Have You Heard of the Occidental / Interlingue Language?
Artificial languages are impressive feats, and the one that cam closest to worldwide success is barely known to modern-day linguists.
I’ve often heard it said by non-translation and non-linguist folks that learning a second language is one of the most difficult and challenging things they’ve ever tried. And while it’s true that learning a second language, especially as an adult, is a difficult project for even the most skilled people, there’s something that I find even more impressive: Inventing a second language.
Yes, this might be something that only a translation services nerd such as myself thinks about, but if you pause to consider the sheer amount of work involved in creating an entire language from whole cloth, you can appreciate the effort and cleverness involved even if you don’t really know much else about languages. And it’s not just the province of nerds and oddballs, either – the recent popularity of Klingon (from Star Trek) or Elvish (from The Lord of the Rings) or Dothraki (from Game of Thrones) as languages that fans actually learn and speak shows that there is an inherent excitement to an invented language that recognizes, on some level, the effort and brain power required to create it in the first place.
One of the greatest achievements in the realm of invented languages was Occidental, later known as Interlingue. It was devised in the 1920s by a man named Edgar de Wahl and was designed to be based on existing words from European languages, made regular (that is, without the variety of endings and conjugations/declensions found in their original languages) and given a simple, devised grammar. The idea is remarkably simple, and became quite popular over the subsequent twenty years, to the point where it’s estimated there was once about two million people speaking Occidental. Considering it was the work of one man building on a single, simple idea, this is quite an amazing achievement.
After World War II, however, the popularity of the language dropped away sharply. It was renamed Interlingue, but the number of people speaking it faded in favour of other designed languages, most notably Esperanto.
One reason often offered for this quick decline in popularity has to do with de Wahl’s decision to keep the language’s vocabulary based solely on European source languages. In the wake of the world war to stop fascism, this was likely seen as far too Euro-centric. An artificial language is often seen by adherents as a step towards a united world, a world without significant cultural divisions, a world working together in peace. The choice of vocabulary being seen as an attempt to impose a European worldview on anyone who spoke Occidental/Interlingue very likely made it a distasteful choice for many.
Of course, the peak of popularity for all kinds of artificial languages was in the early 20th Century, and even Esperanto is not as widely-spoken as it once was – although Dothraki, Elvish, and Klingon may suggest a new golden age is coming!