Ronald E. Buckalew

James Joyce on constructed languages

The dialect homophony of the word each and the name of the letter H is important to the understanding of a Joycean joke at the expense of G. B. Shaw. G. B. S., as an avid advocate of spelling reform, attempted to demonstrate what he considered absurdities of English spelling by respelling fish as ghoti, using the gh of words like laugh, the o of women, and the ti of nation, where they represent /f/, /I/, and /š/, respectively. Among the night lessons on language is the footnote, “Gee each owe tea eye smells fish. That’s U.” (299.n. 3). Here Joyce replaces Shaw’s letters g, h, o, t, and i with words (each standing for h), and then a word with a letter (U for you). Thus, while giving Issy a typically irreverant comment, Joyce also implies that he thinks Shaw’s reforming “smells fish[y].” After all, look at the fun one can have with the present system!

The proposal of Shaw which Joyce was mocking here was one manifestation of a movement, especially strong in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which helped call attention to the superficial forms of words and the multiple ways English has of rendering its sounds. A related movement was that for an international auxiliary language. This movement was burgeoning during Joyce’s lifetime and could not go unnoticed by a person with Joyce’s interest in popular culture, his international perspective, and his involvement in the use and study of numerous languages. In a survey of this movement, One Language for the World (New York: Devin-Adair, 1958), Mario Pei writes,

The two decades that close the nineteenth century witness the great flowering of constructed languages, including both Volapük and Esperanto, along with at least forty other serious projects of varying merit.

The period between 1900 and 1920 is dominated by Esperanto and its brood, but many other valuable suggestions appear, at the very least forty in number. It remains for the years since 1920 to multiply both popular interest and types of proposal. (p. 94)

Among these later proposals is Basic English, first promulgated in 1930 by Charles Ogden. This consisted of a simplified English based on a vocabulary of 850 words, 600 of them nouns, which by means of paraphrase, such as “take part” for participate, could express any idea. Joyce refers to this scheme and Volapük while apparently mocking artificial languages in general:

For if the lingo gasped between kicksheets, however basically English, were to be preached from the mouths of wickerchurch-wardens and metaphysicians . . . , where would their practice be or where the human race itself where the Pythagorean sesquipedalia of the panepistemion, however apically Volapucky, grunted and gromwelled, ichabod, habakuk, opanoff, uggamyg, hapaxle, gomenon, ppppfff, . . . (116.15-33)

Finnegans Wake in general may be seen as an ironic comment on international language proposals, Basic English in particular. Whereas most inventors of international auxiliary languages aimed for simplified grammar or vocabulary, Joyce’s procedure was to enrich his expression by complication. A person with Joyce’s sophistication, knowledge of languages, and sense of humor surely found much to laugh at in the spectacle of international congresses held by hordes of zealous speakers of Volapük or Esperanto. Eugene Jolas tells us, in fact, that Joyce “often talked with a derisive smile of the auxiliary languages.”16 While mocking their means, Joyce may nevertheless have sympathized with their aims, and he certainly had in common with them the attempt to create a new means of expression. Since their attempt came first and was known by Joyce, it may well have provided him with another source of inspiration for his own.

M. J. C. Hodgart suggests that Joyce may have gotten much if not all of his knowledge of Volapük, Esperanto, and Novial from Otto Jespersen's An International Language (Copenhagen, 1928). He also cites some passages in the Wake based on Volapük (34.13) and Esperanto (52.14, 160.29, and 565.25). 17 Another possible source is Jespersen’s earlier work, Two Papers on International Language in English and Ido (Copenhagen, 1921), in which a number of those languages which appear in Finnegans Wake are mentioned, such as Universal and Idiom Neutral as well as Volapük (“what with moltapuke on voltapuke” [40.4-5]), Novial (“tuned in to hear the topmast novial- ity” [351.15]), and Ido (“tell her in your semiological agglutinative yez, how Idos be asking after her” [465.12-13]). There may also be a pun turning on Danish maal (“language”) and the artificial Mezzo-fanti-Sprache in Joyce’s itinerary which opens the “Night Lessons” chapter and includes “Mezzofanti Mall” (260.21-22). Some of these languages (Universal, Idiom Neutral) appear in a sentence in which Joyce seems to be poking fun at some of the names, suggesting that they are as distinctive as the labels concubine, prostitute, and street arab. There is, to my knowledge, no Sordomutics or Florilingua, for example, but -lingua is common in names like Mundelingua and Pasilingua. “The olold stoliolum,” says Joyce,

