How an Italian mathematician took the complex Latin language and turned it into a simple one useful for international and scientific communication

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Giuseppe Peano (27 August 1858 – 20 April 1932), the Italian mathematician from the University of Turin and the creator of the language Latino sine Flexione.

1903 was an important year for international auxiliary languages, as this was the year when the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano first published the language now known as Latino sine flexione (I'll sometimes abbreviate it as LsF), a simplified form of Latin that kept the vocabulary mostly as is, and simplified the grammar to the extent that it could be learned in almost no time at all. You can find information on the language here and there on the internet (including Wikipedia) but I'd like to introduce the basics of how it works in a single post here.

First of all, Latino sine flexione takes existing Latin words and places them in a grammar not unlike English that makes use of prepositions and postpositions as opposed to modifying words themselves. But before we get into that, let's start with nouns. Nouns are changed in Latino sine flexione from the nominative (the form you see in the dictionary) to the ablative, which more closely resembles international forms people are familiar with. Some examples:

vox (voice) becomes voce
rex (king) becomes rege (think regal)
liber (book) becomes libro (think library)
legio (legion) becomes legione
crimis (crime) becomes crimine
consolatio (consolation) becomes consolatione

and so on. And to these we add an -s to make the plural, as in English and a great many other languages. Note however that the plural is also not needed when a number or some other term has already made it clear, so you would say octo rege for eight kings as opposed to octo reges, but to say kings alone you would say reges. This resembles non-Indo-European languages such as Chinese, Japanese and the like, but you can find it in Indo-European languages as well, such as Persian/Farsi where you don't need a plural marker if a number has already made it clear that you have more than one: chahâr nafar (چهار نفر) = four people (lit. four person). Even English has this from time to time, such as one sheep/two, three... sheep.

Nouns that don't have an ablative form are kept the same, of course.

Now getting back to replacing cases with prepositions and postpositions, take the following term:

dux bellorum

which means "war leader", or more literally "leader of wars". The word dux means leader, and we take the ablative which is duce. Now we have:

duce bellorum

bellorum is the plural genitive (English "of") of the word bellum (war), meaning "of wars". The preposition used in LsF for of is "de", and then we change bellum to the ablative bello, add the -s for plural, and now we have:

duce de bellos

or "leader of wars", a war leader.

Now of course nobody can promote a language by simply telling people to pick up a Latin dictionary and find the ablative of every single noun, which is why the language had a number of dictionaries published that had LsF vocabulary already made out so that people wouldn't have to go through all that. At the moment there's not much online, but I have been working on a lexicon here, based originally on the words found here.

Now on some more of the mechanics of the language:

  • Verbs use the infinitive, minus -re, so amo (I love) becomes ama (love), and you can of course put the -re back on if you want to use the infinitive as the subject of a sentence (amare es bono, to love is good). Put -to on to form the past participle, so me es amato means I am loved. The present participle (-ing) is -nte, so amante means loving. (homine amante es homine felice - a loving person is a happy person). Past or future tenses can be indicated with particles, though once again this is not necessary when the tense is obvious (cras me veni - I will come tomorrow).
  • Adjectives are formed by leaving it unchanged if the nominative neuter ends with -e, changing it to -o if it ends with -um, and in all other cases as with nouns. That gives adjectives like bono (good, from bonum), and triste (sad).
  • Articles: articles don't exist, just as in classical Latin. Wikipedia's page explains this best so I'll just copy from there:

As with Latin, neither the definite nor the indefinite article exists in Latino sine Flexione. When necessary they may be translated with pronouns or words such as illo (it, that) or uno (one):

  • da ad me libro = give me (the) book
  • da ad me hoc libro = give me this book
  • da ad me illo libro = give me that book
  • da ad me uno libro = give me a book
  • da ad me illo meo libro = give me that book of mine
  • da ad me uno meo libro = give me a book of mine

  • Adverbs: adverbs don't really need to be indicated if their use is obvious, like in scriptore labora bono - the writer works well (good). If necessary, you can indicate that something is an adverb with in modo (in the mode of) or cum mente (with the mind of, and similar to Spanish/Italian/French -mente or -ment), as in scriptore labora cum mente diligente, praeciso, et sapiente - the scribe works diligently, precisely, and wisely. Scriptore labora in modo diligente, praeciso, et sapiente is also the same thing.

