Daniel Garrison Brinton

Speech at the Nineteenth Century Club, New York, December 12, 1888

I am going to address you tonight on the dream of a universal language. Time out of mind has this dream floated before the mind of man. The retrospective vision of the Hebrew seer looked back to an age when "the whole earth was of one language and of one speech;" and he ascribed the multiplicity of tongues to the express malediction of Jehovah. The Latin poet regarded the unity of language as a celestial privilege, multae terricolis linguae, celestibus unal and when the devout out of every nation under heaven understood, every man in his own tongue, the preaching of the Galileans, it was hoped that the ancient curse of confusion was removed.

Does this immemorial dream approach its realization? Deliberate efforts to substantiate it have been frequent. In the two centuries closing with 1880, seventy-three writers are enumerated who produced works bearing upon the question [See a partial list in: E. Courtonne, Langue Internationale, p. XXII (Rouen 1875).]; and since that date the number has increased at such an alarming rate that it looks as if in a few years we shall have more world-languages offered for our acceptance than there are language in the world. The philosopher Lebnitz, in his old age, expressed his regret that he had not devoted a portion of his time to this topic; this is a regret that not many of the present generation of scholars will lay up against their declining years.

This widely-awakened interest proves that the question is one of "actuality," as our French friends put it. It is beginning to be what writers of prefaces call "a long-felt want." But as in the modern instance of the child crying for the moon, all wants are not attainable, it is well to ask at the outset, is this case of crying for the moon?

In other words, is a universal language a possible thing? And if possible, is it, after all, desirable?

In answering these questions everything depends on what is meant by a universal language. Some intend by this language which shall supplant all others, extinguish them, relegate them to the realm of dead languages, like classic Greek and Latin. If this is meant, I do not believe for a moment that such a scheme is possible; and if it were possible, I should think it not at all desirable, but rather to be deplored. It is not possible because, through the introduction of printing, the growth of national literatures, and the establishment of educational institutions, all cultivated languages are constantly gaining a firmer and firmer hold on their respective peoples. It is absurd to suppose that any independent state will accept a foreign tongue. There is not an example in history. Even a subject people yields its tongue most unwillingly. English is spoken by a hundred million persons; but nowhere else than where English-speaking people govern; and under their government there are two hundred million who cannot phrase one sentence in the tongue of their rulers. The Czar sways his sceptre over seventy-five million souls; but his efforts to root out the Finnish language spoken within a stone's throw of St. Petersburg have been in vain. Scores of such examples teach us that the last ethnic element which a nation gives up is its speech.

The dream of a universal language in this sense is, therefore, hopeless. Moreover, it should not be hoped for. It would be nothing short of a calamity to personal culture and to the progress of civilization. The man of one language is almost as poor company as the man of one idea, who is a bore, or the man of one book, who is a dogmatist. Goethe advanced a paradox full of truth when he said: "He who knows only one language, knows none." For a person thoroughly to master his own tongue, he must know the workings of some other cultivated living language as a standard of comparison. More than this, were the whole earth of one language, the race would be deprived of one of its most potent momenta of intellectual advancement. That great master of linguistic science, William von Humboldt, has pointed out the extraordinary power which language has in molding and differentiating national character [In his epochal work: Ueber die Verschiedenheit des Menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts.]; it is through the individuality of peoples thus established, more than through any other means, that the species has developed that manifold play of its faculties which we call civilization. The time has not come, it never will come, when the race can profitably dispense with this powerful spur to its psychical development.

Enough of a universal language in this sense. We cannot obtain it and we do not want it. But these very facts emphasize the need of a universal language in another sense, or, as I prefer to call it, a world-language. The perpetuation of numerous idioms will force upon mankind the adoption of some one common speech in addition to the national one. As it is, must not every man of science spend his best years in learning foreign tongues, or else depend for his knowledge on the uncertainties of translations? The ordinary exchanges of a newspaper arrive in a dozen languages. Must we learn them all?

There are yet more forcible illustrations. In a few years the telephone will connect a score of countries of different speech by a means of communication purely oral.

Are we all to turn polyglots or keep a polyglot in our households?


The telephone will force upon the world a common spoken language, and the phonograph and graphophone will accent its insistence.You will observe that we have no longer to concern ourselves with that art called pasigraphy-some system of writing which, like the Arabic numerals, may be understood by all nations. We have gone beyond that point. These various 'phones force us to seek a spoken language which shall be intelligible to the whole civilized world.

