Wednesday, December 3, 2014

An Early Birthday for Esperanto

Of course it does, but when?
Ask an Esperantist when the birthday of Esperanto is and they’ll tell you: December 15th, the same as Zamenhof, who made the first public demonstration of Esperanto on his 19th birthday in 1878. Edmond Privat in his Vivo de Zamenhof[1] In a way, the language of 1878 wasn’t really Esperanto. Zamenhof called it the lingwe uniwersala; the letter w is absent from Esperanto. The language that was celebrated on Zamenhof’s birthday in 1878 wasn’t the same same language that was published nine years later in 1887.[2]

But if we’re giving Esperanto Zamenhof’s birthday, it’s a fair question to ask when Zamenhof’s birthday actually is. In 1907, the San Francisco Call gave December 5, 1878 as the birthday of Esperanto. I assumed it was merely a typo, and that they meant December 15th. But on December 3, 1907 the New York Sun ran an article under the title “Esperanto Has a Birthday.” That birthday had been celebrated the day before in New York City by none other than Edmond Privat. He notes in Vivo de Zamenhof that
La 17-an de Decembro ili festis la vivigon de la lingvo.
The 17th of December they celebrated the coming alive of the language.
The party was clearly slightly delayed, because he did give the 15th of December as the date of Zamenhof’s birth, elsewhere in the text.[3] But was that Zamenhof’s birthday? And if so, why were they celebrating it thirteen days early in New York in 1907? The Sun did a lot of coverage of Esperanto in its early days, but it tended not to spare the snark. This was no exception.
Exercises to Celebrate It Held at Normal College.
Edmond Privat, “Hon. Secretary of the Second Universal Esperanto Congress and of the International Esperantist Press Association,” as the advance notices styles him, celebrated yesterday the twentieth anniversary of the Esperanto language, which is just one year older than he is, by speaking on “The Progress and Construction of Esperanto” at the Normal College of the City of New York.

The advance notice said also that the meeting was for the citizens of New your. This is misleading, There were about 150 school maids and ma’am in attendance, but the citizenry wasn’t as numerous as the Roman mob in “Julius Caesar” when Dan Ryan puts it on at Willimantic, Conn.
No shortage of snark here. And what? Aren’t women citizens? I mean, sure the Nineteenth Amendment was still thirteen years in the future, but it would seem that the Fourteenth had settled the question of whether women were citizens in their own right. The Sun is saying that the only ones interested in Esperanto are a bunch of schoolmarms. At 19, Privat was kinda cute. Maybe they were there to ogle the young Swiss Esperantist.

I’m going to skip over most of the description of the meeting. The writer from the Sun say that
The game with this book [Esperanto lessons in the North American Review] was for some one unacquainted with Esperanto to open the book, say, “Why, this is so much like Italian,” and then, by the light of her own reason, to read off a pageful.
After mocking Privat’s command of English, we get a description of “the purest Esperanto accent,”
a choking, guggling, sibilant, last gasp of the bath plug tone.
Unfortunately for the Esperanto movement, Privat’s host, Professor Charles M. Walker, didn’t quite understand Privat and needed a bit of help. Walker was a professor of French at the college, which is now named Hunter College. Walker said,
“I’ve only a reading knowledge of the language,” he explained, “and when any body addresses me in it I’ve got to do some thinking first.”
Professor Walker was able to do his thinking. But still, why were they celebrating Zamehof’s birth on the 2nd of December? From Zamenhof’s view, his birthday wasn’t the 15th of December, or the 5th, but the 3rd. During his entire life, the Russian Empire used the (old) Julian calendar, while the rest of Europe was on the Gregorian calendar (and had been for centuries). By the end of the Russian Empire (which was only a few years away by the time Privat was celebrating Zamenhof’s birthday, and, alas, so was the end of Zamenhof), there were thirteen days difference between the two.

And so, when it was December 3 in Moscow (and as well in Warsaw or Bialystok), it was December 15th in Paris or Berlin. According to Zamenhof, his birthday was December 3rd. In another location, they used a different calendar, but a case can be made for a different birthday.

Then we get the age of Esperanto. It’s twentieth birthday was fixed to the date of an event that had happened twenty-nine years before, while taking the year of an event that happened at a different time of year altogether. It’s a sort of hybrid birthday, taking the day of December 15, 1878 (or the 3rd, depending on how you want to look at it) and the year of July 26, 1887 (the last is often called “Esperanto Book Day”). It looks like early on, the calendar date of Zamenhof's birth too precedence over what that date might have been elsewhere. Perhaps he gave the date as December 3, and it took a while before anyone realized it needed to be converted.

The Russian Empire never adopted the Gregorian calendar. That fell to its successor state, after the Russian Revolution.

  1. Available, of course in English translation as Life of Zamenhof, but it just seems wrong to read it in any language other Esperanto.  ↩
  2. For me, the July 26, 1887 publication of the Unua Libro is the real birthday of Esperanto.  ↩
  3. Specifically the third paragraph of the second chapter, “Infano en Bjalistok.”  ↩

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