Friday 4 May 2012

BABM: Japan's (inspiring?) answer to Esperanto

(1) Remarkably few people have ever heard of the language called "BABM", so if you keep on reading this article you can consider yourself a member of a strange (self-selecting) club.

(2) BABM is much, much more interesting than you could reasonably assume, for a few reasons that I'm going to sum up with as few words as possible.  It's interesting primarily as a reflection of the last several centuries of intellectual heritage of East vs. West, and it draws together a set of interesting puzzles of language, science and philosophy in one tidy package.

It is partly an Asian response to the Eurocentric nature of scientific language (and, indeed, the Latin dependency of scientific terminology), and it is also a response to the (no less) Eurocentric tendencies of prior artificial languages such as Esperanto (but more directly reflecting much earlier precedents in the 17th century).

(3) The unique origin of BABM is a lean volume published by Fuishiki Okamoto in 1962: holding the original paper volume in hand, I would read the title to be BABM—The Simplest Universal Auxiliary Language, but there are variations of the title to be found (variously) on the book's spine, title page, and so on.

(4) The author (who was indeed Japanese) was critical of the limitations of Esperanto (a relatively famous "imaginary language", that is already well-documented on all corners of the internet) and he evidently had a comparative awareness of several other Asian and European languages; he was especially aware of the problems of precise communication in the sciences between East and West.  The emphasis on "simplicity" (that may seem absurd at first glance) reflects this concern (and the author's own scientistic philosophy, proclaimed throughout).

Every chemistry student learns how slippery our pseudo-Latin tradition can be, when the teacher first insists that we must clearly pronounce the difference between sulphite and sulphate.

A few people who are inclined to regard BABM as madness (which it is!) may have pricked up their ears at this point: the distinctions that chemical terminology rely upon are confusing enough for native English speakers (communicating with other native English speakers) and it seems that Fuishiki Okamoto was responding for a genuine need to simplify (and codify) language so that speakers of radically different languages would be able to consistently express chemical equations (among other things).

(5) A very small number of people may now want to loudly interject with the factoid that Fuishiki Okamoto was not the first person to thus create an artificial language inspired by Taxonomy.  That is true, but BABM is nevertheless remarkable because of its truly international character, whereas, by contrast, 17th century European experiments of this kind were quaintly European (John Wilkins, d. 1672, I'm thinking of you); there is a great deal of intellectual interest in those earlier precedents, but they can (in part) be regarded as the last chapter of the struggle with the loss of Latin as a language of learning (itself a defining chapter of Europe's history, cf. Nicholas Ostler's recent pop-culture book on the ultimate unpopular culture, Ad Infinitum, and a relatively prolix literature of difficult to read treatises on the legacy of John Wilkins, if you insist).

(6) If it is considered in this context (and relative to this limited purpose, of making a sort of scientific notation that could work as a spoken language) it could be said that BABM is a great success.  Looking down the list of chemical names in the volume, and a few other glossaries of technical terms, you can see that the language is both practical and practicable.  However, it is also reasonable to say that the language is a failure relative to the aspirations of its author, who clearly sought to outdo Esperanto and who believed that the chief virtues that would ensure the language's success were (i) its simplicity, and (ii) its scientific-ness.  In a world that is full of complaints about the complexity and inconsistency of language, the failure of BABM is an interesting illustration to consider: from the standpoint of language parole, simplicity and logical consistency may be over-rated virtues (and, indeed, the world's most successful languages seem to glory in ambiguity, inefficiency, and unscientific virtues of various kinds).  Looking at BABM as a language (on paper, in one of the two books ever published using the language) we get to look at a peculiar demonstration of how hollow the most common complaints about language really are: we are faced with the strange spectacle of a language that lacks all of the frustrations that students (reasonably enough) complain of, and, yet, we don't seem to be liberated by this deletion, but instead stare nakedly onto the arbitrary mess of morphemes and meanings.

(7) In terms of just how obscure BABM has become, consider this: in a world where every minor character on every fleeting sitcom gets a Wikipedia article, BABM scarcely has a few sentences devoted to it, and hardly any other trace of it can be found on the internet.  This article, of course, may create the occasion for a few linguists to look up and re-examine Fuishiki Okamoto's experiment; and I do think it is worth looking at "again" (if anyone looked at it the first time).

(8) Given its many remarkable and distinctive features, what explains the failure of BABM to gather at least a cult following comparable to other "imaginary languages"?  Why, in short, should it not attract more attention that completely useless languages derived from movies based on novels and/or the sequels of science-fiction?

First and foremost, the author who created it (in a period of just over six years) died inconveniently soon after the book's publication; thus, the usual modes of promotion (such as lecturing, conferences, etc.) would have fallen silent rather suddenly after the first possible interest was expressed.  The book itself optimistically suggests that it would be followed with more glossaries of new coinages, and that readers would be able to send in their suggested coinages by post to be added to these sequels; alas, this never transpired.

Secondly, it must be said that Japan was in a uniquely terrible position to offer intellectual leadership (of this kind) in Asia during the early 1960s: the resentment and ruination of World War Two (and the Sino-Japanese war before it, etc. etc.) was still fresh in the minds of anyone who could have been an enthusiastic adopter of such a standard (and, indeed, wars were ongoing throughout Asia with Japan's resented involvement, from Korea to Vietnam).

With such political problems set aside, BABM, at least, must be acclaimed as less Eurocentric than Latin, and much easier for an Asian audience to pronounce and understand than the half-translated and half-transcribed Pharmacopeia that now remain the standard so many non-European languages around the world).  If anyone has looked at the official names of medicines in Chinese (let alone smaller, less-documented languages of Asia) they will already have some sense of what I'm talking about here: there was a real problem that Fuishiki Okamoto tried to address, and that problem is still haunting us (unsolved) today.  If such a standard (of logical monosyllables) had caught on for labeling chemicals in Asia, it could have (eventually) caught on in some other auxiliary function elsewhere.

However, I must note, thirdly, that Fuishiki Okamoto did not present his newly invented language as a simple solution to such problems, but instead tries to impress the reader with his "universal" philosophy throughout the volume (and this, too, seems more like something out of 17th century Europe than it does 20th century Asia).

There's a lesson to be drawn from that last point, too: if you're trying to provide your reader with a tool, be certain that you do not first burden it with an ideology; the tool of language is one that will be plied to the making and unmaking of every ideology, and, I fear, no language will last long if it is bound to any one ideal.  This seems to hamper the language of science no less than the language of religion.