Monday, January 19, 2015

Esperanto and the Advancement of Science

Who are you calling a crank?
Most of the articles I look at do not have bylines, as a result it’s often impossible to tell who wrote the article. The Washington Herald did not include a byline on its January 19, 1922 article on the “present status of international language,” but I was able to identify the writer anyway. The Herald abridged their article from the February 22, 1922 issue of Science (clearly there was no journalism embargo on this piece). The full article was the “Report of the Committee of an International Auxiliary Language Accepted by the Council at Toronto, December 29, 1921,” and the chair of the committee was Samuel W. Stratton.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science spent more than a decade wondering about the issue of an international language. In the 1910s, there were many letters to Science (the AAAS journal) on the inevitability of Esperanto in the sciences. Still, the real proof would have been when the journal was renamed Scienco and started publishing everything in Esperanto. That never happened. I doubt they even accepted a single paper in Esperanto.

The Herald’s version is much shorter than the full report, which starts at top of the second column of page 166 (vol LV, no. 1416) and continues to just the top of the second column on page 169; just over three full pages. The complete Herald piece was within the realm of what could be typed.

Up to the outbreak of the world war an international auxiliary language had been looked upon by academic and official circles chiefly as a fad of cranks. A truly startling chance is now to be seen in this respect. Though no final decision as to the final system has been reached. Governments and important public bodies all over the world are vigorously taking up the question.

This the assembly of the league of nations has placed the subject on its agenda for the next year, and called upon its secretariat to present a comprehensive report on the progress made to date in the teaching of Esperanto in the public schools of the world.

It will probably come as a surprise to many to know, for example, that for several years past the Board of Education of London County Council has recognized Esperanto as an official subject in its night and technical schools, and that it has been introduced as an option study in the public schools of Milan, Italy, where last year some 2,000 students studied it. This year Geneva, Switzerland, has taken the lead of making one year of it compulsory in its public school curriculum. These are only isolated examples of a general moment in Europe at present.

Lead by the Paris Chamber of Commerce, other chambers of commerce all over the world are urging that it be taken seriously by business men, just as they already have done in such artificial creations as stenography and the typewriter.

This sort of thing is encouraging, not to say forcing, the the scientific and academic bodies to give the subject consideration. The British Association for the Advancement of Science, at the Edinburgh meeting last September, published a comprehensive report by its committee appointed two years previously “to inquire into the practicability of an international auxiliary language.”

The committee summarized its conclusions in the following words:

“Latin is too difficult to serve as an international auxiliary language. The acceptance of any modern language would confer undue advantages and excite jealousy. Therefore, an invented language is best. Esperanto and Ido are suitable, but the committee is not prepared to decide between them.”

In America the following associations have already recognized the importance of the subject by appointing committees upon it: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Council on Education, American Classical League, American Philological Association, National Research Council.
At the time he was at the head of the committee that inquired into using an international auxiliary language, Samuel W. Stratton had recently become the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so he was a reasonably prominent figure in American science. He does not seem to have been an Esperantist, even though much of what the Herald quotes had me wondering if the piece was written by an officer of the Esperanto Association of North American. I mean, available in the night and technical classes of the London public schools? This is not a grand success.

Nor does the report enthusiastically endorse Esperanto. For the committee, Esperanto would be fine, and so would Ido. If the committee had come down firmly on one side or the other, the obvious next recommendation would be how to implement adoption to the suggested language. Not that Esperanto hadn’t been proposed several times as an official language for various groups. In 1908, the temperance organization the Good Templars considered using Esperanto at its next international convention; there is no evidence that they ever did. In 1909, the Socialist Party decided that they would use Esperanto at their next international meeting. Neither actually carried through with this.

Then look at the first two leaders of the Esperanto Association of North America. George Harvey and John Barrett both seemed to think that Esperanto would be a fine thing to learn after everyone else had. It wasn’t until Barrett declined to run for another term that the main organization in the United States had an Esperantist as its leader.

All the high-minded people and organizations who supported the idea of Esperanto didn’t want to do the work of actually adopting, learning, and using an international language. Stratton noted that the League of Nations passed a resolution (September 13, 1921) that the question of an international language merited further study. Stratton’s committee concludes by recommending further study and cooperation with other groups. In other words, death by committee. And that’s exactly what happened. Despite the recommendations of the committee, there does not seem to be a further report.

But what’s this about cranks? Is Stratton really suggesting that those major figures of science, diplomacy, and letters who backed Esperanto in the years between 1900 and 1914 were “cranks”? Certainly, Esperanto had its appeal as a fad (noting that one New York club required members to show competency in the language in order to weed out those who wanted the cachet of being in an Esperanto club). Stratton was certainly wrong there.
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