Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Other International Language — Love

Here's a story that I stumbled on while searching through newspaper archives. By story, I mean "work of fiction." Instead of my usual practice of quoting sections and commenting, I've undergone the labor of transcribing the whole thing.

Since I've already tagged it as such, there's no harm in admitting that this story involves Esperanto. While I have seen Esperanto used in stories before (I forget whether I started reading Harry Harrison just before or just after I started learning Esperanto), this is the only story I've seen in which Esperanto plays a major plot point. (I've heard that the same is true of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, but I haven't read it yet, despite that it is only a few feet from me as I type this.)

A century ago, newspapers simply didn't have the type available to write the special Esperanto characters (ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ, and ŭ), and digital typography wasn't even a dream (if you went back in time a century, good luck trying to explain Unicode to a compositor). Typically people either omitted the accents (paĝo becoming pago), or they would write very carefully, avoiding words with accents. In the piece in the Rock Island Argus of June 2, 1908, the h-system was used instead.

There are several ways of writing in Esperanto. The wholly legit one is to use the accented characters. Easily done in handwriting, and I've seen typescript where the accents were inked in afterwards. The second way, proposed by Zamenhof at the beginning, was to use h to indicate an accented consonant (and omitting the breve over the u). Others have used apostrophes, though that breaks up the word almost as badly as Zamenhof's original idea of separating parts of words with apostrophes. The most common one seen was a product of the computer age, the x-system, which inserts an x, with the intention that words sort properly (though Zamenhof did not treat the accented letters as distinct letters, since his initial dictionary merges letters and their accented variants.

The story uses the h-system way of writing Esperanto. For the purists among us (including me), I've appended a version of the Esperanto with accented letters.

Sinclair's Strategy —By Henry Haven

"Our dance, I believe, Miss Trent."

Dick Underby whisked Myra away, and to Fred Sinclair, with a declaration of love trembling upon his tonuge, it seemed that Myra went with ill omened eagerness. Underby hurried Myra off to the dancing floor, but Sinclair remained in the conservatory and made rude remarks to the tiny fountain playing in the fern lined basin.

All the season it had been a race between himself and Underby for Myra's favor, and now the season was closing with the Dagmar dance, yet neither of the two men had been skillful enough to evade Myra's innocent stratagems and make his avowal of love.

Both had come to the dance determined to put his fate to the test, for on the morrow Myra was to leave town for a long visit to distant relatives. Perhaps had there been but one suitor his persistence might have been rewarded by opportunity, but Underby and Sinclair unconsciously aided Myra in her evasions by interrupting the other at crucial moments. When the last dance had been played and the guests were departing, Sinclair realized with sinking heart, that his opportunity was lost.

Underby, too, was heart heavy with disappointment, and chagrin still showed in his face when he came to the station the following afternoon to see Myra Trent off. Sinclair was there, but upon his face was a smile of such satisfaction as made Underby wonder if perhaps Sinclair had found his opportunity, after all.

There was a stir as the train pulled in, and under the cover of the confusion Sinclair handed a package to Miss Trent.

"It's the newest detective story," he explained. "I know that you like all sorts of mystery stories. I have taken the liberty of adding a homemade puzzle in case you find the book too short."

Myra smiled appreciatively. She preferred cryptograms to chocolates, riddles to roses. She had won many magazine contests of this sort in her youth. She found Sinclair's present more acceptable than Underby's violets, and as soon as she had settled herself in her Pullman section she unwrapped the book.

As she ran over the pages an envelope dropped out. It contained a single sheet of note paper, and in Sinclair's copperplate handwriting was this note:

Kara Myra—Eble, ech kun helpo de tiu-chi sholsilo, vi trovos iom da malfelileco kompreni la sencon de tiu-chi senditajho, sed mi scias ke vi shatas labori je enigmoj, kaj pro tio mi sendas al vi tiun chi letereton. Ghi sciigos al vi tion kion vi ne permesas ke mi sciigu al vi persone. Mi vin amas, karulino, kaj vi igos min la plej felicha viro en la mondo per la unu vorto "Jes."

Myra smiled as she studied the odd jumble of words. Many of them looked familiar. There was no mistaking "enigmoj." "Mondo" was clearly the "world," and "labori" was "labor." Other words were of familiar aspect, and then there were some that were totally strange.

It might be a combination of the "hog Latin" of childhood days and the real Latin of the college course, but an hour's study showed many words not to be accounted for on any such hypothesis. The more she studied the more firmly convinced was Myra that this was some new form of cryptogram invented by Sinclair to divert her on her two day trip.

