J. M. Schleyer brought out his Volapük in 1880, and towards the end of the eighties his adherents numbered hundreds of thousands; great congresses were held, and books and periodicals appeared in the new language in great numbers all over the civilized world. But a few years later the "craze", as it was called, passed as suddenly as it had appeared. What, then, were the causes of this sudden success and equally sudden failure?
If the boom showed that the world really wanted such a medium, and that Volapük was possessed of some of the qualities required in an international language, the decline and fall showed that the want was not great enough to support a language of such an imperfect structure. For Volapük was a most curious mixture of good and bad. Greatly to its credit were its phonetic alphabet, the perfect regularity of all its forms, and the fullness of its vocabulary which permitted it to express all necessary ideas and to be the vehicle of translation of literary works. For the first time in the history of the world one saw men and women from the most distant countries meeting together and conversing in an artificially constructed tongue. The machinery worked, but not without some creaking and grating of the wheels.
Very soon adherents began to ask questions of a kind which beginners also ask with regard to natural languages: why is this so and not otherwise? If a child learning French asks, why is a horse called cheval, and why should this word have -aux in the plural, he naturally gets the answer: it is like that, and you cannot change it, but must take the language as it is. But a man constructing an artificial language must be prepared constantly to state his reasons why such and such an idea is to be expressed in this way rather than in any other way, and why this or that grammatical form or rule has been adopted. And those questions were extremely difficult to answer in the case of Volapük, because nearly everything rested on the individual fancies or whims of its inventor. It is true that when you come to examine it more carefully, you discover that there is some system underlying the whole structure, but that system is highly arbitrary and necessitates (seemingly or really) capricious distortions of the best-known words. Most of the words are taken from European languages, especially English, and yet when one sees a page of Volapük, one hardly recognises a single word of it. There are no end of prefixes and suffixes to express minute shades (tense, number, person, mood, etc.), and as each prefix ends with a vowel, and each suffix begins with a vowel, it follows that the stem itself must always begin and end with a consonant. Accordingly Academy becomes kadem. R is avoided: fire is fil, and red led. As s is the sign of the plural, no word may end in s: rose is made into lol. As ne is the negative, such a word as necessity is clipped of its initial syllable and becomes zesüd. Not even proper names get off scot-free: Italy is Täl, and England Nelij (j pronounced sh). Europe is Yulop, and the other continents, which happen in their natural names to begin and end in vowels, must don the same uniform and are made into Melop, Silop, Filop, and Talop respectively. Very ingenious, isn't it?
No wonder that after the first wave of enthusiasm had passed, some Volapükists began to ask: are all these contortions really necessary? Would it not be better to keep well-known words nearer to their natural forms? But when people called for reforms of this or that particular, Schleyer, who had been hailed with the title Datuval, i.e. Great Inventor, took offence and claimed an absolute veto in matters of his own language, and as sensible Volapükists were not inclined to grant that, the body broke up - and that was the end of the first great drama of "Interlanguage".