Linguistic Imperialism

Laurie Adams lga at PICAN.PI.CSIRO.AU
Mon Mar 4 12:26:36 CST 1996

Dear Taxacomers,

On 29 Feb. 1996, Joe Laferriere wrote:

>2) Concerning the long essay in French on Esperanto and Volapuk
>(Pardonnez-moi, s.v.p., mais j'ai oublie' le nom de l'auteur), Esperanto
>was invented by a Jewish physician in Bialystok, Poland. It is 60%
>Romance, 30% Germanic (German and English) and the remainder Greek,
>Hebrew, and Slavic. I have heard it described as sounding like Italian
>spoken with a Polish accent. It is true that there is no Esperantoland
>where it is spoken exclusively, but I know people who say they have
>travelled extensively in several countries (especially in the former
>Warsaw Pact region) using Esperanto exclusively. The Universala Esperanto
>Asocio publishes a book of contacts every year. Volapuk was very popular
>in the 1880's but to my knowledge has zero speakers today. It was 60%
>English, but with the English so mangled as to be unrecognizable to an
>English speaker (e.g. "nim" from "animal"). Volapuk was extremely
>difficult to learn; Esperanto was specifically designed to be easy.
>3) Judging by some of the postings, my comments on this matter seem to
>have been taken by some people as an unrealistic, dreamy fanatacism. I
>love Esperanto and I wish it would be adopted tomorrow as a universal
>language. However, I am under no delusions about the likelihood of this
>actually happening.
I have been following with interest the "Linguistic Imperialism" and  "Latin
v. English v. other languages for biological description" thread; but I've
not noticed that anyone has seen fit to emphasise that when writing
technical papers in any aspect of biology, a healthy chunk of what one
writes is mostly Latin with a heavy sprinkling of Greek. So biologists have
a good working knowledge of classical Latin/Greek vocabulary, even if they
don't realise it!

The mention of "Esperanto" as an alternative to English, Latin or other
natural language (living or dead) as a means of scientific discourse raises
the question of the pros and cons of an auxilliary, constructed language, of
which there have been many in the last 200 years; the following may thus be
of interest to Taxacomers.

"Interlingua" of Peano was invented before the First World War, and has been
revived, with modifications,  in the last 40 years as a serious vehicle for
international discourse (e.g. several works by F.P. Gopsill: 1980-1990).
Guiseppe Peano was an Italian mathematician with a passionate interest in
languages, particularly constructed ones. With much more grammatical insight
than Schleyer ("Volapuk", which suffered a rapid and well-deserved
extinction) or even Zamenhof ("Esperanto"), he realised that most of the
problem  encountered by someone trying to learn another language is its
often weighty encumberance of grammatical flexion. With great insight he saw
that "the minimum grammar is no grammar at all"! Latin, although it was the
largely etymological origin of many modern European languages, and up to
then was currently in use by a wide range of scholars for scientific
communication, was one of the worst offenders; Peano therefore set about
cleaning out the Latin 'Augean stables'. What emerged was "Latino sine
Flexione", i.e. "Interlingua", which any reasonably educated European can
read on sight. As Frederick Bodmer (Pioneers of Language Planning, in "The
Loom of Language", 443-511 (Allen & Unwin, 1944)) succinctly put it, Peano
"extracted from Classical Latin what remains alive (its vocabuary) and
discarded what is dead (its grammar)". Although Bodmer extolled Peanese as
one of the more enlightened auxiliaries, he did have some criticisms
regarding its vocabulary and syntax.

For anyone interested in the subject of artificial-language construction, I
can recommend Bodmer's chapter on language planning, with its asides of wry
humour, as a thoroughly good read - although some of the more "purist"
Esperantists among Taxacomers may not be all that amused!

Laurie Adams,
Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research,
Australian National Herbarium,
Canberra, A.C.T.
lga at

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