She was still studying the slip of paper when the porter came around to make up her berth, and in the troubled sleep which broke the night journey strange combinations of letters danced before her eyes.

When she came back from breakfast in the diner the next morning the porter approached with a small package.

"A gemman done tole me gib you dis here in de mo'nin," he announced as he handed the package to Myra. The girl's face brightened as she recognized Sinclair's handwriting. "This" evidently contained the key. She would not have to puzzle longer.

From the package dropped a small booklet with "Esperanto Key" on the cover page. Myra had heard of the "universal language" and had heard also that it required but half an hour to become familiar with the grammar. So, after all, her mystery was nothing but a letter in Esperanto, and the unraveling would come in a brief hour. She was half inclined to regret that the mystery would solve itself so quickly as she thought of the long day's ride before her.

But in this thought she was wrong, for, althought he key was accompanied by a larger dictionary and she found the few rules absurdly simple, these were but part of the mystery.

The book laid stress upon accents as essential to the understanding of the words, and Sinclair's letter was entirely wanting in accents, nor could she find some of his words in the dictionary.

It was not until late in the afternoon that she stumbled upon the explanation. "Shlosilo" she could not find, but under the accented S's she found "ŝlos," meaning a lock, and "ilo," an instrument, and decided that a lock instrument was kay. With this clew as to the surplus h's which replaced the accents on preceding letters she soon had the translation written out. It read:

Dear Myra—Perhaps even with the aid of this key you will have some small difficulty in getting at the sense of this letter, but I know that you like to puzzle over enigmas, and it is for this reason that I am sending you this note. It is to tell you what you will not let me tell in person. I love you, dear, and you will make me the happiest man on earth with the one word "Yes."

Myra allowed the paper to flutter to the floor as she stared out of the window on the glory of the western sunset toward which they were flying. She was half pleased, half angry, at the declaration. This was her first season in society, and she was not minded to give up her liberty so soon, and for that reason she had evaded Sinclair's declarations. She did not wish to say yes so soon, and she could not say him no.

She remembered how Nancy Baldwin had been the belle of one season and during the next had been almost completely monopolized by Ben Trayer. Myra had planned to have another year of freedom before she should be led captive by Cupid.

But in the end an amused smile played about her lips as she thought of Sinclair's strategy, and when the porter came through the car to light the gas she procured a telegraph blank and wrote out a one word message, "Yes."

Her uncle was at the station the next morning to greet her and to hand her a yellow envelope.

"This came just as I was leaving the house," he said. "I hope that it does not contain bad news."

Myra tore open the envelope and read the short message.

"I am coming on," Sinclair wired, "to tell it over again in English and pantomime."

"It's good news—very good news," said Myra, smiling softly as she looked up into her uncle's anxious face, for, after all, pantomime, not Esperanto, if properly expressed, is the universal language of love.
This was originally published in the Rock Island Argus, June 2, 1908. Here's the Esperanto properly set:
Kara Myra—Eble, eĉ kun helpo de tiu-ĉi ŝolsilo, vi trovos iom da malfelileco kompreni la sencon de tiu-ĉi senditaĵo, sed mi scias ke vi ŝatas labori je enigmoj, kaj pro tio mi sendas al vi tiun ĉi letereton. Ĝi sciigos al vi tion kion vi ne permesas ke mi sciigu al vi persone. Mi vin amas, karulino, kaj vi igos min la plej feliĉa viro en la mondo per la unu vorto “Jes.”
Despite that I've added the accented letters, it's clear that in writing his note, in "copperplate handwriting," Sinclair could have just written the accents. No need for the h-system when you've got a pen in hand. Well, it made things easier for the compositors, and tougher for Myra.

A few additional comments:

The language given to porter made me cringe as I typed it. At least it was just an eye-dialect representation of the way black men in service jobs were viewed as speaking, without any other of the overt racism that sometimes provides an unpleasant shock in late nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction.

I've made some minor corrections to the text, fixing up errors in the Esperanto, and providing an accented letter where the text calls for it and the compositors couldn't oblige (but leaving alone the stuff was was supposed to be written without accents).

In a way, this is so much more subtle a piece of Esperanto propagandizing than what was usually published. J. C. O'Connor, author of Esperanto: the Student's Complete Text Book seemed particularly skilled at getting articles about Esperanto into the newspapers.

I've done some hunting about and I can find nothing about the author of the piece, Henry Haven.

Update: Initially I mis-dated this item. As corrected, it appeared June 2, 1908. I've made some other revisions to this piece to bring it up to snuff.
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