The question is one of urgency: How gain the best results for humanity from these wondrous inventions?

I answer: By the concurrent adoption among all the leading civilized nations of a suitable language which shall be the official and recognized medium of international communication, oral and written, and which every person called educated shall be taught in addition to his mother-tongue.

There is nothing preposterous in this scheme, nothing cranky about it. In the middle ages Latin was such a medium, as you all know, and in the last century French made long strides towards toward becoming such a world-language. It was spoken at every court in Europe, the royal academies of Berlin and St. Petersburg published their transactions in it, and every person of culture knew it more or less.

This plan of a world-language is perfectly possible, therefore, and indeed has almost been realized in past times. But, you will say, it failed in both instances. So it did, and we can learn precisely from these failures what is requisite to make it a success. In both cases the causes of failure were the same, and they are simple and apparent. They were, first, the inherent difficulties of the language employed; and, secondly, lack of national concurrence. Remove these, and a world-language is demonstrably practicable.

How shall we set about the task?

Let us approach the greater obstacle first. This is unquestionably the difficulty of learning another language besides that native to us. Can this be overcome? Can a language be found or be fabricated which may be acquired with a moderate mental effort, so moderate that its acquisition may form part of a common school education?

This is the point that has been debated for centuries, and never with greater vehemence than at the present time. How can we avoid the intrinsic difficulties which were one of the main causes that led French and Latin to be discarded as international tongues?

This brings me at once to a consideration of the various plans which have been proposed for a world-language. Such plans may be grouped under a threefold classification: It has been proposed, either

(1) that the world-language should be manufactured out the whole cloth, a-priori, brand new; or
(2) that it should be one of the existing languages slightly modified; or
(3) that it should be a composite structure, a mosaic of many tongues.

All the schemes advanced fall into one or another of these categories. But before I pass to an examination of these candidates for international adoption, I should like to recall to your minds clearly the difficulties which they should be framed to overcome.

All of you who have tried the experiment of learning a foreign living tongue will easily remember your various troubles. First there was the pronunciation, the jaw-breaking gutturals of the German and the snuffy nasals of the French; next, there were new words by the hundred to commit to memory, sure to be forgotten again, as they had no connection with any sound in your tongue; again, there was a host of statements called "grammatical rules," without a scintilla of necessity or commonsense in them; as, for instance, the rule in German that a woman and a girl, weib and mädchen, must be regarded as of the neuter gender!

Finally, you were soon hopelessly floundering in what were called "idiomatic constructions," more properly named "idiotic constructions," which generally meant something quite different from what the words said; as in French, when you say "more bread," plus de pain, you really mean "no more bread;" and in Italian, when you quote the proverb e dolce far niente, supposing you mean "it is sweet to do nothing," according to grammar you say "it is sweet to do something." Remember that all these and even greater difficulties stand in the way of any foreigner learning the tongue we speak, and then ask yourself how can these obstacles to the learner be, if not wholly removed, at least reduced to their lowest terms for all students belonging, we will say, to the half-dozen most cultivated nations of the world; for, practically, if these nations unite on the adoption of an international language, the rest of the world cannot choose but follow suit.

These, then, are the stumbling-blocks to be removed, and with them in mind I shall now proceed to a criticism of the principal world-languages hitherto proposed, beginning with my first group, those formed a-priori. All these are more or less based on two principles, the classification of ideas, and the direct relation of sound to thought.

A fair example was that projected by Bishop Joseph Wilkins in the reign of Charles II. The bishop divided all ideas into forty genera, each genus into six or nine species, each specie into as many varieties. Each genus was represented by a monosyllable, each specie by a dissyllable, each variety by a trisyllable.

A still more elaborate scheme on the same system was that proposed about thirty years ago by Prof. Charles Letellier, of the University of Caen. It was an application of the favorite decimal system of the French. All possible ideas were classified under ten principal categories, to each of which was assigned a particular vowel sound. Each of these categories was modifiable by ten accessory ideas, which were represented by as many consonants. This gave one hundred monosyllables, each conveying an idea and its modification. Next, by suffixing the ten vowels to each of these one hundred monosyllables, he obtained one thousand dissylables, each representing an idea of the third degree of modification. By the repetition of this simple process the ingenious author claimed that all ideas and their modifications could be expressed with clearness and with ease.

