War with the Newts

(Excerpt on the Language Problem)

by Karel Čapek

Hand in hand with the Newt schools the language problem emerged. Which of the world languages ought the Salamanders to learn first? The original Newts from the Pacific islands expressed themselves, of course, in pidgin English as they picked it up from the natives and sailors; many spoke Malayan or other local dialects. The Newts bred for the Singapore market spoke Basic English, that scientifically simplified English which manages with a couple of hundred phrases and no obsolete grammatical fuss; and so people began to call this reformed standard English, Salamander‑English. At the model Écoles Zimmermann the Newts expressed themselves in Corneille's tongue, not of course on racial grounds, but because it is part of a higher education; on the contrary, in the Reform schools Esperanto was taught as the medium of communication. Besides, about that time five or six Universal Languages came into existence, designed to replace the Babylonian confusion of human tongues and provide one common speech for the whole world of men and Newts; of course there were many disputes as to which of these Universal Languages was the most useful, consistent, and universal. In the end, of course, it so happened that in every nation a different Universal Language was propagated. [1]   [—> main narrative continued]


1  Besides other things, the famous philologist, Curtius, in his work Janua Linguarum Aperta, proposed that as the only universal tongue for the Newts the Latin of the golden age of Vergil should be adopted. "To‑day," he said, "it is in our power to make that Latin, the most perfect language, the richest in grammatical rules, and scientifically most consistent, a living universal tongue. If civilized man does not take advantage of this opportunity, do it yourselves, Salamandrae, gens maritima; choose as your mother tongue, eruditam linguam latinum, the only language worthy for the orbis terrarum to speak. Eternal will be your virtue, Salamandrae, if you resuscitate to new life the everlasting language of gods and heroes; for with that, gens Tritonum, you will also succeed one day to the inheritance of the empire of Rome."

On the other hand, a certain Livonian telegraph official called Wolteras, together with a pastor Mendelius, hit upon and worked out a special language for the Newts, called Pontic Lang; in it he made use of elements from all the languages of the world, especially the African dialects. This Newtish (as it also was called) achieved some currency, especially in the northern states, but unfortunately only among human beings; in Uppsala there was oven a chair founded for the Newtish language, but of the Newts, as far as is known, not a single one spoke this tongue. As a matter of fact, Basic English was the most customary language among the Salamanders, and later on it became the official medium of communication among the Newts.   [—> main narrative]


With the nationalization of the Newt schools the whole question became simplified; in every country the Newts were simply taught the language of that special race. Although the Salamanders picked up foreign languages quite readily and with eagerness their linguistic ability showed strange shortcomings, partly because of the state of their vocal organs, and partly because of psychological reasons; so, for instance, it was with difficulty that they could pronounce long, polysyllabic words, and they attempted to reduce them to a single syllable which they uttered sharply and with something of a croak; they used to say "I" instead of "r," and in sibilants they lisped slightly; they were oblivious of grammatical endings, never learned to differentiate between "I" and "we," and it was all the same to them whether a word was masculine or feminine. (Perhaps this was symptomatic of their sexual frigidity at the time of mating.) In their mouths every language underwent a characteristic change, and somehow became rationalized into its simplest and most rudimentary form. It is a point worth consideration that their neologisms, their pronunciation and grammatical simplicity were picked up rapidly, partly by the human wreckage at the ports, partly by the so-called better society, and from there these modes of expression spread to the daily Press and soon became general. Even among human beings grammatical genders mainly faded out, the endings disappeared, declension died out, and gilded youth suppressed the "r" and learned to lisp; hardly any educated any educated person could still say what was the meaning of indeterminism or transcendentalism, simply because these words too became too long for man and inexpressible.

In short, whether well or badly, the Newts could speak almost all the tongues of the world, depending on the shore they occupied. Then an article was published in Prague (in The Patriot, I think) which (certainly not without reason) bitterly complained that the Newts did not also learn Czech, when there were already in the world Salamanders speaking Portuguese, Dutch, and other languages of the smaller nations. Our nation, it is true, unfortunately does not possess its own seashore, the said article admitted, and therefore we have no sea Newts either; but even if we have not got a sea of our own, it does not follow that we do not possess a culture equal—yes, in many respects even superior—to that of many nations whose languages thousands of Newts are made to learn. It would be only equitable if the Newts also learned something of our spiritual life; but how can they acquire it if not a single one among them is a master of our language? We must not wait for somebody in the world to recognize this cultural debt and establish a chair of Czech and Czechoslovak literature at some institution of learning. As the poet says, "The world has nothing to bestow; from our own selves our joys must flow." Therefore let us make amends ourselves, demanded the article. Whatever we have accomplished in this world we have done with our own strength! It is our right and duty to strive to make friends even among the Newts; but, so it seems, our Ministry for Foreign Affairs is not active enough in making due propaganda for our name and of our products among the Newts, although other and smaller nations set aside millions for opening up to the Newts their cultural treasures and at the same time for stimulating interest in their industrial products. The article excited considerable attention, especially among the chambers of commerce, and at least it resulted in a small handbook being published entitled Czech for Newts, with special examples from the Czechoslovak belles‑lettres. It may seem incredible, but over seven hundred copies of this booklet were actually sold; consequently, on the whole it was a remarkable success. [1]   [—> main narrative continued]