... is told in sounds in utter that, in signs so adds to, in universal, in polygluttural, in each auxiliary neutral idiom, sordomutics, florilingua, sheltafocal, flayflutter, a con’s cubane, a pro’s tutute, strassarab, ereperse and anythongue athall. (117.12-16)

A kind of interlanguage which has developed in various parts of the world at different times out of a need for a compromise between two or more natural languages is the pidgin. Such a language is spoken by people doing business with each other or between a master and his servants or slaves. Pidgin has interested those studying the problem of an international auxiliary language and also anthropologists and others concerned with intersecting cultures. Joyce seems to have been among them if we may judge from his use of brief passages that appear to represent a variety of pidgin English, as well as his use of the name in “Tipatonguing him on in her pigeony linguish” (584.3-4). In a passage in “Night Lessons” treating the events in Phoenix Park in cycling and Arthurian terms, we suddenly encounter, “all boy more missis blong him race quickfeller all same hogglepiggle longer house blong him” (285.6-8). As Shaun responds enthusistically to Shem’s geometry lesson with “So analytical plausible! ... it will be a lozenge to me all my lauffe” (299.26-29), he followes it with “More better twofeller we been speak copperads” (299.30). When the two are later at odds, we again meet the same style, “he fight him all time twofeller longa kill dead finish bloody face blong you” (303.30-32). The same kind of unsophisticated earthiness that Joyce seems to suggest in these passages appears also in the fable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper when the Gracehoper prays: “Nefersenless, when he had safely looked up his ovipository, he loftet hails and prayed: May he me no voida water! Seekit Hatup! May no he me tile pig shed on! Suckit Hotup!” (415.33—35). A longer passage in the same vein (485.29-34) has enough Chinese elements in the context (“shanghaied,” “Tsing tsing!” Confucium”) to indicate that Chinese Pidgin English is intended there. The others may be Melanesian rather than Chinese. All of these, however, produce a sudden change in style that calls the reader’s attention back to the language just as he perhaps felt he was getting used to it. This is only one such device among many, because Joyce does not allow us to forget that we are reading a surrealistic-type prose that may change in style or even language at any moment, regardless of subject or speaker. Although pidgins develop to bridge a linguistic gap, Joyce uses them within his language to create one, at least momentarily.

4. Eugene Jolas, “My Friend James Joyce,” James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism, ed. Seon Givens (New York: Vanguard Press, 1948), p. 13.

16. Givens, p. 14.

17. “Artificial Languages,” A Wake Digest, ed. Clive Hart and Fritz Senn (Sidney: Sidney University Press, 1968), pp. 56-58.

SOURCE: Buckalew, Ronald E. “Night Lessons on Language / Book II, chapter ii,” in A Conceptual Guide to Finnegans Wake, edited by Michael H. Begnal and Fritz Senn (University Park; London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1974), pp. 93-115. This excerpt, pp. 101-104, 115.

Finnegans Wake: what is its language?
by Krzysztof Bartnicki

Kiel James Joyce lernis Esperanton,”
de Ian Wibberley

La facila planlingvo en la plej malfacila romano
de Giorgio Silfer

James Joyce & Esperanto:
Selected Bilingual Bibliography / Elektita Dulingva Bibliografio

James Joyce: Special Topics: Bibliography, Links, Quotes

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & Interlingvistiko


James Joyce @ Ĝirafo

James Joyce - Vikipedio

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 27 November 2022

Site ©1999-2022 Ralph Dumain