Both these plans failed to attract disciples; but they are exceedingly interesting for several reasons. They illustrate, for instance, the limited circle in which the human intellect works. Both these principles, the classification of ideas, and the fixed relations of sound to thought, are now unknown in cultivated tongues; but they are present in various idioms spoken by the lowest savages, as that of the Dog-Rib Indians of British America. It is striking to note how the vagaries of philosophic minds are apt to be reversions to the methods of primitive barbarism.

It may be argued that this proves that the plans proposed are commendable, inasmuch as they return to the procedures of the least cultured minds, and are, therefore, the simplest and easiest. This specious argument is false. Language is like a mechanical invention. Real simplicity and the highest adaptability to use are the resultant of repeated efforts, and the apparent simplicity of early productions is delusive. Thus, a fixed relation of sound to idea would be today a fetter of the intellect, thought it was an aid in the inchoate speech of savages. Any return to methods discarded by the natural evolution of language is a certain sign of weakness, and should be avoided in a language intended for international adoption.

I emphasize this point because it has a direct bearing on the next a-priori language which I shall comment upon, the Volapük of the Rev. Mr. Schleyer. I class it among the a-priori languages because, although its vocabulary is in a measure made up from existing tongues, even here it is partly manufactured, as in the numerals; while its grammatical system is wholly a-priori, and it establishes in certain features the fixed relation of sound to sense to which I have referred as a characteristic of my first group of world-languages. This is especially seen in its management of the vowels. Volapük has achieved such popularity that I must dwell on what I conceive to be its deficiencies at some length. This I do without being at all blind to its merits, which have gained it this popularity. I insist on its deficiencies, to show that it does not answer the requirements of a world-language, and can never become such.

The first serious error of its author is in retaining the impure modified vowels of the German, ä, ö, ü. The result of this is that no Englishman can even pronounce the name of the would-be universal Volapük. The aspirate and the tonic accent will be as great puzzles to the Frenchman. These peculiarities apply not only to pronunciation. In writing, diacritical marks are required, or else letter-shapes unknown to the Latin alphabet; and in printing, either different fonts or else letters foreign to either English, French, Spanish or Italian.

These two errors of construction are sufficient to condemn it; but far more serious shortcomings present themselves when we examine its grammatical system. What this is may be illustrated by an example of the conjugation of the verb "to love." In Volapük the infinitive or root is löf, love; ob is the personal pronoun I. Suffix this to löf, and you get löfob, love-I, or I love. Prefix to this the modified vowel ä, as sign of time past, and you have älöfob, I loved; suffix to this the syllable la, and you have the imperfect subjunctive, älöfobla; prefix to this again the consonant p, and it gives you the passive form of the same tense; suffix again to this the syllable li, and you are provided with the interrogative subjunctive imperfect passive, meaning "would I be loved?" By extending this plan any verb may appear in a reflexive, reciprocal, impersonal, frequentative or habitual form in both the active and passive voices; in each form it will have about a score of moods, each mood with a round dozen of tenses, not to mention gerundive and participial forms. In fact, a professed Volapükist has published the staggering calculation that the forms of the Volapük verb number 504,440! [See The Nation (New York), Feb. 9, 1888]

This a process quite familiar to students of languages; but not to students of cultivated languages. It is called the synthetic method, and is found in perfection in such tongues as are spoken by the Samoyed hunters of Siberia and by the Root-Digger Indians of Utah. When our Aryan ancestors were wandering savages, they also employed it in a measure, but with rising culture discarded it as unsuitable to the expression of their ideas. With this synthetic, Mr. Schleyer combined what is called the inflectional method. That is, he declines his nouns, giving them a special form for the nominative, genitive, dative and accusative cases. This also is the restoration of an obsolete relic of antiquity. All the romance languages threw inflections aside as cumbrous and useless expedients. The relation of ideas can be expressed with far greater nicety, variety and energy by prepositions than by inflections. To restore the Anglo-Saxon case-endings in English all of you will grant would be an absurdity; not more so, I rejoin, than to introduce them into an international language.