1  Cf. feuilleton from the pen of Jaromir Seidl‑Novoměstsky preserved in the collection of Mr. Povondra:

OUR FRIEND ON THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

Making with my wife the poetess, Henrietta Seidl‑Chrudimska, a tour round the world, in order to find relief, at least in part, through the charm of so many new and strong impressions, for the sad loss of our gracious aunt, the writer Bohumila Jandova‑Střešovická, we came as far as the lonely Galapagos Islands,  so wrapped in legend. We had only two hours to spare, and so to make use of them we took a walk along the shores of that desert archipelago.

"See how very beautiful is the sunset to‑day," I said to my wife. "Doesn't it look as if the whole sky were swimming in a flood of blood and gold?"

"Why, the gentleman is Czech!" suddenly came from behind us in correct and pure Czech.

In astonishment we looked in that direction. There was nobody there but a big, black Newt, sitting on the rocks, holding in his hand something that appeared to be a book. During our Journey round the world we had already seen several Newts, but we had not had an opportunity of entering into conversation with them. Therefore, the kind reader will appreciate our amazement when, on a shore so deserted, we came across a Newt, and besides that, chanced to hear a remark in our native tongue.

"Who spoke?" I cried in Czech.

"I made so bold, sir," answered the Newt, rising respectfully. "I could not resist on hearing for the first time in my life a conversation in Czech."

"I beg your pardon," I gasped, "you can speak Czech?"

"I have just been amusing myself with the conjugation of the irregular verb 'to be,"' replied the Newt. “This particular verb is irregular in all languages.”

"How, where, and why," I implored him, "have you learned Czech?"

"By chance this book came into my hands," answered the Newt, offering me the booklet which he was holding in his hand; it was Czech for Newts, and its pages bore marks of frequent and industrious perusal. "It came here with a shipment of books of a serious nature. I could have chosen Geometry for Senior Classes in Secondary Schools, History of War Tactics, Guide through the Dolomites, or Principles of Bimetallism. I chose this booklet, however, which has become my dearest companion. I know it already by heart, but I always find in it new sources of enjoyment and instruction."

My wife and I expressed our unfeigned pleasure and admiration at this correct, nay, even almost intelligible pronunciation. “Alas, there is nobody here with whom I can converse in Czech,” said our new friend modestly, "and I am not quite sure if the seventh case of the word horse, kůň, is koni or konmi."

"Koňmi," I said.

"Oh, no, koni," exclaimed my wife with animation.

"Could you be kind enough to tell me," enquired our dear companion eagerly, "what there is new in mother Prague with her hundred towers?"

"She's growing bigger, my friend," I answered, pleased by his interest, and in a few words I outlined to him the flowering of our golden metropolis.

"What pleasant news you bring me," said the Newt with unconcealed satisfaction. "Do they still hang on the Bridge Tower the heads of Czech noblemen who have been beheaded?"

"Not now for a long time," I said to him, rather (I confess) astonished by his question.

"Forsooth, that's a pity," reflected the engaging Newt. "It was a fine historical memorial. May lamentations rise to God that so many excellent monuments perished in the Thirty Years War! If not mistaken, the Czech land was then turned into a desert, soaked with blood and tears. What good fortune it was then that the negative genitive did not disappear. In this booklet it states that it is on the point of extinction. I felt distressed about it, sir."

"Then you have been captivated by our history," I exclaimed joyfully.

"Certainly, sir," responded the Newt. "Especially by the battle of the White Mountain and the Three Hundred Years suppression. I have read very much about them in this book. You certainly must be very proud of your Three Hundred Years suppression. It was a great time, sir."

"Yes, a tragic time," I affirmed. "A period of suppression and grief."

“And did you groan?” inquired our friend with eager interest.

"We did, suffering unspeakably under the yoke of brutal oppressors."

"I am glad," sighed the Newt with relief. "In my booklet it is just like this. I am very pleased that it is true. It is an excellent book, sir, better than the Geometry for Senior Classes in Secondary Schools. I should like to stand myself on the sacred spot where the Czech noblemen were executed, as well as on the other famous places of cruel injustice."