This means, of course, that Latino sine flexione is a language with a very rigid word order compared to classical Latin, so something like auxilium dat (he/she/it gives help) becomes illo da auxilio. At the same time, unlike a lot of other international auxiliary languages, LsF doesn't attempt to restrict vocabulary, so words used in Latin can be ported over to LsF by just taking out your dictionary and converting the word. Of course, as the language was meant to be used for international / scientific communication, generally the point is to be as easy to understand as possible so obscure terms are not used all that often. Here's one example from Peano's Primo Libro (first book) about the types of eyes people have depending on their personality, which shows just how expressive LsF can be if one wants in spite of the simplified grammar:
Alio atque alio es oculo desperante, severo, frigido, minace, vituperante, objurgatorio (de parentes, dominatores, praepositos), indignabundo, exasperato, abhorrente, irato, expectante, suspicante, ofliciale (de actuario in cancellaria), inspirato (de vate, propheta, poeta, artifice), ignito (teste de fortitudine, audacia, ferocia), curioso, investigante, auscultante, examinante, elato (cum spe de victoria aut cum laetitia de victoria), moesto, flebile, lamentabile (in debilitate et impotentia), obsoleto, exstincto, foedo, truce (pro exemplo de malefactore convicto), distracto, stupido, confuso, secreto, clandestino, valde aperto, penetrante, moroso, inerte, fesso, lasso (de persona senile), anxio, sollieito, afflicto, melancholico, perturbato, dubio, incerto, pavido, inquieto, perplexo, vago, stupente, admirato, somniculoso, fanatico, sentimentale, libidinoso, phantastico, natante, labente (de moriente), poenitente, provocante, instigante, superbo, arrogante, imperioso, despotico, ironico, satyrico, sarcastico, malitioso, contemnente, fastidioso, stulto, dissumulante, pharisaico, incredulo, invidioso, insidioso, maligno, suspicioso, zelotypo, versuto, speculante, concupiscente, incesto, insatiabile, atroce, lascivo, servile, triumphante, rabido, furioso, infernale.
I won't translate the above but many of the words are already quite easy to understand: severo (severe), stupido (stupid), arrogante (arrogant), despotico (despotic), pharisaico (pharisaic), servile, triumphante (triumphant), and so on. In this sense it's a bit like Chinese in the simple grammar compared to the wealth of expression - the Chinese translation for the movie Gone With the Wind for example is (piāo), a single word which basically means, well, to go or scatter with the wind.

The real pity about LsF is that it was used so prominently during Peano's life and then suddenly dropped off the map. During a mathematical conference in 1924 (this page is written in a different language by the way so be sure not to confuse the two) Peano was given permission to give a discourse in the language, and apparently he often gave classes in the language too. There is also a ton of material at the Library of Congress that is apparently in quite bad condition created by Peano and others, and a number of books that are still available. Apparently there were a few thousand pages written in the language in total. One of those books, 100 Exemplo de Interlingua (Interlingua was the name by which the language went at the time, not to be confused with the other language named Interlingua that began in 1951) from 1913 for example has been scanned and put online and I'm currently transcribing it. In the book you can see a number of examples translated from classical Latin into LsF:

  • Nocte seque die, from nox sequitur diem <-- night follows day
  • Fine corona opere, from finis coronat opus <-- the end crowns the work
  • Qui tace, consenti, from qui tacet consentit <-- silence gives consent (who is silent, consents)
  • Gutta cava lapide, from gutta cavat lapidem <-- the drop caves rock (i.e. drops of water over the long term are stronger than rock)
  • Arte imita natura, from ars imitatio naturae est <-- art is an imitation of nature (art imitates nature). You could also write it as arte es imitatione de natura.

At the moment LsF is almost completely moribund, and there's precious little content available online, though I and some others have been working to try to help this. You can see a Yahoo! Group here for example with some samples of news and the beginning of a translation of Treasure Island. Another site can be found here and a few others here and there, but still very little. What LsF needs the most though is a more complete dictionary and more transcribed content from Peano online, which is what I'm working on.

