Sunday, June 15, 2014

You Sure as Hell Can Cuss in Esperanto

A bit of poetry
Many of the early articles about proposed international languages looked at their various drawbacks. Volapük, for example, acquired a reputation for unintelligibility in the American press. I’m not sure if this was deserved, but once applied it seemed to stick. I remember that when I first encountered French at the age of 12, it looked utterly incomprehensible; now I read French for pleasure. Esperanto didn’t get the same treatment, probably because Zamenhof was more evident in his borrowings than Schleyer.

In the early twentieth century, several newspaper pieces suggested one possible problem with Esperanto: a lack of indecent words. Perhaps in the first two decades of the twentieth century, there were no indecent words in Esperanto; the earliest attested list is from 1931, though it is unclear if the words were coined or reported. Considering that during that period, many dictionaries weren’t printing swear words, I doubt they would have championed a varied vocabulary in Esperanto for the taboo words. (I have checked my copy of Plena Vortaro de Esperanto kun Suplemento (1980), and it does not have entry for any of the “bad” words that I could think of.) I am well aware that English-language dictionaries in the early twentieth century did not typically print profanity or obscenity. These newspaper writers would not have concluded that just because cuss words weren’t in the dictionary that they didn’t actually exist.

On June 15, 1912, the Times Dispatch of Richmond, Virginia went to far as to print a poem on the subject.
Its One Drawback
They say that Esperanto is
A language that’s beyond compare;
But one thing that has been overlooked
In Esperanto one can’t swear.
There does not seem the slightest doubt
This language new, will fail right there.

Will Esperanto ever do
For him who gets up in the night,
To marathon with a squalling kid
Who kicks and squirms with all its might?
When he treads firmly on a tack
His English will come back, all right.

How will the chauffer get along
When with a final wheeze and grunt,
His car give out nine miles from home,
Which is not an unheard-of stunt?
Will Esperanto be his choice
Of language? Indeed it won’t.

The ultimate consumer, too
Is one whom we must not forget.
When he finds that his grub is gone,
And higher prices must be met,
Can Esperanto e’er suffice
To voice his burning thoughts? Not yet.
This was old enough complaint. In June 1906, the Los Angeles Herald reported that
No wonder Esperanto, the new world language, makes slow progress. There are no swear words in it.
In August, 1910, the Evening Times-Republican of Marshalltown, Iowa was asking
As to this Esperanto business, are there any swear words in that language?
Later, this was responded to by the Manson Democrat (the names of the two undoubtably refer to actual partisan affiliation) with the suggestion that
Its pious editor probably wishes to do a little polite swearing at the republicans who refuse to come over into the insurgent camp.
The Byran Daily Eagle and Pilot came to a decision on this issue at the end of August, 1910.
The opponents of Esperanto say you can neither cuss nor make love in that language. Anybody but a mollycoddle can do either without language, so that would be no objection if it were true, which it isn’t.
Though that might have concluded the issue, the question persisted. In September of 1910, the Greenville Journal ran a set of short items that included
“Kondamnigughin,” the cuss word in Esperanto is ornamental, but too long for practical use.
It is doubtless too late for the Journal to run a correction that kondamnigu ĝin is two words, not one, and as it just means “condemn it,” it hardly qualifies as a “cuss word.” The writer of the short piece might have been thinking of the verb damni, to damn, or the expression “damne!” This same set of short items (which appeared in several newspapers, and probably wasn’t original to the Journal) contains three which are about Esperanto. The column begins with:
Have you taken 15 minutes off to learn Esperanto?
It does take somewhat longer than 15 minutes. But later, there is an item that says
Esperanto will never offend against the pure-fool laws, unless its advocates, being merely human, revolt against its limited expressions for emotional relief. Its vocabulary does not contain a single swear word.
I’m not aware of a particular distinction between a “cuss word,” “curse word,” or “swear word.” And while I don’t agree that “kondamnigu ĝin” counts as a cuss word, it seems strange to say it has (at least) one and then claim that it has none. Esperanto is not unique in this respect, as we are told that
The language of the North American Indian and the Japanese contain no cuss words. What a handicap when an aborigine hit his finger with a prehistoric ax!
I’m going to hazard a guess that all languages have words that are specific in their use to moments of anger or pain. Even in 1910, I’m sure an unhappy Esperantist could express this to another Esperantist.
Later that month (still September, 1910), the Spokane Press reported that
Esperanto has no cuss words. It is necessary to explain this because it sounds so peculiar.
And it turns out that the brevity of Esperanto dictionaries is not due to the word-building in Esperanto, but because
Esperanto hasn’t any swear words. That is probably the reason it is shorter than other languages.
Or at least that’s what the Chariton Courier (and other newspapers) were saying in November, 1910. The Washington Herald seemed to view this putative feature as a good thing, perhaps, as they observed in April 1911 that
Inexperienced golf players should by all means learn to speak Esperanto. The language contains no swear words.
Because if you learn a language without any swear words, you’ll be incapable of swearing in any language? Would the effect be the same if you learned a second language and no one told you about its swear words? (I do seem to remember that the word “merde” entered my vocabulary fairly early.) And yet it persisted. As late as September 1913, the Times Dispatch still hadn’t found any naughty words in Esperanto:
It is said that a man can neither swear nor make love in Esperanto. What’s the use of the universal language?
The writers of the Times Dispatch might have concluded that Esperanto had a vocabulary only sufficient for discussing world peace, international brotherhood, and the proper use of the accusative. While I am not aware of rude language being documented in the early days of Esperanto, tender endearments were there from the start. And probably a few cuss words.

Update: While note full documentation, the invaluable Joseph Silbernik has come to my rescue. The poem clearly bounced about a bit, (and I've seen it elsewhere) because in April 1918, Amerika Esperantisto noted that it had been published in the Brooklyn Eagle, and subsequently a rejoinder by Mr. Silbernik.
I can solemnly testify from my own experience, which is fully borne out by those of others, that in those certain grave moments in our lives when we become suddenly possessed of an irresistible desire to give vent to some of our most perfervid wishes—that Esperanto then comes to us as a delivering angel. I have had many an encounter with conductors, plumbers and tax collectors, and in all such vexatious emergencies I have found Esperanto a veritable balm of Gilead. And the strangest is, and the most commendable, feature about swearing in Esperanto is, that while the delivery is being made, and which invariably causes the adversary to take to his heels in confusion, the bystanders are always wondering wether they are hearing one of King David’s dulcet or the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer.
He concludes by stating that that poet is “evidently not aware that there are no foolish virgins among Esperantists.”

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