Thursday, February 5, 2015

Esperanto’s Civil War

Wouldn't have said it in
Esperanto or Ido.
Five score and seven years ago, the Esperanto movement was engaged in its own great civil war. In October 1907, the Delegation for the Adoption of an International Auxiliary Language had declared for Esperanto, with such modifications upon which the Delegation had insisted. It split the Esperanto movement, with each side initially laying claim to the word “Esperanto.” (Eventually, the term “reformed Esperanto” gave way to “Ilo” and then “Ido.”) Their battlefields included not only the meetings of Esperanto groups (some of which became Ido groups), but also the pages of various newspapers.

Looking back, it seems somewhat strange that this was played out, in part, in the pages of major daily newspapers. After all, to those who had no intention of learning an international language (or probably any other), whether the proposed language was “primitive” Esperanto (as the supports of the Delegation called it) or “reformed” Esperanto (same) was irrelevant.

It’s not actually clear why the Sun published a letter with the Ido (then called Ilo) translation of the Gettysburg Address on February 5, 1909, though the newspaper did seem to keep on the international language beat (with somewhat of a jaundiced eye). William J. Phoebus did manage to get his samples of Ido published in the Sun. His letter shows the fervor the some brought to this split in the Esperanto movement.

Simplified Esperanto.
To the Editor of the Sun—Sir: As you kindly printed this morning my translation into Ilo (simplified Esperanto) of a small joke, I make bold to ask you to print the following more serious piece. The Esperanto “reformers” cannot get decent treatment from the professional Esperanto journals, who simply call them names (simpletons, &c.), and refuse to discuss with fairness the proposed changes, asserting that the new language is not simplified at all but complicated and ruined. We therefore have to appeal to the public, which the orthodox Esperantists are trying by all means to hoodwink and convert to their side. Any honest man after a candid comparison of the two forms can have no doubt on the subject. Here is Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in simplified Esperanto (Ilo). I will not ask you to publish the orthodox version, as I have no grudge against your compositors.
Brooklyn, February 3.
W. J. P.

Diskurso di Presidanto Lincoln en Gettysburgh.
Ante quar dudeki e sep yari, nia avi genitis sur ica kontintento nuva naciono, konceptita en libereso, e dedikit a ta prinipo, ke omna homi esas kreita egala. Nun ni esas implikita en granda milito interna, purvonta kad ica naciono, od irga naciono tale koncepita e tale dedikita, povas longe durar. Ni kunvenis sur granda kombat-agro di ta milito. Ni venas por dedikar parto di ta agro quale final ripozeyo a ti qui hike donis lia vivi, por ke ca naciono povez vivar. Esas tute ecant e justa, ke ni facez to. Sed en plu larga senco, ni ne povas didikar, no ne povas konsakrar, ni ne povas santigar ta sulo. La bravi, vivant e mortinta, qui luktis hire, konsakris ol tre super nia povo di adjuntar o deprenar. La mondo nemulte rimarkos nek longe memoros quon ni dicas hike, sed ol ne povos oblivyar quon li facis hike. Esas plu juste ni, vivanti, que devas hikie dedikesar al la nefinita verko, quan ti, qui hike kombatis, tante noble avancis til nun. Estas plu justa ni, qui devas dedikesar hike a la granda tasko, qua restas avan ni; por ke de ta honoroza mortinata ni prenez augmentita devoteso a la skopo por qua li donis la lasta pen-mezuro de devoteso; ke ni hike ferme rezolvez, ke ta mortinti ne esos vane mortinta, ke ta naciono, sub Deo, havos renasko de libereso, e ke la guvernadao de l’populo da l’populo e por la populo ne perisos sur la tero.

There may be some errors in the above text, a combination of my not knowing Ido, the difficulty in transcribing images of old newspapers, and any errors the compositors may have introduced. There does not seem to be a readily available Ido text against which to compare. There is, however, an Esperanto text, saving me the trouble of preparing a translation.
Antaŭ kvar dudekoj kaj sep jaroj, niaj patroj fondis sur ĉi tiu mondoparto novan nacion, kiu estis konceptita en libereco kaj dediĉita al la propono ke ĉiuj homoj estas kreitaj egalaj.