Finally, here are three small news articles I've written to show how LsF would function as a conveyer of information in modern times as well, not just the early 20th century. It should be pretty easy to understand for anyone with a knowledge of Latin/French/Spanish/etc. Can you tell what they're about?

In martio de anno 2009 (duo mille novem) incipe missione de Kepler. Missione vol observa 100,000 (centum mille) stella dum 3.5 (tres et dimidio) anno, et pote detege planetas cum magnitudine simile ad nostro Terra. Usque ad nunc 333 (tres centum triginta et tres) planta es detecto, sed omni es multo plus magno quam Terra.

Hodie duces de nationes conflue pro congressu contra problema de piratas circum litore de Somalia. In tempore ultimo, multo nave es capto per piratas, et isto es nunc problema pro communitate internationale, nam illo depende ad commercio in illo loco. Piratas capta plus quam 200 (duo centum) nave in 2008 (duo mille octo).

Nunc senato de Canada habe 18 (decem-octo) novo senatore. In Canada, primo ministro selige senatores pro senato, et senatores pote continua in senato usque ad aevo de 75 (septuaginta-quinque) anno sine electione. Tamen, primo ministro de Canada Stephen Harper vole emenda senato in Canada in futuro pro permitte ut cives de Canada pote selige senatores in electione.

Note: you can see Peano's original text in 1903 at this link here (it's a .doc file), an article that begins in classical Latin, then sheds complexities bit by bit until it becomes a different language (LsF) at the end. Kind of reminds me of that well-known ZE DREAM VIL FINALI KUM TRU! post a bit, but less jarring.

Edit: for an example of how the language works in chemical nomenclature, you can see an article written by Peano on the subject here. I'm going to include it below here as it's a bit tough to find on that page. Here it is:


Si nos vol ute Interlingua pro chemia scientifico, nos debe applica nomenclatura chemico, nam in linguas naturale non existe similitudine. Ergo nos elige nomenclatura maximo commodo et maximo consequente. Pro chemia inorganico id non es difficile, nam hic jam exsiste tale systema in linguas naturale.

Pro nomenclatura chemico nos jam posside systema internationale in formulas chemico. Sed isto es solo satis pro lingua scripto et non pro lingua locuto. Nunc lingua locuto, que es maximo prope ad lingua formulare, es maximo commodo.

Principio de formulario chemico es que nos ute symbolos de elementos constituente (ex que compositione exsiste).

Symbolos chemico es internationale, sed nomine non es. Nomines exsiste, que es alio in omne lingua; tale nomines debe es eliminato per nomine maximo internationale.

Ante 100 anno Berzelius habe donato nomines latino ad elementos chemico, ex que illo habe formato symbolos (p. e.: Ferrum, Fe). Nos debe conserva isto nomines tanto quam possibile, nam id es de importantia, que symbolo et nomine concorda. Nomines quam: azoto, sodio, potassio, etc., debe es eliminato. Solo nomine "hydrargyro" debe es mutato in "mercurio". Isto nomine es internationale, nam exsiste in omne compositione de mercurio.

Pro compositiones chemico nos seque isto regulas. Compositione de oxygenio, sulfure, hydrogenio, carbonio, nitrogenio es nominato oxydo, sulfido, hydrido, carbido, nitrido; compositione de chloro, bromio, jodio, nuore, etc., es nominato chlorido, bromido, jodido, fluorido,
etc. P. e.:

CaO = Calcio-oxydo,
ZnS = Zinco-sulfido,
CaH2 = Calcio-hydrido,
KCl = Kalio chlorido.

Ergo nos pone elemento electropositivo ante elemento electronegativo, ad que nos adde syllaba -ido.

Si de duo elemento existe plure compositione, nos indica numero de atomo de elemento electronegativo, que es ligato ad uno atomo de elemento electropositivo, per nomine numerale graeco. P. ex.:

PCl3 = phosphorotrichlorido,
PCl5 = phosphoropentachlorido.

