Empirical methods in language construction

Başak Aray
Université Paris I – Panthéon-Sorbonne, EXeCO (PHICO)

Efforts to establish an international auxiliary language (IAL) have a long history. Projects to overcome ethnic languages flourished in the 17th century Britain. Creators of these “philosophical languages” (Descartes, Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz) stressed the shift between the structure of spoken languages and the structure of nature, and consequently the view that the former leads to a distorted understanding of the latter. To replace imperfect natural languages – they are inefficient, at best, if not obviously misleading, so they claimed – they devoted their efforts to designing a transparent medium to represent the real structure of things adequately.

The history of the universal languages took a new turn towards the end of the 19th century. With Schleyer’s Volapük (1879) emerged a new goal for constructed languages: unlike their Enlightenment-era predecessors, the new constructed languages had a practical focus on international communication. Most of them integrated a posteriori elements in their grammar and vocabulary in order to maintain a continuity with natural languages, which ensured that they were more accessible to learners (Couturat and Léau 1903: 113). This period may be characterized as a pragmatic turn. Epistemic ambitions of reflecting the real structure of things were discredited, and “universal language” was replaced by “international auxiliary language”. On the methodological side, conceptual analysis left its place to empirical observation of existing languages.

The new paradigm bore humanistic and cosmopolitan tendencies combined with a technophilia that inspired the extension of engineering to the linguistic field. Esperanto, the most emblematic – and, so far, most successful – IAL was accompanied by rhetoric from its creator, Zamenhof (1906: 1154), encouraging pacifism and promoting international brotherhood. The Delegation for the Adoption of International Auxiliary Language presented IAL as a historical necessity. In their history of the universal language, the leaders of the Delegation, Couturat and Léau, mention the ongoing rapid globalization of the world as the background to the IAL (Couturat and Léau 1903: VII). They explain this development by the exponential growth of transport and telecommunication technologies. These raised global mobility and revived international commerce, making the need for an IAL to facilitate international communication more important than ever.

International auxiliary language as a scientific project

The argument from historical necessity was intended largely as a response to conservative objections to IAL. Opponents contested the very possibility of creating a developed and usable artificial language. Such conservative views stressed the spontaneous evolution of language and showed scepticism towards the consequences of deliberate interventions in it. When we consider how various language planning programs on a national scale faced such traditional-minded objections, we can see that similar reactions to IAL are rather predictable, given how radical the idea of a constructed IAL is. Couturat (1906: 24) compares the transition from spontaneity to planned development in language to the transition from old European settlements to modern urbanism. He contends that any argument that appeals to the past is bound to be invalid, since many innovations were initially received with incredulity, but what seems unconceivable at first becomes later an ordinary part of life (medical imagery, motorised transport, wireless telegraphy, to mention a few). This fetishistic attachment to nature and the past obstructs progress by condemning inventions (1906:25-6). Couturat develops a Promethean image of the interlinguist as a persecuted innovator. His frequent comparison of IAL to decisive technological turning points in history (he states that achievement of the IAL will be a revolutionary step in history similar to the printing press) was arguably aimed at discrediting opponents as Luddites disconnected from historical reality.

Language planners’ pragmatic approach to language as a human creation fostered to suit our communicative needs is connected to a normative conception of science. For Jespersen, language’s instrumental nature as a human creation justifies its conscious modification on the basis of communicative needs (Jespersen 1922: 324). Similarly, Couturat (1911: 516) recommends the subordination of linguistics to a logic with an empirical basis. The Estonian language planning theorist Valter Tauli (1907-1986; 1968: 25-27) defines language planning (LP) as normative linguistics, as opposed to psychological and historical investigations on a purely descriptive level. He calls for the scientific treatment of questions of LP by trained specialists, on the model of pedagogy and agriculture. For Tauli, the task of LP is to generalize the best of the existing forms and to construct new ones to improve language. This critical framework contrasts with orthodox linguistics as a passive descriptive activity.

