Learning From Interlingua

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F.A. Hayek, the Nobel-laureate economist and philosopher of liberty, said that he appreciated “results of human action but not of human design.” The results he had in mind included useful institutions that have evolved gradually without overall planning – institutions such as morality, the common law, the market system, money, and, almost prototypically, language. Hayek condemned as “constructivism” an eagerness to impose one’s bright ideas for reconstructed or invented institutions without due regard to the possible merits of those that have evolved almost spontaneously.

People first hearing of Interlingua, the modern auxiliary language, may well suspect constructivism. Yet far from show- ing contempt for whatever has not been deliberately planned, Interlingua respects the historical character of language. As I’ll try to show, it can be useful to the individual person in several ways even if it never is widely adopted for international communication.

Reasons why the charge of constructivism would be wrong explain why Interlingua fascinates me (and, I hope, other readers of Liberty). No one favors imposing it to replace national languages. Interlingua registers objectively exist- ing linguistic reality: it is natural, not artificial – a generic Romance language distilled mainly from Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and the many Romance-Latin-Greek elements of English. The international vocabulary of science and technology appears in it, as well as other international words borrowed into German, Russian, and many other languages. Indeed, its source languages might well be considered dialects of Interlingua as their standard, just as their own dialects have been more or less deliberately standardized in German, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, and other national languages. (Ludwig von Mises, chosen by Liberty’s editors as libertarian of the 20th century notes such precedents in his “Nation, State, and Economy” [1919, trans. 1983].)

Interlingua offers a key to the common features of its sources. It was extracted from them by teams of professional linguists working over many years with the International Auxiliary Language Association. Its first definitive dictionary and grammar appeared in 1951, when IALA’s research director was Dr. Alexander Gode. Since then many other dictionaries have appeared, adding words on the same naturalistic principles used for its earliest publications. The largest is a five-volume Interlingua-Dutch/Dutch-Interlingua work.

Interlingua’s grammar sheds complications that even any one of its source languages manages without, such as grammatical gender, noun cases, and accord of adjectives and nouns. It avoids personal conjugations and irregularities of verbs, those notorious bugbears of students. The simplifications actually enhance Interlingua’s generic Romance character, for the complications that are dropped differ among its individual source languages anyway. Its vocabulary is instructive as a standard from which each of those languages distorts words away from their common.ancestors, distorting them in idiosyncratic yet systematic ways.

While few people have studied Interlingua, an individual person can benefit from knowing it. He (or she) can communicate with any of the hundreds of millions of native speakers of Romance languages, who (as I have observed) can under- stand it without having even heard of it before. For international meetings, it has the merits of being very easy to learn and of not giving an advantage to native speakers of any national language. With it, we English-speakers could soften our reputation of scorning foreign languages and expecting everyone to use ours. Learning Interlingua is admittedly easier for speakers of its source languages than for speakers of more distantly related or unrelated ones; yet even exotic languages have adopted its international vocabulary of science and technology.

Interlingua can be useful especially to us English-speakers, whose vocabulary has the double basis of Germanic and Romance-Latin-Greek roots. Many words for everyday concepts such as foot, head, bread, meat, sky, water are of Germanic origin. Their counterparts in the Romance languages as standardized in Interlingua are pede, capite, pan, carne, celo, aqua; and from them English forms derivatives: pedal, capital, pantry, carnivorous, celestial, aquatic (to mention just one of each). Since many thousands of English words embody Latin (and Greek) roots, Interlingua becomes a ke)’, like Latin itself, to English vocabulary. It promotes understanding of the derivations and even the spelling of our words, thus offering us one of the main advantages of knowing the classical languages.

In each of the examples below, an Interlingua word is followed by its meaning and a few of its English derivatives.

batter ‘beat’, ‘strike’: batter, batter)’, battle, combat, debate, rebate, abattoir

cader ‘fall’: cadence, case, accident, incident, decadent, casual, casualt)’, casuistry, recidivism

carne ‘meat’, ‘flesh’: carnal, carnivorous, carnival, incarnation, carnage, carnation

creder ‘believe’: creed, credible, credulous, credit, creditor, credential, discredit, miscreant

ducer ‘lead’, ‘draw’: duke, conduct, conducive, ductile, educate, deduce, abduct, duct, aqueduct

funder ‘melt’, ‘pour’: foundry, fuse, fusion, transfusion, confuse, confound, diffuse, effusive, profusion, funnel

grave ‘weighty’: gravity, gravid, aggravate, gravamen, grieve, grief, grievous

grege ‘flock’, ‘herd’, ‘crowd’: gregarious, segregate, integrate, aggregate, congregate, egregious

imperar ‘govern’, ‘command’: empire, emperor, imperial, imperative

leger ‘gather’, ‘choose’: select, collect, college, diligent, predilection, elect, elective, eligible, elite, intelligent

leger ‘read’: lecture, lectern, lesson, legend, legible

mitter ‘put’, ‘send’: mission, missionary, emissary, Mass, emit, remit, transmit, submit, promise, missile, message, committee

