Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Death of Diplomatic Discourse

And what if an American President
started giving nicknames
to world leaders?
And Esperanto was to blame.

The Washington Times reported on September 3, 1922 that the French were concerned that American slang might become the future language of diplomacy, supplanting French. Of course, it did happen that English became the international language of diplomacy, but really not because of Esperanto. I’m also going to hazard a guess that diplomats are probably still speaking in a formal register, mostly to minimize potential misunderstanding.

The French saw two horrible potential futures, and in both of them the prestige of French had been minimized. If not English, then Esperanto (perhaps worse!). This was part of a wide pattern of opposition to Esperanto by the French in the 1920s. While this article is largely about the efforts of French educators against Esperanto, the French also blocked a proposal at the League of Nations to use Esperanto as the official language of that body, once again, for fears that French would lose its prestige status.

The French really were as hard as they could be on Esperanto, including banning it.[1] It could certainly be worse, since the French simply banned teaching Esperanto in schools and universities, while in 1940 the Germans banned sending Esperanto through the mails, which had been preceded by requiring Esperanto groups to expel Jews, and then a ban Esperanto groups as well.[2]

French Alarmed at Possibility of English Becoming Universal


”Injures the Intellectual Development of Youth,” Contends French Writer.

By Herbert M. Davidson.[3]
PARIS, Sept. 2. — Colloquial English—perhaps American slang—probably will be the future universal linage, the speech of the elite, the tongue of diplomacy.

In a not distant decade, perhaps, the French premier may cable the Secretary of State of the United States: “Say, put me straight on this Pacific business. What’s Japan’s idea?”

And the Secretary with cable the Japanese premier: “If you can give France the info shoot it across.“

Sooner of later: “We have with us tonight” will be the after-dinner formula at international banquets from Indo-China[4] to Heligoland.[5]

Eventually “Tell it to Sweeney”[6] or “Tie it outside“ will replace the politer terms of repudiation current in cosmopolitan social circles.

French Shudder at Idea
All of this French scholars are shudderingly prognosticating if French is not retained as the international language, and if Esperanto is not pushed as an auxiliary and subsidiary universal tongue. Once give English a look-in, they insist, and slang will become the table talk of statesmen and princes.

The trouble all began because of Esperanto.

Somebody—perhaps an agent of police—heard a bewhiskered individual, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, whispering in Esperanto to a wrinkle-browed person. Being a curious person, he was annoyed because he could not understand a word.

Esperanto Opposed.
Somebody—perhaps the agent of the police—started the story that Esperanto was becoming the language of Bolshevism. An appeal was sent to school authorities throughout France to do all they could to prevent the theoretical world-language from being taught or spread.

Interviews against Esperanto appeared in the newspapers. “Esperanto injures the intellectual development of youth,” urged Alfred Capus[7] interviewed by Le Matin.[8] “It is a language without finer shapes, incapable of expressing anything but the crudest ideas. It would be impossible to conduct an argument against communism in Esperanto. Communistic ideas are primitive—the language suits them.”

But the reaction was inevitable. Faddists who were busy studying Arabian or Sanscrit or medieval Chinese fired their teachers and hired Esperantists with the proper international accent to teach them to speak universally. After Russian Esperanto became the most popular language to “take up” in “study groups.”

For every sober authority who denounced Esperanto a man of letters has been found to support it.

But it was Prof A. Aulard,[9] of the Sorbonne, who hit upon the really picturesque reason as to why Frenchmen should tolerate if not support Esperanto.

”French is too difficult to remain the international language,” he wrote Le Matin. “But shall it continue as the language of good society?”

He implied that it should. And to obtain that end he urged French educators to “facilitate the diffusion of Esperanto.”

