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Trüth, Beaüty, and Volapük

Arika Okrent explores the rise and fall of Volapük – a universal language created in the late 19th century by a German priest called Johann Schleyer.

Johann Schleyer on a harp given to him as a 50th birthday present by his colleagues at Sionsharfe, a magazine devoted mainly to Catholic poetry, which Schleyer edited and in which he first published on Volapük in 1879 – Source.

Johann Schleyer was a German priest whose irrational passion for umlauts may have been his undoing. During one sleepless night in 1879, he felt a Divine presence telling him to create a universal language. The result was Volapük. It was designed to be easy to learn, with a system of simple roots derived from European languages, and regular affixes which attached to the roots to make new words. Volapük was the first invented language to gain widespread success. By the end of the 1880s there were more than 200 Volapük societies and clubs around the world and 25 Volapük journals. Over 1500 diplomas in Volapük had been awarded. In 1889, when the third international Volapük congress was held in Paris, the proceedings were entirely in Volapük. Everyone had at least heard of it. President Grover Cleveland’s wife even named her dog Volapük.

Though Schleyer was German, a large part of the Volapük vocabulary was based on English. “Volapük” was a compound formed from two roots, vol (from “world”) and pük (from “speak”). However, it was often hard to spot the source of a Volapük word because of the way Schleyer had set up the sound system of the language. “Paper” was pöp, “beer” bil, “proof” blöf and “love” löf. He had rational reasons for most of the phonological choices he made. For simplicity, he tried to limit all word roots to one syllable. He avoided the ‘r’ sound, “for the sake of children and old people, also for some Asiatic nations.” The umlauts, however, were there for löf.

“A language without umlauts,” he wrote, “sounds monotonous, harsh, and boring.” He decried the “endlessly gloomy u and o,” the “broad a” and the “sharp i” of umlautless languages. Though many members of the growing Volapük community may have agreed with his aesthetic judgment, many others thought that for Volapük to have a serious chance at being a world language, the umlauts had to go.

The official crest of Volapük, with its motto “menad bal pük bal” (One mankind, one language) – from the title page of Dictionary of Volapük (1889), by M.W. Wood.

Indeed, in the United States especially, those umlauts added a threatening and/or ridiculous air of foreignness to the language. Much fun was had at the expense of Volapük on account of those umlauts in local papers such as the Milkaukee Sentinel:

A charming young student of Grük
Once tried to acquire Volapük
But it sounded so bad
That her friends called her mad,
And she quit it in less than a wük.

By 1890 the Volapük movement was falling apart due to arguments about umlauts and other reforms. Schleyer left the Volapük Academy and formed his own academy of loyalists. Other Volapükists created their own versions of the language – Nal Bino, Balta, Bopal, Spelin, Dil, Orba – all of which immediately fell into the obscurity that soon swallowed Volapük itself.

Meanwhile Esperanto, another language that had been rapidly growing since its introduction in 1887, was scooping up all the new recruits to the universal language idea. Esperanto had no umlauts, nor problems with embracing ‘r’. Its roots, though less based in English, were instantly recognizable. “World” was mondo and “to speak” paroli. “Paper” was papero, “beer” biero, “proof” pruvo, and “love” amo.

Schleyer decried Esperanto as “an ugly-sounding hodgepodge.” He criticized its use of “unnecessary” and “difficult to pronounce” sounds like “sh” and “ch.” He scoffed at it for allowing dipthongs (“Ugly!”), “harsh sound combinations,” and the “rattling, hard, bony ‘r'”. Also, it had no umlauts. According to Schleyer, if you compared Esperanto to Volapük it was clear that one “was created by a Pole” (the Bialystok-born Ludovic Zamenhof), and the other by “a music connoisseur, composer, and poet.”

