Thursday, December 30, 2010


To continue my thoughts on a Novial-derived IAL... well, I have a couple of ideas. One idea is to create a North American IAL based on English, Spanish and French. This would be an excellent language for unifying the Americas. But how to market it, I am not sure. Another idea is to emphasize English in the language, using other languages only when the English way of saying something is ambiguous (e.g. "hard", "like", "just"), cumbersome due to its length ("understand", "approximately", "mutually exclusive"), or problematic because of its vowels.

Novial has only 5 vowels, while English has 9 or 10 "basic" vowels plus several diphthongs. Now, when we "compress" an English word down to 5 vowels, problems often appear. Either we can import the English spelling, e.g. "meat" pronounced "MEE-at" or "MEE-aht", or we can use the English pronunciation, e.g. "mit" (MEET) for "meat". If we use the spelling, at least two problems appear:
  • What do we do with double vowels? I don't think we can ask people to pronounce "meet", "see", "book", and "foot" with two separate vowels, and if we say that the vowel is extra-long, people will disagree about how long is long enough. If we change "ee" to "i" and "oo" to "u", conflicts or false friends will appear: consider "boot" vs. "but", "beet" vs. "bit", etc. Likewise if we simply remove the duplicate vowel, "lok" could mean "look" or "lock", "bet" could mean "beet" or "bet", etc.
  • Some spellings will sound like a different English word: "but" sounds like "boot", "sit" sounds like "seat", and "pan" may sound like "pawn" depending on how you say it ("aw" in "pawn", pronounced the same as "a" in "father", is an acceptable way to pronounce the Novial vowel "a"; it can also be pronounced like the Spanish vowel "a" which is slightly different).
If we use the pronunciation instead, there are even more problems:
  • Homonyms. English has many words that are spelled differently but sound the same: would/wood, meat/meet, so/sew, two/to/too. One cannot tell these words apart if we only use their pronunciation.
  • Many unrelated English words would map to the same word in the 5-vowel system. For example, "bit" could be "beet" or "bit", "mit" could be "meet" or "mit", "pan" could be "pan" or "pawn", "nuk" could be "nuke" or "nook", etc.
  • Some words would look like other English words when spelled phonetically. For example, rid=read, bot=boat.
Clearly, it will be necessary to take words from other languages when these conflicts arise. I consider some of the conflicts minor because one of the words involved in the conflict is minor; for example, the English word "meet" is much more common than "mit", so if we respell "meet" as "mit" then it's not difficult to teach learners that it means "meet", because hopefully they will not naturally confuse it with the uncommon word "mit". "mit" would also sound like "meat", but if we normally choose spellings based on English spellings (instead of the pronunciation), then students will develop an intuition that "meat" should be spelled "meat", not "mit". This, I hope, will reduce the amount of confusion.

In any case, we would mix Novial with English (instead of just using Novial unchanged) purely for the sake of marketing, in accordance with my principles of IAL design. Novial is a very nice language, but it has not succeeded on its own. It needs a hook: something to make people want to learn it. By infusing it with English, it could be marketed at English beginners worldwide.

In my next post I think I will sketch out some ideas for what this mixed language would look like.

Principles of IAL design

I was conversing recently with Bruce Gilson, who was once part of a committee of 5 to 8 people who were unhappy with the original Novial and wanted to reform it. They made numerous changes which were to be known as "Novial 98"; some I see as beneficial (such as making it possible to easily distinguish nouns from verbs), but for the most part I didn't like N98, firstly because I liked the original Novial design, and secondly because making major changes would discourage the formation of a Novial community by causing dischord between those of differing opinions about the language.

Anyway, in that conversation I suggested a set of principles for IAL design that I would like to share, starting with the three most important:

  1. Sellability: a plausible plan is necessary to get the language adopted by a large population. In my view, the plan should be inherent in the design of the language itself, so as to convince people that it is worth learning due to similarity with some language they want to learn, or to convince people it is so close to their own language that it is "easy". But it could also be a totally separate advocacy plan: convincing the UN or some organization to adopt the language for practical reasons, getting media coverage, convincing philanthropists to donate, finding a business model, etc. Really, both advocacy and language design should be part of the equation.

  2. The greatest good for the greatest number: for example, it's good to take word roots from major living languages and even better to take common roots from multiple languages, so that the IAL is easy to learn for the greatest number of people. (However, designers often disagree about the exact formulation of this principle.)

