Tuesday, 22 September 2015


In a quest to catch up with my learning-something-every-day schedule, in which I have fallen pitifully behind over many, many decades, I have been reading a 1992 edition of the collected questions submitted to the newspaper by Guardian readers, together with the answers other readers supplied (a kind of pre-Internet Wikipedia system seems to have been operating via the column, which was called Notes & Queries; possibly it still exists).

One thing I've learnt is that there is an alternative to Esperanto. It is called Volapuk and is, apparently absurdly difficult grammatically. Its inventor, one Monsignor Schleyer, "had no grasp of the practicalities of creating a language" but had a "proprietorial attitude" to Volapuk and would not countenance change. "The first Congress of Volapukists was also the last. The participants found that they could not speak the language and that when they attempted to do so nobody understood them."

I've never understood why there is any need to create an international language. Italian is incredibly easy - if we want an international language, I'd vote for it. In fact, it appears that bad English is actually going to be the global lingua franca for the foreseeable future, which is a pity.

Unlike Wikipedia contributors, responders to Guardian questions were allowed to be facetious, which makes the volume enjoyable. Thus in response to the question, "Do wasps serve any useful purpose", one reader wrote: "Wasps are agents from outer space appointed to keep an eye on the progress of human beings. They soon discovered that human beings didn't serve any useful purpose on the planet so they turned their attention to rotting plums and open-air cream teas and have been having a whale of a time ever since", and, in response to the question, "Would it be better for the environment if I were buried or cremated when I die?", one person replied, "Undoubtedly, yes."

Most usefully of all, in answer to the question, "How long is a piece of string?", something I've always wanted to know the answer to, one reader quotes the Arabian Nights, which supplies this answer: "From end to end". The character who used that answer had to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for it, which doesn't seem like a good deal at all to me.

I haven't got far into the book. If there are any hidden gems further along, I won't hesitate to share them here.

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