Esperanto went on to become the most successful invented language of all time, but it too suffered from criticism, infighting, and its own schism. In 1907 a group of Esperantists backed a reform project called Ido, which did away with some of the awkward elements of Esperanto. They changed affixation rules that resulted in phrases like belajn semajnojn (beautiful weeks) so that they would instead produce bela semani. They got rid of the accented characters ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, and ŝ, and replaced some of the challenging root words: pilko (ball) became balon and ŝtrumpo (stocking, pronounced shtrumpo) became kalzo.

The four Presidents of the Youth Esperanto Club in Münster, Germany, in 1907 – Source.

But Ido died out and Esperanto marched on through to the current day without making the suggested changes. Today, Esperantists (some tens of thousands of them) are still happily enjoying belajn semajnojn at the parko, kicking around a pilko in their sandaloj and ŝtrumpoj. The little infelicities turned out not to matter all that much to the survival of the language. Every language has its lumpy bits, and beauty is in the ear of the beholder. You like potato; I like potahto, and Schleyer preferred pötet.

It wasn’t really the umlauts that killed Volapük, but a combination of factors, the most important probably being that the chances of any artificial language gaining a following are slim to none. There were hundreds of invented languages that came before Volapük and hundreds that came after, and almost no one has heard of any of them. Esperanto is the rare exception, but its success (relative as it is) has less to do with its linguistic features than with the luck of timing and circumstances.

Volapük didn’t die out completely. It has a bit of life today; there are a few online lessons and discussion boards. There is even a Volapük Wikipedia with over 100,000 articles. And its name lives on in the Danish expression det er det rene volapyk – “It’s pure Volapük,” or, in other words “It’s Greek to me.”

Arika Okrent is a linguist and the author of In the Land of Invented Languages
, named one of the best books of 2009 by the San Francisco Chronicle. In the name of research, she eavesdropped on Esperanto, kibitzed in Klingon, and translated a line of Borges into the 17th Century philosophical language of John Wilkins.

Links to works

On Volapük

  • Grammar with vocabularies of Volapük (the language of the world) for all speakers of the English language (1887), by W.A. Seret.

  • Hand-book of Volapük (1888), by Charles Ezra Sprague.

  • Volapük, or, Universal language: a short grammatical course (1888), by Alfred Kirchoff.

  • Dictionary of Volapük: Volapük-English, English-Volapük (1889), by Marshall William Wood.

On Esperanto

  • English-Esperanto dictionary (1907), by John Charles O’Connor and C.F. Hayes.

  • *Esperanto (the universal language): the student’s complete text book: containing full grammar, exercises, conversations, commercial letters, and two vocabularies (1903), by John Charles O’Connor.

  • International language, past, present & future, with specimens of Esperanto and grammar (1907), by Walter John Clark.

On Ido

  • English-international dictionary (1908), by L. de Beaufront, Louis Couturat, and Paul Desdemaines Hugon.

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  • Mustafa Demiray

    Hi, We have published a book on the world’s first invented language, Baleybelen, it’s mean “The language of Muhyi”, by Muhyi-i Gulseni, a XIV century sufi in Istanbul. The book was edited and published by Ph.D. Mustafa Koc Kind Regars

    • Actually, Hildegard von Bingen’s Lingua Ignota precedes this language by about 2 centuries, so it still is the world’s first invented language (that we have evidence of). Still, it’s nice to hear of such an early conlang not of Western origin.

  • I do think that the success of Esperanto has something to do with the ease it can be learnt: no irregular verbs at all, phonetic spelling, use of affixes to reduce the number of words to be memorised, etc.

    • Volapük had all those things as well, and eventually failed. So did Ido, Interlingua, and many others. So it’s not those features that separate Esperanto from unsuccessful IALs.

      Rather, I believe that it was Zamenhof relinquishing any rights to the language, his focus not only on practicality but also on beauty (there’s a reason so many of his original texts were poems, which speak not only to the mind but also to the heart of people), and the timing of Esperanto’s appearance (right at the time when the Volapük community was disintegrating, resulting in plenty of people already sold to the idea of an IAL, but without one to use, since Schleyer had forbidden them to use Volapük unless they’d do it his way, and thus more than ready to adopt Esperanto when it’d just appeared) that gave Esperanto a head start that no other IAL afterwards got.

