Friday, February 6, 2015

A Rival to Esperanto — Commercial Latin

Commercial Latin
spoken here?
So was the apparent claim of a Frenchman, Dr. Charles Colombo. I can find little about him, other than that he was the author of (at least) three books, two of which, De la nécessité d’une assistance sanitaire spéciale pour les blesses du travail and Pour la dosimétrie des rayons de Roentgen, clearly had nothing to do with language and indicate that our Dr. Colombo was was likely a physician.

But that’s not what landed him in the pages of the press. Judging from the article in the New York Sun of February 6, 1904 (I have, by this point, well established that the Sun loved writing about international auxiliary languages), he was probably picked up the the newspapers of his native France, and then in the United States in the Courrier des États-Unis, a French language newspaper which was published in New York from 1828–1938.[1]

As there is no online archive of the Courrier des États-Unis, I’m left with the version from the Sun. It’s not clear if this in a adaptation or translation of the earlier article.

Volapuk and Esperanto Already Dead Languages—Wonderful Discovery.
From the Courrier des Etats Unis.
The necessity for a universal language has now passed beyond the real of discussion. With the railroads, the high speed steamers, the telegraph and the telephone brining human beings closer together every day, it is outrageous that speech should still continue to separate them. Out u, therefore unify all language.

But what language will the trust of mankind speak? A living language is not to be considered; the national pride of too many nations would have to be encountered. Artificial languages are too arbitrary. Under the plea of progress, Esperanto, which superseded Volapük, is already opposed by the “Neutral Language” and by the “Common Tongue.”

Dr. Colombo asserts that only a dead language has any chance of success, and that Latin is the most available. To begin with, it is not a language that is to be made; it is already constituted; it is taught in all countries. Ten million persons can speak it, and, being more synthetic than any other, it is eminently the language of the telegraph.

But it is said that Latin is a difficult language. Yes, if literary Latin is meant; and that is why the periodicals printed in that language in Leipzig, in Berlin and in Rome have their subscribers only among the learned. no, if commercial Latin the meant The latter is as simple as anything can be.[2] The sailers, the soldiers, and the merchants of Rome taught it without difficulty to the barbarians who dwelt along the Seine, the Thames, the Rhine, the Nile, and the Euphrates.

Dr. Colombo declares that he has rediscovered this commercial Latin the ruins of Pompeii. It has no deponent verbs; the passive is formed in all cases by the means of the auxiliary “sum”; it employs the shortest words; its grammar is reduced to a minimum and it has no amphibologies.[3] This kind of Latin is clearness itself, and can be mastered in a few lessons by a schoolboy.

If it should be adopted as the universal language,[4] the weary years wasted over it by so many mediocre students in the higher educational institutions will immediately become usefully employed.

Under the auspices of the Linguistic Union of the Côte d’Azur, Dr. Colombo, in furthernance of this now important movement, has already published a “Manual of Commercial Latin.”
This was his one book on language, Manuel de Latin commercial, but from the text it’s not clear if the book was a description of the vulgar[5] Latin of Pompeii (circa 79 CE) or a program for a universal language, one of (many) neo-Latin projects,[6] described as a revival of vulgar Latin. Maybe it was a little of both. It’s certainly looked at in the context that “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a commercial enterprise in possession of a global market, must be in want of an international language.” Certainly, the reception Dr. Colombo’s book received seems to put in the class of those prescribing a universal language.

The “Neutral Language” and “Common Tongue” are the Idom Neutral of the International Academy of the Universal Language (a heavily revised Volapük) and probably Lingua Komun by one F. R. Küschner,[7] languages that never got any sort of following. In a way, it’s fitting that his vulgar Latin revival—“commercial Latin” is compared to these, since as a candidate for an auxiliary language, it’s about as obscure, if not more.[8] While there are libraries with copies of his book, it seems to be an utter obscurity, unavailable online, alas.

It does seem unlikely that the Pompeian graffiti lead to Dr. Colombo’s reconstruction/modernization of vulgar Latin. Did he really discover this commercial Latin in the ruins of Pompeii? The study of vulgar Latin was clearly advanced enough that around the same time that Dr. Colombo was proposing the language be resurrected as a common tongue, there were books simply examining it. A quick search turned up a 1907 work, *An Introduction to Vulgar Latin. It also seems unlikely that the adoption of Dr. Colombo’s language would lead to employment for those who were “mediocre students.”

  1. The Library of Congress has more details here.  ↩
  2. This last sentence is set exactly this way. I have preserved the odd beginning lower-case letter and the uppercase on the “The” in the middle of the sentence. I suspect something got dropped or garbled here.  ↩
  3. Yeah, I had to look that up. The Oxford American Dictionary has "a phrase or sentence that is grammatically ambiguous.”  ↩
  4. It wasn’t.  ↩
  5. Vulgar as in “of the people,” not as if it were a bunch of fucking goddamn vulgarities. I’m sure there were people in Pompeii who rarely used the first-century vulgar Latin obscenities and profanities.  ↩
  6. Arika Okrent lists at least four in the four years preceding Dr. Colombo’s book in her In the Land of Invented Languages.  ↩
  7. There are entries for this language only in the Esperanto and Interlingua Wikipedias. The creator was an early disaffected Esperantist who released is project in 1900.  ↩
  8. Generally speaking, if you’re even aware of the concept of an international auxiliary language, you’ve likely only heard of Esperanto. Maybe you’ve heard of Volapük. If you’re reading this blog on a regular basis, you are probably aware that there have been hundreds of such projects. I was talking to a friend recently and when the word “Esperanto” came up, she was unaware it was a language without a country or people. (There will be no fundraising on this blog for an Esperanto homeland. It is not needed.)  ↩

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1 comment:

  1. There have been a large number of “Artificial Descendants of Latin” as Alan Libert calls them. These included Rosa’s Nov Latin from 1890, Linguum Islianum (named after its creator Fred Isly) published in 1902, Reform-Latein, also from 1902, and Mundelingva, published in the same year as Latinoid, devised by a Welshman who had spent time in Patagonia. Brief blog article here:


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