These are, to my thinking, fatal deficiencies in Volapük. There are others, but the above named are sufficient, I cannot doubt, to bring about its rejection as a language of general use among cultivated nations. These defects are so glaring that they have been frankly admitted by professed Volapükists. In the Volaspodel, a Volapük paper published in New York, they have been referred to as "the crudities and the eccentricities of Schleyer's own grammar." Let it be understood that my strictures at present apply to Schleyer's Volapük, and not specially to any one of the half-dozen outgrowths of his system, all of which, let me add, have been condemned and repudiated by Schleyer himself in his latest utterances on the subject. The best of them, the Spelin of Prof. George Bauer, retains too many of the failings of the original to be welcomed by the world. Like Volapük, it is on the wrong track, synthetic and a-prioristic.

The worst fault of Volapük is not peculiar to itself, but its common to all linguistic schemes created a-priori. Never can a satisfactory tongue be framed on this method. Grau ist alle Theorie, said Schiller, and every a-priori edifice yet constructed by man has fallen to dust. If the uniform experience of history is worth anything, the only hope of having a universal language is by the concurrent adoption for this purpose of some existing language, or by the framing of one in accordance with the recognized laws of linguistic evolution, and not at all by a return to primitive barbaric methods.

This brings me to the consideration of the views of those who urge that for an international speech some language now in use should be selected. Everybody will at one favor this view; but everybody will wish his own tongue to be selected. I never knew a Frenchman who desired English, nor an Englishman who wished to see German, adopted as this world-language. You observe what an obstacle we at once encounter on this path, national prejudice, insurmountable national prejudice.

But apart from this sentimental opposition, there are real impediments which it is impossible to overcome. I have already referred to the troubles which doubtless all of you have experienced in endeavoring to acquire even a moderate acquaintance with a foreign tongue. These are indefinitely magnified when you strive to master it in its details, as is required for writing it correctly.

Take the half-dozen leading tongues of civilization, English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Russian, and the learning of any one of them many years of patient labor. The easiest is doubtless Italian, which in this and in several other respects, is certainly the best adapted for international use; but you would not believe that I could be serious were I to recommend you all to begin the study of Italian for this purpose. Yet it is even more absurd for any of us to urge Italians to learn English for the same purpose, inasmuch as English is incomparably more difficult than is Italian.

We ourselves are inclined to favor English, first, because we know it already, and, secondly, because it is at present the most widely disseminated of languages. During the past summer, two little works in earnest advocacy of this idea have appeared in the United States, and it is curious to observe the relative positions which the authors assume. One of these is entitled "World-English The Universal Language," by Professor A. Melville Bell. He claims that "no language could be invented that would surpass English in grammatical simplicity;" that "its only drawback is its unsystematic spelling;" and that these orthographic anomalies alone have made English difficult to learners. He proposes a plan for their removal, and with their removal thinks he has found the long-desired international language.

It is hard to believe that Professor Bell is serious in these expressions. It is scarcely possible that he is unappreciative of the abominations of English pronunciation, its hissing esses, its guttural r, its swallowed syllables, its arbitrary accents, its impure vowels, all desperately cacophonous to any trained ear, and simply impossible, even with the aid of his alphabet, to an adult foreigner. He cannot forget its irregular verbs, its exceptions to the regular plurals of nouns, its bewildering auxiliaries which trip even the most careful of us, its subjunctive mood and relative pronouns, on the uses of which our best grammarians are at odds. I have seen a microscopic critic pick a dozen flaws in a page of Macaulay; and yet Prof. Bell boldly talks of the "beautiful simplicity" of English grammar! English orthography is bad enough, heaven knows, but it is not the worst charge against the English language. I paraphrase Iago, and exclaim, "beautiful simplicity! beautiful fig's end!"

This is conceded by the other writer to whom I referred. Mr. Elias Molee, in his duodecimo entitled "A Plea for an American Language," frankly acknowledges many but by no means all the inherent defects of English when regarded as an applicant for adoption as a world-language. He proposes as a substitute a modified English, in which these most serious orthographic and grammatical defects are remedied. The result is something which looks like the most Teutonic outburst of Hans Breitmann, really "Germanic English," as the author calls it. I would not criticize his effort harshly, as it is honest and suggestive; but it is in the wrong direction.

