Monday, January 5, 2015

Russian Sociologist Praises French, Dismisses Esperanto

Jacques Novicow
Russian. Spoke French.
Disliked Esperanto
The Russian sociologist, Jacques Novicow (French Wikipedia helpfully gives his Russian name as Iakov Aleksandrovitch Novikov) wrote in the December 1, 1907 Revue des Deux Mondes 0n the subject of an international auxiliary language. As I’ve indicated in the title, he was in favor of French. His article, all thirty-six pages of it, isn’t just for talking up French, but for dismissing Esperanto as a particular alternative to French.[1]

Novicow was (according to French Wikipedia) born in Constantinople, and raised in Odessa, where he eventually became a professor. However, he spent some time (Wikipedia notes only “partie de sa vie”—part of his life) in France, and published extensively in French. Two titles jumped out at me: Le Peril jaune (The Yellow Peril[2]) (1897) and L’Avenir de la race blanche, critique du pessimisme contemporain (The Future of the White Race, a critique of contemporary pessimism) (1897). He also separately published his Revue des Deux Mondes piece in 1911.

If we were tracking views of Esperanto in the French intellectual elite, 1907 would be in the period of utter rejection of Esperanto. The period in which the center of Esperanto activity was in France was over (even though Esperanto movement is currently strong in France, compared to other places[3]). The New York Sun had a lengthy editorial responding to Nowicow’s article in their January 5, 1908 edition. It, too, is too long to quote in full (though it is substantially shorter than 36 pages).[4]

Most of the Sun’s article is spent summarizing Nowicow’s praise of the French. Only in the last section does the Sun take up his views on Esperanto.
In the intervals of praising French, M. Novicow shows himself extremely bitter against Esperanto. He is insulted by the mere suggestion that he should learn it. He draws a violent contrast between the hideous collection of mutilated word stumps hacked from half a dozen languages by a soulless Polish doctor and a natural speech beautified by the feeling, intelligence and life of a whole people. To the argument that Esperanto is easy to learn he replies: “Yes, if you already know Greek, Latin, English, French, German and Russian.” “No language that is without a literature,” he says even more effectively, “could ever become universal.” In fact, Esperanto should rather perhaps be called a short of code than a language. For commercial purposes something less than a language may serve. Figures, which exist internationalized, are the first requirement, and then some common index or catalogue. For telegraphic use international business codes have been adopted already. Esperanto might be, indeed would be, as even M. Novicow admits, a serviceable amplification of the telegraph codes, and as such it or something like it will no doubt sooner or later come into general use. But that is a very different matter from becoming the universal auxiliary language, and against this claim for Esperanto or any such mechanism no better argument could be advanced than a simple enumeration of the several living reasons or sympathies, social and intellectual, which started and have maintained the prevalence of French in other countries.
Ah, what a difference a century makes. I’ve only skimmed Novicow’s piece. Sure, he’s right when he notes that “a great number of English and Germans learn Italian to read Dante in the original,”[5] with his implication that Esperanto has nothing with which to compare to Dante, but then again, few languages can stack their literary achievements against the Dante. On the other hand, the contention echoed by the Sun that Zamenhof “hacked” words from living languages. It’s a vivid image, but quite unfair (especially as his Revue des Deux Mondes article praises the more French-based Universal of Heinrich Molenaar[6], even though that also took roots from a variety of languages).

I would say that Novicow’s claim that Esperanto is easy “if you already know Greek, Latin, English, French, German and Russian” is false. I found Esperanto easy to learn, and at the time had only studied English (native) and French. I still know no Greek or Russian. I suppose if you had studied all those languages (and Polish), you might actually re-create Esperanto (although that really isn’t necessary).

Both the sociologist and the Sun seem convinced that Esperanto is in some way unfit for literary works. Once again, this is nonsense. There are lots of complex things that go into the creation of great literary works (of which individual genius is but one part). Esperanto has done fairly well for a population with fewer than two million speakers. I would guess it does quite well for a language with so few speakers, most of whom are non-native. Esperanto is today a “language with a literature,” though that hasn’t actually helped it gain any further prominence.[7]

The prevalence of French was not going to continue, despite the expectations of Jacques Novicow and the Sun.


  1. “La langue auxiliaire du groupe de civilisation européen; Les chances du français” appeared in the December 1, 1907 Revue des Deux Mondes, and is available in Google Books. It’s in French.  ↩
  2. Probably not about home decor. A recent republication of the work suggests that the title is ironic.  ↩
  3. If the same percentage of the American population was in the Esperanto movement as compared to the percentage of French, the Americans would dominate the movement. France has a population of 66 million of which 685 are members of the UEA (which I’m using as a proxy for involvement), while the US with its 320 million people can only field 597. Both are pretty small fractions of the population, but the United States has (about) 4.8 times the population of France. To put them on equal footing, the United States should have 3,288 members in the UEA. In defense of the United States, I will note that while India has over a billion people, only 65 of them are in the UEA.  ↩
  4. Page 8, second column, near the bottom, then running into the third column. It can be found on the Chronicling America web site.  ↩
  5. Un grand nombre d’Anglais et d’Allemands apprennent l’italien pour lire Date dans l’original.  ↩
  6. Universal was only a few years old when Novicow praised it, nevertheless, it’s plain that he didn’t see it going anywhere. And besides, it was just another potential competitor to French.  ↩
  7. The Nobel Prize in Literature was recently given to Patrick Modiano, whose work has not been available in English. His Nobel did not lead to swarms of people studying French so they can read Modiano in the original, rather an American publisher commissioned translations of his work.

    If an Esperanto writer were to win the Nobel prize, the exact same would happen, no matter how that would effect Esperanto’s status as a “language with a literature.”  ↩

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1 comment:

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