”Otherwise,” he threatened, “if there is no artificial language, English will become the international language just as it already the international language of the yellow races.”[10]

”Against that fate for the world let us oppose our own language for the elite and Esperanto for the populace.”
The article starts off with the fear that the diplomatic corps will start talking like people of less refined breeding, but only sticks to that theme for about a quarter of the article. Then it’s time to worry about Esperanto. And it certainly seems that Mr. Davidson worried about this (Davidson would go on to purchase the Daytona Beach News-Journal[11]) He engages in a remarkable amount of speculation for journalist. He “raises the idea that “somebody—perhaps an agent of the police" spoke against Esperanto, but doesn’t really give a reason why. Hearing a language I recognized but didn’t understand wouldn’t send me to the police. “They’re talking Chinese, they must be plotting.”

I suspect that Capus’s objection was that arguments for communism were being made in Esperanto. Esperanto was viewed by some members of the European labor movement as an easy way for workers for various countries to communicate. It certainly lacked the upper-class affectations that would come with speaking French. Aulard is looking at it that way as well: when out of your own language sphere, French would mark you as an elite and Esperanto as part of the proletariat.

Le Matin published several articles in 1922 on Esperanto, with the discussion seeming to end with Aulard’s letter. He was responding to an article in the July 15th edition with the head “Doit-On Proscrire L’Espéranto? Les uns disent oui, les autres disent non” (Should One Proscribe Esperanto? Some say yes, others say no). Most of the article concerns the statements of M. E. Robert, the treasurer of the Société Française pro la Propaganda de l’Espéranto that Esperanto is neither Bolshevist nor attempting to supplant French. Capus spoke as a member of the Académie Française. Aulard’s letter appeared in the July 17, 1922 edition of Le Matin, in which he described Esperanto as “an auxiliary and international language and of the popular masses, a language of work and peace.”[12]

In retrospect, it’s somewhat strange to see the alarm the French had over Esperanto in the 1920s. On the other hand, perhaps without their efforts, Esperanto would have succeeded as the international language of trade and diplomacy, and instead of French, I would have been studying Esperanto at the age of twelve (I started Esperanto at eighteen).

  1. I had a discussion with a fellow Esperantist when I posted a link to that post in an Esperanto group, giving the title (in Esperanto) of “La francoj diras ‘non’ al Esperanto.” One member of the group corrected me, pointing out that the word for “no” in Esperanto is “ne.” I know that. I pointed out that in the original title I used the French “non” instead of the English “no,” and so I was leaving it in the French.  ↩
  2. This is all recounted in Ulrich Lin’s La Danĝera Lingvo. Further, the Esperanto movement in Germany split in the late 1930s. The German Esperanto Association was politically neutral, and the pro-Nazi NDEB was formed in opposition. NDEB stood for “Neue Deutsche Esperanto-Bewegung” (New German Esperanto Movevment), after the Nazi party wouldn’t permit them to call themselves the “Nationalsozialistscher Deutscher Esperanto-Bund” (German National Socialist Esperanto League).  ↩
  3. Note that this piece has a byline. Most of the articles I look at on the Chronicling America site are unsigned, as bylines did not become common until the 1920s, and (no doubt) due to copyright law, Chronicling America cuts off at 1922.  ↩
  4. Mainland south Asia.  ↩
  5. Wikipedia says that this is “a “small German archipelago in the North Sea.”  ↩
  6. According to Wiktionary, “I do not believe what you said,“ comparable to “tell it to the judge” or “tell it to the Marines.” A good example of the last to the last is the song “Tell That to the Marines (1919), which can be listened to at UC Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project.  ↩
  7. French journalist and playwright.  ↩
  8. Wikipedia notes that Le Matin was anti-communist, and before it folded in 1944, collaborationist and eventually pro-Nazi.  ↩
  9. In full, François Victor Alphonse Aulard, French historian.  ↩
  10. I liked this guy until we hit the 1920s casual racism. I wasn’t aware that English was widely used in Asia in the 1920s. 
  11. I still doubt it. Of course Professor Aulard would have preferred French in L’Indochine. ↩
  12. Amazing the trivia one can find on Wikipedia.  ↩
  13. Le français, langue internationale d’une élite; l’espéranto, langue auxiliaire et internationale des masses populaires, langue du travail et de la paix, voilà quel devrait être, selon moi, notre programme.

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