Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Our Boys in France, Speaking Esperanto

Esperanto gets called a threat.
I wasn’t sure where to put this one, since what follows is abstracted from a series of letters to the editor. The first letter was sent by James McKirdy to two newspapers. The New-York Tribune ran it on August 31, 1917 and the Sun on September 2. Joseph Silbernik wrote an expansion on Mr. McKirdy’s letter, which appeared in the Tribune on September 6, while the Sun published a rebuttal on that same day. Mr. Silbernik responded to the rebuttal in the Sun on September 17, and then again on the 25th. (I could have put it on any of those dates.)

The Sun was not promoting Esperanto, to put it mildly. While the Tribune titled Mr. McKirdy’s letter merely “Esperanto for Soldiers,” the Sun after headlining the letter “Protect Our Soldiers!” made it clear from the subhead from what they needed to be protected: “Awful Threat to Impose the Study of Esperanto on Them.” Ouch. Likewise, the rebuttal was titled “The Question of Teaching Our Soldiers in France No Man’s Tongue,”[1] and the rebuttal was “Esperanto in France: Blithe Enumeration of Some of Its Eminent Victims.”

Even though the Sun was clearly skeptical of Esperanto, they did spill a lot of ink over it, giving a good number of column inches for its supporters. I’ll have to abbreviate the letters, or no one will get to the end of this blog post.[2]
When the American soldiers go to France the first great difficulty they will encounter will be their inability to converse with French soldiers. In the course of time each of them will pick up a smattering of French that will enable him to make known his simplest wants, but they will find that on account of its idioms French is not at all easy to learn.
If movies set in WWI and WWII are any indication, it wasn’t French soldiers that American servicemen wanted to talk to. That charming barmaid, Marie, wasn’t actually a commando (despite her lack of undergarments). The songs of the era don’t talk about soldierly camaraderie. Mr McKirdy, who was a lawyer in Pittsburgh, continues by suggesting that the soldiers learn Esperanto instead.
The grammar is absurdly simple and the language is, unlike French, destitute of idioms.
He pledges the help of the Esperanto Association of North America and “the various State Esperanto Associations.“
If systematic instruction were given to both officers and men they would be able to speak the language fluently by the time they reached France, and would find that their intercourse with the French natives, including the soldiers would be rendered far easier and more pleasant.[3]

The French Esperanto Associations would glady cooperate by aiding the French soldiers to learn Esperanto so that they might be able in turn to converse with the Americans.
Here Mr. McKirdy has offered the help of both the U.S. and French groups. Not bad, considering that he wasn’t anyone particularly prominent in the Esperanto movement. He was head of the Pittsburgh club in 1913, but does not seem to have made any mark on the national level.

No idea who responded to this, as the letter is signed simply “Reader.”
”Au secours! Au secours! Voici un Indien!”[4] one can imaging would be the cry of a French poilu[5] if some stray person of the “Esperanto” cult should spring any of that dead absurdity in dialectics on him; for “Esperanto,” along with “Volapuk,” “Simplo,” and “Ido,” has passed into the limbo of forgotten idiocies, as dead as the dodo.

I have just been reading the letter of James McKirdy in The Sun under the very appropriate caption “Protect Our Soldiers! Awful Threat to Impose the Study of Esperanto on Them.” Mr. McKirdy says he knows of “one man who learned to speak it in three weeks.“ I myself knew a poor fellow who spent six months in the study of “Esperanto” only to die of remise for his wasted time when he found that his friends could not understand him and when one of them suggested that he had been studying the lingo of the late Chuck Connors.[6]

All these attempts to produce an arbitrary, artificial language are mere absurdities. Their evolution and adoption are invariably among a “little group” of cranks of a superficial, ill digested education, superimposed upon a weak foundation of insufficiently developed mentality—the same type of the human race that produces near coffee drinkers, vegetarians, nut eaters, Stones and La Follettes.[7]

But Mr. McKirdy, presumably through a hectic enthusiasm for those “Esperanto” booklets “that can be procured at small cost,“ makes some reckless assertions that are not founded on fact. He says “there are thousands in France who know Esperanto.” After a somewhat wide experience with the people of France, among whom I have a number of relatives, I have yet to hear of any one person who knew a word of “Esperanto,” except one “little group” such as I have already specified above. To say “If systematic instruction were given [our] officers and men they would find their intercourse with French far easier” is laughable: or, rather, would be were it not a sinister suggestion to add to the horrors of war. “Esperanto” in France would be as useful as Urdu in Labrador.

