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Volapük, also known as Volapꞟk is a constructed international auxiliary language devised circa 1879 but not fully published until 1880 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a Roman Catholic priest in the Grand Duchy of Baden in Germany. Schleyer felt that God had told him in a dream to create an international language. Its success was short lived, with many users defecting to Esperanto.
For a short period in the 19th century, Volapük was quite high profile internationally, with a number of clubs in various countries, and even US President Grover Cleveland naming his dog after the language. The appearance of the language was always a matter of personal taste. Despite using English vocabulary as a base, its frequent use of umlauts gave it a Mitteleuropa flavour, which was an object of derision by some English speakers:
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
Comparison to Esperanto
If you think Esperanto is bad, then you will probably hate Volapük.
- Instead of using the extremely common AEIOU 5 vowel system, it uses the much rarer eight-vowel system of North Germanic/Uralic languages. It has contrast between a, ä, and e (English technically has more than five vowels, but their subtleties are assumed and not codified).
- Its "extra" three vowels are represented by the letters Ä, Ö and Ü, although these can also be replaced by the diagraphs AE, OE, and UE respectively, or with original letters invented by Schleyer (Ꞛ, Ꞝ and Ꞟ respectively). Esperanto does have extra letters, but not for vowels;
- Its vocabulary consists of English, German, and French words deformed beyond recognition. For example, the name "Volapük" itself is derived from the words "vola" and "pük", derived from English words "world" and "speak", respectively. Also, the accent is always on the last syllable of each word, so the name of the language should be pronounced "volaPÜK".
- Volapük has four grammatical cases (versus two in Esperanto).
- Adjectives have agreement rules more complicated than in Esperanto, at least if you change the default word order.
- Verbs have complex conjugations.
In short, Volapük is basically a garbled and unharmonious mishmash of Germanic, Uralic and Altaic. Your mileage may vary, of course, but Esperanto is generally agreed to feel more aesthetic to the ear (and to the brain).
On a non-design level, far fewer people speak Volapük than Esperanto. While neither has become the global language it aimed to be, Esperantists have concentrated on building up a community and a culture with music, a substantial literature and a number of conventions and meet ups. This is probably what has given Esperanto the biggest advantage over other conlangs, including Volapük, rather than design. Volapük does have some literature, and a Bible translation, but the opportunities for use are very limited.
Surprisingly Esperanto, even though it was a big improvement, made some things worse or more complicated than Volapük:
- Esperanto has a more complicated consonant system:
- it has a distinction of /h/ and /x/, spelled out as h and ĥ; Volapük doesn't have the latter;
- Esperanto also has twice as many sibilants, i.e. the eight consonants /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /ts/, /tʃ/, /dz/, /dʒ/. Volapük has only four, because it doesn't matter if they're voiced or not; /s/ means the same as /z/, as in. e.g. Spanish;
- Esperanto has the distinction of /r/ and /l/; the original design of Volapük, in the times of Zamenhof, didn't have it, deliberately to make the language easier for many Asians.
- Esperanto is more difficult to type, print or display. Volapük's diacritics (umlauts) are much more common than Esperanto's hats and arcs, at least in Europe. This higher difficulty is a result of:
- the worse consonant system, i.e. the aforementioned 5–6 extra consonants; combined with the avoidance of digraphs – i.e. each phoneme is written with exactly one letter;
- the purely orthographic decisions of Zamenhof. Esperanto could have one odd letter less if the /j/ sound was spelled with y – absent in the Esperanto's alphabet – making it possible to write the /ʒ/ sound with j, precisely as it is in Volapük and other languages, like Catalan, Romanian or Ido – Esperanto's most famous descendant. However, doing so would provide few benefits and come at the cost of undermining written intelligibility of most words which contain the letters "j" and "ĝ": for example, "justa" (just, fair) would become "yusta", while "ĝeneral" (general) would become "jeneral". If Zamenhof really hated the letter "ĝ", he could replace it with "g" ("j" in rare instances), as did Ido, although the advantages of such a move are unclear if other diacritics are to be kept.
- Sometimes Esperanto is spelled without diacritics – using digraphs instead – but it makes it look odd at least, and is no advantage over Volapük, which has emergency digraphs as well; far more "natural" than those of Esperanto.
- Esperanto has an inferior system of personal pronouns, at least from some perspectives:
- Volapük has more of them, 10 in total, making it more precise than Esperanto's 7–8 pronouns. For example, Volapük has a distinction of 2nd person singular and plural (ol–ols), but Esperanto has it only in informal contexts (ci vs vi); Volapük also has a distinction of gender in the 3rd person plural (oms–ofs–ons ), but Esperanto has it only in the 3rd person singular; overall, Volapük's solution is more semantically regular. Some people may find it redundant, more difficult to learn or even limiting, because these distinctions aren't optional. However, some prefer precision;
- Volapük's personal pronouns are more regular also morphologically; they all have final -s added to their singular counterpart. On the other hand, in Esperanto the plural pronouns don't even have any specific, common feature. They also bear no resemblance to their singular counterparts, apart from the general feature of personal pronouns ending with -i; it's mi–ni, ci–vi, li, ŝi, ĝi – ili;
- last but not least: Esperanto's third person isn't gender-neutral; they is ili, which is very similar to the masculine singular li (meaning he) – no matter what the gender are in the described group. Volapük not only has a separate pronoun for uniformly feminine groups (ofs), but also for mixed groups it uses the neutral pronoun ons.
