Saturday, January 10, 2015

That (Non) Spaniard Who Created Esperanto

Still not Spanish.
Sometimes you have to make decisions. On January 3, I saw that the New York Sun had published a short item on Esperanto in 1904 that was filled with errors. Instead, as I only had time for one post, I wrote about Edwin S. Du Poncet, who was the instructor of languages at the Throop Institute (later named the California Institute of Technology). Then I saw that on January 6, 1907, the Sun had again erroneously ascribed Esperanto to he work of a “Spanish scholar.” I wrote about that one, and the rebuttal given by a reader, one H. G. P. on January 9, 1907.

It turns out that they had been corrected before, but not only were they not terribly gracious about the correction, they forgot all about it, or ignored it as being spurious. On January 10, 1904, they noted that “a disgruntled Esperanto enthusiast” had found problems with their January 3 item. After crankily dismissing the statements, the Sun goes on to cite the authority for their (wild) claim that Esperanto had been invented by a Spaniard. I raised the question of why the Sun thought this; now I know why. I have two more questions, but I’ll get to those later.

Here’s what the Sun published on January 3, 1904 (and which I would have blogged about had I realized what legs this item had):
Can you give me any information about the Esperanto language and tell me where any vocabulary or book dealing with the same may be had?
Francis J. Kirkham
It is an artificial language named from its inventor, a Spanish scholar who first published it in 1890. Its vocabulary is constructed upon only such words are as common to all European languages. It has students in most parts of the civilized world and is described by an admirer as “a rich, harmonize, supple, flexible language, extremely easy of acquisition for all civilized nations, and capable of rendering the most extensive and valuable services in the international life.” A dictionary and all works dealing with the language can be obtained by writing to the Esperanto Club, 41 Outer Temple, London, W.C., and information may be had form the editor of La Lumo, 79 Christopher street, Montreal, Canada. Here is a short passage from Shakespeare translated into Esperanto.
“Karega patro, se per via povo
La maro tiel brue sovagigis,
Ho trankviligen gin! Nun preskau sajnas
Malbonodoran pecon Ciel vomi
Se supraj ondoj ne estingos fajron.”
I’m not sure if Kirkham’s letter was a plant or not. Maybe not and it had its effect. In November 1908 (admittedly almost four years later), he was a candidate for membership in the the Esperanto Association of North America.[1] When Kirhham wrote his letter, there was no Esperanto organization in the United States. On January 10, 1904, the Sun had more information for Mr. Kirkham.
Francis J. Kirkham.—“The Students’ Complete Text Book of the Esperanto Language,” by J. C. O’Connor, may be obtained from the F. H. Revell Company. 
A disgruntled Esperanto enthusiast takes exception to the passage from Shakespeare printed in this column Jan. 3, which, he says, contains several errors and two words that are not Esperanto. The passage, which is from “The Esperantist,” for December, 1903, at page 21, and with the exception of a slight typographical error of one letter is reproduced with absolute accuracy.[2] “The Esperantist” is the official organ of the Esperanto Club, London, and the representative organ of the English speaking Esperanto students throughout the world. Further our correspondent says that the inventor of the language was a Russian, not a Spaniard. Our authority is the New International Encyclopedia, 1903, vol. vi., p. 862.
Someone did not take kindly to being corrected. There’s a real tone of wounded pride to all that. Someone give the writer of the “Questions and Answers” column a stiff drink, or a cold towel, or milk and cookies and a corner in which to take a nap. Was the New International Encyclopedia wrong too? First, let’s deal with Shakespeare.

The “Questions and Answer” writer got the citation right on The Esperantist. December 1903, page 21 (second column). Here’s the text, as translated by “Esperantist 0206”:
Karega patro, se per via povo
La maro tiel brue sovaĝiĝis,
Ho trankviligu ĝin! Nun preskaŭ ŝajnas
Malbonodoran peĉon Ciel’ vomi
Se supraj ondoj ne estingos fajron…
Not too bad. The Sun got trankviligu wrong (and dropped every circumflex). Unfortunately, while I’d like to identify the translator. I’m not sure who “Esperantist 0206” is. Early in the movement, adherents were given numbers, but there does not seem to be online copies of the full set of the Adresaro de Esperantistoj series. So, about the New International Encyclopedia, did they really claim that Esperanto was created by a Spaniard? Yes.

By the 1905 edition, the New International Encyclopedia had corrected the entry, starting it with the words “An artificial language invented about 1887 by the Russian scholar Zamenhof.” But that’s not what they said in the 1902 edition. Here’s the full thing:
ESPERANTO ā’spâ-rän’to (derived from Lat. sperare, to hope). An artificial language, named from its inventor, a Spanish scholar, who first published it in 1890. It differs from Volapük (q.v.) in that its vocabularly is constructed upon only such words as are common to all European languages. Hence it will at the outset be easy of acquisition, and will not appear uncouth or strange to any. The following comparison will serve to illustrate the difference between English, Volapük, and Esperanto:

In English.— “The international language should be comprehensible to the whole educated world; but no man on the earth, except to Volapükist, would comprehend even the word ‘Volapük.’”

In Volapük.— “Pük bevünetik pakapälom fa vol lölik pekulivöl; abu men nonik tala sesumü volapükels, kapalom püki lekanix ‘Volapük.’”

In Esperanto.— “La lingvo internacia estas komprenita de la tuta mondo edukita; sed nenia homo sur la tero eksklusive la volapükistoj komprenas la artan lingvon ‘Volapük.’” See Universal Language.
While there were revisions from year-to-year (as shown by the changes by 1905), the 1902 edition has the information that the Sun is citing in 1904. This does leave me wondering how the New International Encyclopedia came to the conclusion that Esperanto was created by a Spaniard in 1890, but at least we have a source for the mistaken conclusion. The other question is that since the New International Encyclopedia had corrected their error at least by 1905 (I haven’t been able to find the volume in the 1904 edition), why was the Sun still carrying on with the erroneous information in 1907?

Finally, a note on the entry in the New International Encyclopedia: quite a nasty slam on Volapük there. The samples were from Charles Schmidt, the president of the Nuremberg Esperanto Society (a former Volapük group).

  1. I cannot imagine Esperanto-USA actually turning someone down for membership. I suppose if someone was utterly infamous, they might refuse to take the cash.  ↩
  2. Other, of course, than the total omission of all the circumflexes.  ↩

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