  3. Expressiveness: the language should be able to express most of the nuances possible in national languages, but this principle is subordinate to (1) and (2): every new word root adds a learning burden, particularly to those who do not know a language from whence the root came, but even familiar roots may need to be looked up in a dictionary in case they turn out to be "false friends". Therefore, adding roots to gain expressiveness can harm (1) and (2), while subtracting roots and senses improves (1) although not necessarily (2). For example, Esperanto religiously minimized the number of word roots. I'm sure this makes Esperanto easier to learn for all kinds of non-Europeans, but clearly the first market for Esperanto was Europeans, so this minimization didn't help the language sell.

    Note that it is often possible to increase expressiveness substantially by adding a single word or affix to the language. For example, Esperanto has a suffix "-ema" which means "having a tendency". Because of this, there are a series of words that are easy to learn, such as "amema" (loving, tending to love), "felicxema" (tending to be happy, as in "li estas felicxema" he is a happy person), "parolema" (talkative), and "mangxema" (having a tendency to eat). In English we have special words or ways of saying this, such as "talkative" and "he is generally a happy/sad person", but this single suffix makes Esperanto more expressive, more regular and more concise than English for expressing this particular idea.

  4. Conciceness: One thing that ticked me off about Esperanto was what I called its "longeco", longness. While often EO text was shorter, or the same length as an English equivalent, it took longer to speak. The word "estas" surely should have been shorter, and there were a lot of other examples, for example the "jn" endings made words longer even without adding syllables, "cent" is awkward compared to "sent" so it takes longer to say - I mean, the phonotactics of EO are as bad as English, but unfamiliar to us, and therefore annoying. And the compound words added to its length. I spoke more about conciseness in my previous post.

Now, I put these principles in what I think ought to be the priority order. The number one priority is one that is missing from existing language designs. Some interlinguists in the early 20th century, including Otto Jespersen (designer of Novial) seemed to think it was inevitable that an easy international language would eventually be adopted across the world, but this has proven to be untrue. Clearly, adoption of an interlanguage will not happen without some clever marketing and a lot of effort by a lot of people. Moreover, it is my belief that the language design itself can be a key part of that marketing strategy.

In regard to "the greatest good for the greatest number", I do not interpret this to mean simply that we look at word roots and pick the most common one among several languages. That's not a bad thing at all, but I think it's wrong to limit oneself to that approach and none others. After all, it's rare that you can find a word root used (in the same sense!) by more than a billion people; thus for each word there are at least five billion people who would be unimpressed or baffled by each of your word choices. Therefore, in my view, using existing roots is as much about principle (1) as it is about (2), if not more so. Using existing roots makes it easier for us to get our foot in the door by saying "look how much international vocabulary you'll learn by leaning [IAL X]!" or "look how similar [IAL X] is to [language you want to learn]" or "look how easy this will be to learn because it's so much like your mother tongue".

Note how these benefits disappear when the root comes from a source that a potential learner doesn't care about: for instance, most English speakers don't care to learn Norwegian, Danish or Swedish, and therefore won't like the false friend "at" (which means "to" [infinitive verb marker] in Scandinavian languages and Novial 98). I don't think it will matter to most Englishmen whether the word is "natural" or "a priori" (made up); in either case it is outside their realm of interest, as (I suspect) typical English speakers would rather learn Spanish, French, Japanese, German or even Mandarin before a Scandinavian language. Heck, in America a lot of English speakers might not care to learn anything at all besides more English (evidently, dedicated monoglots are not our target market).

Now, of course, the Scandinavians will doubtlessly like the word choice "at". But a serious project should keep principle (1) in mind and ask itself: what word choices are more likely to lead to more "sales", that is, more people choosing to learn the language? It is sensible for an IAL to focus on one group of languages, such as European languages or languages around India, than to attempt mashing every single major world language together. The result of the latter approach just wouldn't interest enough people, in much the same way that an "a priori" language wouldn't interest enough people.

In the end I would like to see billions of people adopt an IAL. But before that can happen, a community of millions must be built first. It makes sense, therefore, to design a language specifically to appeal to a particular group of 100-1000 millions or so, and once the design is complete, to market the language only to those millions. It doesn't matter much what that group is, as long as you have a plausible plan.

Now, I have no objection to Scandinavian word roots. Nor do I object to "a priori" forms. I just doubt that Scandinavian words would fit very well into a plausible plan required by (1). If I'm right, then Scandinavian words and roots should not be considered much more valuable than a priori forms during language design. Sure, such words are good for (2), but principle (1) means keeping your eye on the prize: building a large community--and I mean large in terms of the number of speakers, not largely dispersed throughout the world, for the sheer distance between Esperanto speakers hasn't helped that language grow.

