Newspaper article, 1899: Volapuk has vanished. English seems to be the "world language"

Friday, May 22, 2009

Here's the second article I've found on Volapük at the time when it was still quite well known, but this latter one was written in 1899 (thus 12 years after the last one) when the language had almost completely vanished, and it's a more somber piece on why the language failed to succeed and whether artificial languages themselves could succeed either. No mention here of any other projects besides Volapük. There's a very interesting part in the middle featuring a pretty eccentric user of the language that reminds me of a few people I know. The story in the middle about the Danish maiden doesn't seem to make any sense though - anyone have any idea what that's supposed to mean?

The name of this newspaper is the Nebraska State Journal and the exact date is June 18, 1899, but the article was written originally in the New York Sun.




Last of the Devotees in This Country, Editor of Volapuk, Is Missing and the Cult Is Dead.

What has become of volapuk? Who ever hears of it now? It came into being with force enough and lasted long enough to have the name become familiar among civilized peoples the world over, and was made enough of so that the word volapukist found a place in an English dictionary. But it is a half-remembered idea, little more than an echo now, in places where a few years ago it meant a very present fetish. The name figures once in this year's directory of the city of New York as the title of a journal devoted to the cult, but the man who ran the paper disappeared last October and none of his former acquaintances knows where to find him. Twenty years ago, in 1879, the volapuk ("world-language" or "world-speech") was invented. Ten years later there were twenty-three periodicals published in it. Half a dozen years after that the encyclopedias noted a falling off in the number of publications in the language and for the last four or five years the word has become more and more rare, not only here but all over the world, and volapuk students are all but non-existent. Thre are some of them, to be sure; there is even an academy of volapuk, in Russia, but outside of the academy the activity of its propagandists has ceased.

The reporter seemed to be raking the ashes of forgotten fires when he put the question as to the present standing of volapuk, whether east of the Bowery or on the Morningside Acropolis, or in the middle ground of the purileus of Riverside. Yet enough people were interested in it in this country a few years ago to buy 5,000 copies of the "Handbook of Volapuk" which was issued by Charles E. Sprague, president of the Union Dime Savings bank, to say nothing of the large number of persons who took up the study in Germany, the home of the invention, and in other countries of the world. Colonel Sprague acknowledged the decadence of the cult, but he thinks that its existence showed two things, that an international language is practicable and the volapukists were ahead of the time, ahead of the real demand for such a speech. The experiment he expects to bear fruit in the future, and, while he does not look for a recrudescence during the lives of the recent devotees of the volapuk fetish, he believes that the literature accumulated by them will be of service at the time, which he thinks is coming, when enough educated people of the various countries of the world will desire to know intimately what is going on in the countries not their own, and will desire to be able to converse with the people of those countries in a common language. He has, however, withdrawn recently from the academy, partly because he deems that the modifications of volapuk which the academy are making, modifications conforming more to the usages of living languages and getting away from the original ideas of volapuk, tend only to make it useless not to aid its adoption.

Mr. Sprague says that while large numbers of educated people dabbled in the language for a time they did not find people enough in whom they were interested to induce them to continue to pursue the study. He says that we are really only beginning to take an interest in the affairs of the peoples of the world, and that when that interest is more widespread a successor to volapuk will be used generally. Professors of languages at Columbia university do not agree with this prophecy, and do not apprehend having to learn or to teach volapuk or any other artificial language. One instructor frankly pronounced volapuk scientifically impossible. He drew attention to the impossibility of men getting away from the influences of their environment, particularly in the matter of phonetics. Johann Schleyer, the inventor of the language, a German, preserved enough of the characteristics of the German tongue in it so that its acquisition by persons who know German is not difficult, whereas it has been pointed out that it is not adapted at all to people who speak such language, for instance, as the Hungarian and is not suited to the abilities of Finns. It is easy for people who know two or three of the principal language, but they are not the ones who need it.

"The story is familiar of the inability of persons from different countries of the mediaeval world to understand one another's spoken Latin, although all understood the language and written communications in it. Colloquial dialects show what this influence accomplishes at the time, in pronunciation as well as in words. An artificial language intended for universal use must contend with this difficulty. It has been observed that an insurmountable difficulty in the way of volapuk becoming a universal language lies in its inability to render the idiomatic expressions of the various living languages. One of the most marked characteristics of a living language, too, is the tendency to constand change, which would be a serious factor in the artificial life of volapuk. These points are enumerated among the reasons for the cult's decadence, although a shorter one is furnished in the usual course of fads or crazes, which rage for a time and subside almost as abruptly as they rose.

The man who figured as the publisher of Volapuk in this city was more curious than the language he exploited. He was known variously as Philips, Henry or Frederick Heinsberger, and for eight years he received his mail at a small barber shop kept by A. G. Henninger at 15 First avenue. That was the only address the periodical was known to have. Hensberger used to call there for his mail and to be shaved. His aversion to having his hair cut was such tha Heinninger used to offer to cut it for nothing, so that Heinsberger's exit from the shop might not (it?) seen hurt the reputation of the place. Heinsberger's correspondence was large and came from people all over the world, both as to volapuk and philatelles. He had a collection of stamps and knew the value offhand of almost every variety about which he was questioned. He had a phenomenal memory and could tell the tariff on any articly that came up in discussion as readily as he could the value of stamps.

