Monday, October 20, 2014

Esperanto and the Spanish Anarchists

Are we  sure about this?
I recently wrote about the announcement of an Esperanto class for Italian speakers in a 1914 subversive newspaper, but it wasn’t clear why they were studying Esperanto. It didn’t have to be for anarchist or subversive politics (though it probably was). In general, the early Esperanto movement seems to have hewed to a progressive view, with many of its early members also being active in women’s rights, public health measures, and so forth.

The early history of Esperanto in Russia was marked by concerns that the language would be used to conceal forbidden political activity. And the Third Reich initially banned materials in Esperanto from coming into the country, later going on to ban any use of the language at all. (Which pales in the face of their seeking out and murdering descendants of L. L. Zamenhof).

On October 20, 1909, the (New York) Sun made the claim that after using a series of languages as secret codes, Spanish anarchists had settled on Esperanto.
Sagacious anarchists these days in Spain, always just one linguistic lap ahead of the snooping alguacils.[1] It is impossible to conceive of a dumb[2] anarchist, he would surely foam at his mouth were he to suffer any abridgment of his free speech. But then there is the sereno[3] to be taken into the count, the sereno is always picturesque and to Spaniards dangerous, the sereno understands Spanish. Italian then pointed the path of safety to the freespeaking anarchist, but the watch took up the study of the speech of the other Latin peninsula. French came next, the cops caught up. All this made for the higher education. Now Spanish anarchy plots in Esperanto. Let no curious philologist hold this as an indictment of the Zamenofian tongue, its gnashing of the teeth is made no worse by its topic of conversation. Though fugacious years—eheu labuntur, Postume, Postume!—we recall the infant effort to hide thought from the watchful schoolmaster by an artificial speech. Was not this the way it ran? “Whengry Igry gogry yougry gogry toogry.” Did the masters ever learn it? Must the alguiacils patrol their beats and prick up ears comprehensive of Esperanto?
Of course, Esperanto is not a language game, akin to the phrase similar to Pig Latin citied in the article (in Pig Latin the phrase would be “Enwhay Iway ogay, oo-yay, ogay oo-tay”), for that matter the use of Italian and French seem like such poor choices to use in Spain. Sure, Italian, French, and Spanish are distinct languages, but they’re not that different. Take a phrase like, “the secret meeting is at the river.”
Spanish El encuentro secreto está en el río.
Italian L’incontro segreto è al fiume.
French La réunion secrète est chez la rivière.
Esperanto La sekreta kunveno estas ĉe la rivero.
Yeah, that’ll stump them for a while. (Note that the Esperanto “ĉe” is the French “chez.”)[4] If the anarchists wanted to fool the authorities, wouldn’t they go for a language quite different from Spanish? All of these seem really obvious.
German Die geheimen Treffen ist am Fluss.
I have my doubts.

The Sun didn’t cite any sources for this material. Did they have a reporter embedded amongst the Spanish anarchists? Glancing at the Wikipedia entry on the history of Spain it looks like this article is contemporaneous with a revolt in Catalonia (which, a century later, is still agitating for independence). That’s quite a coincidence, since there was some Esperanto activity in Catalonia in 1909. Barcelona was the site of the 1909 Universala Kongreso.

Perhaps Spanish anarchists got the idea of using Esperanto from the Kongreso, but the whole thing sounds a little difficult to believe.

Update: Unbelievable but true! It has been brought to my attention that the 1976 Spanish film La ciutat cremada, set in Barcelon in the period from 1899–1909, contains a scene in which anarchist laborers study Esperanto. The film is in Spanish (i.e. Castilian), Catalan, and Esperanto. The relevant clip (including Esperanto) can be seen here.

  1. Officers of the Spanish court, apparently, specifically the police.  ↩
  2. In the sense of “mute.”  ↩
  3. Spanish for “calm,” says Google Translate, though that makes no sense here. It certainly seems to be another term for the police.  ↩
  4. I used Google Translate as a help for all of these, though the French and Esperanto I certainly could have written myself. The Italian looks right to me. I’m assuming it got the Spanish right.  ↩

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1 comment:

  1. The Spanish is sort of there, maybe "El encuentro secreto está por el río." "La reunión secreta está por el río." (?) It's BY the river not IN the river, right?

    Anyways, well maybe the guards were too lazy to learn, maybe the detectives would learn but.... I dunno people are lazy at these things.

    Maybe El Sereno is a Watchman?
    or a place? It says picturesque but it understands Spanish? SO it has to be a person.

    I wonder. Would they just say "the secret meeting is at the river. - La kunveno sekreta estas ĉe la rivero."? Maybe "Kunveno malferma ĉe akvofluo estos"? Estos in Spanish just sounds like Those. Well doesn't really matter anymore.

    Maybe they'd probably do what the Navajo Code Talkers did, use subterfuge in Esperanto just in case. Or maybe I give them too much credit...


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