COPYRIGHT © 1997-2001 Paul O. Bartlett
Last Revised: 2001.08.20.

Thoughts on IAL Success

Introduction

Many individuals in recent centuries have been of the opinion that availability of a common language would be of value to the world. Many of them are not proposing to supplant national or ethnic languages but only to have a common intermediary tongue. Nor do most of them claim that such an intermediary language would usher in a time of universal peace. Ferocious wars (such as the American Civil War) have erupted between people of a common tongue. Their claim is only that a common intermediary (auxiliary) language might provide some modicum of positive value in human communication over the current state of affairs.

Some have proposed a national or ethnic language as an auxiliary. In days gone by, French often served as an auxiliary language among many governments and among the upper strata of many societies. Now, English is a language of prestige and use in many parts of the world.

But is a national/ethnic language such as French or English the most desirable solution for the issue of a common auxiliary language? I, and others, think not for at least three reasons.

1) The fortunes of a national or ethnic IAL (international auxiliary language) may be intimately bound up with the fortunes of those nations and/or societies which have that language as a native tongue. As their fortunes ebb and flow, so might also the fortunes of their language. There are already rumors that in some parts of the world English may be losing some of its former prestige and use.

2) Use of a national or ethnic language as an IAL can provoke language jealousy and cries that native speakers are at an unfair advantage. Also, many might complain that a particular language is too intimately bound up with a culture in which they do not participate or with which they disagree. Use of a constructed language which is not anyone's native tongue places people more equally. Therefore, in this essay I am confining my attention to constructed international auxiliary languages.

3) Until such time as an international auxiliary language would be widely adopted by governments and taught to young children in schools generally, most learners will be adults or, at best, adolescents. For most people, ability to learn languages decreases after puberty, and most post-pubescent learners may find a national or ethnic language too difficult to master. Therefore, it is claimed, a constructed language might be easier to learn for the majority of adults.

In mulling over the question of why any particular constructed international auxiliary language (conIAL) does or does not succeed, I have found seven factors which I think are major contributors to the spread and relative success of an IAL:

  1. "Right Place at the Right Time";
  2. "Good Enough";
  3. Stable Base;
  4. Dispersal;
  5. Enthusiasm;
  6. Organization;
  7. External Events.

Much of this discussion will focus on Esperanto ("E-o"), not because I favor it over all others (personally I do not) but because of all constructed IAL proposals, Esperanto has lasted the longest with the most adherents and can therefore to some extent serve as a paradigm of inquiry into factors of constructed IAL (conIAL) success.

1. Right Place at the Right Time

Circumstances have a lot to do with the reception an IAL proposal receives, simply because at different times and in different places, people have different perceptions of the situation of communication. An IAL proposal floated in many parts of the U.S.A. in 1950, say, might not have gone very far for the simple reasons that most people (more or less) spoke, wrote, and read English, never heard or saw anything else but English, may have been only vaguely aware of any other languages than English, and in their circumstances simply had no use, need, or desire for anything but English. To them at the time, an IAL would simply have been superfluous, except as a hobby or curiosity or for the handful of people who might have wanted foreign penpals.

But in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1870s and 1880s, say, the situation was very different. People were bumping up against speakers of other tongues all the time, even in a single city, and were acutely aware of the matter of dissimilar languages. The situation was not merely a theoretical but an intensely practical one, and often people, when they learn another language at all, will do so due to life circumstances, and not necessarily as a result of formal academic training or hypothetical interest.

In the period and place mentioned above, there may well have been a lot of friction over the language issue, and people were receptive to the idea of an interlanguage which purported to be neutral. It was the right place at the right time (or, at least, a suitable place at a suitable time) for an IAL proposal which members of the general public, and not just a scholarly, social, or political elite, might see value in embracing. This probably accounts for the initial enthusiasm for Volapük.

2. Good Enough

However, the very case of Volapük brings up the second factor, "Good Enough." In the end, Volapük probably wasn't, and for the most part it faded away, to be replaced in practice by Esperanto.