      • Jens S. Larsen

        Esperanto did not get a head start. It was published in 1887, but struggled for its existence for at least a decade, and seriously took off only around the first world congress of Esperantists in 1905. Volapük appeared in 1879, took the world with storm during the 1880’s, and then collapsed even more suddenly than it had been built up. Everyting about Esperanto and Volapük is different, not just the outward appearance.

      • The true reasons of the victory of Esperanto, and the fall of Ido, Volapuk, and others, were well undestood by Zamenhof himself. You can find them in his “Antaŭpaolo” (foreword) to the book “Fundamento de Esperanto” (Foundation of Esperanto). In that text we can see, that Zamenhof had genius intuitons about the social and pragmatic phaenomena of language use. Linguistics and Language Philsophy, in those times, were not as aware of such phaenomena, as Zamenhof intuitively was…

        The Antaŭparolo of the Fundamento is stil today a text worth to be deeply studied…

        Sorry for my “broken english”…

  • Fascinating article – thanks. However, I think there may be a typo in one sentence: “There were hundreds of invented languages that came before Volapük the hundreds that came after, and almost no one has heard of any of them.” Word #11 (“the”) should be “and”, I believe.

    • Adam Green

      Thanks! All fixed up.

  • Klingon probably has more speakers.

    Dunno about Elvish.

  • As a linguistic researcher, a lifelong Esperanto-speaker and sf fan, and a longtime student of Klingon, I can assure Blake that that isn’t the case.

    A small number of people are capable of conversing in Klingon. Arika Okrent guessed in her book “In the Land of Invented Languages” that there might be 20–30 fluent speakers. (

    Estimates of Esperanto speakers range from 10,000 to 2,000,000 active or fluent speakers, as well as perhaps a thousand native speakers, that is, people who learned Esperanto from birth as one of their native languages. (

    tlhIngan veQbeq marqem la’Hom — Heghbej ghIHmoHwI’pu’!     Subcommander marqem, Klingon Sanitation Corps              Death to Litterbugs!

  • Thorfin

    Just the name Volapuk makes me smile. Many years ago in Salt Lake City one of the TV stations, KTVX-4 had a Friday night horror movie show. “Nightmare Theater” hosted by someone calling himself “Dr.Volapuk.”

  • Robert

    Interesting article, but misinformed about Ido which has not died out. There are currently three printed magazines in the language, plenty of Internet forums, and a wide variety of websites in or about Ido, such as (in Ido) and (in English and Ido).

  • This article about Volapük may have its funny aspects, but it is incomplete. Volapük never died. It was moderately reformed around the 1930s, and there is an unbroken chain of “Cifals” (chiefs of the Volapük community) from Johann Martin Schleyer to today’s Brian Bishop. Lots of materials are available for people interested in learning and reading modern Volapük (see: Native speakers of English may consider umlauts as somewhat awkward, but French, German, the Scandinavian languages including Finnish, plus Hungarian, the Turkic and Mongolian languages etc. etc. have no problems with them, and even English has the ä and ö (bad, word). So perhaps this criticism about umlauts in Volapük refers to the letters äöü which are not easily accessible on English keyboards.

    With regard to “failure”, Esperanto is just another example when considering the original purpose of uniting whole mankind under one common language.

    In fact, Volapük is a fascinating language well meriting the attention of language lovers.