"a priori" forms have their place because sometimes national languages lack an unambiguous word for a given idea, or a regular system of derivation. The preposition "ye", and the IAL standard of including part-of-speech markers or hints at the end of each word, are good examples. Surely no organic language in the world has a regular, unambiguous system of part-of-speech markers. Yet for the sake of (1) and (2), part-of-speech markers are very valuable, whether a priori (like Esperanto) or only partly a priori (like Novial). In addition, if you believe as I do that the value of a "friend" in one national language is negated somewhat by a "false friend" in another,
it may happen that a neutral a priori form is the safest choice overall.

Bruce opined, "If a language is truly going to be an INTERNATIONAL auxiliary language, it cannot mimic English TOO closely."

I responded: well, that depends on what you think "international" means. I've heard more than one person say that there is already an international language: poor English. I kind of wince when I hear that, since I know that English doesn't function well as an IAL. "International" can mean "international flavor", i.e. resembling several languages, or it can mean "internationally used". I want to see a good IAL meet the second definition more than the first. If it can meet both at once, great. If not, surely it is more important for an IAL to be widely used than for it to be nominally "international".

Thursday, December 09, 2010


I have been thinking lately about how difficult it is to simplify English enough to make it into a viable international auxilliary language (IAL), Haf Inglish. It can be done, although Haf Inglish would certainly be more difficult than other constructed languages such as Esperanto and Novial. However, although I could make Haf English superficially very close to English, I am concerned that the changes necessary to make Haf Inglish easier to learn also make it so different from English that English speakers would find it hard to learn and use correctly. I worry that their English brains would constantly want to use English phrases that would be illegal in Haf Inglish. For example, I have noticed that certain English words are challenging to learn because they have many meanings, such as "tip". Observe the many meanings:
  • I gave her a tip of 2 dollars.
  • I gave her a tip of my hat.
  • I gave her the tip of my pencil.
  • I gave her a tip about how to do her job.
  • I will tip her two dollars.
  • I will tip her chair. Her chair will tip over.
  • The sound will tip off the police.
Clearly, if "tip" were to exist in Haf Inglish then it could not have this many meanings, because it would create major difficulties. Besides the sheer difficulty in learning so many definitions, the ambiguities would spill over into any derived forms that you might want to create. For example, would "tippic" mean "related to tips (money)", "related to tipping over", "related to tips (pointy ends)", "related to advice", or (if I may allude to a separate issue) "typical"?

Today, I have been reading again about Novial in this book; and the more I learn about it, the more I like it. Although some of its rules are more complicated than Esperanto, in most ways it is more regular and just plain better. After having learned some Spanish, I am finding that I understand Novial after very little study, probably because a large percentage of Novial closely resembles parts of Spanish and English. In the case of English, Novial usually keeps the spelling and not the pronounciation, but some words, such as "tu" (to), "did" (did) and "vud" (would), also sound similar to English. Novial's author, Otto Jesperson, makes arguments about why his language is designed the way it is, and why he chose particular word forms... unlike Esperanto, which "just is" the way it is.

Another thing I like is that Novial is a compact language like English--you usually don't need a lot of syllables to express something. When learning Esperanto, I often complained about its longness--the fact that I had to say "li estas feliĉa", 6 syllables, to express an idea that is only 3 or 4 in English: "he's happy" or "he is happy". And then there are the redundant grammatical markers, such as "jn" in "Mi ŝatas viajn blankajn ŝuojn" (I like your white shoes), which do not add syllables but still take extra time to pronounce.

In fact, due to its regularity, I suspect that clear speech in Novial will typically be shorter than English, because in English we must use longer words to express our ideas formally or unambiguously. For example, informally I could say that something is "hard", but since this word has two meanings, I need to use the word "difficult" or "hard as a rock" if I want to speak unambiguously. English (and Spanish, by the way) also has some "holes" where no short word exists for a simple idea. For example, the common phrase "I don't understand" is 5 syllables (including long syllables "don't" and "stand"), which is just too long for such a common expression. No wonder English speakers sometimes shorten it to "I don't get it" or simply "what?". Likewise we shorten "simply" to "just", "because" to "as"/"for", "also" to "too", and so forth. These shortenings "overload" the small words with many meanings, which makes English harder to learn. At the same time, it is bad for a language to be too short, if the small words become so tiny that the listener can't hear them anymore. For example, in English "can't take" can be mistaken for "can take"; it's hard to hear the word "is" in "The dog's skillful"; and "Isn't that John smug?" could be mistaken for "Isn't that John's mug?"