Richard Harrison drafted a paper on optimal IAL language design. It is an interesting paper and is available on the World Wide Web. In theory, I agree with most of what he says, although I think even he would agree that a number of issues could be elaborated substantially. (It is to be noted here that Harrison has subsequently repudiated his paper and has apparently left the auxiliary language movement, but I myself think his paper still has value. He has left it available at this :link:.) But, of course, "optimality" may be a somewhat slippery criterion for assessing a constructed language. I consider it entirely possible that it may not be feasible simultaneously to "optimize" two different characteristics of a language. Then what?

In the early- and mid-1900s, the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen was a supporter first of Ido and then of his own IAL, Novial. He elaborated what I call the "Jespersen Criterion": that auxiliary language is best which in all points offers the greatest ease to the greatest number. However, I submit that this criterion is probably unworkable. It may not be feasible to optimize multiple factors simultaneously, so that the Criterion fails in much of any meaningful sense. Or, significantly, it may deal with matters which in practice cannot be adequately quantified, so that it is unusable in practice. Also, and very importantly, there could be other metaconsiderations in the design and/or use of an auxiliary language such that "ease" for some in some particulars might be sacrificed for the sake of other users. Therefore, I do not accept the Jespersen Criterion as being of significant practical value for a global constructed auxiliary language. (Even professionals can have their blind spots.)

Nevertheless, let us suppose that a hypothetical consensus developed on an optimal design for an IAL and that an author or a working group constructed an IAL in harmony with the design. Would that optimality in and of itself ensure the success of the language? I think not.

By many of the design goals in Harrison's paper, E-o is definitely suboptimal, and yet it is the most successful conIAL to date. Why? Here is where the factor of what I call "Good Enough" comes into play. Despite the initial enthusiasm for it, Volapük in some sense was not "good enough." Even if Schleyer had not been heavy-handed in his proprietary control of Volapük, I suspect that it would have died of its own weight anyway once some relatively more usable language came along, which in fact happened with Esperanto.

Certainly, E-o has not been lacking in criticism since its early days. In the volume Interlinguistics (ed. Klaus Schubert, Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1989; ISBN 0-89925-548-5; pp. 4f), André Martinet writes,

I came to the conclusion that, in international contacts, linguistic communication is much easier and more profitable if it is carried out in a language which is not the native one of either interlocutor.

As a linguist, I am still convinced that many, if not all, of the criticisms leveled against Esperanto by supporters of other planned languages were perfectly valid. ... But Esperanto was so much better, i.e., more adequate for international communication, than its predecessors that it became identified as the international auxiliary language, and we can be confident that the continued practice of this language will be conducive to a blurring of its imperfections.

Martinet did not detail the reasons for his conclusions, but he did remark that he could communicate better in English with Germans than he could with native English speakers. This would tend to indicate that a language which was neither speaker's native tongue was a better medium of communication than the same tongue used when it was native to one.

For decades E-o has been subject to barrages of criticisms, sometimes quite bitter and even vituperative, and yet it thrives (relative to other conIALs, of course). Even many Esperantists will concede faults to the language. But I submit that, along with the other factors, E-o is "good enough." For all its faults, it is learnable by people from various native language families (not just Indo-European) sufficiently well that they are willing to expend the time and effort to do so. The factors of "success" were there, and E-o took root in a way no other IAL has to date. Whether you like it or not (and there are things about it I don't like), it does work in practice as a medium of communication between people of dissimilar native languages.

I do not pretend to define "Good Enough" here. I will let the linguistic marketplace sort things out. "Good Enough" is a pragmatic criterion, not a theoretical one. Even in the "right place at the right time," Volapük was not "good enough," but Esperanto was. My point with this factor is that theoretical optimality is all well and good, but it is not at all sufficient by itself to ensure acceptance and use of an IAL, whereas another suboptimal but "good enough" language, taken together with other factors, may have relatively more success. (See also my reference to a study of shorthand systems in the Conclusion, below.)