Prof. Whitney has well put the objections to any such scheme in his reply to the Japanese, Arinori Mori, who asked his advice on introducing some such modified speech into his country as a commercial language. The professor writes: "You cannot join the community of English speakers without frankly accepting English speech as they have made it, and now use it. To make the English language regular would be to give it a new and strange aspect, offensive to those to whom it now belongs. It ought to be made truly phonetical yet no one who acquires English can afford to be ignorant of the customary guise in which English appears, however ungraceful and awkward it may be. I should say that any community acquiring English had better take it as it is, and be thankful that the case is no worse." [Arinori Mori, Education in Japan, p. 144.]

Such is the opinion of the learned professor; and the condemnation he expresses of all schemes modifying English for the advantage of foreign nations applies with equal force to every other living tongue. Not one of them, either in its present form or in a modification, is suited to become a world-language. The phonetic, grammar and lexicographic difficulties are too great, even apart from the national prejudices sure to be excited by any selection which could be made. The same is true in a greater degree against the Latin. Its inflectional form belongs to an obsolescent phase of human speech, and never again can such a tongue become a medium enlightened intercourse. For this reason we must condemn as an anachronism efforts like that of Prof. Aug. Boltz, of Darmstadt, who has published this year a good-sized octavo, advocating for the world-language a modified form of ancient Greek. [Hellenish die Allgemeine Gelehrtensprache der Zukun ft. (Leipsig, 1888) ] To look at it will make a college-fellow shudder.

You observe that I have now dismissed from consideration as impracticable all world-languages framed a-priori, and all which adopt for that purpose any existing language, simple or modified, dead or living. This leaves us nothing but the third category to draw from that is to say, language made up from the constituents of actual tongues, a selection of their favorable elements combined with an elimination of their irregularities and difficulties. Here, at length, we reach free field. Unimpeded by senseless usage, unfettered by theory, we may proceed to watch the tendencies of natural linguistic development all over the earth, in all the families of speech, and glean from all fields the suggestions necessary to construct a tongue, not de novo, but which will be simply the perfected product of the highest models which we see before us.

This is the only method truly scientific and inductive. Singularly enough, it was clearly foreseen and recommended by the father of inductive philosophy himself, Francis Bacon. A remarkable passage of his treatise on the "Advancement of Learning" reads as follows: "Without question that would be a most excellent kind of Grammar if some man thoroughly instructed in many Languages should write a Treatise shewing in what points every particular Language doth excel; and in what points is deficient; for so Tongues might be enriched and perfected by mutual intertraffic one with another; and a most fair image of Speech, like the Venus of Apelles, and a goodly Pattern for the true expression of the inward sense of the mind, might be drawn from every Part which is excellent in every Language." [The Advancement of Learning, Book vi, chap. 1.] In these admirable words is limned forth precisely the method which the framer of a language for general international intercourse should pursue. If he can unite "every Part which is excellent in every Language," there is no reason to fear that his scheme will fail of winning the suffrages of nations.

At first sight the task seems a gigantic, an impossible one; but practically we can reduce these mountains to little more than molehills. It is quite needless to examine into the excellencies of every language. We may just as well omit Chinese and Choctaw, and a thousand or so other idioms. For reasons already given, we need not extend our gaze beyond the half-dozen leading European tongues I have heretofore named. Here our labor is greatly facilitated by their near kinship. They are all of one stock; and, if we leave out the Russian, they are quite closely affined. Their grammars are on their elementary sounds occur in all. These similarities reveal at once the most "excellent parts" of these languages, for it is obvious that their differences are unessential accessories.

Now, if you please, from these five tongues make another, with a pronunciation which does not contain a single phonetic element not found in all of them; have a vocabulary of words common to them all; dismiss all grammatical rules which do not occur in them all; and discard senseless and contradictory idioms altogether. Do this, if it can be done, and you will have a language easy to be learned by all, because already the common possession of all.

Can it be done? Yes, I verily believe it can and will be done, probably not precisely according to any scheme yet proposed, but following out the general lines which I have here suggested. The only serious difficulty is in the vocabulary. The radicals of the German, English and Romance languages are generally identical, but the derivatives from the same radical differ widely in meaning. It would require a good deal of tact and knowledge to select wisely among so many verbal claimants with equal rights.

