Invisible Lighthouse -> Language Lab -> Volapük Reformation


from the 21st edition of Journal of Planned Languages
copyright © 1995 by Ed Robertson

Arie de Jong's Revision of Volapük (1931)

by Ed Robertson

Volapük was first published in 1879 by Johann Martin Schleyer (1831-1912) and for a brief period achieved immense popularity before being eclipsed by Esperanto. Indeed Volapük is second or third after Esperanto, and possibly Ido, in terms of its historical impact as a constructed language, the number of speakers it once had, number of copies of publications and so on.

The demise of Volapük is usually put down to four factors:

a) Its alleged general unsuitability as an easily learnable planned language.

b) The proprietorial attitude of its inventor, Schleyer, towards reforms.

c) The clamour for reforms which split and demoralised the movement.

d) The superiority of some of its competitors.

Many reformers wanted to make radical changes in a naturalist direction, such as those in control of the Kadem Bevünetik Volapüka (International Volapük Academy) who eventually produced Idiom Neutral (1898) and its successors, whilst others retained the spirit of Volapük as a mixed language system, i.e. a mixture of apriori and aposteriori elements, but completely changed the actual content, such as A. Nicholas' project Spokil (1889).

In 1912 Schleyer died and little was heard of the declining Volapük movement until a revival occurred led by Arie de Jong (1865-1957) in the Netherlands in the 1930's, and also in Germany until banned by Hitler. Again after the war, the movement resumed its publications, and this continued regularly as late as the 1960's.

There are still a few people who actively use Volapük, probably 25-30 worldwide, and some new learners, including a group of students taught in an after-hours class at a school in Germany. The language of the revival between the wars was the revised version ellaborated by Arie de Jong between 1921 and 1931 (Volapük pebevoböl), as opposed to Schleyer's original version (Volapük rigik), and it is the one normally used now.

De Jong's revision of Volapük is interesting for number of reasons: It retained the spirit and most of the content of the original Volapük; it brought it up to date with neologisms for technological advances; it standardised the affix system; and it filled in a couple of gaps and bad design features in the grammar. It is also one of the few examples of a proposed revision being officially and immediately accepted into a constructed language and of the revised version remaining virtually stable thereafter.

Most important of all, the letter r was brought back. Schleyer avoided the letter r because he thought it would be difficult for the Chinese and others, and this resulted in words like blod, from English brother and flapön, to hit, from French frapper. However, Chinese does have an r, and the Japanese have the opposite problem.

Although l was retained in de Jong's revision in a number of the commonest words, some of more deformed roots were made more recognisable and lilöm (rain) became rein, lilädön (to read) became reidön and so on. International words borrowed into Volapük, too, could now be more recognisable, e.g. program, dolar, merit, tren, kravat, farm, risk and so on.

Proper names were volapükised in a more systematic way, with less need of a pronouncement from the datuval (great discoverer). England became Linglän and Italy became Litaliyän instead of Nelij and Täl. As these two examples show, however, de Jong did not interfere with Schleyer's rule that all roots were to begin with a consonant so that vowel prefixes could indicate tenses, even in non-verbs, e.g. del= a day; adel = today, odel = tomorrow, ädel = yesterday, and so on. In fact occasional roots beginning with a vowel, such as Ägüptän (Egypt), which had crept in, were standardised back to Lägüptän.

The new version removed many isomeric forms. These are words which can be analysed in more than one way, e.g. le/mel, big-sea, i.e. ocean, and lem/el, buying-person, i.e. purchaser, and which conflict with the principle of monosignificance (one word, one meaning) which is shared by Volapük and (less rigidly) Ido. In the case of the above example, ozean was introduced, lem became rem, and the meaning of the suffix -el was restricted to mean maker of, e.g. mitel, butcher, bodel, baker. The looser suffix of -an was introduced to mean person characterised by.

The number system was revised with the system of adding -s to the units to form the tens being replaced by the introduction of a word deg for ten to be used instead. Thus in original Volapük one, two, three was bal, tel, kil and ten, twenty, thirty was bals, tels, kils. In revised Volapük the latter became deg, teldeg, kildeg.

The verb system was overhauled. Previously there were three different forms of the imperative and, for example, if you wanted to tell someone to be quiet, you could choose between seilolös! , seilolöd!, or seilolöz!, each of a different intensity. Thus you had an optative, or a please be quiet form, a normal imperative be quiet, and a jussive, or why don't you shut up form. De Jong abolished the last of these but kept the other two, even though, in an earlier age, Auguste Kerckhoffs had advocated the reduction of the imperative to just one form.

