Wendy Ashby

Glosa, A Neutral Language

Wendy Ashby (born 1950) is a developer and promoter of Glosa, an international artificial language that was invented and published by Lancelot Hogben in 1943 as Interglossa.

What is the semantic background of Glosa?
The starting point of Interglossa was that learning a new language shouldn’t be for an elite group. “It must be also for the less privileged worlds, for the workers, for the peasants on the fields”, wrote Hogben in the introduction text. He needed a very small vocabulary and a very simple structure. His idea was that you didn’t have to invent an international language, because one already exists. All the terminology of the Latin and Greek roots are already very international. And they are in all the scientific terminology. Like the in the word television, the part telly means far and vis means to see.
Glosa uses these Latin and Greek roots and there are not inflections. It has a very simple structure like Indonesian or Chinese; analytical languages in which for each idea they have a word. If they want to put something in the past, they put a little two or three letter word in front of the word so you know it happens in the past. The same principle is used for the present and the future. So there are quite some languages that use the same principle as Glosa and they function well. English has a lot of inflections and irregularities that make it more difficult to learn. In Glosa, everything is regular.

How was the idea of Interglossa received?
The book Interglossa was published during the war years. Of course, people’s attention was elsewhere. Paper was short. He sent a copy to the Unesco and one or two other places and thought his idea is so good that they would do all the promotional work for it. He did it as a first draft and wanted people to follow it up and promote it from there. But it didn’t happen unfortunately.

How was Glosa developed and how many people are using it now?
We changed the original Interglossa into Glosa, because the language Glosa is phonetic. Hogben said provisionally it would be non-phonetic because he was using all these roots, but we changed this after a lot of discussions because in praxis it turned out that it was easier to write it phonetic. There are some criteria for a good functioning international language and among them are that the language should be easy to write and speak. It is obviously going to develop if a lot of people are using it, that’s natural.
Apart from active individuals from all over the world, we’ve got a Glosa center in Uganda. They are publishing Glosa Books and posters. It took of very quickly in Uganda but sadly some of the really strong contacts there have died from aids very young. In the Arabian world we have good responses because for them English is very difficult to learn and pronounce. They find the Glosa easy to learn though. Some Chinese set up a Chinese-Glosa dictionary…

What are other criteria for an international language?
It has to be easy to learn and also related to mother tongue so it is possible to translate from another existing language. You should be able to write on any thing, whether you have literature, poetry or other text formats. It should be standardized, with no dialect variations. It should be fairly neutral politically and linguistically, so it should not come from any one language or one nation.

How do you look at other artificial languages?
Well, the problem is that there used to be the Esperanto but that really had its hay day. If that would have been functioning properly it would have been spoken in the schools by now or at least be used more widely. It is over a hundred years old. In 1887 a fifteen years old boy, still in school, invented it, very good but far too complicated. He was polish and his language background was Polish-Hebrew-Russian. All very complicated languages, so he brought out a language that was easy for him. And then some years later he learned English and realized that Esperanto could have been easier still. Esperanto has more inflections then English for example. When he wanted to change people didn’t like it.

Don’t you think it is important to have just one international language?
There are so many different languages that it is okay if there are more international languages.

Glosa is better then English as a world language?
I would say yes. English is still widely spoken but as an international language maybe not so good. It’s not neutral and it’s a difficult language. For a European it is easy perhaps for the one who has the means and the time to learn it. But for someone without these two it is very difficult to learn. The best would be if everybody would speak their mothers’ language and then have Glosa to communicate outside of this language. Everybody would be able to speak and discuss relatively quickly in order to enjoy the communication instead of having to think the whole time about the proper use of a language.

Words like love, home or religion can have a very different meaning or understanding in countries all over the world. Did you or are you thinking about that in developing Glosa further?
Depending on how important words are you can add two or more Glosa words. For instance, if we talk about love we use filo in Glosa, that would be general. But if you talk about divine love, you could put divino filo in the text. Depending on the text you try to explain in the translation how the word should be understood properly.
We have a language to offer in which everybody can freely express them selves in. So with thousand words you can say the most elementary things, everyday communication. Some people find those thousand of Central Glosa enough and others think it is too little. If you want to say more there is a version especially for poetry and literature. In Glosa you have also to think for yourself. It is a challenge not to have too many words. You have to play with what you have, be creative.

You read out parts of the script of Liliana Cavani about Simone Weil, translated in Glosa. Do you think that there are any similarities between the thinking of Simone Weil and Hogben?
She was very conscious of anyone suffering and going through hardships to experience life of common people to be able to write about their problems, wasn’t she? Hogben’s motivation was to make life easier for people without means and offer them an opportunity, a window through the possibility of knowing a language. Everybody should have the opportunity to develop themselves. There is no political conviction behind the idea of Glosa as far as I can see it is a humanitarian conviction.
If I think about it, what did Simone Weil practically achieve? Did she perhaps achieve not so much because she was more of a loner? You need people who help you, who have compatible ideas. You need to have a group of people that promote your ideas. Maybe she was not compatible.

Printed in: Kunstverein Hannover: Ingrid Calame, Mathilde ter Heijne, Jörg Wagner, pages 123-126