Friday, February 27, 2015

Esperanto, the Blue Language, and Mother Tongues

They printed some Esperanto
There was at least one Esperanto speaker in Texas when the Brownsville Daily Herald published an article about it on February 27, 1903, although that one Esperantist lived in far off Brenhan. There are only fifteen Texans who joined the Esperanto Society created by the North American Review in 1907, although Samuel Schlenker (of Brenham) wasn’t one of them. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that the Herald’s article spurred much interest in Esperanto in Texas.

It probably didn’t do much for the Langue Bleue, the proposed international language published by Léon Bollack in 1899. Mr. Bollack wrote that he initially was going to call the language simply “Bolak” (he named it after himself), but decided a better name was needed. It is this language, and not racy talk, that I’m alluding to in the title.

The item in the Brownsville Daily Herald starts with Esperanto, goes off onto a tangent with “the Blue Language,” and then finally makes a prediction about Esperanto. The nice thing about predictions is that if you wait long enough you can test them.[1]
Esperanto, the proposed universal language, which has many advocates, is considered superior to Volapuck, as a medium of international communication, but it has not yet been adopted the world, and it is doubtful whether it or any artificially constructed language will ever be. Here is a sample of Esperanto which may be translated with comparative easy by any who know a little Latin, French and English; 
“Simpla, fleksebla, vere internacia en siaj elementoj, la lingvo Esperanto prezentas al la mondo civilizita la sole veran solvon de lingvo internacia. Esperanto estas komprenata sen peno de la personoj edukitaj. Mil faktoj atestas ia meriton praktikan de la nomita lingvo.” 
The translation would be about as follows: 
“Simple, flexible, truly international in its rudiments, the Esperanto langauge presents to the civilized world the only true solution of an international language. Esperanto is understood without difficulty by educated persons. A thousand facts attest the practical merit (utility?) of the language named.” 
There are about a hundred of these artificial languages all created for the purpose of solving the problem of an universal medium of communication. The greater part of them, however were stillborn, while most of the others are scarcely known or even studied by more than a handful of persons. Volapuk enjoyed a brief vogue, but that was long since numbered with the dead languages. One which has many advocates is Bolak, or the Blue language, which is said to be far superior to Esperanto, but the latter appears to be more popular. The fact that there are quite a number of newspapers now published in Esperanto seems to prove its claim to universality. Whether it will ever become the language of diplomats time only can tell, but, in any event, it will never be anyone’s “mother tongue.”
Some Esperantist deserves a hand for coming up with a passage of that length without using a single accented letter. Also, kudos to the compositors at the Herald, as they managed to set it up without a single error, while misspelling “Volapük” on the first instance, though getting it right on the second.

It’s somewhat surprising to see Bolak described as having “many advocates,” since its advocates didn’t seem to become sufficiently numerous to publish books and magazines or hold conventions (in, say, the manner of Volapük, Esperanto, and Ido). Sure Bolak had Léon Bollack and his translator, Professor Leon Tischer, but it’s not clear how much further it went.

The books themselves went out. In looking into Langue Bleue, I saw that the University of California’s copy of La Langue Bleue—Bolak—Langue Internationale Pratique was a gift from Léon Bollack. Likewise, a copy of Textes Français traduits dans la langue bleue that was part of the library of the Groupe Espérantistse de Lyon bears an inscription from Bollack.

Someone (and maybe someone besides Bollack himself) may have seen Bolak as superior to Esperanto (which gets about nine mentions in in Bollack’s lengthy work on his language), but skimming The Blue Language doesn’t make these advantages manifest. In less space than Bollack required, Zamenhof managed to discuss all the grammatical principles and to provide a basic dictionary. In comparison, the affix u has nine distinct uses or combination of uses in Bolak. If it’s at the beginning of a noun, it makes it feminine, but at the end it's a plural.[2] If it’s at the beginning of a verb it makes it a past tense, and before the last vowel a passive verb. In the middle of a word it marks a compound. And we haven’t touched the adjectives. Although I was able to find both short (Abridged Grammar of the Blue Language, Bolak) and long (the full La Langue Bleue in both French and English), I wasn’t able to find anything that made the language clear, nor was I able to find a basic word list.

Bolak never caught up to Esperanto in popularity, and might even be seen as a ancillary victim of the Esperanto-Ido schism. Wikipedia quotes Otto Jespersen, writing about the Delegation for the Adoption of an International Auxiliary Language that after the Delegation endorsed Ido, Mr. Bollack kept to a promise to adhere to the decision of the Delegation, and he became a supporter of Ido. Jespersen’s statement that
The inventors of language systems had been invited to attend either in person or by representative to defend their systems.
seems to contradict a statement that was made on the Esperantist side:
La unu klara regulo, ke aŭtoroj de lingvoprojekto ne rajtas partopreni, estis rompita. 
The one clear rule, that authors of language projects have no right to participate, was broken. [Translation from Wikipedia, but it can’t be bettered.]
Certainly in 1912, Jespersen wouldn’t have been saying, “we had no problem with creators promoting their work, but wanted to keep Zamenhof away.”

Finally, the Herald ends with the prediction that Esperanto “will never be anyone’s ‘mother tongue.’” Oh yeah? While Esperanto has not become the world’s common language, there are people who speak Esperanto as a cradle language. It is the mother tongue of about a couple thousand people.

  1. Which is why people tend to make their predictions after the events they’re predicting. Otherwise they have to make them vague enough that they can point to something as proof that their predictions came true. During the campaign for Prop 8, the California constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage (and tromped on civil rights and equal protection), I characterized the arguments of the pro-Prop–8 (i.e.: against same-sex marriage) side as “if Prop 8 fails, rainy nights will be wet and dark!” But I digress.
  2. So, yeah, the form of a plural feminine noun is UcvcU, although there could be pairs of consonants involved.  ↩

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