Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Voice of Zamenhof

Learn Esperanto the modern way!
One of the problems with learning a language by book or correspondence course is that you can’t be exactly certain if you’re pronouncing it correctly. Obviously in our day there are a number of work-arounds for this (that involve using computers instead of books). For languages that died out before the advent of sound recording, an exact idea of how they sounded is lost. The early Esperanto learners had this problem of not being able to turn to a nearby Esperanto speaker and find if they were pronouncing the language properly. A group of enterprising Canadian Esperantists sometime before January 29, 1904 came up with an ingenious solution to this problem. They found a way to ask an expert.

The article in the New-York Tribune reprints an article from the London Daily Chronicle, though no date is given for that. Further, the article does not indicate how the news about the Montreal Esperantists got to London. Did they get it from a Canadian newspaper? Did they get it from the Esperanto press (perhaps the British Esperantist)?

The article does show that Esperanto activity seems to have come a little sooner to Canada than it did to the United States. According to the 1904 Jarlibro Esperantista, the Montreal group “Klubo Progreso,” had been founded in May, 1901, putting it about four years earlier than any American group. Its leaders were H. Gorbatenko (vira seckio, sek.) for the men and L. Fillion for the women (virina seckio, sekretariino).

The Inventor of the New International Language.
From The London Daily Chronicle

The question has been asked, If an international language were introduced how would it be possible preserve the true and original pronunciation? A group of Esperantists in Montreal, anxious to know how far their pronunciation agreed with that of the inventor, Dr. Zamehof, “spoke a piece” into the phonograph and sent him the cylinder of wax containing the sound record. In the course of time back came another cylinder with another record. This being made to utter itself, the gratified Canadians heard the voice of the “master” himself, complimenting them on the purity of their pronunciation. It differed, he said, in no way from his own.

Louis-Lazare Zamenhof, a Russian doctor of medicine, is just forty-five,[1] having been born at Bielostok, in the government of Grodno, in 1859. He was a mere youth, a student at the Warsaw Gymnasium, when he began first to dream of a “universal” language. His native town was divided among four different races (Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews), each cherishing its own language, and cordially hating all its foreign neighbors. Zamenhof, a genuine idealist thought that a common speech would go some way to dull the edge of the racial hatreds of Bielostok. His first nation was to attempt a revival of one of the classic languages of antiquity. This was abandoned in favor of artificial language. By 1878, being then only nineteen years of age, he had elaborated a “lingwe uniwersala,”[2] which he put into practice with his fellow students. This, in turn, dissatisfied him,[3] and he began in secret[4] upon a new scheme which absorbed the leisures of six years of his university career. Then at last Esperanto was completed. Two years more were spent in fruitless efforts to find a publisher willing to risk a trifle in the venture. Finally, in the summer of 1887, the young enthusiast—who was now married and in practice as a doctor—brought out his first brochure at his own express, under the pseudonym of Doctoro Esperanto.

Esperanto was high-tech from the start. The Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at UCSB has a number of language cylinders, but nothing for Esperanto. They did exist though. Arthur Baker, that thoroughly capitalistic socialist, offered Esperanto lessons on cylinders in the pages of Amerika Esperantisto. You could even buy a gramophone from him (for $20)[5]

Given the expense of a phonograph in 1904, it’s somewhat amazing that Zamenhof had access to one. This was hot new technology, itself only ten years older than Esperanto, and all of twenty-seven years old in 1904. The cylinders themselves would be coming to an end in only a few years, but they still dominated the market. Amerika Esperantisto noted that they could supply only cylinders, not disks, and like the ones swapped between Zamenhof and the Canadians, these were individually made.

It is not clear what happened to the Zamenhof cylinder. For that matter, I’ve never seen a reference to the Esperanto instruction cylinders outside the pages of Amerika Esperantisto. Perhaps in the back of an attic in Canada, Zamenhof’s greetings to the Montreal Esperantists are gathering dust.

  1. Actually, he had just passed his forty-forth birthday in mid-December, but this gives a good clue that the London Daily Chronicle published the article in early 1904.  ↩
  2. The original has “lingwe universala,” but this predecessor to Esperanto seems to have used W.  ↩
  3. That, and that his father destroyed the work on the lingwe uniwersala.  ↩
  4. See prior note.  ↩
  5. According to, somewhere between $350 and $400. Another look at the advertisements brings to notice that Baker sold phonographs ranging from $7 to $100. High end audio equipment that.  ↩

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