Friday, December 26, 2014

Esperantists in the Coal Mines

Not actually while working in the mines
Somehow the news of the Polish coal miners and their attempt to start a group of Esperanto speakers made its way from Indiana to Washington in order to be reported on in the December 26, 1907 issues of the Evening Statesman of Walla Walla, Washington. The story has some confirmation in that on the same day the Plymouth Tribune of Plymouth Indiana ran a short item also claiming that miners were learning Esperanto.

Many Americans seem to take offense at the idea that some of their fellow citizens don’t have English as their first language. It saddens me when I see an entitled diatribe over “press 1 for English.” Could it be that various companies see a profit motive in assisting potential customers whose first language isn’t English? How much of a freaking inconvenience is pressing 1 for English. (I’m more bothered by phone trees in which you have to listen to each series of menu options before you press anything in which it’s easy fritter away minutes just to get to the inevitable hold music.) But we're supposed to be talking about coal miners and their problems.

With a gathering of speakers from a variety of countries, Esperanto is a great choice. I can’t help but wondering if the miners had the further thought that a common language that the bosses didn’t speak might be better for union organizing.
Workers in Indiana Coal Fields Study Esperanto
In order that they may assist in the spread of the new language which the countrymen devised about twenty years ago and to bring the different nationalities of people in the Indiana coal fields to a closer fellowship, the Polanders who are employed at the various mines have organized an Esperanto club and will immediately take means to find a suitable place to fit up a club room where they may practice speaking the language. They will also keep on hand a number of the leading periodicals printed in this unique tongue, so that the members of the club may likewise learn the written language.

Many of the 35 members who have up to the present time been procured by the committee in charge of the movement are already proficient in the new language, and they intend to have several hundred Esperantists in this locality by the beginning of next spring. Their work will first be carried on among their own people, but after a while they will extend to the Americans. However, any one who is interested in Esperanto may become a member at any time, and it is believed that many Americans will join the club, as there is a great deal of interest being shown in the move by all nationalities. Especially are the business men interested in the new language theory, since a knowledge of it extending through their field would be a great aid in the transaction of business, as an interpreter has to be used in many instances.
The Plymouth Tribune reported:
So many are the nationalities of the miners employed in the mines about Masonville that they have begun to suited Esperanto in order to be able to understand each other. Shopkeepers are learning it in order to better conduct their business.
It’s probably a safe assumption that when the Evening Statesman says “Americans,” they mean “U.S. citizens who are native English speakers.” It seems strange that the Polish miners plan on starting with teaching each other Esperanto, since you would think they could already communicate amongst themselves in Polish, although there was that class for teaching Esperanto to Italian-speaking workers. Once again, was this a ruse to provide another reason why miners at different mines were communicating with each other? Add into this the connection in the early twentieth century of Esperanto and various left-wing political movements, and even if they were studying Esperanto, it’s likely there was more in mind that just an easier way of talking to people with other native tongues.

The miners and shopkeepers don’t seem to have made much of an impression outside of Masonville, Indiana. The Esperanto press makes no mention of groups of miners speaking Esperanto. Indiana does not seem to have become a hotbed of Esperanto. No matter what the purpose of those Esperanto classes, whether actual language learning or clandestine union organizing, I’d like to conclude with a brief list of words that might have been useful to Esperanto-speaking coal miners in 1907.
Esperanto English
dungito employee
fosi to dig
karbo coal
karbminejo coalmine
labori to work, labor
laboristo worker, laborer
minejo mine
mini to mine
ministo miner
pikpioĉo pick
sindikato union
ŝoveli to shovel
ŝovelilo shovel (noun)
tuneli to tunnel
tunelo tunnel (noun)

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