by Paul La Farge
I first read about Volapük in the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine so violently opposed to anything out of the ordinary that it once studied the dates of thousands of shipwrecks to prove that the moon has no influence on maritime disasters. In his survey of artificial languages from Esperanto to Klingon, the critic Martin Gardner paused to describe the first really popular man-made language in the world, Volapük, and to poke fun at its odd-sounding words. In Volapük, the Lord’s Prayer begins,
O fat obas, kel binol in süls, paisaludomöz nem ola!
No wonder the language died out, Gardner says. Who would want to call “Our Father” fat obas? Who would want to speak something called Volapük? I could think of at least two people: me and my friend Herb. For years he and I had spoken our own language, an idiom made up of old jokes and references to things we did when we were children. Volapük was just what we needed: If we spoke it, we could be sure that absolutely no one would understand us. For a few months we mouthed O fat obasto one another at parties, expressing—and, no doubt, confirming—our distance from everyone else. In secret, of course, we wanted to be understood. One night I told Herb, “If I met a woman who knew Volapük, I’d marry her on the spot.”
A dark-haired woman turned around. “Oh my god,” she said. “You know Volapük?”