This is probably petty, but before getting to the more serious matters, I would like to mention a pet peeve about some conlangs: only a twit would give a project a generic name. Solresol means language; Babm means international language; and Lojban means logical language. (Loglan, meanwhile, is not generic within that system: Loglan is a name formed regularly from logla [is a part/instance of Loglan].) Loglan is in fact one of the only major systems to have an actual name rather than a sobriquet. The list of offenders is long: Glosa, Interglossa, Interlingua (either one), etc. Even Occidental, Frater, and (for that matter) Esperanto use normal words for names. (Though the choice was not Zamenhof's, Lingvo Internacia is hardly an improvement.) If you ever try creating a language, PLEASE use some imagination in naming it.
End of soapbox; on to the serious commentary.
It is easy to find problems and flaws in Solresol. Couturat and Leau were mystified by its early popularity, and presented a very dark picture of its workings--a little too dark, perhaps. Some of the flaws they cite are exaggerations, and even most of the real flaws have if not an equal, at least an opposite, positive. Consider the following cases:
Overdependence on French. Various features of the grammar and lexicon are based slavishly on French: the lack of the numbers 70 and 90 (soixante-dix [sixty-ten] and quatre-vingt dix [four-score ten]), the tense system, and the apparent range of meanings for some words all derive from French.
On the other hand, many features are far removed from French thought: though the tense system indeed uses the convoluted French system of tenses and moods as a reference, it is much simpler. Just look at how many different forms are subsumed under each of the particles. For that matter, the use of particles for tense and mood is quite revolutionary for a time when agglutination and inflection ruled: try comparing Solresol with Volapük sometime!
The syntax is also a vast simplification over French: adjectives (as opposed to determiners) invariably follow their head, the partitive is gone, the expletive ne likewise.
Difficulty in resolution. Gajewski himself notes several times that speakers must pause between words to keep them from running together. This is an awkward feature at best: who wants to keep pausing between words? Yet without some method of separating words, resolution is nearly impossible. It would perhaps be sufficient to isolate the one- and two-syllable words, assuming that the three- and four-syllable ones would then sort themselves out. This might not be all that hard to do, either, as the shorter words tend to be loners anyway (except for the determiners): they are mostly pronouns, adverbs, and the like, easily set off by a slight pause.
Arbitrariness. Couturat and Leau note that the derivational system is not always followed, giving a case where fsolso (basic meaning: boat)
supposedly takes on different shades of meaning as a noun (referring to
different types of boats) rather than changing part of speech (38). I
find it easier to believe that they misread the entry in Sudre's
dictionary than to think that he would have utterly reversed his usual
approach to semantics and the lexicon. Then they observe that “la
classification des idées correspondant aux combinaisions successives de
notes n'est pas plus régulière, et est faite sans aucun principe
logique: elles sont rangées dans un ordre à peu près arbitraire, et en
tout cas absolument empirique” (the classification of ideas
corresponding to successive combinations of notes is no more regular
[than the derivational system] and does not follow any logical
principle: the ideas are arranged in an order that is almost arbitrary
and in any case absolutely unpredictable p. 38).
Now it is true that some of the classifications are a bit hard to follow, and they certainly have little in common with Bishop Wilkin's Real Character. This is absolutely crucial to understanding the nature of Solresol, and one reason it should be considered a classic conlang. Couturat and Leau utterly miss the point. Note what they say shortly before attacking Solresol's arbitrariness: “En somme, le Solrésol présente, à un degré suprème, tous les défauts pratiques des langues philosophiques, sans en avoir les avantages théoriques. En effet, la logique est la moindre qualité de ce système.” (To sum up, Solresol presents in the highest degree all the practical flaws of philosophical languages, without having any of their theoretical advantages. Indeed, logic is the least of this system's qualities. p. 37) But that is precisely the point: unlike other a priori schemes, Solresol is not truly a philosophical language. The other systems attempted to produce a thorough classification of ideas, a philosophical and semantic taxonomy. Solresol merely uses classification as a mnemonic device. The other systems usually boasted a large vocabulary; Solresol has a comparatively small one--2,660 roots. In fact, Solresol has less in common with schemes such as Ro and em sigh ay than it does with suma, another a priori maverick. It may have been the first non-rationalistic a priori project, and that, together with its advanced concept of analytical conjugation and declension, makes it a classic.
