Interlinguistics in China

 Liu Haitao

ABSTRACT: The author reviews the history of interlinguistics in China and summarizes the contents of some recent publications. The article traces a path from early discussions of language policy through a growing recognition of Esperanto as an object of scientific study to the application of interlinguistics in computing and terminology science. Major problems include the inaccessibility of reference materials and the low professional profile of the field.

Does interlinguistics exist in China? If theory provides a strong foundation for successful practice, why has the Chinese Esperanto movement paid little attention to the scientific study of planned languages? In the present study I summarize the past, present and future (?) of this field in China. Although a few articles on interlinguistics and Esperanto studies have appeared in Esperanto periodicals in China, I will limit my discussion to publications in scientific and specialist journals.

Early Beginnings

Articles on the idea of an international language were published in the Chinese media as early as the second and third decades of this century. Most of these were written for the purpose of disseminating Esperanto, but several works dealt with the history and present state of the international language movement in general - for instance, translations of certain works of E. Drezen and E. Spiridovic. (note 1)

These early efforts were associated with the Chinese language reform movement, whose principal goal was to reform and replace the Hanzi (ideographic) writing system. It is worth noting that many discussions on Esperanto took place in the famous journal "Xin Qingnian" (New Youth). One linguist even went so far as to propose that Esperanto should replace Chinese as the language of the educated classes. This influence lasted into the post-revolutionary period, when several early Esperanto activists became professionally involved in Chinese language reform. (note 2)

To sum up, discussions in this period focused on the necessity and possibility of an international language. As this is one of the fundamental questions of interlinguistics, these discussions are of some scientific interest. It should be noted, however, that the term "guojiyu", literally "language between nations or peoples", was usually interpreted as referring specifically to Esperanto. In this respect most works from this period may be seen as contributions to Esperanto studies, rather than to the broader field of interlinguistics in the modern sense of the term (Blanke 1985).

Unfortunately this promising beginning was cut short. In the decades following the 1920s, China and Chinese had to deal with many more important and urgent problems than the question of an international language.

In 1957, the prestigious linguistics journal "Zhongguo yuwen" (Chinese Philology) published two articles on "The international common language and Esperanto" (Zhao 1957) and "The problem of the formation of an international common language" (Wu 1957). These two works, which consider the language problem following the unification of humanity, probably represent reactions of Chinese linguists to Stalin's doctrinal work "Marxism and linguistics" (1951). Essentially they do not contribute to interlinguistics as it is understood today. (note 3)

Only in 1979, in the periodical "Yuyanxue Dongtai" (Linguistics News, a journal aimed at introducing new linguistic theories and ideas from other countries), did an article on interlinguistics finally appear in the Chinese linguistic press. "On the problems of the typological classification of international artificial langauges" (Chang 1979) is in fact simply a translation of Kuznetsov 1976. A proper definition of the term "interlinguistics" had to await the publication of the Chinese edition of "Dictionary of language and linguistics " (Hartmann and Stork 1972/1981). Translated by professional linguists, this work provides a definition of interlinguistics under the heading "yuji yuyanxue" (linguistics between languages).

In 1983, two articles entitled "Interlingvistiko kaj esperantologio" were published in "La Mondo" ("Shijie", The World), the official organ of the Chinese Esperanto League (Zhou 1983, Zhang 1983). The authors employed contrasting Chinese terms for "interlinguistics", Zhou preferring "guojiyuxue" (science of [the] international language) while Zhang used "yuji yuyanxue". Despite this difference, both gave similar definitions of interlinguistics, and discussed several basic problems in the field. This may well have been the first systematic introduction to interlinguistics for Chinese readers. Unfortunely, "La Mondo" does not have a wide readership, nor has it continued to treat interlinguistics on other than a sporadic basis. Although interlinguistics may be regarded as providing the theoretical basis of the Esperanto movement, the Chinese movement appears to emphasize only the practical aspects of the language.(note 4)

