A Hand-Book of Volapük|
and an Elementary Manual of its Grammar and Vocabulary,
Prepared from the Gathered Papers of Gemmell Hunter Ibidem Justice;
Together with an Account of Events Relating to the Annual General Meeting of 1891
of the Edinburgh Society for the Propagation of a Universal Language.
Edited for the First Time by Dr. Charles Cordiner,
What's this all about?
In April 1891, two matters greatly excite the inhabitants of Edinburgh: the decennial Population Census; and the Annual General Meeting of the Edinburgh Society for the Propagation of a Universal Language. The General Secretary of the Society, Mr. Justice, is a staunch champion of the highly-popular language "Volapük", which spread across Europe after 1884; but he is locked in a battle for ascendancy with Dr. Bosman, shameless apologist for "Esperanto". Other members of the Society promote inferior Universal Languages, and rightly merit Mr. Justice's contempt.
Why on earth did I write about Volapük ?Volapük? Like most things in life, there was never anything deliberate about it. One day, I was leafing through material relating to Victorian Utopian ideas (as one does), and there was the word staring up at me: "Volapük". Like something Jean-Luc Picard might get worried about.
The word interested me, and then the language itself - "world speak": the more I read about the Volapük Language movement, its sudden rise and dramatic fall, its splinter-groups and its rivalry with Esperanto, the more I recognised in it some of my own experiences with radical movements in the 1970's and 80's. How could a movement dedicated to fraternal co-operation and friendship through communication become so embroiled in bitter factionalism and fatally weakened by misinterpretation? There was a rich seam here.
Equally fascinating was to research the other, even less well-known, "universal languages" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, or those of earlier dates. One such language was loudly championed - but, like 21st century "vapourware", never ever detailed - by Sir Thomas Urquhart in the 17th century.
In considering all of these languages - and in some cases, learning the basic grammar - I suffer for my art! - questions began to present themselves. What exactly was the purpose of a Universal Language? Given the wide variety of language-families in the world, how could one language claim to be equally appropriate to all nations? Was there latent cultural imperialism in the promotion of any one Universal Language? Would communication by numbers be more egalitarian? Would a Universal Language utterly emasculate or sterilise the ability of language to power the imagination?
Put these matters and themes together with my other transient interests of the past couple of years: a private Lunatic Asylum once housed in a crumbling country residence featured in Restoration; the first Scottish hot-air balloonist; the mechanics of church organs; the decennial Population Census; and Arbroath Smokies. You have exactly one hour to construct an unlikely plot...