  • Gonçalo Neves

    This is a great article. However, there is some piece of wrong information about Ido language. First of all, it was not designed by “a group of Esperantists”. Some of the scholars who participated in its conception and development were not Esperantists. The word for “ball” in Ido is not “balon” but “balono”. And, last but not the least, Ido hasn’t “died out”. Without being a corpse, a ghost or a zombie, I use it everyday with people from several countries. Being small doesn’t mean being dead…

  • A fair assessment, but what is not generally recognised is that the in-fighting in the Esperanto movement had nothing to do with linguistics. When the truth about the Ido-skismo was know there was a cry of ‘trompo kaj perfido’ (deception and betrayal). It was a coup against the Esperanto movement led by three Frenchmen. The highest profile one was Marquis Louis de Beaufront, who turned out to be plain M. Louis Chevrier. He had mysteriously been advancing the idea that Esperanto was ‘just a language’, with no philosophy, thus undermining Zamenhof’s ‘interna ideo’, the inner idea of Esperanto. Yet the Esperantists could not come to terms with the idea that this was a French coup against the Esperanto movement, rather than just a few nutters who thought they had better linguistic ideas than Zamenhof.

    The same idea is now being advanced by a mysterious organisation called ‘La Esperanta Civito’ under the guise of a pseudo-philosophy which they call ‘Rauxmismo’. Again, the Esperantists cannot come to terms with the idea that this could be a coup against the Esperanto movement, but that it is just a few nutters who happen to be undermining the movement.

  • David Wolff

    Professor Sidney Culbert of the University of Washington researched the number of speakers of various languages, and is the source of the estimates of 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 speakers. Letters from him discussing the methods and results are at, see “Number of Esperanto speakers.”

  • aniruddha banhatti

    As her book about artificial languages, Arika Okrent’s article contains large chunks of half-baked-poorly-researched knowledge and large volume of misinformation and subjective and personal opinions, like, Esperanto survives still because of luck, actually its survival being mainly due to logical and easily learnable structure, and as an Esperantist I believe it will spread more precisely due to its ease, still she is better than the silly french ex-precident Chirac, who said -Now that Esperanto is dead, English will be the world language, in accepting that Esperanto is living and flourishing by the day.

  • I don’t think that this history is complete reference to two recent developments: 1.Esperanto has recently, just last year, been approved for teaching in Brazilian middle schools following positive remarks by the President about the desirability of Esperanto as a language for international communication. 2.The author of Australia’s Language Policy recommends a “universal apprenticeship n learning languages” for all young Australians, and considers Esperanto to be suitable for the purpose. Materials have been designed to equip Australian primary teachers to teach the language to an effective standard in 100 hours of class time and the use of the Apprenticeship Language Learning (ALL)Strategy to make all young Australians multiculturally bilingual in primary school has been formally proposed to the designers of the National Curriculum.

  • I would like to add a third “development” to the two mentioned by Penny Vos.

    On 23 February 2012, Google added Esperanto to the languages that Google can translate.

    In this page, you can hear the reading of the text to translate, or the translated text. The reading in Esperanto is fairly good. The Google portal has already existed during several years:

    The reaction of the Google translation team was very interesting:

    23 February 2012 Google adds Esperanto to Google Translate, making it the 64th supported language. Neniel!

    Google implies that addition of the language a largely symbolic measure, designed to emphasize the fact that both Google Translate and the Esperanto language were created to further the goal of helping people understand one another. Google says that the team was actually stunned by how well the machine engine handled the language.

    For Esperanto, the number of existing translations is 

    comparatively small. German or Spanish, for example, have more than 100 times the data; other languages on which we focus our research efforts have similar amounts of data as Esperanto but don’t achieve comparable quality yet.

    Google attributes the ease of translation of the language to the fact that it was constructed in a way that was easy for humans to learn and therefore is easy for machines to translate. You can try out the new language on the Google Translate site now.

  • April March

    This is a great article, but I find it hilarious that it proposes that Volapük lost its place as a widely spoken conlang to Esperanto because it uses a lot of umlauts. Esperanto has five consonants that use an accent- ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, and ŝ. And Esperanto has an accented U as well, except that it uses a breve – ŭ – rather than the umlaut. If people were really choosing their conlang by looking at their scripts and frowing at diacritics, I’m sure Esperanto would’ve been the clear loser!