International Auxiliary Languages

Greek for Chinese to Read[]

By Paulo Ronai
Translated by Tom Moore

Czech or Chinese
Learn it with ease
Basque or Bantu
Can too.
-Barnet Wolf

The greatest obstacle to the comparative study of the various projects for a universal auxiliary language is the near-inaccessibility of the material. In fact, the majority of such projects are to be known through booklets with short print runs, which soon turn into bibliographical rarities, since they are almost never reprinted. Except for the case of Esperanto, public libraries are of little assistance. In addition to periodic checks of the used book stores, what has most facilitated my research has been the generous cooperation of friends, who helped out with my curiosity. Thus for example, were it not for the valued friendship of Ara?jo Ribeiro – the Brazilian who learned Swedish in order to translate Selma Lagerl?f, and to whose Benedictine dedication we will one day owe a monumental dictionary of English technical terms - , I would never have made the acquaintance of one of the most original projects, the Interglossa of Lancelot Hogben.

The name of this English biologist is not unknown in Brazil. Modernizador da divulgacao cientifica, two of his books have been translated into Portuguese (the Wonderful World of Mathematics and Man and Science). Another demonstation of his vast curiosity is his collaboration on and editing of the Loom of Language, by F. Bodmer, published here, as are the other two, by Editora Globo.

In spite of its explosively modern content, the work in which Hogben lays out his plan for an auxiliary language draws our attention with a particularly baroque title: Interglossa. A draft of an auxiliary for a democratic world order, being an attempt to apply semantic principles to language design (Harmondswort, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1943).

The work designated by such a curious circumlocution puts the attention and intelligence of the average reader to a severe test. It is not a manual intended for the general public, but rather a essay intentionally written for interlinguists, that is, specialists in the subject of auxiliary languages. It is to them that the author submits his own system; even should it not come to be adopted, he would consider himself well-recompensed for the effort if they were to accept some of his suggestions.

Inimical to all traditional grammar, Hogben is certainly one of the most radical of all the interlinguists. He begins from the proposition that an international language is primarily of interest to scientists, and especially those from the East, who need an easy means of access to the conquests of Western science. All projects prior to his, which were always based on one or more European languages, were aimed solely at Western scholars. But of course the structure of the “Aryan” languages (that is, the Indo-Germanic and the Finno-Ugric languages) is not at all natural for a Japanese, a Chinese, or an African. In order to benefit these, an international language should be of the isolating, rather than the agglutinative, type, in contrast to all the previous attempts at universal languages.

Obviously those who construct universal languages seek the maximum of economy, whether in terms of grammar or vocabulary. In the grammatical area, they let go of resources whose superfluity is made obvious by one or more natural languages. Latin and Russian do not need an article: thus, Monsignor Schleyer, Father Monte Rosso and Prof. Magyar abandoned it in Volapük, Neo-Latinus, and Romanid respectively. Hungarian gets by very well without grammatical gender (which is also almost non-existent in English); and Ido and Interlingua renounced this frill. But from this point of view no planner went as far as Hogben, who admitted no type of inflexion, and rejected both declension and conjugation. And more: he ignores the traditional division into grammatical categories or classes of words. In Interglossa, the same word can serve not only as noun, adjective and adverb, but also as verb, preposition and conjunction. At the bottom of this there is a recollection of English, which can use practically any noun as an adjective, as long as it appears before another noun, as in the expression home affairs, midnight mass, dog days, etc., and where a word like love can take on the value of a noun, adjective or verb, depending on the context (e.g. my love; a love affair; I love you).

Thus, in Interglossa the sentence consists of the simple juxtaposition of invariable elements. What allows one to distinguish their relationships is the strict observance of an inviolable order of placement, as well as the interpolation of some “empty” words and punctuation marks, entrusted with isolating the semantic groups of the subject, the predicate, the direct object, and so forth. The initial capitals of the nouns (borrowed from German), has no other purpose.