"You ought to come to see us," I suggested heartily.

"Thank you for your kind invitation," the Newt bowed. “Unluckily, I am not entirely a free agent . . .”

"We would buy you," I exclaimed. “I mean to say that perhaps by a national collection, we might provide the means which would permit you . . .”

"My most sincere thanks," mumbled our friend, with obvious emotion. "I heard, however, that the Vltava water is not very good. For we develop an unpleasant kind of dysentery in river water." Then he grew thoughtful for a short time and added: "I should be loth to forsake my dear little garden."

"Ah," my wife exclaimed, "I am an enthusiastic gardener, tool How grateful I should be if you showed to us the children of the local Flora!"

"With the greatest of pleasure, gracious lady," said the Newt, bowing politely. "That is, if you don't mind that my pleasure‑grounds are under the water."

"Under the water?"

"Yes, twelve yards."

"And what flowers do you grow there?"

“Sea anemones,” said our friend, "in several rare varieties. Also sea stars, and sea cucumbers, not counting clusters of coral. Happy he who has cultivated one rose, one scion, for his Fatherland, as the poet says."

Sad to relate, we had to say good‑bye, for the boat was already giving warning of departure. "And what message should we take, Mr.— Mr. —" I said, not knowing the name of our dear friend.

"My name is Boleslav Jablonský," confessed the Newt timidly. "In my opinion it is a beautiful name, sir. I have chosen it from my booklet."

"What message would you like to send to our nation, Mr. Jablonský?"

The Newt meditated for a while. "Tell your compatriots," he said, at last, deeply touched, "tell them . . . not to fall back into the old Slav discord . . . and to keep Lipany, and especially the White Mountain in grateful memory. Nazdar, my compliments," he ended suddenly, trying to master his feelings.

As we departed in the boat, filled with moving thoughts, our friend stood on a rock and waved his hand to us; it seemed as if he was shouting something.

"What is he shouting?" asked my wife.

"I don't know," I said “but it sounded somethings like, 'Remember me to Dr. Baxa, the Lord Mayor.'”   [—> main narrative]


The question of education and language was of course only one side of the large Newt problem, which in a way sprang up under men's hands. So, for instance, the question soon emerged as to how in fact the Newts ought to be treated in, shall we say, social respects. In the early, almost prehistoric years of the Newt Age there were course Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals which zealously saw to it that the Newts were not treated cruelly and inhumanely; thanks to their persistent efforts it came about that almost everywhere officials insisted that the Newts should be treated in accordance with the police and veterinary regulations which were valid for other farm animals. Also the conscientious objectors to vivisection signed many protests and petitions, demanding that the performance of scientific experiments on the living Newts should be prohibited; in a number of States such a law was, in fact, put into force. [1]

But with the developing culture of the Salamanders more and more embarrassment was felt in bringing the Newts simply under the regulations protecting animals; it seemed, for some not very clear reasons, to be rather improper. Then the LEAGUE FOR PROTECTING THE SALAMANDERS (Salamander Protection Society) was founded under the patronage of the Duchess of Huddersfield. This League counting over two hundred thousand, mainly in England, achieved for the Salamanders a considerable and praiseworthy amount of good; in particular, it got a scheme through so that on the seashores special Salamander playgrounds were organized where, undisturbed by curious spectators, they could hold their “meetings and sporting festivals”; (this meant very likely the secret moon dances); it saw to it that in all the schools (even at the University of Oxford) the pupils were admonished not to throw stones at the Newts; it saw to it that to some extent at the Salamander schools the young tadpoles were not overworked; and finally, that the Newt working camps and localities were surrounded with a high board fence which protected the Newts from being molested in various ways, and chiefly kept the world of Salamanders separate from the human one. [2]


1  In Germany, in particular, all vivisection was strongly forbidden, of course only as regards Jewish investigators.

2  It seems that certain moral questions were also involved. Among the papers of Mr. Povondra there was found in many languages a PROCLAMATION, published apparently in all the newspapers of the world, and signed by the Duchess of Huddersfield herself, which read: [. . . .]


SOURCE: Čapek, Karel. War with the Newts, translated by M. & R. Weatherall (New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1967), pp. 142-149. (Translation originally published:  London, G. Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1937. Czech original published 1936.) This excerpt is from Book Two: “Along the Steps of Civilization.”

Note: This page is laid out to approximate the running footnotes at the bottom of each page, which sometimes overshadow the main text.


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Pri kvin panoj” de Karel Čapek, trad. Jaroslav Huda

Karel Čapek: The Absolute at Large: key philosophical excerpts

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