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  • Liptay, A., La lengua católica; ó sea, Proyecto de un idoma internacional sin construcción gramatical [por el] dr. Alberto Liptay, Paris, A. Roger y F. Chernoviz, 1890, 248 pp., 23 cm.
  • Liptay, A., Langue catholique. Projet d'un idiome international sans constr. grammaticale, Paris: Bouillon, 1892, 290+ pp.



Virtues and Virtualities of the Catholic Language


By Paulo Ronai

Translated by Tom Moore

Many people of this most loyal and heroic city of Sao Sebastiao do Rio de Janeiro must know some aspect of the protean personality of my friend Charles Astor, but few will have managed to breach the wall of modesty behind which he is so well able to hide the imposing ensemble of his multifarious qualities. A noted teacher of parachuting and acrobatic gymnastics, one of the most competent of antiquarians, cryptographer emeritus, a worthy storyteller, lucid essayist, in addition to these many endowments he adds broad erudition and universal curiosity. As he is also helpful by vocation, once he hears that one of his friends has sat down to study some preposterous subject he will put at their disposition all of the treasures of his erudition and library.

It was thus that, knowing that I was entangled in investigations into artificial languages, he recently offered me a rare and valuable old book, a plan for a universal language by Dr. Alberto Liptay, a copy made still more valuable by the dedication from the author to the editor-in-chief of the daily O Pa?s, inscribed in 1892, when he passed through Rio de Janeiro aboard the cruiser Presidente Pinto. For quite some time I had been intrigued by the name of this polygraph, a name which without the shadow of a doubt was of Hungarian origin. Though there are no explicit references to this fact, allusions to the Magyar tongue make it more than plausible. Coming from the distant banks of the Danube, how would Dr. Liptay have come to be doctor for the Chilean Navy and attached to the Naval Commision of chile in Paris, after taking an active part in the military expedition against Peru? These few facts make one imagine one of those romantic biographies in which a flame, suddenly snuffed out in the Old World, unexpectedly is lit once more in the New after mysterious vicissitudes.

"During his marches through the ancient Empire of the Incas, the author was much preoccupied with a rational solution to the cosmoglottic problem, which indeed constituted the substance of his philosophical reflections, which were more than once interrupted by the whistling of enemy bullets." While the "peacemaking dvision of the victorious Chilean Army" was resting after having clambered up ravines at an altitude of 14,000 feet, Dr. Liptay, separated for months from civilized humanity, with no news from the rest of the world, with no one with whom he could exchange ideas, passed part of the icy nights which were interspersed among the torrid days mentally organizing a new language, to which he gave the name Catholic Language, and whose exposition is the topic of the book with which we are concerned. Already in the preface he explains the reason for the name, which is to be taken not in the religious sense, but rather in the primitive sense of the Greek katholikos, that is, "general, universal". Discovering to his displeasure that in Germany and Austria, with the first waves of anti-Semitism, the adjective was taking on an exclusive and sectarian meaning, he retained it only in the title of the French and Spanish eiditons of the work, preferring to give the German edition the title Die Gemeinsprache der Kulturvoelkern (The Common Tongue of the Cultured Peoples).

The fact that it begins from a rather chimerical premise does not lessen the interest of this work: eighty years ago it was much easier to believe that human language tends to simplification and unification, and that the sluggishness of progress was due simply to the lack of a universal tongue. The Catholic Language was intended to fill this lacuna. Without expecting to replace the national languages, it proposed to to fulfill along and above them the same role that fell to literary Italian, la bella lingua, among the dialects of the Italian peninsula. Its expansion, in the thinking of the author, depended on the creation of an international linguistic union, similar to the postal-telegraphic union, or that for weights and measures. The unique originality of the project, the epigraph tells us, is the absolute exclusion of all originality. A friendly confession after so many projects with no other merit than being extravagantly original. Prior to expounding it, the author judged it necessary to proclaim the merits of a common world language, noticeable above all in the ever more frequent international congresses, and exhorted humanity to replace the linguistic anarchy of polyglottism with monoglottism. As could be foreseen, he then moves on to analyze the projects of his predecessors, commenting on them with undeniable acuity. Among them he singles out the philosophical language of Padre Sotos Ochando, bold in its conception, but completely impractical; the Ideografia fo Sinibald Mas, ambassador of Spain to China, which requires the citizens of the world to learn 2600 agreed-upon signs without rational explication; Volapük, simple in grammar, but which dogmatically sacrificed the easy identification of the vocabulary to their brevity and pronunciability; Dr. Steiner’s Pasilingua, which consisted of a neutral grammar, applicable to any language, but which, rather than resolving the problem of vocabulary made it worse; Kosmos, by the linguist Lauda, an insufficiently simplified Latin; the Lingua Internacia – that is, Esperanto, then in its primordial stage -, ingenious in grammar, and arbitrary and fantastic in its lexicon; Saint-Max’s Bopal, a simple plagiarism of Volapük; and finally Julius Lott’s Lingua Internazional, which he accords the great merit of the greatest attention to the formation of the vocabulary, including in it what is common to the principal languages and excluding every thing that is pure idiosyncrasy or fantastic caprice. This critical examination allows specialists in the subject to foresee the essential characteristics of the Catholic Language. Before, however, addressing them, Dr. Liptay, in yet another preamble (half of the book is made up of introductions), demonstrating a notable knowledge of linguistics, proceeds to a rapid examination of existing natural languages, in search of an international stock for his vocabulary, and also, of practical suggestions that their structure might offer to the language to be created.