In the same year, the well-known linguist and Esperantist Chen Yuan published "Shehui yuyanxue" (Sociolinguistics), one of the most influential works in this field in China (Chen 1983). The book includes a separate section on the question of an "international auxiliary language," including a discussion of the necessary criteria for a language of international relations. Such a language, according to Chen, must be supra-national, politically neutral, scientifically structured, readily pronounced, dynamic and flexible, easily learned but not over-simplistic. The bibliography includes references rarely found in Chinese scholarly publications, notably the interlinguistic works of D. Blanke, E. Drezen, H.Frank, U. Lins. In his discussion of the field, Chen uses the term "yuji yuyanxue".

Increasing Recognition

In honour of Esperanto's centenary, the linguistics journal "Waiguoyu" (Foreign Languages) dedicated its third issue in 1988 to 14 articles on various aspects of Esperanto studies. Among the most important articles can be mentioned "The past, present and future of Esperanto" (Cen Qixing), "On the evolution of Esperanto" (Li Shijun), "Esperanto as a bridge between the world's great literatures" (Yue Fu), "Internationality and the international language" (Zhang Hongfan), "About the 'Suplemento'" (Wei Yuanshu), "The tipological traits of Esperanto" (Zhang Dancheng). Several of these authors are professional linguists, including Cen Qixing who is one of the most respected linguists in modern China. Unfortunately, because of space restrictions, all of these articles were quite short.

The same year saw the publication of the Linguistics volume (yuyan wenzi juan) of the monumental Great Chinese Encyclopedia (zhongguo dabaike quanshu). It includes two articles on "International auxiliary language" (Zhou 1988a) and "Esperanto" (Zhou 1988b). The author, Zhou Liuxi, defined interlinguistics as follows:

With the creation of an international language, a new branch of linguistics was born - interlinguistics. Interlinguistics explores the relationship between national languages and the future of a universal world language, and studies the practical experience and conditions for dissemination of an international auxiliary language. It also includes research into the creative principles, linguistic structure and social norms of such a language, from the perspective of complete national languages (including basic concepts and means of expression). These may be considered as, respectively, the political and the linguistic approaches to the study of interlinguistics, which in its present form consists mainly of the study of Esperanto.

Consistent with this definition, this author used the term "guojiyuxue" as the Chinese equivalent of "interlinguistics". Although necessarily brief, the presence of this article in an important reference work must be considered an important contribution to the development of the field in China.

Regrettably, contrary examples also exist. In the context of a futurologist perspective on international linguistic communication, Ni (1990) devoted an entire chapter to "Future artificial (auxiliary) languages," including the following topics: "Zamenhof and the future of Esperanto," "Artificial language," "A future 'human-machine' universal language," "International trends in graphic and sign langauges," "Birth of a cosmic language." Theoretically this work should be part of the field of interlinguistics, since the latter is generally considered to be a branch of linguistics concerned with international linguistic communication. Yet the author displays no trace of familiarity with the interlinguistic literature, and his interesting arguments include many erroneous or misleading statements about planned languages and basic facts of interlinguistics.

Far more valuable for Chinese interlinguistics was the publication, in 1992, of a translation of "Lingvistikaj Aspektoj de Esperanto" (Linguistic Aspects of Esperanto: Wells 1979) by the well-known publisher Shangwu Yinshuguan (Commercial Publishers: Wells 1992). The title-page summary of the book's contents reads as follows:

This book examines the linguistic structure of Esperanto through the prism of general linguistics, primarily the research on language universals. The author refers to materials collected on a hundred or so languages, and objectively analyzes many aspects of the structure and function of Esperanto. It is of great value for Esperanto scholars and for students of general linguistics.

