Philologastry

The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Airships and Volapük

The final decade of the 19th century was marked by a rash of airship stories, similar in some respects to more recent tales of flying saucers and other UFOs. One distinctive motif separating those earlier tales from the contemporary ones is the frequent reference to Volapük, the constructed international auxiliary language, in connection with these airships.

The first such incident, an obvious hoax, allegedly occurred near Lanark, Illinois on April 9, 1897. According to the Freeport Daily Democrat, a local farmer, Johann Fliegeltoub reported that an airship spun out of control during a blizzard and crashed on his farm. Two of the occupants were killed, but Fliegeltoub pulled one injured pilot, dressed like the early Greeks, from the wreckage. A General F.A. Kerr, who was fluent in Volapük, reportedly conversed with the creature in that idiom, and thereby divined that he was from Mars. When his strength returned, he repaired his ship and left.

A scant few days later, on April 15, 1897, the Jefferson Bee similarly reported that an airship had crashed near Jefferson, Iowa on 10 April. A terrible sound was heard and the next day a craft was found. Armed with (of all things) a Volapük dictionary, the intrepid reporter entered the airship, which was discovered to contain four bodies mashed to a pulp. Despite this, it was ascertained that they had two faces, and two sets of arms and legs, and they were taller than Earth people. This too was subsequently acknowledged to be a hoax by the newspaper staff.

In the following year, the science journalist Garrett Putnam Serviss published his first pioneering effort in science fiction as a serial in the Boston Globe. This serial, an early space opera entitled Edison’s Conquest of Mars, includes some speculation on the Martian tongue:

It seemed a fair assumption that the language of the Martians would be scientific in its structure. We had so much evidence of the practical bent of their minds, and of the immense progress which they had made in the direction of the scientific conquest of nature, that it was not to be supposed their medium of communication with one another would be lacking in clearness, or would possess any of the puzzling and unnecessary ambiguities that characterized the languages spoken on the earth.

“We shall not find them making he’s and she’s of stones, sticks and other inanimate objects,” said one of the American linguists. “They must certainly have gotten rid of all that nonsense long ago.” […]

“I think,” said a German enthusiast, “that it will be a universal language, the Volapuk of Mars, spoken by all the inhabitants of that planet.”

Serviss’ words reflect a certain fin de siècle attitude towards natural languages and nature more broadly, namely that its ultimate fate was to be subjugated and tamed by man. Peculiarly, all of these endorsements of Volapük (if indeed they can be considered as such) were made well into the twilight of the language movement. The last Volapük congress was in 1889, the Kadem Volapüka that had been founded to promulgate the language had completely sidelined its creator Martin Schleyer in favor of developing a new competitor subsequently known as Idiom Neutral, and Volapükists were defecting by the thousands every year to the banner of the verda stelo. These were not the most auspicious of circumstances for the language. It would not be long before Charles Sprague, the foremost American Volapükist (and, incidentally, grandfather of the author L. Sprague de Camp), would declare Volapük to be a failure.

It is possible that news of the decline in Volapük’s fortunes had not yet penetrated Lanark, Illinois and Jefferson, Iowa, but I find it difficult to believe that Serviss, who was based in New York, was ignorant of these developments.

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