In one of our previous articles, we discussed the most well-known and widespread constructed language in the world: Esperanto. Despite not achieving its initial goal of becoming the main means of international communication, it nevertheless has ~2 million speakers worldwide. Some of them even speak the language natively, as they were born into Esperanto-enthusiast families.

We’re not talking about Esperanto today, though. Esperanto was not the first attempt at creating a fully-functioning artificial language aimed at international use. One of the first such attempts came long before Dr. Lazar Zamenhof started his work; actually, long before he’d even thought about creating a language in the first place!

Way back when, the main candidate aspiring to the status of this would-be “future world” language was way more complex than and far more detached from our already existing languages. This did not stop it from gaining a certain popularity in close circles.

Without further ado, let’s dive into Volapük – the first major attempt to unite the world in (constructed) language.

Volapük’s backstory

Volapük’s inception looks a lot more like a legend than a historic fact. (Most of what we know is from its creator’s notes and diaries, so perhaps there’s no surprise in that.)

Volapük was created by a German priest named Johann Martin Schleyer in the late 1870s. One day, he heard from his neighbor that all the letters he had been sending to his son in America never actually reached their destination. When Schleyer tried to find out the reason for that, he learned that the post office turned all the letters down due to an spelling mistake in the receiver’s address — an innocent mistake stemming from the fact that Schleyer didn't know how to write in English. This trouble inspired him to create a new language with a simpler orthography (spelling rules) to be used all over the world.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska / Unsplash

According to Schleyer’s notes, he had studied over 80 languages and could speak nearly 50 of them. He knew not only European languages, but also Asian ones, such as Japanese and Sanskrit. Leaning on this knowledge, he decided to base his new world language on what he considered to be the world’s six main “languages of culture:” English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Russian.

Volapük’s birth

On the night of March 31st, 1879, Schleyer had a severe cause of insomnia, during which he paced around the house all night until insight struck him. Having suddenly realized what his international language should be like, he spent the rest of that night working on its grammar and vocabulary. Then, he began to publish Volapük sentences and even entire poems in a guide dedicated to the language. The first Volapük textbook was published in 1880, as well as its first dictionary. Around that time the new language also got its name, which was “the world language:” “vol” stands for “world”, and “pük” means “language.”

Shortly after its release, Volapük gained popularity in certain circles. It was praised for its relative simplicity, especially in comparison with natural languages. For example, it did away with:

  • Complex orthography (unlike English and French);
  • Dual grammatical number (unlike Arabic and several Slavic languages);
  • Irregular word stress (unlike Russian and English);
  • Polysemous (multiple meanings) words, homonyms, and homophones.

At one point, knowledge of Volapük was considered prestigious and thought to be a trait of high intelligence. People believed Volapük was the language of the future, in which all civilized nations would live peacefully. Some even said humanity’s most pressing task was to transition the entire breadth of international communication to Volapük as quickly as possible in order to achieve an improved level of mutual understanding and, subsequently, world peace. The boldest statements included the idea that the “Volapükization” of the world would be achieved by the beginning of the 20th century.

This, as we all know, never happened.

Volapük’s downfall

There are several reasons for Volapük’s downfall. One of them is particularly obvious: Esperanto. Dr. Zamenhof’s creation was a lot simpler than Volapük. In fact, Esperanto was specifically designed to be as simple to learn as possible. On average, it only takes around 180 hours to learn both its grammar and a considerable amount of vocabulary. With Volapük, this number is estimated to be around 300-500 hours.

In addition, Volapük inherited lots of features from its creator’s native language, German:

As you might imagine, these factors add considerable difficulty for people who aren’t already familiar with German.

Photo by Darran Shen / Unsplash

Another reason for Volapük’s subsequent downfall was Johann Schleyer himself. He believed Volapük to be his property, something not to be criticized or changed. As the popularity of the language grew, so did the number of people dissatisfied with its unnecessary complexity. There were several calls for and even attempts at reforming the overly complex language. All of them, however, were refused by Schleyer. (Esperanto’s creator, Dr. Zamenhof, on the other hand, claimed no rights to the language, making it freely available for alteration and modification.)

In the 1920s – 1930s, Volapük saw a brief revival in popularity, due to some modifications made by the Dutch military doctor Arie de Jong. The language received a grammar revision, plus the addition of the letter (and sound) R, which had previously been absent.

After World War II, Volapük was almost completely forgotten. Nowadays, very few people even know about this language, let alone speak it. Despite that, some small enthusiast communities can still be encountered on the internet.

Key features

The language features a Latin-based alphabet, similar to the one we use in English. In addition to the standard 26 letters, Volapük also borrows three additional ones from German to represent the umlaut sounds: ö, ü, ä.

Much like other artificial languages, Volapük uses an ending-based system that helps speakers to identify a word’s part of speech. For example:

  • -ik indicates an adjective
  • -ön indicates an verb
  • -o indicates an adverb
  • -s indicates an plural noun
  • Case endings for nouns (followed by -s if plural)

You can refer to this wikibook on Volapük to explore its grammar in more detail.

Glossika-free-trial-1

Volapük is a highly inflectional language with complex systems of noun declension and verb conjugation. Nouns are inflected into four grammatical cases, similar to German:

  • Nominative (the main case, indicating the subject of a sentence)
  • Genitive (indicates an attributive/possessive relationship between two words)
  • Dative (indicates the beneficiary/recipient of an action)
  • Accusative (indicates the direct object)

The inflection paradigm for those cases, however, is more similar to that of Slavic languages or Latin (though those languages have additional cases that Volapük lacks):

Case/Language

Volapük

Czech

Latin

Nominative

Vol

Svět

Mundus

Genitive

Vola

Světa

Mundī

Dative

Vole

Světu

Mundō

Accusative

Voli

Svět

Mundum

(Note that this table shows only singular nouns. In plural, the paradigm is different.)

In addition to case endings, Volapük features a complex affix system that makes it possible to specify and clarify the meaning of a word, depending on the context.

Verbs are conjugated via an extended conjugation system with multiple affixes and endings, allowing speakers to adjust the mood and tense of a word as necessary.

Conclusions

The idea of a universal language has occupied the minds of people throughout the entirety of history. Over a hundred years ago, some people put forth bold projects that were intended to create such a language. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), none of them came to fruition, seeing themselves ultimately limited to a handful of enthusiast groups. Volapük was one of the first such attempts, and its true value is hidden not in its original intent but in that it opened a new road for other, more successful, projects.

That’s it for today, folks! We hope you enjoyed this article. Have a nice day, and see you later!

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