Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Zamenhof — A Naive and Simple Soul

"A naive and simple soul"
That was the assessment of Doctor Zamenhof given by the New York Sun on January 6, 1907, in response to a piece by Zamenhof (translated) in the North American Review of January 4, 1907,[1] although that’s not what the autobiographical note expresses to me.

The Sun also contains one curious error (which I have seen elsewhere). Despite having Dr. Zamenhof’s biography in front of them, the Sun makes the strange claim of attributing the language to a Spaniard. I know that, later in his life, he was granted membership in the Spanish Order of Isabella the Catholic (making him Sir Ludovik?), that was in the future and does not a Spaniard make. In any case: Zamenhof, not Spanish.

Here’s what the Sun published:
Zamenhof and Esperanto.
The autobiographical note by Dr. Louis Lazarus Zamenhof, the Esperanto promoter, which accompanies his article upon the universal language in the current number of the North American Review, reveals the doctor to us a so naive and simple a soul that it is difficult not to share his zeal for the spread and success of the composite medium of speech with has succeeded the despised Volapuk.
Is the Sun aware that Zamenhof isn’t just the “promoter” of Esperanto, but it’s actual creator? Also, was Volapük actually despised? That’s harsh.
Dr. Zamenhof was born in Bielostok, Russia,[2] in 1859, where his father taught languages in a private school, afterward moving to Warsaw. Most of his son’t eduction was obtained at the Second Philological Gymnasium[3] in Warsaw. The doctor tells us: “In my class I was always counted as First Scholar.” In 1885 he received his degree as doctor of medicine. His account of himself concludes:
“For a long time my medical practice abounded in hardship. I was obliged to wander from one city to another to earn my bread in my calling as a physician. At last, in 18979, I settled permanently in Warsaw, where I practice as an oculist in a poor quarter of the city. I have a wife and three children.”
Dr. Zamenhof is nothing if not enthusiastic. He expects to see a great boom in Esperanto among Americans, whose love of novelty and nervous energy he admires. They are soon to outstrip Europeans in the cult, and “before long America will be the centre of Esperanto.” When the doctor submits that we need it in our business, who shall gainsay him, seeing that we do business with the whole world? He hastens to assure us that Esperanto is a convenience, not a substitute. We can keep our literature in the old spelling. The convenience is the practical use of Esperanto, but it is the ideal function of it that the worthy doctor is most interested in. He believes that it will be more potent than the Hague tribunal in preventing wars between the nations, because the more their people understand each other the less provocation there will naturally be for resorting to force to settle their disputes. “The brotherhood of man,” says Dr. Zamenhof, “is the object for which Esperanto was created and the reason why Esperantists also so obstinately and self-sacrificingly fight for their language, despite the attacks and the ridicule they suffered during the early years.”

Esperanto is ridiculed no longer by the observing. Thirty periodicals are published in it. Esperanto clubs are everywhere in Europe and thousands of people practice with it in their correspondence. The Esperanto conventions are large, noisy and enthusiastic. Almost any one can understand some of the words and a linguist can guess at the meaning of nearly all of them. Extra words are obtained by simple affixes to the root, so that in course of time Esperanto will have a copious, possibly a cumbrous, vocabulary. Any word builder will be able to add to it if not to improve it. We should think that the Spaniards would be the most industrious at it, because in print it looks more like Spanish than any other language—a Spaniard was the inventor. Turning over a text book Esperanto certainly looks easy enough, but doubt may obtrude concerning Dr. Zamenhof’s assurance that it can be mastered and spoken fluently after a few weeks labor. We are not all Russians.
“A Spaniard was the inventor”? The inventor of what? Certainly not Esperanto. Is this a case of confusion caused by Zamenhof’s psuedonym, “Dr. Esperanto” (he could be an Italian, couldn’t he?). Still the fear that the Sun had that prior training in Russian would be needed to master Esperanto seems to be unwarranted, given the great numbers of people (“thousands” in 1907, according to the Sun) who had learned the language without the benefit of being Russian. I am unaware of any information that would indicate a preponderance of Spaniards in the Esperanto movement in 1907, though they did manage to secure the Universala Kongreso for Barcelona in 1909.

Looking at the hopes of the Esperanto movement after more than a century has passed, neither the Hague tribunal nor Esperanto did their jobs at preventing war, as the decades that followed the Sun article attest. Unfortunately, a lack of understanding, despite Dr. Zamenhof’s hopes, never seems to be the root cause of a conflict.

Of course, Zamenhof’s words came right on the heels of the beginning of the Ido schism. The North American Review contacted him in November 1907 (their letter was dated October 30, 1907), he responded, and his essay appeared in the January 4, 1907 issue, right after the ninth installment of Mark Twain’s Chapters from an Autobiography, yet Zamenhof’s essay makes no mention of Ido. You’d think it might come up once or twice, or maybe he judged that this wasn’t the moment to mention that the reformist faction had done what he had worried about for years.[4]

The Sun mentions the recurring fear that the Esperanto movement sought to replace national languages with Esperanto. The Sun notes that “we can keep our literature in the old spelling.” What did they expect?[5] If there were world-wide use of Esperanto (on a large scale, vastly larger than the current Esperanto movement), some writers might decide that their best audience might be Esperanto. This could be a problem for minority languages, since a writer might prefer to sell her or his work to the millions (billions? I dream) who could read Esperanto, instead of her or his national language, but it’s more likely that works would appear in a national language and in Esperanto. If anything, this would give writers in minority languages a larger audience, making writing a potentially more sustainable enterprise.

Today there are tens of thousands of people who correspond in Esperanto on Facebook alone. Clubs seem to be having a tougher time of things. No one is looking at Esperanto as a way to end conflict.

Upate: I had originally written that Zamenhof received honorary Spanish citizenship on the supposition (for which I find no evidence) of Sephardic forebears. I remember reading this, but I haven't been able to track it down again, so I am dropping it down here and marking it as a possible error on my part. I will update if I find things again.

Update 2: This story continues. Read more here.

  1. I really haven’t concentrated much on the magazines, though I hope to in the future. Clearly Zamenhof’s “What Is Esperanto” is an interesting item, and I’ll probably write about it in the future. It’s eight pages long and can be found in volume 184 of the North American Review.  ↩
  2. That is to say, Bialystok, Poland.  ↩
  3. Not an athletic facility.  ↩
  4. The Wikipedia page on Leopold Einstein notes that Zamenhof attributed the seeds of the reform movement to the Nuremberg Volapükists who switched to Esperanto.  ↩
  5. Sure, Adolph Hitler claimed there would be forced use of Esperanto (funny for a leader of a group that was okay with forced use of a language, as long as it was his language), but he was wrong about a lot of other things too.  ↩

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