He was a linguist and would talk to persons of different nationalities whom he happened to meet in their own language, deciding after a few sentences whether they were worthy talking to, from his standpoint, or not. He could talk, it is said, on all subjects and with an appearance of sound knowledge, and if those he spoke to talked of things of which they really had no knowledge he would prompty quit the conversation and turn to reading. He furnished various foreign papers to persons around town, but would never go to them. Henninger says, to collect payment, insisting that all business should be done by mail. He could not screw up courage, the barber says, to ask any one for money. Last October he disappeared from Henninger's ken(?), owing him nothing. In January Henninger had a few lines about him put into The Sun and he soon after received a letter from Heinsberger, mailed in this city, telling him to hold his mail for him as he would call for it sometime, but not in the immediate future. Meanwhile it is piling up for him; boxes and shelves being full of it, including some registered letters.

Volapuk was designed to be a useful commercial language, with its chief advantages in a simple and regular grammar. Its vocabulary comprises about 14,000 words, of which about 1,300 are root words, a third of these being taken from the English language, a quarter from the French and the Romance languages, a fifth from the German and the rest from other living languages. It aimed to become a universal medium, but a vital deficiency characterizing it was illustrated in an international episode of the time the volapuk craze was at its height. The story has been told in great secrecy of the meeting of a young American, who while a student in Germany, took a trip to Denmark, where he met and instandly succumbed to a Danish maiden, who allowed it to be perceived that she was equally smitten with him. She knew no more English than he did Danish, and they would not make such volapuk as they had at command serve. At last he seized and kissed her, and she managed to say to him that that was volapuk.

Eugene II, Babbitt of Columbia remarked in conversation on the decline of the volapuk fad:

"The world is acquiring a pretty satisfactory volapuk, a live and natural, not an artificial one, and people are beginning to notice it. When the newspapers first began to comment on the preponderance of the mail addressed in English in the total postal business of the world, the announcement was made that more than two-thirds of the mail was addressed in that language, in other words that all the other languages together were used in the super-scriptions on less than one-half the amount of correspondence that the English language was used on. The last figures published showed that England furnished about three-fourths of all. I think there is not another language in the world in which 100,000,000 people can communicate in spoken words and understand one another, using their natural form of speech. More than 100,000,000 people can so talk to and understand one another in the English tongue. Perhaps 18,000,000 Germans may converse in a common tongue and understand one another, but many of them have got to go outside of their natural language and take up the literary form of their speech in order to do so. The people of England, Ireland, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand can communicate intelligently with one another without going outside of their natural forms of speech. I doubt if a foreign coming to this country could distinguish the different sections of the country the Americans he meets come from by any differences in their speech. The addressing of mail in English of course implies an English speaking person at one end of the line, at least. Those figures speak for themselves. It looks decidedly as though English to the modern world was to become, and was rapidly becoming, what Greek was to the Mediterranean nations before Rome overspread the lands, the language of the business of the world."

In a book which Mr. Babbitt is preparing as a result of his investigations as secretary of the American dialect society, he dwells upon the conditions which formerly led to local variations of speech among colonies or communities of a common language, and draws attention to the similarity of speech of idiom and of pronunciation that now characterizes so large a proportion of the people of the United States. The change has come by reason, he finds, of the great amount of traveling done by the people of the country, those of the country meeting frequently with those of the city and those of one region meeting those of another. Such facility of transportation as now keeps the English speaking peoples in all parts of the world in constant intercourse with one another and with the rest of the world was, of course, never known before, and as this intimate relationship over extended territory has tended to uniformity of speech among the people of the United States -- even the children of foreigners who in their own homes continue the used of their native language yielding invariably to the influence of the environment in acquiring the speech of the inhabitants of the country -- the promise to help out that over the whole world English will be carried and adopted the universal language, a "pretty satisfactory volapuk," which is to say, "world-speech."-- New York Sun.


Anonymous said...

I've spotted a few errors:

Thre are -> There are
constand -> constant
such tha Heinninger -> such that Henninger
philatelles -> philatelics

Also, "ken" looks right,

Bill Chapman said...

With regard to the mystery man "known variously as Philips, Henry or Frederick Heinsberger", I wonder if there is any link at all to the Henry Phillips who had some involvement with Esperanto?

For a link between this Phillips and Volapuk, see:
Brinton, Daniel G., Henry Phillips, and Monroe B. Snyder. Report of the Committee
appointed October 21, 1887, to examine into the scientific value of Volapük, presented
to the American Philosophical Society,November, 1887. Proceedings of the
American Philosophical Society 24, 1887.12 p.

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