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Wilhelm Ostwald.

Wilhelm Ostwald. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

Recently I pulled out an old copy of Chemical Heritage from 2003 and found an article commemorating the 150th birthday of the German Nobel prize-winning chemist Wilhelm Ostwald. The article mentions his chemical work, which included the invention of the Ostwald process, which makes nitrate from ammonia. Not very surprising—a chemist doing chemistry. But then it says Ostwald was celebrated for his invention of the international language "Ido." What? I had to know more.

Here's the back-story I discovered: L.L. Zamenhof, a Polish Jew who spoke several languages, came to believe that the cause of suffering in the world was misunderstandings resulting from the existence of multiple languages. To fix this problem, he reasoned, all he had to do was invent a language. He published his language under the pseudonym “Doctor Hopeful, translated to "Doktoro Esperanto" in his new language Esperanto.

Eventually a French academic, Louis Couturat, called for a Delegation for the Adoption of an International Auxiliary Language after noting difficulties in translation at the 1900 World’s Fair. Elected as president of the Delegation was none other than Ostwald. 

The goal of the Delegation was to choose one international auxiliary language. At the beginning it seemed obvious that Esperanto would be chosen. It was one of the oldest and most recognized auxiliary languages. However, after long deliberation, the Delegation realized it could not accept Esperanto and instead proposed a reformed language named Ido, a shortened version of the word "esperantido," meaning "an offspring of Esperanto." While these reforms upset Zamenhof, who felt that his life’s work was being thrown away, Ostwald’s plan was put into motion and Ido became a competitor to Esperanto, though it never reached the success of its progenitor.

What does Ostwald's involvement in the creation of Ido have to do with his scientific work? Ostwald, I uncovered, firmly believed that chemistry and an international language went hand in hand. In International Language and Science, the book he co-wrote with the other delegates, he says that even if a chemistry paper’s text is printed in Japanese, he could still probably figure out the meaning because "chemical formulae contain at the present day such detailed information concerning the relationship of the substances symbolized, that one might conceive the possibility of writing a chemical paper with formulae alone." Ostwald believed that an international language would do for international relations what chemical formulae did for chemistry. He said, "If only politicians could recognize the benefits of having one system of communication, they might be able to achieve half of what chemists can do."

Posted In: History

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