schleyer maintained that Volapük should be a literary language, capable of expressing the finer nuances of thought and feeling.[5] More utilitarian-minded parties, felt it should be purely practical and functional. With the latter in mind, various changes were suggested at the final Paris conference in 1889. These involved amendments to the inventor’s basic structure, like the nature and origin of his word-roots. Schleyer insisted that his original plan should not be changed and the Volapük community became fragmented into different factions.

The Volapük Academy, whose role it was to administrate and maintain the community, did not organize any further conferences or seek to promote interest in it. They did, however, embark on making changes to the language that they felt were in order. This eventually led to the creation of Idiom Neutral.

Volapük had another brief flowering in the 1920s in Germany and the Netherlands,[6] under the leadership of Arie de Jong. He made some revisions that simplified Schleyer’s model, which are still in place today.

[1] Much of the information from this section was taken from A Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle Over Evolutionary Thought by Robert J Richards, (University of Chicago Press, 2008, Chapters 4-7)

[2] His real name was Martin Schleyer, but he renamed himself unofficially in honour of his grandfather.

[3] The influence of Volapük on Esperanto is a well documented topic of academic study and debate. For example, see: Donald J. Harlow

[4] Central ideas in this section were first seen in Empire, Knowledge and Culture: From Proto-Globalization to Modern Globalization 1850-1914 by TN Harper (from Globalization in World History, Pimlico 2002, Chapter 7)

[5] JRR Tolkien, who famously constructed his own Middle Earth language for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, said of Volapük and Esperanto that they would never be ‘true’ languages because no legends had been written in them (1956).

[6] The activities of the Volapük community were then were suppressed under the Nazi regime, along with those of all other constructed languages.

Ernst Haeckel’s human stem tree of plants, protists and animals, representing the hypothesis of one moneron as the source of all life from Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (1866).

Ernst Haeckel’s Stem tree of lineal progenitors of man from Anthropogenie; oder Entwickelungsgeschichte des Menschen (1874).

Logo from the Handbook of Volapük by Charles E. Sprague (1888).

From Volapük Grammar, Edwin Davis French (1893)

From A Hartelby’s Verlag, Julius Lott (1888)