Thursday, December 30, 2010

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".


At 12/30/2010 2:38 PM, Anonymous Bill Chapman said...

Thanks for sharing these thoughts with us.

You wrote "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." An interesting comment but I don't think it's right. I suspect it reveals your level of Esperanto. There are all sorts of ways to express ideas in Esperanto. For example:

Ni aǔtobusis urben = We went to town by bus ( EO has one syllable more but the text is shorter)
“Sableroj” =”Grains of sand” (three syllables each)

Prestidigiti =“Perform sleight of hand” (five syllables each)
Li eklaboris = He started work(ing)

As we say in (British) English, it's a matter of swings and roundabouts. (Incidentally, "to tick off" in British English means "to reprimand".

Finally comment: "estas" does not necessaril;y need to appear where am/is/are do in English:

Ni venkas = We are winning. The protest sonmg "We shall overcome" is well-known in Esperanto as "Certe venkos ni".

I have no objection to any of your principles.

At 12/30/2010 4:36 PM, Blogger Qwertie said...

Hello, may I ask how you found my blog post? Anyway, while there may exist short ways to express certain ideas, or avoid using the word "estas", an international language should not rely on expressions that do not exist in national languages. What I like about Esperanto is that it allows an idea to be expressed in many different ways, and in particular, it can closely mirror the parent language of the speaker, which makes Esperanto easier to speak (though not always easy to understand). A speaker should be expected to assimilate a few Esperanto-specific conventions, such as "hejmen" instead of "al mia hejmo", or "ne gravas" instead of "ne estas grava" if the parent language has no verb for "gravas"; however, it would be better if it could closely match native language expressions and STILL be brief. I once saw an website for a would-be IAL that seemed to be specifically designed for brevity... I can't find it now, but anyway most of its word roots were one syllable and I think it had a lot of compound words like Esperanto.

At 12/31/2010 2:24 AM, Anonymous Bill Chapman said...

Hello, again.

I found your blog post when using Google to see what had happened to Novial.

I understand your point about brevity. However, I feel there is need for some redundancy in an IAL, as there is in every ethnic language. Reducing words to their shortest possible version can remove clues which lead to understanding, especially when listening in a crowded place.

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda! Happy New Year!

At 12/31/2010 5:05 AM, Blogger 데이빛 / Mithridates said...

Well, another auxlanger from Calgary! I actually live in Seoul now but I do get back every once in a while. In case you're wondering I found this post as I have a Google Alert for the term Novial.

You may be interested in Robert Winter's blog ( who is also an auxlanger and a programmer (Ruby), and he has tried out just about every one for a few days at least, and seems to have settled on Occidental.


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