You may object that such a language would be no better than a mixture of several languages, a sort of linguistic patchwork; not much else perchance than a kind of polyglot crazy-quilt. Have it so, if you will. But I assure you on the word of the profoundest students of the history of speech, that all the noblest, richest, most expressive tongues on the face of the earth have arisen through the mingling of different parent stocks; each adopting the best features of the other and casting aside its own cumbrous or useless expedients. The product is what some linguists contemptuously style a "jargon." But it is precisely through such jargons, such mixtures, that the faculty of speech finds its freest powers of growth, and reaches that condition where it becomes the most perfect medium for the expression of the intellectual powers of man.

Let me turn aside for a moment to warn you against those antiquated teachers who point to the marvellous symmetry of Latin, Greek and Sanscrit, as representing the highest type of linguistic structure. Their arguments are effete and delusive. They might as well point as a model of government to one of the German cities in the Middle Ages, where laws regulated everything, down to how many petticoats a burgher's wife should wear, and how many dishes she should have for dinner. Such niceties, such complexities, such regularities, are hindrances and limitations, not aids, to the expression of thought. You find them in their rankest development in the tongues of nations of the lowest culture. In ancient Mexican every verb has 865 regularly derived forms; that of the Santal language in India about 3,000; while somebody has calculated that every verb in the Chipeway dialect is capable of eighteen million variations, all regular and legitimate derivatives!

The Greek is a beautiful language; so is the Chipeway; but any one who maintains that either, or that any language on the model of either, is superior, as a medium of intellectual intercourse, to the modern English, flies in the face of all that linguistic evolution teaches, and all that the history of mental development itself inculcates. Yet the English is distinctly a medley of several distinct tongues; it is a jargon of the most pronounced type. It has its faults, grave ones, which I have already pointed out; but they do not lie in the direction of cramping thought or expression. I repeat, therefore, that the Baconian theory of making up a new language from several others is scientific and sound; that it is in the line of the structural development of languages; and that the elimination of most of the characteristics of the classic tongues is not only justifiable but positively demanded by the progress of the human intellect.

Having said this much in defense of the general theory, I shall mention a few proposed world-languages which have been constructed more or less in accordance with it. None of them, in my opinion, fully meets the requirements of the case; yet all of them present meritorious features. The first I may name is the "New Latin," Neo-Latine, of M. E. Courtonne. He calls it "an auxiliary language," intended for the Romanic nations of Europe, including the English. During the last ten years he has published various pamphlets upon it, until together they form a good-sized octavo volume. This New Latin looks something like Provençal French; its grammar is judiciously compiled, brief, clear and simple. But its alphabet has strange letters and diacritical signs, quite needless and out of place in such an attempt; and in constructing his vocabulary the author has hampered himself by formal rules which give his words a homely consonantal aspect, and a monotonous equality. For these reasons his scheme, as a whole, must be pronounced a failure. Moreover, he confines it to the Romance languages, omitting the large and important Teutonic group, which must certainly be represented in any such scheme, in order to warrant its adoption, or even approval.

Three noteworthy efforts in this direction are by Germans. One is the Pasilengua, as he calls it, framed by Herr P. Steiner, of Darmstadt; the second, the "International Language," sketched by Dr. Samenhof, of Breslau, and a third is by Julius Lott, of Vienna. They are improvements over Courtonne's New Latin in certain points. Steiner, however, commits the error of basing his phonetics on the German. He retains the impure semivowels, and employs a number of diacritic marks in writing and printing. He, also, cannot rid himself of the absurdities of the inflectional endings. In these respects his plan would only perpetuate valueless linguistic forms, and would handicap the expression of thought. Dr. Samenhof's attempt is toward a simpler form. Nevertheless, he sins against the obvious principles which I have laid down, in retaining one impure vowel, two aspirates, and six mixed sounds, which he has to discriminate by the use of diacritical signs or else new letters. He cannot see his way clear to dispense with case-endings, although the English and all the Romance languages move along smoothly without them. This is another singular instance of the difficulty of a mind leaving the well-worn groove in which it has accustomed to express its activity.

Up to date, Julius Lott has published only his vocabulary. It its certainly the best I have yet seen; clear, sonorous, free from new letters or strange marks; and I look with the greatest interest to his grammar, which is announced for January.