Still on verbs, old Volapük had an aorist aspect which was used to give an idea of permanence and was formed by inserting an i between the tense marker and the root. Thus you were able to differentiate between olödob in zif, I shall live in the town, and oilödob in zif, I shall always live in the town. This was also abolished.

The use of the subjunctive particle -la was restricted to instances where the speaker wishes to imply ridicule or unlikelihood, thus the indicative form ogivob ole paunis lul , I shall give you five pounds, would be ogivob-la ole paunis lul in the subjunctive. However rather than meaning I may give you five pounds, it would now be more translatable by the Cockney expression give you five pounds (guv), I should cocoa.

On the other hand, not all the changes were ones of simplification. Two new tenses were introduced in addition to the existing six: the future-in-the-past and the future-in-the-past perfect, using the previously unallocated vowel prefixes ö and ü. Thus we have ölöfob and ülöfob, roughly translatable by the English I was going to love and I was going to have loved, with the difference that in English there is an implied "...but I didn't" which is absent from the Volapük.

A number of changes were made to the personal pronoun system. The reflexive pronoun used to be tagged on the end of the verb after the other pronoun ending, thus löfobsok or löfoboks, we love ourselves. Reformers before de Jong had separated the reflexive off and made it an ordinary object of the sentence: löfobs okis. He also introduced od, meaning "each other," to avoid ambiguity. Thus löfobs odis, we love each other. Other pronouns introduced were oy, meaning one, e.g. spikoy Volapüki, one speaks Vp., or Vp. spoken, and or and ors, which were intended to be new polite forms of the second person pronouns ol and ols.

These two didn't really catch on, however, and or and ors tend to be used purely poetically now, in a similar way to the Esperanto ci. He also proposed one-and-a-halfth personal pronouns og and ogs meaning respectively you or me and we (including you). This didn't catch on either.

The use of the male pronoun om (plural oms) to refer to humans of indeterminate sex was abolished and the new neuter pronouns on and ons, which formerly meant the impersonal pronoun one were used instead. The old neuter pronoun os now continued to be used only in impersonal expressions as a null subject marker, e.g. reinos for it is raining.

In fact this was only one of a number of anti-sexist reforms in his version of the language. Previously, for many roots, the basic form was the male one, and the female was formed by the prefix ji- (pronounced 'shee'), e.g. dog, a dog or male dog, ji-dog, a bitch, just like the original usage in Esperanto, hundo/hundino. De Jong changed this to dog , a dog, hi-dog, a male dog, and ji-dog, a bitch. This echoes a reform proposal by Julius Lott (before he developed his own language), where he proposed dog, om-dog and of-dog, using the personal pronouns meaning he and she. Thankfully, Esperanto usage is now moving towards hundo, virhundo and hundino.

Even Schleyer's original Volapük was more enlightened than Esperanto in that father and mother was fat e mot, and man and woman was man e vom, and not fat e ji-fat , man e ji-man. However, it still had blod/ji-blod, for brother/sister and son/ji-son , for son/daughter. De Jong introduced new roots to address this problem, and so, sister became sör and daughter daut. On the other hand, those who wanted to use derivatives could do so, because they could say higem and jigem instead of blod and sör, or hicil and jicil instead of son and daut .

Finally, just to round things off, another case was introduced, to add to Schleyer's four (nominative, accusative, genitive and dative), or five if you include the vocative. This new case is the predicative case, using the ending -u, and is used in expressions such as "he has painted the door red": ekölom yani rediku.

There are a lot of other things de Jong could have done to Volapük, but he didn't. De Jong's reforms raise a number of questions, such as "How far can you go with reforms of a living language?," "What would have happened if de Jong's reforms had been introduced to Volapük in the 1880s?," and "Do reforms usually fail because they often try to fix things that aren't broken?". But I shall not attempt to answer them.

Readers interested in learning Volapük should contact:
Ralph Midgely, Flenef Bevünetik Volapüka,
24 Staniwell Rise,
Scunthorpe, DN17 1TF, England.


Update (February 2001): There is a significant amount of Volapük material at Ken Caviness' webpage ( If you like Volapük, you might also be attracted to Vorlin.