moner ‘warn’, ‘advise’, ‘remind’: admonish, monitor, monitory, premonition, monument, demonstrate, summon. Indirectly, through the Temple of Juno Moneta (Juno Who Warns), Interlingua moneta: English mone)’, monetar)!, monetize, demonetize, mint

pender ‘hang’: depend, append, suspend, pendulum, propensity, appendix, impending, independent

ponderar ‘weigh’, ‘ponder’: ponder, imponderable, ponderous, ponderosa, preponderate

poter ‘be able’: potent, impotent, potency, potential, potentate, potentiometer

precar ‘pray’: precator)’, precarious, imprecation, deprecate

precio ‘price’: price, prize, precious, appreciate, depreciate, appraise

premer ‘press’: print, imprint, pressure, impress, oppress, depress, repress, suppress

rader ‘scrape’: razor, erase, abrade, abrasive, raze, rash

scriber ‘write’: scribe, scribble, describe, inscribe, subscribe, circumscribe, prescribe, nondescript, manuscript, scripture, conscription, postscript

seder ‘sit’ and sede ‘seat’: see (as in Holy See), session, president, obsession, sedentary, sessile, sediment, residence, residue, assiduous, siege

sequer ‘follow’: sequel, sequence, consequent, persecute, prosecute, pursue, obsequious

tener ‘hold’: tenable, retain, detain, abstain, pertain, tenant

torquer ‘twist’: torque, torsion, retort, distort, extortion, contortion, tortuous, torture

vader ‘go’: evade, invade, pervasive, wade, waddle

venir ‘ come’: venue, Advent, circumvent, event, prevent, supervene, convene, revenue, eventually

Among the many English words containing two Interlingua roots are –

aqua ‘water’,  ducer ‘lead’: aqueduct

plen ‘full’,· pater ‘be able’:plenipotentiary

omne ‘all’, poter: omnipotent

melle ‘honey’, fluer ‘flow’: mellifluous

carne ‘meat’, vorar ‘devour’:carnivorous

ben ‘well’, voler ‘wish’: benevolent

agro ‘field’, coler ‘cultivate’ (and cultura ‘culture’): agriculture

pisce ‘fish’, coler: pisciculture mano ‘hand’, scriber ‘write’: manuscript

ex ‘out of’, ‘from’, onere ‘burden’: exonerate

Some of the foregoing examples (Table 1) already include roots that form derivatives together with Latin-Interlingua prepositions such as ab, ad, con, ex, circum, super, trans. and others. Further examples include: abstract, adhere, conference, execute, circumspect, superficial, transitory.

Knowing Interlingua helps bring to life dead metaphors latent in English words: e.g., exonerate (ex = off, out; onere = burden), mellifluous (melle =honey, fluer = to flow), benevo- lent (ben = well, voler = to wish). It may help force a writer to think more exactly what he means; it may alert him to long Latin-derived words that creep into his drafts and to ways of replacing pretentious ones. (A current vogue term that I find repellent is “prior to.” Well, prior is one of the Latin- Interlingua words for “earlier than” or “before.” Why not just use the good old Anglo-Saxon word “before”? After all, English is basically a Germanic language.)

Interlingua illuminates systematic deviations in its “dialects” from their common ancestor – so-called sound shifts.* The examples in Table 2 (each with a derived English word) show how -ct-, -li-, -cul-, and an initial consonant +1 are characteristically simplified in the Romance languages.

Many other such parallel shifts occur. Of all the Romance languages considered here, French most distorts Interlingua words. (A notorious example is eveque, which shares no consonant with Interlingua/Latin episcopo and no letter at all with English bishop.)

An e or i of stressed syllables in Interlingua frequently changes to oi; examples follow in Interlingua, French, and English: me, moi, me; creder, croire, believe; preda, proie, prey; derecto, droit, right or law; feno, foin, hay; fide, foie, faith; ficato, foie, liver; digito, doigt, finger; pipere, poivre, pepper; frigide, froid, cold.

Interlingua c followed by a vowel often becomes ch in French; 1 in certain positions becomes u, and s in certain positions (especially at the beginning of a word) disappears, leaving an acute or circumflex accent as a trace. Examples are (Interlingua) cantar, (French) chanter, (English) sing; can, chien, dog; vacca, vache, cow; morsello, morceau, mor- sel; fardello, fardeau, burden; pelle, peau, skin; schola, ecole, school; ostrea, huitre, oyster; tosto, tot, soon or early. Many words, some already shown, undergo two or three of these systematic changes; other examples are: capillo, cheveu, hair; stricte, etroit, tight; castello, chateau, castle. As also already illustrated, French tends to shorten words; it has been described as Latin spoken by a hard-of-hearing person, who misses many syllables.

Knowing Interlingua as the standard from which such sound shifts depart should be useful in learning at least to decipher texts in one or all of the Romance languages.

