Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Princeton Professor Blasts Esperanto

That's a little harsh, isn't it?
The Esperanto movement did not have a friend in Professor Theodore W. Hunt, nor did any movement proposing a constructed language. At the end of 1908, Professor Hunt spoke at the Modern Language Association’s conference, and he made clear that languages ought not be too modern.

Professor Hunt was born in February 1844, so by the time he delivered his comments at the MLA, he was sixty-four years old and had an impressive series of publications, the subject matter of which spanned the Old English period through the Victorians, including Ethical Teachings in Old English Literature, Cædmon’s Exodus and Daniel, and The Prose Style of Thomas Babinton Macaulay. He even wrote on The Place of English in the College Curriculum. Theodore Hunt was born in New Jersey, studied at Princeton University, and taught there as well. Bibliographic data notes that Professor Hunt died in 1930.

Both the New York Times and the New-York Tribune made some claims of exclusivity for their reports (both published in their December 31, 1908 editions), which are nevertheless almost word-for-word the same, though each report has details that the other does not. A similar article was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript, also on December 31, 1908, which does not, however make any claims to exclusivity, nor does it mention Professor Hunt or Esperanto in its headline.

The Tribune headed its article
Members Also Hear Paper on Esperanto and Volapuk.
[By Telegraph to The Tribune]
while the New York Times cut to the chase:
Prof. Hunt of Princeton Says None of the Universal Tongues Can Succeed.

Special to The New York Times
All three articles begin the same way:
PRINCETON, N. J., Dec. 30—The Modern Language Association of America closed its twenty-sixth annual convention here to-day with the reading of several papers and the adoption of three resolutions, one petitioning Congress in the proposed tariff revision to remove the duties of books printed in foreign countries works of art and scientific instruments intended for the private use of investigators.
The Times provides us with the period, because the Tribune ended that with a semicolon and continued:
a second, appointing a committee to consult with the Carnegie Institution to bring about a closer relation between that institution and associations devoted to the study of literary and philological topics, and a third, declaring for the establishment of a test in pronunciation and the ability to understand a foreign language among college entrance requirements.
The Transcript did end with a period after “investigators,” but only took the second time, ending at "topics," but starting with “Another resolution appointed a committee.”

The next paragraph is somewhat shared by all three newspapers (they clearly had the same source). In the following extract, words in standard type (like this) are in both sources, words only in the Tribune will be in italic and those in the Times and Transcript in bold. The Tribune and the Transcript spelled out Professor, while the Times used “Prof” (which goes beyond my abilities to mark up the text).
In an interesting paper Professor Theodore W. Hunt, of Princeton University, declared that the mechanical, artificial or purely conventional character of preferred universal tongues, such as Esperanto and Volapuk, prevents them from representing the most vital and essential relation of thought and language. He said:
The quotation from Professor Hunt (or Prof. Hunt) is only in the Times and the Transcript.
“Whatever purely commercial or utilitarian purpose they may subserve, they can never rise to the plane of language as for the expression of through for the highest ends, the outward revelation of man’s innermost mental and spiritual self. For this reason, if for no other such language codes and schemes can never compass the area of universal speech and meet the deepest needs of man as a thinker.”
The Tribune followed with a list of newly elected officers of the MLA. The Transcript with an abbreviated list.

In the quotation, the word “subserve” is probably the reporter’s error for “serve,” but nevertheless the whole statement is bullshit. There are plenty of examples of people announcing that someone else’s language is only suitable for needs of daily life, and not something that you’d ever write a decent work of literature in. Often this is said about languages which already have a rich literary tradition. In other words, it’s just snobbery.

If we take Professor Hunt’s objections to planned languages to its conclusion, a statement written (in English or French) that expressed “the outward revelation of man’s innermost mental and spiritual self” would be untranslatable into one of these languages (Esperanto or Volapük). This is simply not true. I can’t speak for Volapük, but I know that Esperanto is able to “meet the deepest needs of man as a thinker” (here we clearly need to read “man” as “a person,” though it’s not clear if Professor Hunt would).

Sorry, Professor Hunt, but I’m grading your MLA presentation with a gentleman’s C.
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