In the end, then, it is not solely linguistic characteristics which determine the widespread acceptance of an auxiliary language, and such characteristics may not even be the most important factor. English is not a simple language for adult learners, but currently many people around the world try to learn it for what it offers them, not as an end itself. Similarly, advocacy of a conIAL must offer potential learners something. Some may try to learn it as a challenge in itself or because of a hobby interest in languages, but most people, considering the very idea of an international auxiliary language, may try to learn it only because it offers them something. It is this non-linguistic "something" which advocates of a claimed "improved" version of a conIAL must deal with. And advocating a reformed conIAL solely on the ground that it is somehow "better" than the parent simply will not by itself sweep all before it.

3. Stable Base

Some conIAL designers fall into tinkering, ever striving for "perfection" as they see it. But as Andrew Large pointed out in his The Artificial Language Movement ([Oxford]: Basil Blackwell, 1985; ISBN 0-631-14497-8; p. 154),

Like the alchemists of old, artificial language projectors are not easily deterred by others' failures. They doggedly cling to the belief that success can be achieved if only the right mixture of ingredients can be blended in the correct proportions.

No artificial language will ever be "perfect," simply because one person's "perfection" (or, at least, desirable feature) will be another's "fatal flaw." In my opinion, this point cannot be stressed enough: there simply is no such thing as a "perfect" language, "natural" or constructed. As the linguist Mario Pei pointed out, it is not required that an interlanguage be "perfect": it is sufficient that people pick one and agree to use it. If a language is good enough for its purposes, then it is good enough, and endless tinkering to strive ever closer to a supposed "perfection" may actually impede use of any conIAL. Would-be learners and users always find the ground shifting under their feet with a language subject to endless tinkering and supposed "improvements."

Sooner or later, people have to quit tinkering and use something instead of dissipating the energy of the conIAL movement. Many people learn Esperanto in order to use it without getting deeply involved in metaconsiderations. Some people seem to get involved with conIALs for the sake of discussing them endlessly and never get around to trying to build a significant user community which will not spend its time talking about the language almost as if it were an end in itself rather than as a means to an end: improved human communication and understanding.

Languages, being tools for human communication, change and sometimes die (i.e., fall into disuse), just as do humans themselves. No language spoken by very many people ever remains completely static. If nothing else, vocabulary expands to incorporate new human experiences. Also, there are other linguistic processes at work to introduce change, faster or slower, into languages.

Similarly, constructed international auxiliary languages change, especially with respect to vocabulary. If they do not change, they become obsolete. But not all change is necessarily good or desirable.

English, even its written form, has changed. Yet the basic structure of the language has remained stable enough since the Middle English period that an intelligent secondary school student, with the help of some footnotes, can read centuries-old texts of Shakespeare without too much difficulty, even if the spelling is not modernized. Even Chaucer (d. 1400) is partially intelligible to such a student. Despite the rate of vocabulary change in modern English, as well as such sometimes notorious usages as nouns used wholesale as verbs, English has enough underlying stability that there is continuity of intelligibility. (Granted, this applies only to the written form, as spoken Chaucerian English would probably be unintelligible to most non-scholars today.)

Similarly, a conIAL must have some minimal degree of stability if it is to succeed. Many people who would engage an IAL would do so for the sake of being able to communicate with other people with whom they would otherwise not share a common language. They do not engage the auxiliary language as an end in itself. Once a language is "good enough," it needs to have a stable base.

If a constructed language is to fulfill its purpose of facilitating international communications, it must not itself be ever changing. It may, and probably will, change by linguistic processes common to all languages. But once it has come into any degree of more or less widespread use, it must have at least some measure of underlying stability. Change is permissible, and even to be expected, during an experimental and developmental period. But once any widespread usage begins, if there is not some more or less stable base, users would be unable to keep their linguistic footing, so to speak. They would have to engage the language as an end in itself just to keep up with its changes rather than to employ it as a tool for communication.

In 1905, in Boulogne sur Mer, France, a "universal congress" of Esperanto users adopted the Fundamento de Esperanto as the "netushebla" (untouchable) basis for the language after eighteen years of actual use. This act has drawn considerable criticism over the years. Some think that the language was "frozen" by this act too soon. Some disagree with the very idea of a stable base, as they would rather tinker forever.

