Just a few steps away in the infinite multiverse, a version of you is reading this in Volapük.

Volapük was the first international language to achieve any noticeable success. A German Catholic priest called Johann Martin Schleyer (rhymes with “higher”) devised it on a sleepless night in 1879, attributing the idea to divine inspiration. He published the following year. According to Charles E. Sprague’s Hand-book of Volapük, written in late 1887:

For some time after Schleyer’s grammar, his adherents were few, and his project was ignored by the scientific and literary world. It spread first to Austria where it awakened considerable interest, and where the first society for its propagation was formed at Vienna in 1882. Until 1884 its adherents outside of the German-speaking countries were very few and scattered. In that year it invaded Holland and Belgium, and a great many societies sprang up in those countries.

And indeed in 1884 there were enough speakers to hold a world congress, known as a General Assembly (Lasam Valemik) in Friedrichshafen, near Schleyer’s home.

The second such assembly took place in Munich in 1887 – around a month after the publication of the first book about Esperanto. The Munich event founded a General Association for Volapük enthusiasts (the Volapükaklub Valemik), a central magazine (the Volapükabled Zenodik, which was Schleyer’s own Weltspracheblatt renamed) and the International Volapük Academy (Kadem Bevünetik Volapüka), whose task would be to maintain the dictionary and grammar, authorising new words, reviewing any proposed changes and approving textbooks.

By 1889, textbooks were available in no less than 25 languages, there were over a thousand accredited teachers of the language, and a third General Assembly gathered in Paris, this time – according to André Cherpillod – speaking only Volapük. But many people keen on the language were now starting to notice Esperanto and switching their allegiance to the newcomer, or trying to create their own mash-ups of the two, and the Volapük movement soon slowed to a crawl.

It’s curious to think that if Zamenhof hadn’t published Esperanto when he did, Volapük’s popularity might have continued to increase and this blog might be called Volapük Connected… But would that have been a good thing? Which is the better language: Volapük or Esperanto? Which is easier to learn, easier to understand, easier to use?

Let’s start with the alphabet. Esperanto has often been criticised for its six special letters ĉ ĝ ĥ ĵ ŝ ŭ, albeit maybe less so now than in the days of typewriters and early computers. Volapük likewise uses the Latin alphabet, with no q or w, but adding three umlauted vowels ä ö ü, pronounced as in German.

Although these were available to printing houses of the time, Schleyer proposed entirely new forms for them (ꞛ ꞝ ꞟ). These easily confusable unique letter shapes never gained much traction, but they now form part of the Unicode character standard, which is why you can see them here – and if you can’t see them here, have a look at the picture at the start of this article, where Schleyer’s forms of Ä Ö Ü and ä ö ü are shown in the lower corners.

Just as ĉar follows citi in Esperanto dictionaries, so Volapük treats its ä, ö and ü as independent letters positioned after the unaccented a, o and u in alphabetical order. Zun “anger” thus appears before züd “acid” in a Volapük dictionary.

Both Esperanto and Volapük have very straightforward rules for determining which syllable of a word is to be stressed: in Esperanto it’s the penultimate syllable (rivero), while in Volapük it’s the final one – even if this contains nothing but a grammatical ending. Thus the slogan in the picture, which means “To one human race, one language”, is pronounced menade bal, püki bal. The Esperanto system seems preferable here.

This talk of the slogan brings us to the grammar of nouns, which have four cases, distinguished by final vowel: the accusative ends in -i (püki “language”); the dative (denoting recipients and the like) ends in -e (menade “to the human race”); the genitive ends in -a (vola “of the world”), even in compound words like Volapük “World[’s] Language”; and the plain old nominative has no ending. Esperanto gets away with only two cases, although its accusative has several miscellaneous uses that may be difficult to master.

To pluralise a noun, Volapük appends an -s, after the case vowel (pükis). In the nominative, this -s simply abuts the root: püks “languages”. Volapük roots tend to be of the form Consonant–Vowel–Consonant. Certain consonant clusters are allowed (flen “friend”, tläp “trap”) and quite often you find two adjacent vowels (poed “poetry”, suäm “sum, amount”). But the final consonant of a root is never s or any other sibilant, as this would interfere with adding the plural -s.

This fairly rigid phonotactic structure means that a lot of words that would otherwise be easily recognisable are somewhat distorted in Volapük. Tläp above is one example: Volapük frequently substitutes l for r, as in lieg “riches”. Two more are vol, which is based on English world, and pük, which derives from speak, despite the fact that spik would have been a valid form (compare spid “haste”). Sprague notes that the word for “hand” is nam (from Latin manus or French main) because man was already taken (to mean “man”). Esperanto roots, by contrast, generally retain their international – well, European – forms, and this is probably wise.

Note that most roots in Volapük are nouns by default. The aforementioned lieg means “riches, wealth”; to form the adjective “rich, wealthy” a suffix is required: liegik. Likewise gud is “good”, as in “the common good”, while the adjective “good” is gudik (stressed on the -ik, remember). Esperanto uses a more explicit system of assigning distinct endings to nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs. This means its roots can effectively end in any letter, and the -o found at the end of every noun is simply extended to -oj to form the plural.