Compositione de elemento cum plurevalentia es indicato internationale:

in compositione de valentia alto nos adde, ad nomine de elemento electropositivo, syllaba -i;

in compositione de valentia basso nos adde, ad nomine de elemento electropositivo, syllaba -o. P. ex.:

Hg2O = mercuro-oxido,
HgO = mercuri-oxido,
FeS = ferro-sulfido,
Fe2S3 = ferri-sulfido,

Radicales obtine nomine speciale, que es composito ex suo elementos. Super nominatione de isto radicales perturbatione exsiste; nos i ute systema que es maximo curto et maximo regulare que es etiam maxim proximo ad systema de Berzelius.

Anion que contine oxygenio es designato per syllaba -ato post nomine de elemento.

Sale de anion SO4= sulfato.

Tale modo nos obtine: phosphato, carbonato, nitrato, etc. P. e2~.:

N2SO4 = natrio-sulfato,
CaCO3 = calcio-carbonato.

Ergo, acido libero debe es nominato consequente. P. ex.:

H2SO4 = hydro-sulfato,
HNO3 = hydro-nitrato.

Sed si nos vol indica que id es acido, nos etiam pote dic: sulfatacido, nitratacido.

Super isto fundamento nos pote continua. Anion paupere de oxygenio obtine syllaba -ito post nomine de elemento.

Sale de anion S03 = sulfito.

Tale modo nos obtine phosphito, nitrito, chlorito. P. ex.:

MClO2 = manganochlorito,
MClO3 = manganochlorato.

Anion maxim paupere de oxygenio obtine syllaba hypo ante nomine, anion maxim divite obtine antesyllaba per-.
Per ex.:

MClO = manganohypochlorito,
MClO4 = manganoperchlorato.

Nos pote etiam ute antesyllaba: ortho-, meta-, para- et pyro ad nomine de anion: isto usu es internationale.

Sale acido es desiginato per usu do nomine hydro, ad que nos pote etiam indica numero de cation substituente.
P. ex.:

NaH2PO4 = Natrio-bi-hydro-phosphato.

Sale basico raro posside compositione definito, id pote es indicato per additione de nomine "basico" aut per "sub" ante vocabulo acidificanto. P. ex.:

(HO2)BiNO3 = bismuthonitrato basico aut bismuthosubnitrato.


Unknown said...

Dude, there should be an organized repository of texts in LsF on the Web, somewhere like The old texts should be transcribed by LsF fans and made available in the centralized repository. Such a website could be referenced in Wikipedia, and this would immensely help the divulgation and spread of LsF.


I have a curiosity about morphosyntax. Why does LsF adopt "debe es mutato" instead of "debe esser mutato"? I ask that because the latter (usage of verb in the infinitive after the "debere" verb) is the pattern in most Western Romance languages AFAIK (and in IALA Interlingua and in English too). Why did Peano make the former choice?

Anonymous said...

all mathematicians read English. English is the language of international
scientific institutes such as Max Planck.

We don't need to reverse our history and learn any kind of Latin.

Unknown said...

"all mathematicians read English."

You say that because you are not acquainted many mathematicians with Ph.D. degree who do not speak English. I know some of them in Brazil.

Iamreddave said...

"The loom of language" has a great section on created languages for international communication. It comes to the conclusion that European languages are pretty similar anyway. English is Latin with German Grammar etc. So languages that help communication between non European speakers and European ones.

The book comes down in favour of Simplified English. It was written before '1984' made such simplified languages scary.

데이빛 / Mithridates said...

About the repository of texts: definitely. There's Wikisource but LsF is neither English nor Latin so it wouldn't fit well on either, and it would be best to have them all on one site as you said.

Regarding the infinitive, I'm not exactly sure. I would have been happy with either way. Jespersen decided to do the same thing in Novial too.

I found these parts of the book to be the most interesting:

I didn't know that some people were using -ba for the imperfect. Peano seemed to have allowed quite a bit of variation in the way it was used.

esef said...

A LsF-Wikipedia would be usefull an a good proof. Some would vote against it - but a SimpleEnglish Wikipedia also exist.

Anonymous said...

Why not learn english instead, much larger userbase and lots more applications than just "international and scientific communication". Also dictionaries and translations are abundant.

Or learn french and procreate.

Unknown said...

Peano's original text 1903 article link ( not working

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