rickharrison.com Artificial Language Lab

from the 13th edition of Journal of Planned Languages
copyright 1992 by R. K. Harrison

language profile: Suma

Doctor Barnett Russell created the language Suma. He self-published three editions of his book; the first was entitled Suma, the 1000-word universal language (Gordena, California: 1957) and the third was called Suma, a neutral universal language (Plainview, New York: 1966). Neutrality, as Dr. Russell called it, means the words are not borrowed from natural languages but are instead created synthetically, according to plan. Unlike most a priori languages, Suma's words are not part of a systematic, classificational scheme; however, there are many pairs and triplets of words which have both similar meanings and similar forms, for example: pamo, pimo = man, woman; amo, imo = brother, sister; poma, pema = good, bad; sole, sele, sule = sun, moon, star.

Consonants and vowels alternate in most Suma words; consonant clusters only occur in foreign words: "suma te kana nato sako" = Suma be/is/was easy world language; "tama ribo te bena e kana mote poti" = each word is short and easy to learn. This makes the language easy for all the world's peoples to pronounce, and gives Suma text an appearance similar to that of Samoan or Hawaiian. The size of the vocabulary was initially going to be limited to 1000 root-words, but Russell eventually raised the limit to 2000 radicals.

Verbs usually end in -i and nouns usually end with -e or -o. "Of course, there are some exceptions," Russell wrote, "because Suma is a 'practical' language."

A few Suma words represent more than one meaning. "The use of one word for many meanings (principle of multiplicity of meaning) is common to all natural languages. It is easier to learn several meanings for one word than to learn a different word for each meaning." Compound words are written with spaces between them, rather like the English compound 'life insurance salesman': sula tipe = star science (astronomy); toki kolo = eating place (restaurant); sole bolo = sunflower.

If a needed word doesn't exist in the official word-list, Russell recommends that one use the corresponding English word: "ma soki PENICILLIN te sama poma vogo" = I think penicillin is (a) very good drug.

The alphabet of Suma contains 19 letters in this sequence: a, i, u, o, e, b, d, f, g, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, z. Upper-case letters and c, h, j, q, x, y only appear in foreign words. Russell did not really offer any detailed rules of pronunciation: "Each nation will use its native pronunciation." The first vowel of a word always receives the accent.

Suma grammar has been simplified as much as Russell deemed possible. The language does not use definite or indefinite articles. The verbs do not have any flexion to indicate tense: "ma oki mi pigo temo" = I see you back day = I saw you yesterday. Nouns and pronouns do not change to indicate the accusative or other cases: ma oki mu = I see him, mu oki ma = he sees me, sole bolo dea ma = my sunflower (literally "sun flower of me"). The nouns do not have a distinct plural form: baba kato = one boy; dia kato = two boys; pota kato = many boys.

Because Suma has a limited vocabulary, re-phrasing is often necessary when translating from a natural language to Suma. "Femoral artery" is expressed as fito kasa tobo vuso (leg red blood tube), and Russell suggests that fito kasa (leg red) might be sufficient to express the meaning "in clear context."

Russell mentions several changes he made to Suma between the second and third editions of his book: the addition of optional verb particles to indicate tense; changes in many nouns to make them end with -e or -o; and the introduction of capital letters to mark unassimilated foreign words.

Unfortunately, the third edition only contains one little example of text. (We have to wonder why he didn't offer a few more text samples as proof of his claims that Suma is easy and practical. But of course, he is not the first language projector to exhibit this behaviour.) Here is the text sample, followed by a literal translation:

pigo bona dako CYPRUS lati soma e gona gide tapo domo, dea sio devo te pigmalion. mu tesi tama pimo seta nate kosi pota puni puto ale muta. seta lia mu meti soki to davi sita.

"Back long time Cyprus have young and skillful form-art-person (sculptor), of who name be Pigmalion. He hate all woman because nature give many flaw/error to they. Because-ly (therefore) he end-think (decide) to marry never."


Update (February 2001): at www.geocities.com/Athens/Troy/1642 I found the following text specimen:

talo moti sima baki boto e beto e beto te peka e ena gide
God first-wise make sky and earth and earth be empty and without shape

e ena doba. e talo poti, sui doba te mora; e doba te mora.
and without light. and God say, let light be here; and light be here.

editor's note: Barnett Russell, creator of the language Suma, published the following article in 1965. It describes Inga, a combination of Suma grammar with an English vocabulary. The address given at the end of the article is no longer valid.

Inga a new interlanguage proposal
by Dr. Barnett Russell

Inga is a conversion of a priori Suma into an a posteriori interlanguage. It retains the principle of vocabulary economy and simplicity of grammar. It loses phonetic ease but it gains readability on sight. It retains the principle of autonomy, which means that its idioms and word patterns follow Inga grammar and not English grammar. Vocabulary economy was a major principle in Esperanto, which proved that a full vocabulary could be created from a small number of roots and affixes. Basic English reduced its vocabulary to 850 words. Suma reduced it to a maximum of 1000 invariable words. Inga plans to use approximately 2000 invariable basic words. Inga differs from Basic English in that it does not attempt to be, or resemble, or ever become normal English. Any expressions that resemble English are purely coincidental; for example, i be hungiy, i not will go are purely Inga patterns; but i want to go resembles normal English only coincidentally and only in the present tense. The advantage of not being "normal" English is that a nonEnglish person writing in Inga need not feel self-conscious about mistakes when writing to an English person.

The simplicity of Suma grammar has been carried over into Inga with only a few changes. There are no articles and no inflections for plural, for accusative or for tense. There are three auxiliary verbs: did, will, would, to indicate tense in isolated or ambiguous context. Adjectives usually omit the adverbial suffix -ly: run rapid. The Suma numeral system of reading the numbers from left to right is adopted; 20,202 is read "two zero thousand, two-zero-two." The rules of word order are simple. There are only one true prefix and nine suffixes.

Since the patterns of Inga are completely autonomous and therefore often quite different from normal English, the student of Inga will have to learn new patterns. By standardizing these Inga patterns, we insure accurate communication of meaning but increase the burden of learning. A simple rule helps one to achieve an Inga type pattern: always prefer the phrase to the compound or derived word; thus there are three grammatically correct ways of translating "Let us honor his name!"; 1) let we honor-en name of he! 2) let we show honor at name of he! 3) let we give honor at name of he! Only the last two are preferred patterns.

One disadvantage of Inga as compared to Suma is that the parts of speech are not indicated by the terminal vowel. In context the phrase head ache is the correct and preferred translation for "I have a headache," but the student must know that ache is a verb and not a noun, and that the possessive pronoun or phrase of i is normally omitted in clear context. If he knows that "ache" is a verb, he can easily express the noun by "achement."

Inga has a few difficult spelling problems: deceive, receive, friend, rhythm, science, etc., but the words have a high frequency in a language of only 2000 basic words and they are easily learned. But the advantage of readability on sight cannot be ignored when compared with such phonetic spelling as "risiv, disiv, frend, ritthemm, syennts." An interlanguage is first and foremost a written language. The problem of pronunciation is simple once the interlanguage is widely used. The short vocabulary of Inga would be easy to standardize.

A four-page folder giving the grammar, basic vocabulary and other interesting facts about Inga is available from: Barnett Russell, M.D., 23 Myron Road, Plainview, New York.

In the 1970s Dr. Russell became active in the spelling reform movement. He contributed a few articles to Spelling Progress Bulletin.