A Hand-Book of Volapük

A Handbook of Volapükand an Elementary Manual of its Grammar and Vocabulary,
Prepared from the Gathered Papers of Gemmell Hunter Ibidem Justice;
Together with an Account of Events Relating to the Annual General Meeting of 1891
of the Edinburgh Society for the Propagation of a Universal Language.

Edited for the First Time by Dr. Charles Cordiner, Emeritus Professor of Phrenology at Fraserburgh University.

What's this all about?

This is the symbol of the Volapük movement in the 1880s In April 1891, two matters greatly excite the inhabitants of Edinburgh: the decennial Population Census; and the Annual General Meeting of the Edinburgh Society for the Propagation of a Universal Language. The General Secretary of the Society, Mr. Justice, is a staunch champion of the highly-popular language "Volapük", which spread across Europe after 1884; but he is locked in a battle for ascendancy with Dr. Bosman, shameless apologist for "Esperanto". Other members of the Society promote inferior Universal Languages, and rightly merit Mr. Justice's contempt.
In the weeks prior to the AGM of the Edinburgh Society, Mr. Justice descends the east coast of Scotland, partly in pursuit of his trade as a respected repairer of church organs, partly to conduct classes in the grammar and vocabulary of Volapük. As he proceeds southwards from the Moray Firth, he records the lessons given to artisans, the exercises set for them, and his own wide-ranging speculations on Language as a tool for social change.
The AGM will decide which of the two rivals will win the struggle for the hearts and minds of their comrades; and much effort is expended by both parties in wooing the non-aligned comrades. But Mr. Justice has a secret weapon - an old gentleman whom he met in distant Cromarty, and who has promised to bring the majority of the Society into Mr. Justice's camp.
But the AGM does not deliver the expected victory; certain snakes in the grass conspire against Mr. Justice's plan. The true character of the old gentleman from Cromarty is revealed in all its treachery. After an epic debate, some scones, and many cups of tea, Mr. Justice ill-advisedly decides to kidnap Dr. Bosman, teach him some Volapük grammar, and retreat with him to the Mavisbank Private Lunatic Asylum, in Midlothian. In the next few days spent at Mavisbank, Mr. Justice has the leisure to discuss Language with the Residents, to reflect on the nature of his cause, and to question its justification.

The publication of this novel seems to have triggered an interesting number of responses among the International Language community - particularly in the USA. Some like it, some really don't...

  • 'Vol' - the world; 'a' - the possessive suffix; 'pük' - speech: thus, 'world-speech'.
  • When Invented?  1879
  • By whom?  Herr Johann Schleyer, of Germany
  • What is it? A 'universal language', enabling people of different nations to talk and write a common language.
  • Vükiped? Want to see my entry in the Volapük Wikipedia? (I bet you never knew such a thing existed...)
  • To view some more of the things you never even dared to ask click here...
  • Scotland on Sunday A bloody funny romp... Drummond is clearly a master of language, his touch is deft. This is a lively book, sparkling with wit and ideas.
  • The Independent A really enjoyable farrago. As a wildly comic and surreal satire of every pedantry going, it could scarcely be bettered.
  • Sunday Herald A cornucopia of wit, fantasy and idiosyncrasy...this seriously comic novel is one of a kind.
  • Click here to read some of these reviews and discussions...

Why on earth did I write about Volapük ?

A Handbook of Volapük Volapük? Like most things in life, there was never anything deliberate about it. One day, I was leafing through material relating to Victorian Utopian ideas (as one does), and there was the word staring up at me: "Volapük". Like something Jean-Luc Picard might get worried about.
The word interested me, and then the language itself - "world speak": the more I read about the Volapük Language movement, its sudden rise and dramatic fall, its splinter-groups and its rivalry with Esperanto, the more I recognised in it some of my own experiences with radical movements in the 1970's and 80's. How could a movement dedicated to fraternal co-operation and friendship through communication become so embroiled in bitter factionalism and fatally weakened by misinterpretation? There was a rich seam here.
Equally fascinating was to research the other, even less well-known, "universal languages" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, or those of earlier dates. One such language was loudly championed - but, like 21st century "vapourware", never ever detailed - by Sir Thomas Urquhart in the 17th century.
In considering all of these languages - and in some cases, learning the basic grammar - I suffer for my art! - questions began to present themselves. What exactly was the purpose of a Universal Language? Given the wide variety of language-families in the world, how could one language claim to be equally appropriate to all nations? Was there latent cultural imperialism in the promotion of any one Universal Language? Would communication by numbers be more egalitarian? Would a Universal Language utterly emasculate or sterilise the ability of language to power the imagination?

Put these matters and themes together with my other transient interests of the past couple of years: a private Lunatic Asylum once housed in a crumbling country residence featured in Restoration; the first Scottish hot-air balloonist; the mechanics of church organs; the decennial Population Census; and Arbroath Smokies. You have exactly one hour to construct an unlikely plot...