Friday, December 19, 2014

A Dark Day for Esperanto

Gabriel Hanotaux
No fan of Esperanto
It was one of those “could have been different moments,” one of those times in Esperanto history when the “fina venko,” the final victory when Esperanto became the international auxiliary language, was at hand. As in all these other situations, the victory didn’t happen (but you knew that already, since if any of them had happened, there would have been at least a moment when Esperanto was the world-wide standard for communication).

On December 18, 1920, the League of Nations voted on whether Esperanto would be the official language of the League. Even now, international organizations have to deal with the cost of translating documents and speeches into a variety of languages. I’ve seen it estimated that the European Union spends about €300 million a year on text translation. The Germans keep suggesting that adopting English as the official language of Europe would help bring the costs down.

One argument against English is that using it represents a substantial cash transfer out of the Eurozone and into the coffers of England (Europe’s largest producer of English-learning materials). Further, the ease with which Esperanto can be learned would lead to more productive use of time. A few weeks of intensive classes, and you’ve got an Esperanto speaker.

But the League of Nations said no to Esperanto. As always, the French were behind it. Several newspapers reported on this with identical words as part of a larger article that appeared on December 19, 1920. The Ogden Standard-Examiner put it under the heading “Esperanto Disfavored,” while the rest[1] set up other breaks in the article. Here’s the text from Washington, D.C. Evening Star:
Esperanto fell a victim to a sharp assault by Gabriel Hanotaux when the committee reported in favor of an expression by the assembly with the object of encouraging the general teaching of Esperanto in the public schools with a view to making it eventually an international language and the language of the league. After a debate the assembly voted against the proposal.
This does raise the question of just what constituted the “sharp assault.” Just what did Gabriel Hanotaux do (since it clearly didn’t meet the legal standard for assault[2]). Perhaps this is the work of Esperanto-speaking Wikipedians, but the entries for him in English, Spanish, French, and Italian all mention this incident. No, there is no entry for him in the Esperanto Wikipedia.[3]

Whatever he did, it was certainly effective in assuring that Esperanto did not become the working language of the League of Nations. In 1920, no one realized just how numbered the days were for the League of Nations. Born out of the ashes of WWI, looking at the history of the League, it never seemed all that stable (several countries, including founding countries, withdrew even before Germany did).[4] If the League of Nations had used Esperanto as their working language, then the United Nations probably would have continued the tradition.

But Gabriel Hanotaux worried what would become of French if people started using Esperanto. If he could have looked into the future and seen how English has supplanted French, he might have said, “mi voĉdonas por Esperanto!”[5]

Image is a public-domain photo of Gabriel Hanotaux from the Agence de presse Meurisse‏ and Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Update: An Esperantist Wikipedian in response to the lack of an article on Hanotaux on Esperanto Wikipedia has created one.

  1. Also the Amarillo Daily News (Texas) and the Arizona Republican (Phoenix, Arizona). Probably others that I haven’t seen.  ↩
  2. I’m certain he didn’t rough up an Esperantist to prove his point.  ↩
  3. There are entries in Arabic, Azerbaijan, and Russian, but I can’t read any of those to decode if there’s a reference to Esperanto. The entries in German, Dutch, and Polish don’t reference this incident.  ↩
  4. A timeline would be helpful, but it’s clear that several countries joined and withdrew before Germany ever became a member.  ↩
  5. I vote for Esperanto!  ↩

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  1. Your Esperanto history lessons are great, much thanks for the effort.

  2. Thank you for these wonderful articles. «there is no entry for him in the Esperanto Wikipedia» is no longer true, though, I have just created it, thanks to you. :)


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