Nevertheless, the Fundamento gave Esperanto stability that many auxiliary language projects have lacked. Praise the Fundamento or damn it, but within the parameters of the Fundamento, Esperantists have been able to go ahead and use the language for communication instead of wrestling with an ever changing structure as an end in itself.

Not all other conIAL projects have had this stability. Some, such as Interlingua of the International Auxiliary Language Association (IALA), have, the latter with the publication of the Interlingua-English Dictionary and the Interlingua Grammar in 1951. Others, such as Ido, on the other hand, originally intended as a reform of Esperanto, or such as Novial, have to some degree or other lacked this stability. And without some minimal degree of stability to the structure and basic vocabulary, I doubt that a constructed international auxiliary language will prosper.

4. Dispersal

My fourth factor is dispersal. Basically, dispersal includes how effectively a new IAL is published and how the author(s) handle it.

Many IAL projects are published in a single book(let) in a single national language, commonly in English, with some in French, and a few occasionally in Spanish, German, or some other language. And thus they sit. They do not really address an international audience except for those who can read the discussion language and have access to the publication in the first place. The word just does not get out, and most IAL projects die a-borning.

Esperanto's pattern differed from this common one. Although Zamenhof published his first brochure in Russian, it was soon followed up with publications in various languages, including French and English, so that people across much of Europe and North America had at least some access to the new language. Along with being in the "right place at the right time," and having a language that turned out to be "good enough," Zamenhof went to the trouble to get the word out so that a multi-national, multi-lingual audience could actually try to use his language. So it took off.

Also, it was allowed to disperse in part because Zamenhof largely took his hands off it beyond a certain point. He remained the exemplar of good E-o usage, but unlike Schleyer and Volapük he refused to remain the only authority. He let it go to grow, so to speak, unlike many IAL authors who seem to claim proprietary rights and will allow no changes or growth without their personal stamp of approval, or who try to keep a strangle hold on publications. (Other examples of this strangling tendency would seem to be James Cooke Brown and Loglan or Leslie Jones and Eurolengo. Such a claim of proprietary rights, in my estimation, is deadly for an auxiliary language.) Instead, early Esperantists felt free to "take off" with the language (within the parameters of the Fundamento de Esperanto), and even fairly early on people were not only producing rudimentary literature in the language but even discussing the language itself in itself when the latter activity seemed suitable to them.

Surprisingly, the mechanics of dispersal would seem to be easier today than in the late 1800s, but Volapük and Esperanto were more widely dispersed than later IALs. I won't venture a guess as to why this has been so, other than to tender the observation that at least some principals and users of some conIALs may not have yet exploited the possibilities of modern, global electronic communications.

5. Enthusiasm

My fifth factor for IAL success is enthusiasm, more specifically, the enthusiasm of adherents and promoters. For whatever reasons, many people simply have little interest in IALs. Even in situations in which it might seem to be most likely that there would be support for an IAL, there appears to be little such support. For example, in the present European Union (EU), to the best of my information, all primary languages of all member states have equal standing. This creates a large number of language pairs for translation requirements, along with attendant costs, and the number of pairs and the costs will only grow as more nations join the Union unless there is adoption of one or more interlanguages, sometimes referred to as "pivot languages" in this circumstance.

Over the last century and a quarter, approximately, numerous conIAL proposals have come and gone. Most of them never went anywhere. A few have gained some support and even some use. Over the years, Esperanto has gained the most adherents and the most use among IALs. It has generated the most literature, both original and in translation.

Even though the first four factors for the success of an IAL be present, I consider that it is necessary that many adherents have enthusiasm for the language. Of course, enthusiasm is not by itself sufficient: the early supporters and users of Volapük had enthusiasm, but in the end the language did not prosper because one or more of the other factors of success were lacking.

