Volapük: A Cautionary Tale for Any Language Community

You may have heard of artificially constructed spoken languages such as Esperanto, Interlingua, or Lojban, but do you realize that before any of these languages there was another constructed language which once claimed nearly a million followers, making it the most popular constructed language of all time?

That language was Volapük, and despite achieving such a high number of speakers is nowadays all but forgotten, even among linguists. I think Volapük’s story is one worth telling, because the reasons for its downfall are worth knowing for any member of a language community.

Volapük was created by Johann Martin Schleyer between 1879 and 1880. Schleyer was a Roman Catholic Priest who, one night, claimed to hear God himself speak to him commanding him to create a universal language to unite the European peoples. Volapük was a hybrid of English, German, and French, although you probably couldn’t spot the English influence through the umlauts.

Enter Auguste Kerckhoffs, perhaps best known for his eponymous principle from cryptography which we now remember with the aphorism “security by obscurity” (or rather, that security by obscurity doesn’t work). Kerckhoffs was an early Volapük enthusiast and performed a rather essential chore for popularizing any constructed language: translating learning materials about the language to other languages so speakers of those respective languages could teach themselves Volapük. And thus the seeds for a common European language were sown.

Volapük was a hit! Volapük clubs started popping up throughout Europe. Large conventions were held first in Friedrichshafen in 1884, then Munich in 1887, and finally Paris in 1889. The first two conventions were held in German, but by the third conference, everyone was speaking in Volapük, even the waiters!

Kerckhoffs, who was an early friend and popularizer of the language, would subsequently sow the seeds for its destruction. Kerckhoffs was unhappy with some parts of the language and thought they could be improved. He came to hold the rank of Director of the Academy of Volapük, and felt he had rightfully earned enough influence to shape the future direction of the language. He proposed a number of reforms to Volapük which Schleyer rejected. This lead to a schism between the followers of Schleyer, the language’s creator, and the followers of Kerckhoffs.

The language fragmented, and in doing so, lost the very thing which made it unique: its universality. And thus the whole thing fell apart. People began to move on to newer, better “universal” languages like Esperanto, and the dream of a common language spoken by everyone was lost, or rather, it’s gradually becoming English by default.

But I think there’s a larger lesson to be learned here: any language is only as strong as its community, and there are constantly things that divide a community in two (or worse). There are several examples of this sort of thing in the history of programming language development: Perl 6, Python 2 vs Python 3, Paul Phillips forking the Scala compiler (having formerly been its primary author), and the Node.js fork IO.js.

None of these examples is directly analogous to the story of Volapük, but I feel there’s a more general point to be made, and it’s a sociological point instead of a technological point:

If you can avoid a fundamental schism in your language community, you probably should. To maintain a healthy community, everyone, particularly the people most instrumental in the development of a language, need to work together to keep the community cohesive. Contrarily, major schisms or breakdowns in the relationships and development of a language and its community are big warning signs that should make you think twice about the future of a language. You may just be learning the next Volapük.


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