- Esperanto uses a definite article la, which can be a problem for lots of people; e.g. most Slavs, Finns, the native speakers of Hindi or Urdu, Chinese, Janapese, Swahili and whatnot; Volapük has no articles whatsoever.
- Esperanto has complicated rules for switching between active and passive voice. The rules for Volapük seem to be simpler.
- Esperanto has some convoluted rules involving basic word formation, i.e. switching between parts of speech (like the verb to read and the noun act of reading). It works differently for different root classes; Volapük doesn't share this problem.
- Volapük can be more precise, and not only with personal pronouns. It has separate names for the Australian continent (Stralop) and the country of Australia (Laustralän), but Esperanto has only Aŭstralio.
These pros of Volapük don't make it win, but it does show that Zamenhof was an amateur who didn't analyse previous work exhaustively and instead, made some retrograde steps. However, in the context of a comparison, this fact is probably no advantage of Volapük over Esperanto, because Schleyer also made some steps back compared to even earlier auxlangs, like Universalglot or Communicationsprache.
Volapük was one of the first serious attempts at creating an international language, and it came before Esperanto. Volapük conventions took place in 1884 (Friedrichshafen), 1887 (Munich) and 1889 (Paris). At one point, a community of millions of speakers existed. Volapük, however, was displaced, for several reasons by 20th century. Schleyer wanted complete control over the growth of his language, and would become very upset when, for example, people attempted to create new words for new situations, leading to conflict between Schleyer and other prominent speakers. In addition, Esperanto was found to be far simpler than Volapük. Volapük today only has between 20 and 30 speakers, and it is mainly kept alive through the internet.
The Dutchman Arie de Jong briefly revised and revived Volapük after World War I, for example adding the sounds /r/ and /w/, which were not originally included in Volapük for the benefit of speakers of Chinese and Russian, respectively, mangling words like "rain" into lömib (rein in the revised version).
Surprisingly, there is a Volapük edition of Wikipedia and even more surprising is that it has over 124,000 articles. However, this is because back in 2007, a Volapük fan created a bot to automatically create articles on the Volapük Wikipedia. Most of these articles are very short articles on the topic of geographical locations. An editor proposed that the Volapük Wikipedia be closed from editing, but the proposal was declined. Several other Wikipedia editions in lesser used languages have faced similar problems, notably Toki Pona whose Wikipedia was shut down completely.
Like Esperanto, Volapük managed to produce a number of even more obscure offspring which were supppsedly aimed to improve on the original world language. Arika Okrent's book, In the Land of Invented Languages mentions several of these including "Nal Bino, Balta, Bopal, Spelin, Dil, Orba". If you haven't heard of these before, don't worry, you're not alone, in fact you're one of the 99.999% of the global population who hasn't.
Until the rise of Esperanto, Volapük was the most successful auxlang. At the end of the 1880s, there were over 200 Volapük clubs. Many of these were in Central Europe, but they were also set up in places as far away as Louisiana and China.
Most of the early Volapükists defected to Esperanto and other auxlangs. Unlike Zamenhof, Schleyer was very possessive of his creation (but maybe less so than the founder of Loglan) and this did not help matters either.
A very small Volapük community has persisted to the present day, led by an appointed Cifal or head Volapükist. Most Volapükists are interested in other artificial languages as well, and there appears to be no intergenerational transmission or first language speakers unlike Esperanto. Volapük has never returned to its nineteenth century peak, but it has retained a minor status as a harmless hobby language.
The word "Volapük" in other languages
In many languages (including, amusingly, Esperanto itself), Volapük (or a variation of it) often means something like "gibberish". In Russian, "волапюк" (volapyuk) refers to a system invented for using early computers with Roman-alphabet keyboards to write a semblance of Cyrillic text. The word волапюк (or воляпюк) looks and sounds funny to Russian speakers, so it was a natural choice for naming such a cobbled-together system. (See the Wikipedia article on Volapuk encoding.)
- See the Wikipedia article on Johann Martin Schleyer.
- Milwaukee Sentinel, 19th century, precise date unknown, quoted in Okrent, Arika, In the Land of Invented Languages (2009)
- Volapük Website
- Proposals for closing projects/Closure of Volapük Wikipedia
- Definition of the Esperanto word "volapukaĵo" on Wiktionary