Mr. George J. Henderson, of London, published last spring a scheme which he called Lingua. It contains some excellent suggestions, but its phonetics are undesirable, and his grammar contains features which will be unacceptable to English-speaking nations especially. It is out of accord with the laws of evolution.You will observe that I have now reviewed some eight or ten schemes offered by their framers for adoption as world-languages, and that I have rejected them all for reasons which I am persuaded you will acknowledge are cogent and convincing. If you will permit me the Gallicism, all of these schemes "swear against" palpable and almost axiomatic principles, which must be respected in the creation of a language acceptable for the purpose for which they were designed. Do not imagine that I come prepared to offer some other one in their stead, some image of speech of my own carving, thinking it is the Venus of Apelles to which Bacon refers. Nothing of the kind. I should consider any such attempt a piece of assumption. The international language should be like the interpretation of a sacred book; the ripe result of the earnest deliberations of many competent scholars.

But I have matured views on the principles which should be respected in the formation of such language, and the methods which should be adopted to secure its general introduction; and these, with all brevity, I should like to submit to you. Such a language should be constructed on the known and recognized lines of the development of languages. This is always and everywhere from the synthetic to the analytic form. By these technical terms I mean that the tendency is ever toward the discarding of case-endings for nouns, pronouns and adjectives; toward changing the conjugations of verbs by tense and mode endings to a conjugation by auxiliary verbs; and, generally, toward showing the relation of parts of speech by the use of other independent parts of speech and not by affixes in themselves of no meaning and unable to stand alone. If you want proof that this is the line of natural development, you have but to compare the modern German with the ancient Gothic, or the modern Romance languages with the Latin of the Augustan age. I could quote you many other examples from the idioms of Polynesia and America, but its unnecessary; they all tell the same story.

The psychological reason of this change is found in the instinctive effort of the mind to dispense with useless and cumbrous accessory notions, and to confine its oral expression to the one idea it desires to utter. I illustrate this by a familiar example. I say in English "good man," and the words convey all I wish to say, without any needless accessory qualifications; but if I say in Latin bonus homo, what else do I convey? First, by the form of the adjective, that the man is a male, which is certainly unnecessary; next, that he is mentioned as the subject or nominative; third, that he is one, not many; also utterly useless, as that is shown by the noun itself; fourth, the speaker must have in mind that adjectives like bonus must be declined after a particular model, to wit: the first declension. Here, you observe, there are four wholly redundant accessory ideas forced upon the mind by this adjective. There are as many with the noun homo; to wit: its number, gender, case, and declension; in all, eight unnecessary limitations surrounding and weakening the impression of the main idea, in violation of those cardinal principles of speech, economy and lucidity.

It is vain to reply that the mind does this work unconsciously; it does it all the same, and wastes upon it a certain portion of that cerebral phosphorous which, according to the famous expression of Moleschott, goes to the making of thought. In modern life such waste is folly, and an analytic language, therefore, is the only one worthy of consideration as a world-language.

For a like reason we do not want meaningless particles, such as appear in Volapük, and as are common in the languages called Ural-Althaic, particles which have no existence as separate words, but only in connection with others as affixes. No; every significant sound should be independent, an individual, self-projecting on the mind, a recognized part of speech, not merely a parasitic particle. This constitutes the main difference between what are called form-languages and formless languages; and all students of the philosophy of speech recognize the profound influence for good which a form-language exerts on thought and its expression compared with a formless language. [The latest discussion of this subject is Heinrich Winkler, Sprachliche Formung und Formlosigkeit. Breslau, 1888.]

This point settled, the grammatical principles of the projected language become at once evident. All analytic tongues trend toward one form of grammar, the full development of which is not found in any one of them, but may be learned from a careful scrutiny of such new products as the Creole French of Martinique, the Negro Dutch of Surinam and the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean. No doubt some of those antiquated scholars to whom I referred will look with lofty contempt on the suggestion of taking such jargons for models, rather than the tongues of Cicero and Demosthenes; but their position is precisely analogous to that of their colleagues who speak with derision of those who seek the evidence of the early history of man in ancient refuse-heaps rather than in the pages if Hebrew scrolls. The exceeding value of the study of mixed languages or jargons is now recognized by all true linguists. They offer the material for the biology of the science, and to them we must turn if we would forecast what will be the grammatical forms finally preferred by speaking man when he has developed to its utmost the relations of thought to its expression in sound.