What is most surprising in the laying out of the project is the conciliatory tone of the author, without that apodictic dogmatism peculiar to almost all his predecessors. Throughout the book he gives the impression of having a cordial chat with his readers, from whom he is ready to hear suggestions and criticism. Instead of imposing his invention, he seeks to have it accepted by persuasion and prides himself on explaining the reasons for each solution he has adopted. His language is based on the grammatical and lexical inheritance from ancient Latium, such as it was preserved in the Romance languages. The alphabet adopted is that of Latin, with its imperfections eliminated. To each letter must correspond a unique sound; hence the condemnation of the letter c, due to its ambivalent pronunciation.

It will be replaced either by k, or by s. But as this would cause excessive modifications in the appearance of a large number of international words, and hence, raise objections, the cautious reformer limits himself to provisionally retaining the c as it is used in the neo-Latin languages, until the time should be propitious for its replacement by k or s. For the rest, the pronunciation of each letter would be that which it has in the majority of the neo-Latin languages, and in English, taking an average, so to speak. Hence the rejection of everything that only appears in one of these languages: the mute e, the French u, the poorly articulated vowels of English, etc.

According to the designer, the universal language should be “discovered and not invented”, or in other words, compiled from existing languages, living and dead. This is especially the case in relation to the lexicon: there are thousands of word in universal use. All that is required is to bring them together in order to obtain a language which is new, rational, simple and easy to learn. Beginning from French (since he is writing for the French), Liptay makes an inventory of large contingents of international words: some 350 ending in –al, half a thousand in –eur, more than a thousand in –on, -tion and –sion, five hundred in –ant and –ent, as many more in –able and –ible, some 150 in –isme, 200 in –iste, 500 in –ique, as many in –té, and so forth. Adding to them some 2,000 words of varied origin, but in general use (such as alcohol, café, gas, sport, club, mathematics etc.), he arrives at a total of no less than ten thousand “catholic words”, a respectable quantity when we consider that most people go through their lives never needing even half of this stock. This may be true, but it so happens that precisely the most common and least dispensable words are not to be found in it: indispensable nouns such as those that denote relationship, food, clothing, objects of daily use, as well as “relational” words (pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions). This fact did not escape the sagacious Dr. Liptay, who confronts the difficulty gallantly.

In constructing his basic nouns he achieves an important economy through the abolition of grammatical gender, each time that it does not coincide with natural gender. In the cases in which they coincide the procedure is the following: the radical represents the noun in its pure state, without indication of gender or sex; if there is a necessity to give this indication, -o or –a is added to the sexless radical. Thus hom signifies “any human being” , homo, “man”, and homa, “woman”; in the same way, frat, “descendent of the same parents, frato, brother, and frata, “sister”. This triplicity is also adopted in the “names of agents”: professor, professor, and professora, and in those of the followers of a doctrine or party: socialist, socialisto, socialista. And naturally the names of animals also benefit. The most surprising thing is to see it applied in a rather original way to the names of objects: capelo is “a man’s hat”, capela, “a woman’s hat”, while capel is the generic term. Better yet, digito is “a man’s finger”, and digita “a woman’s finger”. With an eye toward simplification, all declensions are suppressed, and the functions of the former cases taken over, when necessary, by prepositions. The plural is always formed with s. The only somewhat illogical category is that of pronouns: here the retention of the traditional forms is aimed at easier recognition. In the chapter concerning verbs we come upon a contradiction: while the future, imperfect, pluperfect, and the future perfect have only one form (am?, am?, ami, amu, amao), with the specification of the person entrusted to the preceding personal pronoun, the present displays six different forms, that is a conjugation according to the inventor, or rather, the discoverer of the Catholic Language, (amo, ama, ame, amos, amas, ames). But even here, he anticipates criticism, and acata-a in an extremely sensible way: those who may find these endings difficult are authorized to not inflect the present, and to limit themselves to using the appropriate pronouns. The subjunctive is only distinguished from the indicative through the prefixing of the conjunctions si or qe.

As far as the imperative is concerned, as well as the other moods, and all of the syntax in general, they have not been elaborated by Dr. Liptay, awaiting the reactions of the critics. In his view, the various academies, philosophical societies, and local universities should constitute a sort of supreme academy, which, once the idea of the necessity of an international language has been accepted, would choose from among the existing projects the one which is most rational and easiest to learn. Should the Catholic Language be chosen, he “would gladly devote what remains of life to elaborating the vocabulary and completing the grammar of this language.”

In this clause one has the explanation for why the Catholic Language did not win out. In reality, its creator was becoming ever more exhausted as his lucubrations progressed. A man with a spirit entirely at ease in the digressions of the amateur philologist, he was the first to tire of the aridity of a methodical exposition. Hence the jests with which, now and then, he interrupts his more serious expositions. Thus, after explaining why he has retained the use of the article in his language, he adds: “In fact, the creation of the article has its reason for being, since it serves to specify the noun, to individualize it, to…I don’t know what all else! The reader will know better than I, and, if he does not know, then here are the both of us in the dark; but, in spite of this shameful ignorance, the existence of the article is an indisputable fact in almost all the civilized languages.”

No one more than he sensed that the book was becoming overlong, and when all of a sudden he begins his final chapter, he himself lets out a sigh of relief: “Thank God, finally!” the reader will doubtless say, nor can we blame him, since, unhappily, he is quite right!”

Dr. Liptay’s invention shows excellently well that the difficulty is not in thinking out an international language, no matter how logical and rational it may be, but rather to put it into practice. For this purpose one should not count on the enthusiasm of those who eventually adopt it. The inventor of an artificial language must elaborate down to the smallest details not only the grammar and basic vocabulary, but also the rules of derivation; and further, he needs to set the language in motion, to write entire books in the language, to test it with various translations. Half a life is not enough for the task; even two are not too much, as the example of Dr. Zamenhof shows.

posted by Tom Moore 3:43 PM

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