Sunday, July 6, 2014

Anarchist, Free-Love Supporting Lawyer Defends Esperanto

An a proponent of
civil rights, too!
On July 4, 1913, The New-York Tribune ran a piece on languages spoken in New York by one R.L.H. On July 6, the paper ran a rebutal of sorts by James F. Morton, Jr., the Councillor for New York for the Esperanto Association of North America. Before you think of some mousy language enthusiast, James F. Morton was an opponent of censorship and a proponent of free love and safe birth control. He was close friends with H. P. Lovecraft, even though Lovecraft was horrifically racist and Morton was a member of the NAACP. He was also an anarchist.

In a review of Letters to James F. Morton, a collection of letters by H. P. Lovecraft, Randy Stafford quotes the Morton essay that brought Morton to Lovecraft’s attention:
Lovecraft needs to serve a long and humble apprenticeship before he will become qualified to sit in the master’s seat and to thunder forth ex cathedra judgements.
And they were friends after that. Morton clearly had no qualms about pointing out when ex cathedra judgements were off the mark, so he had a reply to R.L.H.
Sir: I read R. L. H.’s paragraphs from day to day with such hearty enjoyment and find them as a rule so appropriate and altogether pleasing that it was with some disappoint that I this morning glimpsed his reference to the international language movement. It was superficial, and hence not quite fair. I am shire that you have not “caught on” to the real idea that lies at the bottom of the numerous attempts in this direction from Leibnitz to the present day. If you once see the thing in its true light it will not appear such a cranky and fantastic notion.

None of us is trying to set up a standard language, to which all existing languages must bow. We firmly believe in the inestimable value of maintenance and thorough cultivation of all the languages and literatures of the world, and in the exclusive use of its own natural language by each race or nation for all domestic purposes. But we see that no human being call learn all other languages, and we have the distinctly rational and practical aim of finding a simple, easily learned means of intercommunication among persons of all nationalities—an auxiliary speech, to be confined to international uses. Honestly, do you see anything so wild-eyed abut that?
He has a point there. The actual aims of the Esperanto movement are quite sensible ones, although the idea that Esperanto movement wanted Esperanto to replace all other languages would crop up a dozen years later in Mein Kampf. But onward to Ro:
I know all about Volapuk, which failed because of its harshness and inflexibility and its excessive arbitrariness; Ido, which is merely an academic attempt to form a philologically perfect tongue, derived from Esperanto, and Ro, a grammar of which is in my hands, and which is wholly unworkable through its intolerable strain on the memory and its inadaptation to complex uses. By many failures in a laudable undertaking in no way detract for the one success, determined through natural selection.
That Esperanto did better than other constructed languages can be attributed to a variety of things, of which natural selection is not one.
Esperanto is not a mere theory, nor an uncouth an barbarous product. It is agreeable to ear, most non-Esperantists facility with the Latin tongues at once remarking on its similarity in sound to Spanish. It is wonderfully easy to learn, as the inclosed documents, if you will look over them carefully, will prove to your complete satisfaction. It is not only easy to read, but also to speak. It is positively phonetic, so that no dialects arise in it. It is so flexible that it is adapted to every desired form of expression, and not merely to the formation of a few test sentences. But, more than all this, it is practicable, and is in actual and wide use to-day. Its career is now so long and its growth so steady that there can be no longer question of the fact that it has come to stay.
He did his duty and sent along an Esperanto brochure, while today one would link to The language had had a bit of a setback with the Ido schism some years before, but it had shaken that off, and was on the rise again (with another stumble during WWI, and a heavier blow during WWII). Unfortunately, James Morton would not live to see the end of World War II. He died, after being struck by a car, in 1941.

One last item that was of interest to me: the Tribune titled the letter "Defence of Esperanto," using a spelling that is now seen as chiefly British.
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