But Solresol's status among conlangs and auxlangs aside, how serious is the charge of arbitrariness? The lexicon is not well designed (see below), but is logic a help or a hindrance to learnability? I would say that rigorous classification (at least of the classical type found in the Real Character) decreases a language's learnability.
Consider: while it is true that certain sounds can have associations (some limited to a specific language, a very few perhaps universal), no natural lexicon appears based on such factors. Indeed, it would probably be easier to argue for dissimilation in most cases. What is the result? When a language has an easily detected lexical taxonomy, the very regularity of its forms will tend to reinforce the speaker's awareness that he is dealing with something artificial. I know of people who belittle Esperanto as being just an overly-predictable toy--and Esperanto is hardly a model of regularity or predictability, though it far exceeds natural languages. Will not a system such as Ro therefore destroy its own credibility? Solresol, by contrast, has just enough order for a mnemonic, but perhaps not quite enough to seem a counterfeit. If this is so, it is a point well worth learning.
The principle of antonym inversion, though clever, is impractical and inconsistently used. In a way, this is a subcategory of the arbitrariness argument. Again, the inversion exists merely as a mnemonic, not as a philosophical statement. In the cases where it is used, I suppose that the learner would simply learn the two forms together: dmrs/srmd hear/be deaf. (This should again remind those familiar with suma of its unique lexical strategy.)
The lexicon is badly designed. This really is a problem. One of
the great discoveries found in both Volapük and Esperanto is that a
well-designed system of affixes can greatly reduce the number of
morphemes one has to learn for basic, ordinary communication. (Of
course, for advanced usage--especially for literature--a large
vocabulary is still necessary; see Fernando de Diego, Pri Esperanta Tradukarto
[Saarbrücken: Artur E. Iltis, 1979], especially “Esperanto en rilato al
la naciaj lingvoj” and “Arkaismoj kaj neologismoj kiel helpiloj de
tradukado.”) Although trying to reduce the number of basic words, Sudre
did not appreciate the power of compounding; only the fs/sf pair makes a token effort in this direction.
Perhaps the problem here is a matter of linguistic background. I once (privately) corrected a professor with a degree in English Linguistics for his analysis of Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, because he referred to the various thous as subjects. They are in fact vocatives (“O thou West Wind...”). Now this professor was no dope; his knowledge of Germanic languages far exceeded my own, and he had been doing linguistics for quite a while. Why did I catch the vocative? I suggested (and still believe) that it was a matter of linguistic background: he knew only Germanic languages, which lack a true vocative case, while I knew various languages (Koine Greek, Latin, and Russian) that have at least vestiges of such a case.
Applying the same idea, compare Sudre's French with Schleyer's German and Zamenhof's Polish (Russian, German, etc.). Which of these people will be least likely to think of compounding as a major theme of their lexicon? French has been nearly dead derivationally for some time, especially as compared to the Germanic and Slavic languages. So it should come as no surprise that this concept was pioneered by people with such a background. (Of course, as a professor, Sudre must have known at least a little Latin, and perhaps even some Greek--languages that should have alerted him to compounding's usefulness. Yet his interest in reducing the need for language study--one of the goals of Solresol--points to less of a love for language than one finds in Schleyer and Zamenhof, so he may have missed the point these non-native languages could have taught him.)
So what should we remember about Solresol? Not its complicated
derivational system, not its dependence on French, not even its clever
or fanciful variant forms, but that
As to finding a future for Solresol, the system has some interesting features, but as it stands, it is a relic of a bygone age. However, this does not mean that something of the sort could not be designed. The following are the major possibilities:
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Copyright © 1997, Stephen L. Rice
Last update: Nov. 19, 1997