In an afterword to the book entitled "International language and interlinguistics" (Zhou 1992), the translator, Zhou Liuxi, discusses in summary form the definition of interlinguistics and the typology of international languages, and introduces some of the important works in this area. In my opinion this essay is invaluable for Chinese readers, for previously there were virtually no systematic presentations of the scientific achievements of interlinguistics as a branch of linguistics. The most recent work cited by the author is Blanke (1985). Zhou's afterword also appeared in the Esperanto magazine "La Mondo", but the book, published in 1400 copies, undoubtedly reached a much wider readership.

New Directions

In order to bring the achievements and challenges of interlinguistics to the attention of a wider Chinese readership, particularly among linguists, Liu Haitao has edited and published the newsletter "Yujiyuyanxue Tongxun" (Interlinguistic Courier) since 1992. This publication includes basic facts, news and bibliographic listings on interlinguistics and planned languages. The contents are similar to those of "Informilo por Interlingvistoj" (published by the Center for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems, Rotterdam) and "Interlinguistische Informationen" (published by the Gesellschaft für Interlinguistik, Berlin). Ten issues have appeared so far; its present circulation is an average of 50 copies. Subscriptions are free.

Liu, a specialist in information technology, has also been active as an author of articles on interlinguistics in a variety of scientific and professional journals. Brief summaries of the contents of these articles may give a more precise idea of the current state of interlinguistics in China.

The journal "Qingbao Kexue" (Information Science) published the study "Interlanguages in computational language processing" (Liu 1993a), which systematically examines the conditions, types and applications of interlanguages in Natural Language Processing (NLP). The article introduces Chinese readers to many recent advances in interlinguistics and Esperanto studies, and includes a discussion of the author's own research. The bibliography includes a list of the most important publications in interlinguistics.

This article was followed by a second, "The language barrier in multilingual computer networks and its solution" (Liu 1994b), which explores the same themes at a deeper level. The author treats computational linguistics and interlinguistics as related sciences directed at solving language problems - the former in the communication between human and machine(now, particularly computer), the latter in the communication between humans speaking different languages. Using concepts developed within interlinguistics, Liu describes a translation system involving human-machine cooperation on the basis of a "universal grammar" (an informatics and interlinguistics term not to be confused with Chomsky's natural-language concept). In other articles on computational linguistics the author frequently refers to the importance of interlinguistics for solving such problems (Liu 1993b, 1994a, 1995b, 1996c).

Also in the context of computational linguistics, Li Wei(1986) kaj Qiao Yi(1995) describe the programming development and linguistic basis of translation systems between Esperanto, Chinese and English. In their studies also be touched some problems of planned languages, particularly Esperanto.

An important development was the publication of "Interlinguistics and planned languages" in the influential linguistics journal "Xiandai Waiyu" (Modern Foreign Languages: Liu 1995). This paper. which discusses the historical roots of multilingualism, the basic concepts and definitions of interlinguistics, the creation, classification and development of planned languages, the status of Esperanto, and the potential of interlinguistic research, was the first of its kind to reach a wide professional audience in China. Of similar importance was "The relationship between planned languages and language planning" in "Waiguoyu" (Foreign Languages: Liu 1996a). In this article, which discusses the roots of both language planning and planned languages(interlinguistics) as related disciplines, the author summarizes his viewpoint as follows:

In the development of national languages, the conscious influence of humankind on language has been very great and beneficial. Language planning is directed at the synthetic optimalization of the regional and/or global language situation. In fact, there is a strong similarity between planned languages and language planning, in their reliance on conscious intervention in language development. Planned languages are the highest product of language planning.

A simlar perspective is expressed in Liu 1996b, on "Terminology standardization: the view from planned languages." Following a discussion of the fundamental issues and the pioneering work of E. Wuester and E. Drezen, the author concludes as follows:

Terminology standardization and planned languages were both invented to raise the quality of information exchange between people(speaking different languages). Both are examples of the human capacity to consciously alter language. Terminology standardization is a form of international language planning, one increasingly important in the imformation age. The history and experiences of planned languages can be of considerable use for terminology science.