But Volapük trumps Esperanto by defining specific endings for forming new prepositions (), subordinating conjunctions () and even interjections (): thus from fin “end” it can form finü “at the end of”; kod “cause” can be transformed into kodä “for the reason that …, because …”; and dan “thanks” (the noun) can become danö! “thank you!”. The word bevünetik “international”, which I mentioned earlier in the context of Volapük’s Academy, contains the preposition bevü “between” (although where bev itself comes from is not entirely clear).

In Esperanto these aspects are more chaotic – some would say naturalistic – particularly as far as conjunctions are concerned: if “after I slept” is post kiam mi dormis, why is “before I slept” antaŭ ol mi dormis, and why is “until I slept” simply ĝis mi dormis, using the preposition ĝis as a conjunction, unchanged?

By the way, with prepositions, Esperanto conveys “motion towards” by putting the following noun into the accusative: en la ĝardenon means “into the garden”. Volapük can do the same (in gadi), but it offers the interesting alternative of adding the accusative ending to the preposition itself: ini gad. This is similar to into and onto in English (which are exceptions – other English prepositions don’t behave like that).

Volapük’s number words are a priori – although in his excellent Volapük–Esperanto dictionary, André Cherpillod makes a valiant attempt to find etymologies for them! – and tricky to learn: “one” to “nine” are bal, tel, kil, fol, lul, mäl, vel, jöl, zül. (Okay, maybe fol is derived from English four.) “Ten” is bals – a weird sort of plural of bal “one” – and “42” is folsetel “forty-and-two”. Surely Esperanto makes a better job of this, even if ses “six” and sep “seven” sound so alike over a phone or radio that people in such circumstances have had to resort to saying sis for “six”.

I’ve saved verbs till last. These are much more complicated in Volapük than in Esperanto. In Esperanto, there are three main tenses (present, past and future, indicated by the endings -as, -is and -os), plus a tense for hypothetical statements (-us, “I would help if I could”), an ending for expressing commands and wishes (-u), an infinitive ending (-i “to help”), and an array of six participle suffixes.

In Volapük, the first thing to note is that a verb changes its ending to agree with (or just to indicate) its subject, as in many European languages. Ingeniously, Schleyer reuses his personal pronouns as these verb endings: ob binob “I am” (although you would normally just say binob), binol “you (singular) are”, binom “he is”, binof “she is”. These can be pluralised with -s: binobs “we are”, binols “you (plural) are”, and so on.

It is, however, far from admirable that the “he” pronoun is also used to mean “it”. (The so-called neuter pronoun os has no plural and is used only in statements like “it is raining” or “I swear it”.)

There are eight tenses, indicated by an initial vowel: a- (usually omitted) for the present, ä- for the past, o- for the future; e-, i- and u- for perfects (“I have done”, “I had done”, “I will have done”); and ö- and ü- for references to the future in statements about the past (“I thought I was going to die”, for which Esperanto simply uses the future: mi pensis, ke mi mortos).

In the passive voice, these initial vowels are preceded by a p- (pa-, pä-, pe- etc), which makes them difficult for beginners to distinguish from other words that just happen to start with p and a vowel.

Things like commands and wishes are expressed by adding specific suffixes after the pronoun ending: lit binomöd! “let there be light!” (confirming that light is masculine, -om, in Volapük). This is also the case for statements of the “I would help if I could” type, to which Esperanto dedicates an entire tense, making it a bit clumsy to express the past conditional “would have” clearly; compare, for instance, mi estus helpinta “I would have helped” with Volapük’s succinct – albeit almost impenetrable – word eyufoböv.

Several of the problems I have described here were addressed in a reformed version of Volapük proposed in 1929 (the language’s fiftieth year) by Arie de Jong, who not only revised the grammar but also revived the Volapük movement a little, at least in the Netherlands, until the Nazis suppressed it.

He introduced deg for “ten”, for example, so his way of saying “42” was foldeg tel, exactly analogous to kvardek du in Esperanto. He also improved the state of the personal pronouns, adding among other things a straightforward neuter pronoun on “it” with plural ons; and he modified certain common vocabulary items to make them more recognisable: lömib “rain” became rein (but lieg “riches” remained as it was).

Volapük today has a small but enthusiastic community using the revised version, Volapük Nulik “New Volapük”, among them notably Michael Everson, whose company Evertype has republished de Jong’s grammar and extensive bilingual German dictionary. The language has its own Wikipedia (Vükiped), although the number of articles (127,000) is notorious for having been massively inflated in 2007 by automatic tools that added over 100,000 short pages of dubious quality, mainly about obscure villages throughout the world. The Volapük movement has had an unbroken sequence of cifals (chiefs, leaders) – eight in all, but de Jong served twice – starting with Johann Martin Schleyer in 1879.

So which language is easier: Schleyer’s or Zamenhof’s? I would say Esperanto wins, hands down, and I believe modern Volapükists would agree. Most of them are in fact Esperantists, too, and they regard Volapük as a fascinating historical artefact that deserves to be remembered. If you’re interested in exploring it further, Volapük.com is a good place to start. The parallel universe is optional.

Simon Davies has been the editor of CED/ESF’s quarterly bulletins Informilo por Interlingvistoj and Information for Interlinguists for the last three years, and of this blog for the last fifteen months.

You may also be interested in a talk by Grant Goodall, partly about Volapük, that featured in the first Conference of the Esperanto Academy in December 2021.

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