Interlingua goes beyond illuminating correspondences within its own Latin-Romance family. By representing its family in parallel with the Germanic, Slavic, Greek, Celtic,

Far from showing contempt for whatever has not been deliberately planned, Interlingua respects the historical character of language.


and other families that derive, over millennia, from a com- mon Indo-European ancestor, it can help show systematic relations among them also. The Latin-Romance stop conso- nants p, t, and k tend to correspond to the fricatives f, th, and h in English (here representing the Germanic languages). In the examples that follow, the double arrow +-+ indicates correspondence by common ancestry, not derivation of either word from the other.

Again in systematic patterns, the Romance languages, especially French, have not only derived the bulk of their vocabularies from Latin but have borrowed some words from the common ancestor of the modern Germanic languages. Gu (and g) in Romance words sometimes corresponds to w in Germanic. Without necessarily identical meanings in the two languages, such words include Interlingua guerra +-+ English war, guastar +-+ waste, gemer +-+ whine (or groan), guisa +-+ wise (guise), guai +-+ woe, ganiar +-+ win (gain), guindar +-+ wind (hoist), Guilhelmo +-+ William.

We saw above how Interlingua resurrects dead English metaphors. Similarl)’, it illuminates loan translations (calques) even in distantly related or unrelated languages. For example, Interlingua/English transition combines (in effect) the Interlingua roots trans ‘across’ and IT ‘to go’; the co.~respond­ ing German, Russian, and Hungarian words – Ubergang, perekhod, and atmenet – are formed with native roots meaning the same. Contra’against’ and dicer ‘say’ form con- tradiction, and the equivalent roots form Widerspruch, proti- vorechie, and ellenmondas in the other three languages. Con ‘together’ and poner ‘put’ form composition, with the parallels zusammenstellen, sostavlatj, and osszetenni. Such correspon- dences are innumerable.

Realists (like me) do not expect Interlingua to triumph over English as an international auxiliary language. With its advantages for certain purposes and especially for speakers of its source languages, however, it might gain the role of second auxiliary language. The two could be allies. Knowing either facilitates learning the other.

Any mention of Interlingua brings Esperanto to mind and requires a comparison. Esperanto is an ingenious invention to which Hayek’s epithet 1 / constructivism” does indeed apply. Dr. Ludwik Zamenhof (1859-1917) plucked words more or less

The vocabulary of Interlingua is instructive as a standard from which each of its source languages distorts words away from their common ancestors in idiosyncratic yet systematic ways.


arbitrarily from the several languages that he knew, including Polish and Russian, and distorted them into conformity with his idiosyncratic ideas for vocabulary and grammar. No one can understand Esperanto without studying it. Saying so does not disparage Esperanto, which has its appeal. The contrasts between the two languages do summarize, however, some features of Interlingua. It is a discovery of and an introduction to linguistic scholarship. Registering objective reality, it has a

IfInterlingua is such an admirable achievement, why is it less widely known than Esperanto? As a work of scholarship, it appeals less to enthusiasts for gadgetry, exotic contrivances, global salvation, and miscellaneous causes.


natural character. Hundreds of millions of Romance speakers can understand it instantly. Even apart from any Widespread deliberate adoption, it is useful to individuals, especially to writers and others interested in word origins and synonyms. It lacks cultist associations.

If Interlingua is such an admirable achievement,· why is it less widely known than Esperanto? As a work of scholarship, it appeals less to enthusiasts for gadgetr)’, exotic contrivances, global salvation, and miscellaneous causes. Furthermore, gaining attention can be expensive, as business and political advertising shows. Unfortunately, IALA’s chief patron, Mrs. Alice Vanderbilt Morris, died shortly before the language’s defining dictionary and grammar appeared; and funds for popularizing it dried up. Nevertheless, a community of Interlingua supporters does flourish.

Literature in and about Interlingua, as well as further links to the internet, can be found at interlingua.com. As a sample, meanwhile, here is the beginning of a historic classical-liberal document. The translation preserves the slightly antiquated style of the original, particularly in capitalization and punctuation.

QUANDO in Ie Curso del Eventos human, il deveni necessari pro un Populo dissolver Ie Bandas Politic que les ha connectite con un altere, e assumer inter Ie Poteres del Terra, Ie Position separate e equal al qual Ie Leges del Natura e del Deo de Natura les da titulo, un decente Respecto al Opiniones del Humanitate require que illes declara Ie cau- sas que les impelle al Separation.

NOS mantene que iste Veritates es evidente per se, que orone Homines es create equal, que illes es dotate per lor Creator con certe Derectos inalienabile, que inter istos es Ie Vita, Ie Libertate, e Ie Recerca del Felicitate – Que pro assecurar iste Derectos, Govemamentos es instituite inter Homines, derivante su juste Poteres ab Ie Consentimento del Govematos, que quandocunque ulle Forma del Govemamento deveni destructive de iste Fines, il es Ie Derecto del Populo alterar 10 0 abolir 10, e instituer nove Govemamento, basante BU Fundation super tal Principios, e organisante su Poteres in tal Forma, que les semblara Ie plus apte a effectuar lor Securitate e Felicitate.


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