In a subsequent article in "Waiguoyu", "Interlinguistic studies based on axiomatic principles" (Liu 1997), the author broadens his focus to include perspectives from cybernetics, mathematics, general and computational linguistics. In his opinion:

The historical development and successful functioning of a planned language is compatible with Chomsky's theory of "universal grammar", and W. von Humboldt's pithy formulation of the essence of language. More specifially, a planned language is an external realization of universal grammar; while Humboldt's maxim that language is "the limitless use of a limited instrument" accurately captures the fact that a planned language is born and evolves out of a limited stock of linguistic rules and materials. In contrast to national languages, whose rules are formulated in an a posteriori fashion, a planned language is actually preceded by its rules.

Drawing on the recent development of corpus-based analogical semantics within computational linguistics, the author asks whether the semantic system of Esperanto may have developed through analogical principles from the "Ekzercaro" of the FUNDAMENTO (Zamenhof, 1963).

Finally, a group of articles concerns the relationship between Chinese linguistics and planned languages. It is particularly noteworthy that all recent Chinese language projects are types of pasigraphy (graphical and numeric code), e.g. the "Universal Language Code" (Liu 1992) and the "International Universal Pictogram (IUP)" (Liu 1995c). The two authors of these particular projects were unaware of the history and achievements of interlinguistics, although their work may well reflect the Chinese demand for an international lingua franca, influenced by the national policy favouring growing international contacts and trade. Most recently, it appears that the author of the "International Universal Pictogram", Ms. Liu Sha, has been collaborating with researchers at Bejing University and the National Language Commission on the development of a machine translation system. Published reports suggests that this team has constructed a prototype capable of translating from IUP into English and Chinese, and has also built a portable system capable of solving communication problems between taxi drivers and their passengers (Liu Sha 1993, Zhou Lina 1996, Liu Sha 1996).

The significance of the Chinese language for interlinguistics is explored by Liu (1996d), under the three categories "Pasigraphies based on Hanzi", "Planned languages based on the syntactic structure of the Chinese language", and "Planned languages using Hanzi elements as syntactic markers". After a review of historical and syntactical issues, the author considers to what extent the syntactical markers and affix system of Esperanto resemble certain elements in Hanzi, and concludes that to some extent Esperanto functions as an alphabetic pasigraphy. Considering the success of written Chinese as a medium of communication among different linguistic groups in China, Esperanto's success may be due to its structural similarities to Chinese and to Hanzi in particular.

Problems and Challenges

From this brief overview of the history and present state of interlinguistics in China, the following problems appear to me to be especially serious and important.

1. Many basic questions remain to be addressed, among them the existence of two Chinese terms for "interlinguistics", "Guojiyu xue" (science of [the] international language) and "Yuji yuyanxue" (linguistics between languages). The latter is more widely known among linguists outside interlinguistics, while the former was used by certain scholars(interlinguist), such as Zhou Liuxi and Liu Haitao.It should be noted, however, that the two terms have historically been defined to refer to the same branch of science.

2. There is a serious lack of basic reference materials on interlinguistics, which renders objective and systematic research highly problematic. Many studies have even published factually incorrect statements concerning planned languages and interlinguistics. For instance, Ni (1990) considers "Romanid", by Z. Magyar, to be a very popular planned language more than Esperanto, especially in Hungary, although any interlinguistic scholar knows that Romanid never progressed beyond the stage of a language project. In order for researchers to have access to accurate data, the available materials must be collected and catalogued. Unfortunately, it remains practically impossible for most Chinese scholars to purchase overseas publications because of currency exchange difficulties. As a partial solution, I have developed a bibliography of interlinguistic materials available from libraries and individuals within China. All contributions from our colleagues in other countries would be gratefully welcomed.

