Saturday, July 5, 2014

Esperanto at the World’s Fair

Ici on parle l'Espéranto?
The 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, is known for a number of things, including an early demonstration of sound film.[1] According to an article in the July 5, 1899 Washington Times, is should also be known as one of the early demonstrations of Esperanto.

In 1899, Esperanto had reached the ripe old age of 12. The first Universala Kongreso was still six years away. And while the Times got a lot of facts about Esperanto wrong, the rather long article devoted to it was on the whole positive. Among all the entertainment of the fair, it seemed that some wanted to get some important work done.
Among the many scores of congresses to deal with as many subjects, and inviting the best thought of the world, to be held at Paris during the Universal Exposition is one at which serious effort will be made to adopt a universal commercial language. An eminent Russian philologist claims to have manufactured the desired article and will offer it to the congress for adoption.
The piece is written as two long paragraphs and one short one, so I’m going to break for comments where it seems appropriate. Zamenhof was not really a philologist, as he did not deal with the historical developments and relationships of languages. But, then again, what else do you call him? He was a language tinkerer, like many of the others who created international languages.
He has given it the somewhat Spanish name of Esperanto. It has been submitted to various recognized authorities on languages and nearly all of them endorse it as a practical vehicle for the object in view.
Could we have names of these “recognized authorities”?
The inventor of the system claims for it the greatest simplicity of construction. Its vocabulary is not voluminous but still it is sufficiently large to meet all possible demands that may be made upon it. It is so simple that a person of ordinary intelligence can easily mater it in a week. To the scholar it appeals directly because it does not confuse the mind by a mixture of roots.
I have no idea what the Times writer is talking about here, as the language is a mix of Romance (Latin and French) , Germanic (German and English) and Slavic (specifically Polish) roots. But no mixing!
The Russian inventor makes the bold claim of having sifted all the corrupt languages of our civilization—at least the Germanic and Latin and their multitude of offshoots—and to have got down to the original base of pure Latin. His system rests directly upon the Latin root, with no confusing adherence of Greek, Hebraic, Sanscrit, Arabic, or any of the other score or more of remnants of dead langurs that have crept into the speech of the modern world.
Oh, that’s what the writer means. It just isn’t actually true for Esperanto. And he misspelled Sanskrit.
This suggests an orthoepical advantage which is obvious. Latin words undefiled by modern garnishments and ancient corruptions come easily to the tongue. The organs of speech are readily adjusted to them. And they are more nearly phonetic than is the result of any effort yet made to conform the orthography of our marvelously hybridized language to its orthoepy.
Orthoepy is the study of correct pronunciation. Can’t be mispronouncing words like the mob of common folk.

The writer then goes on to discuss how Volapük had fared.
We hope that all the claims made for Esperanto are true. The philologists have been tinkering so long with experiments in universal language making that, gauged by the law of averages, the time has about arrived when their faithful toil should be reward with success.
I’m not certain if the writer actually calculated the probability of success for an international language. Wouldn’t the citing of the “law of averages” only count if the success or failure of a language scheme was solely based on random chance? Onward to the fate of Volapük:
They cried “Eureka!” years ago when some hard-working linguistic mechanic put the finishing touch to Volapuk and offered it to the world. But for some reason as yet vaguely explained Volapuk was not accepted by commerce as the contrivance for which it was seeking. The scholars bravely pushed it forward for a while, but the practical men of affairs for whose use it was intended stubbornly persisted in their refusal to utilize it. The French Academy declared it a thing of beauty, but the French merchant continued to stumble along with his foreign trade without the aid of Volapuk.
And in the country where Volapük was invented?
The German universities, in reckless disregard of their traditional conservatism and surprising disloyalty to their mother tongue, declared that it was for the lack of Volapuk that Germany’s foreign trade was of such slow growth; but the German manufacturer, with stolid Teutonic obstinacy, refused to attempt the mastery of the new language.
In other words, it’s those pointy-headed, head-in-the-clouds university types who were promoting Volapük. Good, honest, stolid merchants had no use for it, thank you very much. Any other meddling professors?
In Italy, Belgium, Holland, Great Britain—in fact, all over Europe, the college professors tried to push Volpuk forward as a long-felt want, but it met with the same indifference at every turn.
Those damn college perfessers, what do they know? Here we see a strain of American anti-intellectualism, 115 years ago. It gets worse, because back then no one blinked at casual racism in their daily paper.
As to the cunning and self-satisfied pagans of Asia, they received the emissaries of Volapuk with the same hospitality accorded all “foreign dogs,” but stubbornly persisted in the use of their own outrageous tongues.
An “outrageous tongue” is, of course, one of which the Times writer has no knowledge concerning its vocabulary and grammar.
Finally, becoming disheartened, the scholars gave up Volapuk as a hard job, and we have heard nothing of it since.
About ten years previously, the Volapük movement had split, never to recover. Its third convention in 1889 was its last.
But Esperanto may have a better fate. It may possess sufficient virility to force itself upon the busy, unstudious world of commerce. Meanwhile, the English language, the most unrhythmical and flagrantly corrupt in all the world, continues to strengthen its roots in the soil of international trade. Whether Esperanto will uproot this tongue of ours in the world’s commerce depends upon the remote contingency of its being a readier vehicle than English for conveying to the simple and untutored mind of the foreign buyer the convincing fact that a bargain is offered.
There we have it. Esperanto at 12, nervously making its way into the world at a little discussion of what universal language the world ought to adopt. The opinion of the era was “we must have an international language, just not that one!” Nineteen years later, in 1908, the World’s Fair again was the site of a discussion toward adopting an international language. Louis Couturat, one of the organizers of the committee, assured Esperantists that Esperanto would be chosen (despite the Esperantists pointing out that you couldn’t actually impose this on people). In the end, the committee chose Ido, a creation of the Esperanto representative, Louis de Beafront, and Couturat.

  1. As noted by Wikipedia. But not the Eiffel Tower, that was from the 1889 World’s Fair.  ↩

You can follow my blog on Twitter (@impofthediverse) or on Facebook. If you like this post, share it with your friends. If you have a comment just for me, e-mail me at
This blog runs solely on ego! Follow this blog! Comment on this post! Let me know that you want to read more of it!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...