Rudolf Carnap on IALs

[This passage is taken from "The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap", editor P. A. Schlipp, 1963. It is part of the section "Language Planning". Carnap was an analytical philosopher who was a member of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, logicians and social scientists which met during the 1920's and 30's. Their creed was called Logical Positivism. Carnap was involved, among other things, with the construction of logical languages, and wrote "The Logical Syntax of Language".]

With the second kind of language planning, whose aim is an international language, I became acquainted much earlier than with language planning in symbolic logic. At the age of about fourteen I found by chance a little pamphlet called "The World Language Esperanto". I was immediately fascinated by the regularity and ingenious construction of the language, and I learned it eagerly. When a few years later I attended an international Esperanto congress, it seemed like a miracle to see how easy it was for me to follow the talks and the discussions in the large public meetings, and then to talk in private conversations with people from many other countries, while I was unable to hold conversations in those languages which I had studied for many years in school. One of the high points of the congress was the performance of Goethe's Iphigenie in an Esperanto translation. It was a stirring and uplifting experience for me to hear this drama, inspired by the ideal of one humanity, expressed in the new medium which made it possible for thousands of spectators from many countries to understand it, and to become united in spirit.

After the first World War, I had some opportunities of observing the practical use of Esperanto. The most extensive experience was in 1922, in connection with the Esperanto Congress in Helsingfors, Finland. There I became acquainted with a Bulgarian student; for four weeks we were almost constantly together and became close friends. After the Congress we traveled and hiked through Finland and the new Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We stayed with hospitable Esperantists and made contact with many people in these countries. We talked about all kinds of problems in public and in personal life, always, of course, in Esperanto. For us this language was not a system of rules but simply a living language. After experiences of this kind, I cannot take very seriously the arguments of those who assert that an international auxiliary language might be suitable for business affairs and perhaps for natural science, but could not possibly serve as an adequate means of communication in personal affairs, for discussions in the social sciences and the humanities, let alone for fiction or drama. I have found that most of those who make these assertions have no practical experience with such a language.

The motives which in my youth evoked my interest in an international language were, on the one hand the humanitarian ideal of improving the understanding between nations, and on the other, the pleasure of using a language which combined a surprising flexibility in the means of expression with a great simplicity of structure. Later I became more interested in the theoretical problems of the points of view which should guide the planning of an international language. Therefore I studied the most important language projects. I was especially interested in the theoretical discussions by the founders of these projects and the reasons which they gave for their new, improved language forms.

First I studied the language Ido proposed by L. Couturat, who emphasizes regularity and logic of word formation. By contrast, the "naturalistic" school stresses more the psychological factor of the continuity with the development of natural languages. To this school belong G. Peano's Latino sine flexione, E. de Wahl's Occidental, and Interlingua. The latter was developed on the basis of many years of research by linguists on the research staff of IALA (International Auxiliary Language Association), among them Edward Sapir, Edward L. Thorndike, and André Martinet. The final form of Interlingua was worked out by Alexander Gode.

Among some of the adherents of these and other language projects, heated sectarian debates are going on. Just as I pleaded for the principle of tolerance in logical languages, I am in the field of international languages on the side of those who emphasize the common aim and the similarity of the proposed means. Being chiefly based on the Romance languages, the five language forms which I have mentioned, from Esperanto to Interlingua, are indeed so similar to each other that they may be regarded as variants of one language. They represent Standard Average European, as Gode put it, using a term coined by Benjamin Lee Whorf. It is true that every living language uses a particular conceptual system for the description of the world, a system that has grown out of the specific cultural background of the language. This fact, which has been explained in detail by Whorf, is sometimes used as an objection against the possibility of a constructed international language. However, the existing international language does possess a specific cultural background, as was emphasized by Gode. This background is the Western culture, more specifically, its modern science and technology, which originated in the Occident but which are now, together with their scientific terminology, the common property of many nations all over the world.

The two problems, the construction of language systems in symbolic logic and the construction of international languages, are entirely different from a practical point of view. Leibniz was the first to recognize the importance of both problems, to see their connection but also their difference. Throughout his life, he envisaged the idea of a characteristica universalis, a kind of logical symbolism or Begriffsschrift in Frege's sense. He also thought about the possibility of constructing a universal language as a means of international communication. Leibniz intended to base this language on Latin, but he planned to give it a simple and regular grammatical structure. Leibniz' second aim has been fulfilled in our time by the various forms of an international language.

Although the two problems are different and are directed toward different aims, working on them is somehow psychologically similar. As I see it, both must appeal to those whose thinking about means of expression or about language in the widest sense is not only descriptive and historical but also constructive, whose concern is the problem of finding those possible forms of expression which would be most suitable for certain linguistic functions. I think it might lead to fruitful results if some of those logicians who find satisfaction and enjoyment in designing new symbolic systems would follow the example of Leibniz, Descartes, Peano and Couturat and direct their thought to the problem of planning an international language.

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James Chandler 31-Jan-98.