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).


At 4/20/2013 10:58 AM, Blogger Malachi Doane said...

I find I'm coming to the same conclusions and a little saddened that people are not using this language. Hoping to find some more resources out there as I was startled to find how easy it was to follow.


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