Like Ogden, the inventor of Basic English, Lancelot Hogben also reduce the verbs to a minimum, which are no more than twenty, and are called “operators”. Thus, for example, verbs which signify feelings – such as to hate, to love, to envy – become unnecessary, since they are replaced by the operator esthe (that is, to feel) followed by the respective abstract noun: hate, love, envy (that is, by their Interglossic equivalents), which Hogben calls amplifiers. The designation noun is reserved for concrete nouns. Also part of the system are some “pseudonyms”, which correspond to our personal pronouns, but which also fulfill nominal and adjectival functions; various “articles”, that is, words which indicate number or label a nominal group; finally, some “particles” which, without modifying the order of the words, allow an interrogatory or negative to be given to the sentence, or give to the unique and invariable verb and temporal or modal value.

But let us look at a simple sentence in Interglossa: an pre acte grapho auto nomino in bibli. It is just as well that Hogben has warned us: a sentence in Interglossa can not be understood at first glance, as it generally is in other auxiliary languages. (This disadvantage would be compensated by the greater facility of expression that it provides its users.) One needs, in fact, to have learned that an (abbreviated from andro) is the “pseudonym” equivalent to “he”; that the “particle” pre indicates action in the past, and that the “verboid” acte (from actio or actus) followed by the “amplifier” grapho means “to write”, in order to puzzle out the meaning of the sentence: “He wrote his own name in the book.”

This example will suffice to let it be seen that the lexicon of Interglossa is not drawn from any living language. Hogben discovered that there is already an international lexicon, that one simply needs to gather it togther. It is present in the plethora of scientific terms that are more and more making their way into daily speech on every continent. Words like thermometer, philosophy, hierarchy, homogeneous, cartography each contain two Greek roots, and one simply needs to learn their etymology once and one will never forget their meaning. The total number of scientific words – close to a thousand – that any person with an average level of culture uses regularly constitutes the vocabulary for Interglossa, and is sufficient for the perfect construction of any proposition.

Pronounced in general like Italian, but written like French and Italian (philo, charta, thermo, rather than filo, carta, termo) in order to facilitate the recognition of the international roots, Interglossa, in the final analysis, gives one the impression of a strange Asiatic or African dialect with grafts from Greek and a little Latin.

But, since he has not had recourse – in contrast to Esperanto, Basic English, or Interlingua – to the word-stock of a modern language, Hogben escapes the danger of inheriting the ambiguities of meaning and indeterminacies inherent to living words, inseparable from idiomatic expressions, and turns of phrase shot through with illogic.

To the advantages of Interglossa should be added the fact that each word is assigned a number, which allows the transcription of any text by means of numerals. And it lends itself extremely well to graphic representation by means of schematic figures (isotypes), as some “illustrations” in the volume in question demonstrate. The volume announces the forthcoming publication of an English-Interglossa dictionary, as well as a manual intended for the public. I do not know if appeared, nor whether measures were taken to recommend that Interglossa be adopted internationally. At any rate, I do not believe that even much more accessible exposition would entice many adherents to the novel language, which is too far from our habits of speaking and writing. But studying it led me to realize how fortuitous and illogical are our most firmly rooted linguistic convictions, and sowed doubts as to whether the Indo-Germanic system of expression which we imbibe along with our mother’s milk is really the most appropriate for the faithful expression of thought.

Let us recognize the credit that is due to Hogben in having approached the linguistic reality with an open mind, one not influenced by historico-philological considerations. A good example of what our language would be had it been designed by scientists is the system he proposes for the verbal expression of numbers. Only ten words would suffice (similar to the ten numerals in mathematics) for the expression of any number. In accordance with mathematical practice, “two-three-four” (that is, the Interglossic equivalents) would signify 234. It would be sufficient to append the numeral to the noun in order to indicated the order of collocation (as we do with Louis XIV, Chapter Six), and put an end to ordinal numbers. Multiplicatives and names of fractions would be avoid by the adoption of algebraic practice: bi latero tri (2x3) and bi supero tri (2/3), indicating “two times three” and “two-thirds”. This is one of the many examples of economy of vocabulary offered to us by the strange, but ingenious lucubration of Lancelot Hogben.

posted by Tom Moore 2:01 PM