On the other hand, if the other factors are present but enthusiasm among enough people is lacking, again, the language may not prosper. Among the general populace of nations, there is so little knowledge of and so little interest (with some exceptions, of course) in the language problem that there is a considerable social inertia with respect to IALs. Enthusiasm is needed to work against that inertia. Proponents must not simply assume that if they passively present their brainchild to the world, then it will take the world by storm. Advocates must use and promote the language vigorously.

There may even be some extra-linguistic factors involved. In the early days of Esperanto, many users may have supported Zamenhof's idea of Homaranismo, apparently a species of humanism. Although Homaranismo did not depend on Esperanto as such, the coupling in the minds of some may have added to their enthusiasm for the language, giving it more impetus, so that even though Zamenhofian Homaranismo may have dwindled, Esperanto itself had received an extra boost.

Enthusiasm may encompass numbers as well. Not only must those who support an IAL in the beginning push it, but there may eventually have to be some (undefined by me) critical mass of users, without which the language just sort of sputters along as little more than a project. If a language largely remains under the original principals, no matter how enthusiastic they individually are, then the language may remain little more than a hobby for its few users.

It is conceivable that this necessity for enthusiasm may be distasteful to some. They may regard the enthusiasm of some supporters of one or another IAL even to be quasi-political or quasi-religious. So be it. Without the enthusiasm to push against social inertia, I do not expect that any IAL will have much chance of success.

6. Organization

It is unlikely that a conIAL which makes any progress can be a "one man show," so to speak. Before it can go very far, more people must get involved in addition to the primary author (or authors). Zamenhof himself was the original author of Esperanto, but he soon had some financial backing (so I have read) from his wife, and as the language came into use by people, some organization(s) sprang up, whether formal or informal. Despite the awkwardness of the E-o supersigned letters, publications to which people could subscribe came about, and before long there were the Universalaj Kongresoj ("universal congresses") and an Academy. In short, although the beginning may have been slow, E-o soon developed some organization behind it, and this furthered its growth.

Similarly, if any other constructed auxiliary language is to grow, sooner or later it must have some form of organization helping it along, whether that organization be formal or informal, local (especially) or international itself. And one thing that organization can do is to provide the non-linguistic "something" I mentioned earlier, such as contact with other users of the language, an opportunity to acquire publications, or whatever.

7. External Events

Finally, external events may have some effect on the fortunes of an auxiliary language.

In 1907, a (partially self-appointed) delegation for the adoption of an international language proposed reforms to Esperanto. The language thus reformed became known as Ido. At that time a majority of Esperanto users declined to adopt the reforms, and Ido and Esperanto went their ways as more or less independent languages, albeit with a considerable degree of commonality. Whether or not Ido might have eventually overtaken Esperanto in the early decades of the former century is now a moot question.

However, at least two external events overtook Ido: World War I and the death of one of its leading exponents. Whatever may have been the long term prospects for Ido, these two external events can only have hindered its cause. By the time of the death of Zamenhof and the beginning of the Great War, on the other hand, Esperanto had developed a sufficient number of users that it was able to carry on despite these two external events. (Somewhat similarly to the case of Ido, World War II and the death of Otto Jespersen may have hindered the growth of his language Novial.)

There is a degree, of course, to which this factor overlaps that of "Right Place at the Right Time," especially in the matter in which external events can be favorable rather than unfavorable, as with the two elements of misfortune for Ido mentioned above for the latter. For instance, if a quasi-governmental body such as the United Nations, the European Union, or the Organization of American States were to adopt some particular language as an auxiliary, this would certainly be an overwhelmingly positive external event for that language, even beyond being in the right place at the right time.

Conclusion

These seven factors, in my humble opinion, largely account for the growth and relative success of Esperanto and would be the same for any constructed international auxiliary language. And in face of the constant criticisms E-o receives, I want to re-emphasize the concept of "good enough" in the light of other factors as opposed to linguistic "perfection."

