Thursday, September 25, 2014

Esperanto: the Language of the Air

The future of air travel?
This article appeared in both the Virginia Enterprise and the Iowa State Bystander on September 25, 1908, which means it was probably from the wire services, just a bit of filler.[1] It combines two things that were both something of a novelty in 1908: aviation and Esperanto. It may be the first time anyone had done so.

There is actually a reason for thinking of Esperanto (or any other international language) in connection air travel. There was a recently aviation accident in which the ability of the flight crew to understand the instructions of the tower were in doubt.[2] English, in the 106 years since the Enterprise, Bystander, and Journal ran this article, has become the language of air traffic control, though sometimes its spoken by people whose skills are merely adequate.

In 1908, commercial air travel was still a few years off. Airplanes were flown by adventurers or inventors, and some of them were apparently bossy:
Already air navigators are beginning to tell us what to do. One of the first things they ask is that the name of the town should be painted in large letters on the tops of tall building, so that he who files may read. Then the navigator can know whether he is over Michigan or Mississippi, over a wet or a dry town, or nearly over his voyage. This request appears to presuppose that flying will be confined to the United States. However, if the invention is successful people will fly in all directions. Therefore the names of the towns would have to be printed in every language repeated in the International Flyers’ union. We see now where the need of Esperanto comes in. The aviators can put in their spare time studying that language as they flit from land to land, for the can’t possibly get a daily paper up while they are up there.
Some context: the Wright brothers had made their first successful flight less than three years before. Aviation was still very experimental. In comparison, Esperanto was looking fairly established (though a skeptic might have noted that the Volapük movement fell into disarray after the third conference, and Esperanto had had just as many at that time).

The Marconi Wireless (radio) had already established itself, although I suspect weight and power limits probably kept their early planes from having radios.[3] Radar was also new. I do understand the desire to know where you are when you’re in the air. On a recent flight, the system that reported flight position to passengers was out, so I would look out the window and try to figure out where we are. At one point, near the end, the pilot noted that we could see Las Vegas (off the other side of the plane, but at least I knew we were over Nevada).

As for painting names in big letters, there doesn’t seem to be a reason for noting the name in a variety of languages. If you’re over Munich, it’s going to say “München.” The Esperanto “Munkeno” is no particular help. Likewise, a French pilot over London would have to realize that the signs won’t be saying “Londres,” and again, “Londono” wouldn’t be an improvement. Of course, there is the problem of Xi’an, which locally is written out as “西安.” Okay, maybe we go for Romanization, but then we’re not writing ”Москва,” how do we choose between “Moscow,” “Moscou,” “Moskau,” or (in Esperanto) “Moskvo”?

It seems it was a lucky thing that we didn’t have to rely on big painted signs to indicate places. These also, of course, would be useless in modern aviation. Or, to put it another way, we’ve gone as far as we have because of the technologies that have developed alongside advances in aviation.
It might make sense, but I doubt air traffic control is likely to go to Esperanto.

A side note: the Virginia Enterprise has an adjacent article on the death of Lionel Sackville Sackville-West, the second Baron Sackville and one-time ambassador to the United States. Lord Sackville’s personal history made Winifred Sackville Stoner’s later claim that he was her father completely impossible.

  1. And the Greenville Journal of Greenville, Ohio would run the item in October of the same year.  ↩
  2. Yeah, it was an American airport and the flight was from a foreign carrier.  ↩
  3. Wikipedia notes that during WW I, radios on airplanes were still experimental.  ↩

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