Friday, July 4, 2014

The Language They're Studying in New York

This piece by "R.L.H." that appeared in the New-York Tribune on July 4, 1913, starts off poking fun at universal languages (and seems to add a few whose names are the writer’s own creation to some real ones), but the real subject matter seems to be what a polyglot place New York had become in 1913. In other words, it is a cry of “why are all these foreigners speaking their foreign tongues in our fair city?”

In this, the writer gets to not only mock the latest contestant in the universal language rally, but also get to express contemporary anxieties about immigrant populations. Ro, the language mentioned in this piece seems to have never been a serious contender as an international language. There does not seem to have been any Ro clubs, magazines, or conventions.
More circus! After our merry, merry frolics with Esperanto, Volapuk, Ido, Spudiwog, Wikko, Wop, Snorkinboo, Twidge and other delightfully universal languages we are now privileged to learn Ro! A wondrous jargon; it sweeps all before it. Easy? Why, we have hardly studied Ro forty minutes, yet can already understand as much as two-fifths of what we are saying.

However, we have seen how fashions change in universal languages, and cannot predict an extended run of luck for Ro. It has a dangerous rival, here in New York, where an ingenious system is beginning to enable Scythians to communicate with Tagalogs, Babylonians with blond Eskimos, Sikhs with Brobdignagians and Bashibazooks, Boabites with Mosquitobites and (oh, miraculous!) New Yorkers with Bostonians.

In order to appreciate what an ingenious system this is you must visit our foreign quarters. Take a stroll some evening through Little Tibet, Little Gehenna, and Little Nemo, and then looking on on Little Sanjak of Novipazar, or if you can that curious, out-of-the-way nook, Little America. Would you believe it? Everywhere they are studying English!
Esperanto, Volapuk, Ido, and Ro are all proposed universal languages. Ro was the creation of the Reverend Edward P. Foster, who published a pamphlet titled Ru Ro: Outline of Universal Language in 1913. Ro is unlike the other three in that it is an a priori language. Foster wrote that
Esperanto follows Volapük in its method of construction. They go to the Latin or other national languages for their root words, In some of Schleyer’s groups of words, as in his pronouns for instance, he is entirely a priori. In the mutilation of root words he imitates Procrustes more than does Zamenhof. But in both languages the grammatical inflections, the prefixes and suffixes, are a priori. This a priori element is the source of their attractiveness and power. The other modern artificial languages, Idiom Neutral, Interlingua, Ido and the like are similarly constructed.

Ro differs radically from them all in that it is wholly a priori, in vocabulary as well as in grammar.
Ro is an analytical language; sort of like Dewy Decimal system for concepts, with roots making up some broad concept (“Ro” is “language in general”) and various affixes modifying that root meaning. Foster gives rob as “nature of the communication,” fanrobic as “nonsensically” (oh, there’s a great name for a blog), and fanrobom “without the use of figurative language, plainly.” In other words, if you learned all the parts, you could recognize a new word immediately, if you could keep all the roots in your head. Not to fault the Tribune writer, but I suspect it would take far more than forty minutes to understand anything in Ro.

In the writer’s discussion of the various ethnic groups that can be found in New York, there’s a quick transition from groups that are unlikely to exist among the New York immigrant populations to those completely conjured up in fantasy. Doubtless the Tribune didn’t want to mock New York’s actual immigrant populations directly. The writer’s list of New York neighborhoods contains two groups that certainly didn’t have neighborhoods in New York in 1913, but at least they existed. I don’t think there’s ever been a Little Tibet neighborhood in New York. And while “Little Sanjak of Novipazar” sounds fanciful, it refers to a region in Serbia, the Sanjak of Novi Pazar.

Little Gehenna, on the other hand, would have to be the worst possible neighborhood in the city. As for Little Nemo, it would clearly be a sleepy little quarter.

But the writer concludes that the immigrants are learning English. A comforting thought, given the fears of the period that immigrant populations would fail to assimilate and remain a foreign group within the American population. See, they can assimilate after all.

But that bit about New Yorkers being able to talk to Bostonians? Sheer bosh.

Updated: I subsequently realized the piece was part of a larger column, "As I See It," signed R.L.H.
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