Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Esperanto, Diplomacy, and Duplicity

Increasing need. Increasing resistance
In February 1922, Frederick J. Haskin was back on the topic of Esperanto. He had previously written about Esperanto in 1911. Eleven years later, it was still something for which he saw reason to devote an entire column.[1] As before, his column in the February 10, 1922, Yorkville Enquirer (and wherever else it may have landed) is too long to quote in full,[2] however, the page can be found here.

Haskins was an independent American journalist who sold his various columns to a variety of newspapers. There’s no Wikipedia page on him,[3] and I thought of providing some brief biographical data in my earlier post, but somehow that ended on the (metaphoric) cutting-room floor. Frederick J. Haskin was born in Missouri on December 13, 1873. He was into journalism, eventually starting his own business, calling it “The Information Bureau.” Haskin’s books include The American Government, Answers to Questions, How Other People Get Ahead, The Immigrant: An Asset and a Liability and Presidents and their Wives. According to a catalog record on the HathiTrust website, he died in 1944.[4]

As I go through this, I’ll take some parts of it, and look at them either through comments following the text or footnotes.[5] Haskin starts off talking about a disarmament conference. This was not the League of Nations meeting attended by Professor Gilbert Murray, but another conference which happened during 1922. Taken together, the articles seem to make it clear that in international diplomatic conferences in 1922, the languages in use were English and French.[6]

The piece in the Yorkville Enquirer begins:

English is Spoken by About 150,000,000 People

There is Considerable Objection to A Universal Language Although Need Becomes Greater Every Day—Interesting Discussion of Interesting Subject

By Frederick J. Haskin.
Washington, D. C.—People are making if some of the delegates and officials at the disarmament conference[7] are not handicapped by the use of languages unfamiliar to them. English and French are the official languages of the conference. English was decided upon first, and then French was added out of consideration for the French delegation and because French has so long been the accepted language of diplomacy.[8]

This mean that the delegates have to do their own translating or have the speeches translated for them whenever any tongue except their own is being using. It is often impossible to carry over into a translation exact shades of meaning and, therefore the question of an international language is again raised. Would not an artificial language Esperanto, for instance, solve this problem?
Oh, can you imagine the tedium if you were, for example, part of the Italian delegation. They’re never going to get around to speaking in Italian. If you’re going to speak, you need to get your remarks translated first into English or French. So much for spontaneous comment. Obviously, anyone who attended the conference had to be competent in English. Not sure what they did with the people who were competent in English but not French once they allowed the French speakers to conduct speeches in their own language.
Considering the diplomatic attitude toward language, it probably would not. The diplomat knows that much of his conversation can be interpreted in half a dozen ways. He intends it to be so.[9] To show his cards before gauging carefully the other players’ hands and being absolutely sure of his own is generally fatal. As it isn’t often in the game that all of the cards are on the table, so it isn’t often that the diplomat speaks unreservedly.

This is where the manufactured language is inadequate for diplomacy, a professor of philology points out to us. He says that in a language like Esperanto or Volapuk it is practically impossible to hedge or to veil a meaning. 
In a manufactured language there are equivalents for ordinary English words, but the vocabulary is limited. If Esperanto had a wealth of synonyms, such as we have in English, half the simplicity of the artificial language would be lost. So, only when diplomats talk straight from the shoulder will artificial language be of any use to them, he says.
Haskin is making the claim that you cannot be duplicitous in Esperanto, that you cannot deceive. I am aware that there have been utopian attempts to create languages in which lying is impossible, but the indomitable human spirit is stronger than that. Although I am writing nearly a century after Haskin, I would like to assure him across the ages that the ability to mislead, hoodwink, or otherwise fool people is present in Esperanto. This is worse than the canard that you cannot cuss in Esperanto.[10]

From there, Haskin goes on to discuss the grammar of Esperanto, faulting it for being too simple. He quotes Hugo Munsterberg, a German psychologist, who was clearly not comfortable with any language without eight forms for every noun. You need, according to Haskin (and Munsterberg), at least plural verbs!

He continues with the statement that there are about 150 million people who are native speakers of English (as noted in the headline), German 120 million, Russian 90 million, and French 60 million. Wikipedia puts those numbers at 360 million for English, 155 million for Russian, 80 million for German, and 74 million for French, with German being the only langue to see a decline between Haskin’s numbers in 1922 and Wikipedia’s in 2015.

Esperanto didn’t become the language of diplomacy,[11] but its failure to do so has nothing do to with some supposed inability to shade meanings in the language.

  1. I’ve found (but not written about) an 1907 column. I’ll get to it.
  2. I have other things to do and type today. As much as I think it would be wonderful to have a site that collected all these early references to Esperanto, there is no way I could do it. If you think this is a worthwhile project, and your are a skilled typist, please feel free to contact me with the suggestion of a joint project.
  3. Too bad.
  4. But they got his year of birth wrong. If I keep hunting, I’ll never get this blog post up.
  5. In other words, what I usually do.
  6. When I was a freshman in college, a history teacher was amazed at how few of his class knew French (I was one of the few who did), and he told the class that French was the language of international diplomacy. Shortly thereafter, I ran into my high school French teacher and we had a bit of a laugh, given that French hadn’t held that status for a very long time. Reading these articles show that it had pretty much lost it status before my quite senior (read elderly) history professor had been a freshman himself.
  7. This would be the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922. The participating nations were Belgium, China, Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United States. These are described by the U.S. Department of State as “the world’s largest naval powers.”
  8. I like the French language and all, but I am not for an instant convinced of this. Instead, I suspect the French threatened to pull out of the conference unless their language was made an official language, as it had been through centuries of international conferences.
  9. Shorter Haskin: Diplomats are cunning, duplicitous bastards. Don’t trust them for a moment, and realize that if they say they support your position, they’re about to knife you in the back.  ↩
  10. Kian patrinfikistan stultan opinion vi havas, merdo por cerboj!
  11. We would have noticed.  ↩

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  1. But you cannot curse in Esperanto! Even the basic words like 'chuj' have very different menaings and usage in Russian or Polish, for example.
    Now if Esperanto makes up a new word, "ĥujo", it will be empty, meaningless. An empty shell of concept, not a swearword even. A completely useless thing.

    1. Esperanto clearly has words to indicate profane and scatological terms. "Merdo" doesn't translate as "fecal matter" (feko), but "shit." "Fiki" doesn't mean "to have sexual intercourse," (amori) but "to fuck."

      In the end, whether a word is offensive or not ends up being a convention. Nobody gets bothered by the word "swive" anymore (because they haven't any idea what it means), but it was hot stuff in Chaucer's day.


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