Now, Novial probably has some longness issues too, but clearly fewer than Esperanto and probably fewer than English. At the same time, it is probably long enough that a listener won't often "miss" the short words. Only the words "e", "o" and "a" (and, or, to/toward) concern me in that they might be too short, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. One thing I don't like is the contraction del = de li, like the Spanish contraction del = de el (which makes more sense--note that you cannot contract Spanish "de la" to "del"), and the fact that you can omit the "i" suffix from most adjectives. The suffix helps the listener (who, remember, is not a native speaker) to clearly understand what is being said. Besides, if there are two ways to say the same word then it'll be harder to find that word on the web (at least until search engines support Novial specifically).

Note, however, that Novial words are more invariant than words in most other languages including English. Sure, they change forms when the part-of-speech changes, but in contrast to most other languages, there is only a single verb form. Besides, I consider it largely an advantage, both for communication and searching, that the word form changes when the part-of-speech changes. Anyway, I plan to always include the "i" ending in both these cases.

I also like the fact that Novial almost always uses subject-verb-object word order (e.g. in Novial you say "I love you", and usually not "I you love" or "love I you" or "you I love".) Obviously as an English speaker I am biased, but this and other similarities between English and Novial make me wonder whether Novial can plausibly serve the same goal that I intended to pursue with Haf Inglish. Specifically, I wonder if I could get into the English-teaching business and convince learners that learning Novial would help them learn English. I have no doubt that Novial would help a person learn any major European language, especially English, and like Esperanto, I think Novial could help anyone who is learning a foreign language for the first time, but the trick is to convince others. Haf Inglish has a clear hook, that's why I pursued the idea in the first place, but could Novial suffice? If it can, then it should, for surely Novial is superior as an IAL, even if it is inferior as an approximation of English.

My goal, after all, is not that everyone should learn English or Haf Inglish or any particular language, but that everyone should be able to communicate with one another. How this goal is accomplished doesn't matter much. We can't realistically ask billions of people to learn an enormous language like English, but it would be realistic for billions of people to learn Esperanto or Novial. It would also be realistic to imagine that when one wants to learn English, one starts by learning an easier dialect first (Haf Inglish), and that once Haf Inglish has a hundred million speakers or so, a billion more people will want to learn it instead of English.

Here are some example sentences in Novial and their translations. You'll see two translations; I always like to give a roughly direct translation first, in addition to a paraphrase. Yet Novial is similar enough to English that the direct translation is usually clear by itself.
  • es plu agreabli tu viva kam tu ha viva o tu sal viva.
    Is more agreeable* to live than to have live or to shall live.
    It is better to live than to have lived or to live someday.
    * Novial lexike lacks a translation for this word

  • Hir es multi roses: ob vu prefera li blankis o li redis?
    Here are many roses: do* you prefer the whites or the reds?
    * If we want to be picky, "ob" literally means "whether" and is used to make yes/no questions. "Ob" replaces "do" in questions like "Do you like it?". In questions like "Is it big?", and "Are you happy?", you use "ob" in addition to "es", the word for "is/are": "Ob lum es grandi?" (Whether it is big?) and "Ob vu es felisi?" (Whether you are happy?)

  • Li blanki es plu bel kam li redi.
    The white is more beautiful than the red.
    The white one is prettier than the red one.

  • Li porte non es klosat nun; lum bli klosa chaki vespre e sal anke bli klosa dis vespre.
    The door not is closed now; it gets* close every evening and will also get close this evening.
    The door is not closed now; it gets closed every evening and will also get closed this evening.
    * "bli" only means "get" as in "to become", not "to obtain". "bli" is easier to remember if you think of it as "being": bli klosa = "being closed".

  • Me non ha e non sal responda.
    I not have and not shall* respond.
    I have not and shall not respond.
    * Technically "sal" means "will", but usually "shall" is an acceptable translation which helps you remember what "sal" means.

  • Ob vu ha manja? No, non ankore, ma men fratre ha ja e me sal bald.
    Whether you have eat? No, not yet, but my sibling has already and I will soon.
    Have you eaten? No, not yet, but my sibling has already, and I will soon.
    ...After studying Spanish (which has something like 100 unique regular verb conjugations plus numerous irregular conjugations), the verb constructions in Novial, which are like English but simpler, are a welcome relief.

  • Me ama la kom me ha men matra e kom me sal men filies.
    I love her as I have my mother and as I shall my children.
    ...It may not look like English, but it's nice that the word-for-word translation is perfect English.
As you can see, Novial's grammar and some of its words are often very close to English, just with (perhaps optional) differences in the placement of "not". Of course, when the words look like English words they still don't sound like English words, but at least the pronounciation system is very easy to learn, easier than Esperanto and much easier than Haf Inglish (to say nothing of Full English).