3. There is a lack of scholars in this field. In present-day China it is even difficult to find people who are willing to be professional linguists: there is a general preference for occupations which offer the chance to make money quickly. If linguistics cannot make itself profitable, interlinguistics itself will have to wait even longer for attention! Each person's worth is judged by his or her purse. Such an atmosphere makes it very difficult to found an interlinguistic study group. Yet without greater human and organizational resources, the depth and scope of interlinguistic research will inevitably be limited.

4. Since interlinguistics has so far generated little interest among the rich and famous (in linguistics or elsewhere), it is not easy to gain entry for articles on interlinguistics in major linguistic journals, particularly when they are the first in that publication. As the above review demonstrated, there has been some progress in this respect in recent years. Yet the few articles mentioned, many of them my own, are insufficient to sustain a separate branch of language science. Once again, financial issues play an important role. For instance, some years ago I wrote a general introduction to interlinguistics for a Chinese audience, and I also translated the book of P.Janton(1987) into Chinese, but for lack of means they may be permanently consigned to my desk drawer.

As already observed, interlinguistics is China is barely in its infancy. Many problems and a long path of development still await it. But we believe that pure theoretical research is not always a vain tilting at windmills. We will continue to publish newsletters, write papers, acquire the support of linguists, edit our bibliography, etc... I hope that the passage of time will bring all of these efforts to fruition.

The author expresses heartfelt thanks to Dr. D. Blanke for various kinds of assistance in my research on planned languages and interlinguistics over the past ten years, and to many other overseas colleagues for their help. Thanks also to Mark Fettes for translating this study into English and editing it for LPLP.



1. Ernest Karlovich Drezen (1892-1937) was a Latvian pioneer in interlinguistics and terminology science who eventually fell victim to the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. His "Historio de la mondolingvo" (History of the World Language) remains even today an essential reference work for serious scholars of interlinguistics. Details of his life and work can be found in Kuznetsov (1991). Efim Spiridovich (1891-1935), a Belorussian journalist and university lecturer, published a series of articles on the theory of linguistic evolution. His most important work is "Jazykoznanie i mezhdunarodnij jazyk" (The Science of Language and the International Language), which also exists in Japanese and Chinese translations (Spiridovic, 1932).

2. Language reform in China passed through the following stages. The project of writing the sounds of Hanzi and developing a uniform system of pronunciation was begun in 1892 by Lu Gangzhang; the standard form is now Hanyu Pinyin. In 1933, certain Chinese and Soviet linguists developed a transliteration system for Chinese, called "ladinghua xinwenzi" (Latinized New Script); this is the project that attracted some Esperantists. After the People's Republic was founded in 1949, the government established the National Committee on Language Reform (Zhongguo wenzi gaige weiyuanhui, now, Guojia yuyan wenzi gongzuo weiyuanhui) to put the matter on a professional basis. Some Esperantists have occupied important posts in this organization, for instance Ye Laishi and Chen Yuan. Besides establishing an alphabetic standard, the Committee undertook the simplification of Hanzi and the development of Putonghua as a common lingua franca. An overview of language reform in China is given in Zhou Youguang (1988); the part played by Esperanto and Esperantists is described in greater detail in Ye Laishi (1995).

3. The development of Soviet linguistics under Stalin and its relationship to the international language question and the Esperanto movement is recounted in rich detail by Lins (1988: 316-383).

4. Zhou Liuxi, now is linguistics professor of Beijing normal university(Beijing Shifan Daxue), published series of articles on language structure and grammar of Esperanto in "La mondo"(Zhou 1988-1990). In these studies, Zhou research the field from the views of general linguistics and interlinguistics, he also compared the structure of Esperanto with others planned languages, for instance, Interlingua and Ido. Although "La Mondo" only is internal journal of Chinese Esperanto League, the series of Zhou is value to interlinguist.


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The paper be published in LPLP(Language Problems and Language Planning) 1/1998(p. 76-87). Thanks Mark Fettes for translation and interchange of many opinons during to prepare the English version. Original Esperanto-version be published in IpI(Informilo por Interlingvistoj).

© Liu Haitao, 1997

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