With a few weeks study and practice any American officer of man will be able to pick up enough of the vernacular French to get along with, and he will find thousands in France who understand at least a little English. I mean among the French people, for English is the chief foreign language study in the schools of France and other Continental countries. English, already spoken by so many civilized nations, is more than any other language the nearest possible and practical approach to a “universal” language.
Ooo. So many scare quotes “Reader.” Well, at least we know they weren’t an invention of the late 20th century. The language really is called Esperanto; you don’t need to respect it, but you also don’t need to put it inside quotation marks. “Reader” clearly knows more Esperantists than he’s willing to let on to, since he says that he does’t know any outside of some "cranks of a superficial, ill digested education.” So it’s not none, just people he doesn’t like.

“Reader” was rebutted by someone who was able to identify himself in the Esperanto movement. Joseph Silbernik was (as he points out) the New York delegate of the Universal Esperanto Association. Mr. Silbernik seems to be an immigrant from Bialystok, then in Russia, who arrived about 1873 (so a little early to have known Zamenhof personally). He was a bit older too, being born in 1852, nor can I find any particular evidence of an early involvement in the Esperanto movement for him.

Mr. Silbernik said that he would send “Reader” to the Paris phone directory where he promises the reader will find that
Nearly half a column of this mystic book is devoted to Esperanto groups, Esperanto classes, Esperanto clubs, Esperanto societies, Esperanto periodicals, Esperanto institutes, Esperanto Gospels and Esperanto Catholic prayer books. There are Esperanto lead pencils, Esperanto stationary, Esperanto watches, and last but by no mean least Esperanto whiskey, called viskio.

Thereafter by interviewing some live Esperantists “Reader” would have learned that Esperanto counts among its fervent worshippers the Archbishop of Paris and no end of Bishops and rectors. He would have learned that his Grace the Archbishop has twice presided in person not by proxy, at two Catholic international Esperanto congresses, both held at the Catholic University of Paris, and that on both occasions, at one of which no less than seventeen nationalities were represented, the late Pope sent a pontifical benediction.
Mr. Silbernik then continues with a list of other French notables, now obscure, after which he gives a list of American Esperantists. Rather than quote him at length, as he talks about the “Esperanto virus” and the “bacillus of such a silly cult,” mocking “Reader” for his disdain of Esperantists, I’ll just summarize.[8]
  • Rollet de l’Isle, chief engineer of the French Navy
  • Professor Charles Bourlet, mathematician
  • Tristan Bernard, French writer
  • Abel Hermant, French writer
  • Alexandre Hepp, French writer
  • Dr. D. O. S. Lowell, headmaster of Roxbury Latin School, member of a prominent Boston family
  • Henry W. Fisher, engineer
  • Dr. Frederick G. Cottrell, metallurgist
Of course, for “Reader,” these men, no matter how exalted, are just among those “cranks” who are the sort who learn Esperanto. Of course, writing letters to the editors of New York newspapers is not a way to convince the military to train soldiers to speak Esperanto. And, for that matter, there wasn’t going to be an effort on the other side of the Atlantic to train the French soldiers either.

Still open is the question of how many Esperanto speakers were in the trenches of the Great War. But it is clear that the US military took no action to increase that number.

Update: I've been sent a note pointing out that Joseph Silbernik shares a family name with Klara Zamenhof, née Silbernik. Hmm…two people named Silbernik from the same town. They might be related! Future research.

Update 2: Jozefo was Klara's brother.

  1. They missed out. I would have gone for “No Man’s Tongue for No Man’s Land.”  ↩
  2. I could have done this as a series of posts, but it seemed more fun this way, looking at the dialog in the pages of the Sun.  ↩
  3. Nudge, nudge. Pleasant. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.  ↩
  4. “Help! Help! An Indian is here!”  ↩
  5. French soldiers in WWI.  ↩
  6. This Chuck Connors is not the American athlete and actor (1921–1992), but a boxer of New York’s Lower East Side, who died in May 1913 at the age of 61. Various news reports note that Mr. Connors was a colorful character who spoke in an individual form of the New York lingo. In 1908, Mr. Connors played himself on the stage.  ↩
  7. Robert M. La Follette, Sr. (1885–1925). American progressive politician from Wisconsin. Not sure who “Stone” was.  ↩
  8. In the early days of the Esperanto movement, there were actual world-wide directories of Esperanto speakers. The UEA does not, alas, make its membership lists available to members, though I think delegates can access some of this.  ↩

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