Another situation may provide an illustrative example. In 1938 - 1941, the Educational Research Corporation in the United States conducted a study of shorthand for business use, comparing John Robert Gregg's Gregg shorthand with Godfrey Dewey's Script shorthand. They studied the teaching, learning, and use of the two systems, along with some followup in the retention and subsequent commercial and personal use of the acquired skills. They concluded,

The purpose of the Shorthand Study was to determine the relative merits of Gregg and Script shorthand when taught in public high schools for a period of two years, with the objective of general office use. In terms of the features examined, Script shorthand exhibited substantially greater relative merits.
-- Walter L. Deemer and Phillip J. Rulon, An Experimental Comparison of Two Shorthand Systems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942; Harvard Studies in Education, vol. 28; p. 266).

And yet, apart from the specialized field of verbatim reporting, Gregg shorthand became almost synonymous with shorthand itself in the U.S.A. Why? It was not by its greater merits, as the study quoted above measured them. I submit that Gregg shorthand nearly swept the field simply because John Robert Gregg himself was a mover, a salesman, and a promoter. In a figure of speech, he simply out-hustled the competition. To be sure, one cannot readily quantify acquisition, use, and spread of an auxiliary language to the same extent as one can an explicit skill such as shorthand. Nevertheless, Gregg's example shows what can be accomplished with "good enough," enthusiasm, organization, and dispersal, even for a language which non-advocates might deem "inferior."

What about other IAL projects? Well, as I mentioned, most of them simply never survive publication, largely because of the factor of dispersal. I suspect that if your IAL project is going to have much chance of success, it has to be published in multiple languages. To the best of my personal knowledge, the only other (than E-o) conIALs which have much multi-lingual publication are Interlingua and Ido, although there is an effort under way to revive Occidental, and there is some material available in different languages. For Interlingua and Ido, reference materials are available in various tongues, and even the primary IALA Interlingua site on the World Wide Web is polyglot.

There are some small Glosa booklets in languages other than English (including a recent one in Swahili), but nearly everything comes out of Surrey, England, from a single group of two people (2000: now, one), and this is inefficient (and shows a lack of organization). Neo was published in French and then English. Beyond this I have no information for it. Situations may be similar for other conIAL proposals. And, again, there is the problem of a claim of proprietary control raising its ugly head.

What of the other factors? Many of us who still support the IAL ideal want it to succeed, and we think there is a genuine need. Just look at the translation situation in the European Union, which may only grow worse without an intermediary or "pivot" language. And, since (apart from some surviving aboriginal tongues) the overwhelming majority of all literate people in the Western Hemisphere speak English or a Romance language, Interlingua has been suggested as a hemispheric IAL.

But are the conditions there to constitute the "right place at the right time" for the new or further acceptance of an IAL? I honestly don't know. My personal hunch -- and it is only that -- is that new IAL projects are unlikely to succeed, no matter how optimal they are. I suspect that the only two serious candidates for any kind of official or quasi-official acceptance are Esperanto and Interlingua, with Esperanto being in the lead. I think they are the only two which have much chance within my lifetime. (As I say, this is more or less a hunch on my part which I cannot back up quantitatively, and I could well be wrong.)

Glosa advocates claim that it is in unofficial use in various part of the world, although it has only a weak Internet presence. I cannot myself verify the claim at this time. With some cleaning up in its presentation, Glosa could be of use for informal communication among private parties (indeed, I myself once used it in that way), but I do not not foresee its adoption by something like the EU. With its minimal vocabulary, I am not sure it is up to the job. And I see no other candidates on the horizon. (Ido, an offshoot of Esperanto, cleans up many of the objections many people have to the latter, but at present it apparently does not have the dispersal of either Interlingua or Esperanto. However, Ido does have some Internet presence. Whether the current attempt to revive Occidental will go anywhere remains to be seen.)

In the end, dispersal and enthusiasm, I speculate, may be the two most important factors. Without them, even if a language is good enough and in the right place at the right time, with a somewhat stable base, some organization, and no severe external events working against it, it will probably languish.

(Some of this material first appeared on the CONLANG and AUXLANG mailing lists and on the Internet newsgroup sci.lang. Postings from various individuals {especially Mr. Karl Bunday and Mr. Donald Harlow} have helped clarify several of the thoughts in this essay.)