Nun, ni engaĝiĝas en grandega enlanda milito por ekscii ĉu tiu nacio, aŭ iu nacio, tiele konceptita kaj dediĉita povas longtempe daŭri. Ni kunvenis sur grandegan batalkampon de ĉi tiu milito. Ni venis por dediĉi parton de ĉi tiu kampo kiel fina ripozejo por tiuj kiuj ĉi tie donis sian vivon por ke tiu nacio vivu. Estas tute taŭge kaj konvene ke ni farus tion. Tamen, en pli granda senco, ni ne povas dediĉi, ni ne povas sanktigi, ni ne povas beni, ĉi tiun terenon. La kuraĝuloj, ĉu vivaj ĉu mortaj, kiuj luktis ĉi tie sanktigis ĝin multe pli altnivele ol povus nia mallerta kapablo pligrandigi aŭ malgrandigi ĝin. La mondo apenaŭ atentos kaj nelongtempe memoros tion, kion ni diras ĉi tie, sed ĝi neniam povos forgesi tion, kion ili faris ĉi tie.

Estas por ni vivantoj, male, esti ĉi tie dediĉitaj al la nekompleta laboro, kiun tiuj kiuj batalis ĉi tie jam tiel noble progresigis. Estas, male, nia devo dediĉiĝi al la grandega restanta tasko antaŭ ni; ke ni ekhavu de ĉi tiuj honorindaj mortintoj eĉ pli altan inspiron por la kaŭzo por kiu ili donis sian finan, plenan mezuron de sindono, ke ni ĉi tie plej solene decidu ke ĉi tiuj mortintoj ne mortis vane; ke ĉi tiu nacio sub Dio havu novan naskigon de libereco; kaj ke regado de la popolo, fare de la popolo, kaj por la popolo ne malaperos de la tero.
Above, I identified the writer as William J. Phoebus, an identification that was provided slightly more than a year later when Lindsay S. Perkins wrote a article in support of Ido to the Washington Herald during the Universala Kongreso of 1910 in Washington, D.C. (This also saved me from typing the Ido text from scratch, although I used the text in the Sun to check it; it still might have errors).

Mr. Phoebus was cited in a 1912 article in The Independent, “Twelve Major Prophets of Today.” He was not the prophet in question, instead the article included a profile of Wilhelm Ostwald, noting that Ostwald helped fund the Ido movement with his Nobel Prize funds, and gave Mr. Phoebus (of 768 East Nineteenth Street, Brooklyn) as “an American advocate of Ido” whom readers could write for more information. With his name and address, it was easy to find more.

Like many an Ido enthusiast, Mr. Phoebus came from the ranks of Esperanto speakers. Only about six months before his letter to the Sun, he had a piece in the July 1908 Amerika Esperantisto, “La Invitation,” about the Statue of Liberty. Except for the use of “di” (with the footnote, in English, “Proposed new preposition”), the article in in what Mr. Phoebus would later call “orthodox” Esperanto. He had also joined the Esperanto Society created by the North American Review in 1907. He was clearly an early member of the Esperanto Association of North America, as in its April 1909 membership list, his number is 419.

He was born in Maryland in 1859, but had moved to New York by 1892, where he spent the rest of his life. His father, George Phoebus, was a clergyman. William initially worked as a stenographer, but after the death of their father, he worked managing his sisters’ dressmaking shop. He seems to have died in 1917.

Getting back to his letter (now that I’ve provided the Esperanto of the Gettysburg Address), it’s not clear what the “orthodox” (which means “correct practice,” Mr. Phoebus) Esperantists were doing to “hoodwink” the public. Rather, the supporters of the Ido reforms seem to have assumed that the Esperanto speakers had a duty to accept these reforms. Perhaps they felt that the lack of these reforms were the only thing preventing the adoption of an international language. In hindsight they look fairly naive.

Unlike the American Civil War, the battle between the Esperantists and the Idists only metaphorically scorched territory. No lives were lost. And in the end, we had two smaller communities, the reduced Esperanto community and the Ido community (which has never been all that large). I don’t think Ido caused Esperanto to be rejected, but it never seemed to have any chance of acceptance itself.

Update: I received a comment that pointed out a transcription error. To encourage more of that sort of thing, here is Mr. Phoebus's text as it appeared in the Sun.

You can follow my blog on Twitter (@impofthediverse) or on Facebook. If you like this post, share it with your friends. If you have a comment just for me, e-mail me at
This blog runs solely on ego! Follow this blog! Comment on this post! Let me know that you want to read more of it!


  1. I don't know a thing about Ido, but it looks like there's probably a typo in the second sentence of the Ido Gettysburg Address. It starts:

    "Ni ni esas implikita . . . " (Now we are engaged . . .)

    and I can't imagine that the same word "ni" would mean both "now" and "we." My guess, based on the one Ido word list I could find, is that it should be "Nun ni esas . . . "

    Thanks, I've enjoyed your forays into the historical byways of Esperanto.

    -- C. Lambard
    Shoreline, Washington

  2. Little, little ido. Thankfully that ended civilly, more or less


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...