Empirical criteria for language evaluation

Language planners’ conscious adoption of a critical framework to treat linguistic facts led them to ground their evaluation on scientific foundations. In order to gain credibility as serious experts (and not a reputation for being fanciful utopians), they needed justified criteria to measure the value of existing language forms and decide on new ones. For, otherwise, IAL or language reform would face the serious objection of being simply the arbitrary manipulation of language, and its practitioners would be unjustly considered unscientific researchers. To resolve this question, interlinguists proceeded to find empirical criteria for linguistic evaluation. Under the influence of Antoine Meillet’s work on comparative grammar (Meillet 1926), Couturat (1911: 2) sought to discover general traits shared by all languages, the whole of which could constitute a sound foundation for directed language change. Coming from a Darwinian perspective, he imagined a language ideal in which the elements of existing languages converge in their ongoing evolution. As a dedicated Leibniz scholar, Couturat believed in the universality of mind across the plurality of languages and cultures. He saw interlinguistics as a rational anticipation of a future state. A criticism of the present state of actual languages combined with an empirically informed conception of logic allowed his theory to overcome the popular opposition of normativity and positivism.

Jespersen put his knowledge of the global evolutive tendencies of natural languages at the service of IAL. He collected a massive amount of data (mainly from Indo-European languages) representative of universal traits in the evolution of languages, from which he inferred criteria for language evaluation. This was meant to ground the creative path of interlinguistics on an empirical basis and moderate the artificiality of the IAL.The question of the scientific foundation of linguistic evaluation was thus resolved in a fruitful way that inspired perspectives for a posteriori interlanguage construction. Conciliation of facts and values was achieved by constructing values out of empirical data. Jespersen stated that as a rule languages conserve the most functional elements and lose the unfit ones at long term (1949: 382-3). The principle in its more general expression may be summed up as maximum efficiency for minimum labour. Its closeness to the governing principle of industrial production contributes to the modernist spirit of the IAL. After pointing out inequality in economy between different languages (some require considerably longer to learn, even for native speakers), Jespersen (1922: 328-9, 364) cites examples of transition from ancient to modern forms to prove the economical gain in the latter. A tendency to phonetic economy is observed through the shortening of words and the dropping of final syllables: bonum, homo and viginti in Latin became respectively bon, on, vingt in French. A similar tendency to final dropping is found in Danish and German dialects. Although initials are relatively stable, they are lost in some combinations (kn, gn, wr). Haplology is another common phenomenon that attests to evolution towards more economic forms: simp(le)ly, Eng(la)land; cont(re)rôle, ido(lo)lâtrie. Some striking evidence in favour of the general trend to shorter forms are augustum (lat.) – août (fr.); Inlaford (Old English) – laverd (Middle English) – lord (Modern English); occulum (lat.) – occhio (it.) – oeil (fr.), ojo (sp.); habaidedeima (Gothic) – had (English). In grammar, the ‘survival of the fittest forms’ favours the loss of case and number marking, elimination of gender and greater analyticity in syntax. Thus, modern Indo-European languages contain shorter forms (require less muscular and articulatory effort) with fewer variants (advantage for memorization), a more regular and more analytic syntax (increased flexibility), elimination of the concord (loss of redundancy, economic advantage) and a regular word order (clarity). This shows the path to follow for the construction of an IAL with good chances to survive and become rapidly global.


Couturat, Louis 1906. Pour la Langue Internationale. Coulommiers: Imprimerie Paul Brodard.

Couturat, Louis 1911. “Des rapports de la Logique et de la Linguistique dans le Problème de la Langue Internationale”. Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 19 (4), pp. 509-516.

Couturat, Louis & Léau, Léopold 1903. Histoire de la Langue Universelle. Paris: Hachette.

Jespersen, Otto 1922. Language. Its Nature, Development and Origin. London: Allen & Unwin.

Jespersen, Otto 1929. “Nature and Art in Language”. Reprinted in Jespersen 1960.

Jespersen, Otto 1949. “Efficiency in Linguistic Change”. Reprinted in Jespersen 1960.

Jespersen, Otto 1960. Selected Writings of Otto Jespersen. London: Allen & Unwin.

Meillet, Antoine 1926. Linguistique Historique et Linguistique Générale. Paris: H. Champion.

Schleyer, Johann Martin 1879. Die Weltsprache. Entwurf einer Universalsprache für alle Gebildete der ganzen Erde. Litzelstetten. Available at http://www.onb.ac.at/sammlungen/plansprachen/fruehdrucke.htm

Tauli, Valter 1968. Introduction to a Theory of Language Planning. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Zamenhof 1906. Aspirations of the Founder of Esperanto. Dr. Zamenhof’s Address to the Second Esperanto Congress. https://archive.org/details/jstor-25105718

How to cite this post:

Aray, Başak. 2014. Empirical methods in language construction. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2014/03/26/empirical-methods-in-language-construction

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Posted in 20th century, Article, Constructed languages, Europe, History, Linguistics

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