This grammar can be further simplified by recognizing the logical order of thought and adopting that as the order of expression. Those who have watched the operations of the mind in a state of independent action, action unfettered by the customs of hereditary oral expression, as, for instance, among deaf-mutes and in the gesture language of the Indians of the plains, agree that this logical order is as follows: Subject before verb; direct object before indirect object; noun before its adjective; verb before its adverb; and so on. By adopting this method of placement or position, as it is termed, we gain much in brevity and clearness.

The alphabet of this language need not present any difficulty. The five full or pure vowels and fifteen consonantal sounds are found in all five of the languages I have named, and with these twenty letters a harmonious vocabulary could be framed of letters representing sounds familiar to all and wholly free of diacritic marks or new signs. The spelling would be phonetic and no lessons in pronunciation would be required.

The vocabulary of the new tongue would offer, probably, the most serious difficulty. We could profitably avoid some of the rocks on which the previous experimenters have stranded. Many of them have disfigured their pages by a desperate struggle for a monosyllabic vocabulary. This is quite superfluous. Language develops toward brevity but not to monosyllabism. In the Creole dialect of Mauritius I find many words of three syllables and some of four. Harmony of diction requires different length of words, and nothing is really gained by great sacrifices toward verbal brevity. Man will ever demand sweetness as well as light.

Modern Italian offers us a happy example here. No other modern tongue compares with it in its facility for molding foreign words into forms of the utmost brevity consistent with harmony and a preservation of the force of their roots. For example, there is a modern science which in English we call palćo-ethnology, treating of prehistoric races and peoples. The Italians have transformed this long and awkward compound into the melodious and manageable word paletnologi. Everything is gained by such a change as this.

Another error into which all the modern framers of vocabularies have fallen is that they have begun at the wrong end of their task. They have occupied themselves with the kitchen and the stable, when what we want concerns primarily the study and the lecture-room. Here the impotence of the effort on any one man becomes apparent. A crying need of the day, acknowledged by scientific men on all hands, is a uniform scientific nomenclature and terminology in the exact sciences. For instance, it is hard enough to learn the terms of anatomy in English, as any physician present will bear me out; but when, in addition, we have to learn a quite different set of terms for the same objects in German and in French in order to profit by the medical works in those tongues, the task becomes almost too arduous for human effort. Yet incredibly as it may appear, scientific men, especially Germans, have been busy increasing this barrier to the advancement of learning by advocating national nomenclatures, scientific terms framed from their own tongues.

The rational course in this respect is clear. All new scientific terms should be derived from the Greek, and expressed in their Italian forms; scientific congresses should insist on this in the papers published in their transactions; and their publication committees should be instructed to enforce uniform and correct terminology. Nothing more would be required. The scientific vocabulary thus settled, the commercial and industrial lexicon should have the next attention. The terms for traffic, for arts and inventions, should be obtained by an extension of those now most widely used, reduced to a phonetic form possible to all leading civilized peoples by the plan already described. These should be popularized by the consuls and consular agents of the nations interested, by the chambers of commerce in different cities, and by the large commercial houses.

With the requirements of science and business thus provided for, we could almost leave the social and literary development of the language to take care of itself. Periodicals would soon appear in it, the needs of daily life could be incorporated in it from the stock of words referring to them already present in and common to three or more of these tongues, and travelers' phrase-books and dictionaries would offer every facility to the learner.

I claim that this scheme offers no insurmountable, not even any serious difficulties. Nor do I stand alone in this opinion. Eminent linguists of all nations, as Professors Max Müller and Sayce in England, Schleicher and Schuchardt in Germany, Adam and de la Grasserie in France, Hale in Canada, and many others, have declared that such language could easily be constructed, that it would have advantages over any now in existence, and that its introduction would be an enormous aid to industrial development, to the progress of the intellect, and to the recognition of the brotherhood of man.

Its formulation and dissemination demand the combined action of the intelligent leaders of thought and like in all the countries prominent in modern civilization; and as I see before me not a few of those leaders gathered here this evening in this world-metropolis, I appeal to them to take an early and active part in the realization of this beneficent project.


Daniel Garrison Brinton (1837-1899)
Trained as a medical doctor, Daniel Brinton contributed to a variety of academic fields, including literature, linguistics, archaeology, and ethnology

Copyright © Leo J. Moser 2002, 2005