Sunday, February 1, 2015

Thousands of Esperanto Speakers, Prison, and Other News

No prison record
The history of reporting on Esperanto is filled with some bizarre notions. Did You Know: That Esperanto was created by a Spaniard? (Not really.) That Esperanto was an insidious German plot to destroy the French language? (Not really.) That you can’t swear in Esperanto? (That might have been true at one time.) Of course, newspapers have to get things out on a deadline and are sometimes mislead by sources. (Just because Mrs. Stoner said she was related to British nobility didn’t make it so.)[1]

Sometimes you just have to wonder how such odd notions made their way into print. The odd claim made about Esperanto in the February 1, 1903 Saint Paul Globe made me wonder if they had at any point issued a correction, but none has come to light. Earlier, I found the same claim made years later in the Bisbee Daily Review. Perhaps the Daily Review got their misinformation from the Globe. In between, the story certainly got told a few more times. Did you know that Dr. Ludovik Zamenhof created Esperanto while in a prison? (Not really.)[2]

There is, of course, no evidence that Zamenhof was ever imprisoned for any reason at any duration.[3] His personal liberty from birth to death is reasonably well documented. Nevertheless, the idea that he had worked on Esperanto while a prisoner started just as Esperanto was getting noticed and persisted years after his death. It is not the only unbelievable claim made in the Saint Paul Globe article.
New Universal Language
LONDON, Jan 31. — When Dr. Zamenhof, a Polish M. D., was eight years old, his mind began to be troubled at the confusion of tongues in and around his native village near Warsaw.

Later on, while serving fifteen years in a Russian prison, he set himself to the construction of another language, which he hopes will one day become cosmopolitan.

He calls the new tongue “Esperanto,” which, to the 80,000 Esperantists now scattered over the world, means hope. The language has many little strongholds on the continent, at least one in England—at Keighly, Yorkshire—and a society for its study has been formed in London.

Felix Moachetes has been elected president, J. O’Connor vice president, and W. T. Stead treasurer, and a room in Mowbray house has been placed at their disposal, where gratuitous lessons are given every Monday.

“Esperanto” is said by its adherents to be so simple that eight hours study will enable a man to read any “Esperanto” book with a dictionary of 800 words.

The two great peculiarities of the language are its invariable terminations in “o” for nouns; “a” for adjectives, and “e” for adverbs; and its system of word-building, by means of which one root word—such as “sano,” meaning health—fifty other words can be constructed.
Let’s look at their claims:

The claim that a desire to create a language grew out of viewing conflict between different linguistic groups in his native Bialystok does indeed come from the statements of Dr. Zamenhof.

The prison bit is an odd bit of invention, and I hope someday to find its origin. I’ve found a later article which gives an explanation for his (nonexistent) fifteen years in prison. Since it’s wholly spurious (given his lack of prison time), I have no qualms about saving it for later.[4]

80,000 Esperantists in 1903?[5] Seriously? In 1911, Frederic J. Haskin would make the claim that 150,000 people in the United States were interested in Esperanto. Haskin seems to have carefully substantiated the claims made in his columns, so he clearly had some credible source for this, even though I remain skeptical. In 1907, the North American Review was able to compile 1,400 names from its readers who were interested in Esperanto.

This claim is simply not credible. In 1903 there was a handy numbered list of the number of people who had promised to learn Esperanto. Early Esperanto works occasionally identify people solely by their numbers.[6] The twenty-third set of the Adresaro de la Esperantistoj covers up to January 14, 1903. The final person in that volume is Etienne Parizot of Montpezat de Quercy, France. His number is 7,699, which puts him just 301 people shy of being the 8,000th Esperantist. They were just off by an order of magnitude. Just a minor shortfall of 72,301 Esperanto speakers. Nothing to be too concerned about.

That a British stronghold was noted in Yorkshire gave me hopes that one of the characters in Downton Abbey might have been an early Esperantist, though it’s clear that this would not be an enthusiasm for Lady Mary or the Dowager Countess Violet. And in 1903, Lady Edith would probably be too young. The time is just a few years off from when Consuelo Spencer-Churchill studied Esperanto. With the show now set in 1924, I am beyond any hope of Carson looking suspiciously at a foreign letter addressed in green ink.[7]

The leadership of the Esperanto Association of Britain is reported accurately. “Gratuitous” really does mean “at no cost,” although the meaning of “lacking good reason” is more common these days. The lessons are free, not unwarranted.

As for the claim on the ease of Esperanto, they did not wish to imply that a woman would take more or less study in order to obtain a basic understanding of Esperanto. At least I think not. What they really mean is that after eight hours of study, anyone can, with the help of a short dictionary, read any book written in Esperanto. The book needn’t have a dictionary of 800 words. The reader needn’t be male. This really means that after eight hours you can plod along with the help of a dictionary. Not a great achievement, but try that after eight hours of French or German.

Zamenhof didn’t create Esperanto while in prison, a story that persisted longer than the idea that Esperanto was created by a Spaniard. There weren’t 80,000 Esperanto speakers in 1903. Remember to be careful about what you read in the papers.

  1. I’m well aware that one of the things I do on this blog is fact check old newspaper stories.  ↩
  2. Portions of this blog post reference erroneous and discredited statements. You have been warned.  ↩
  3. Apart from his arrest for that drunken weekend of teaching obscene songs in Volapük to Warsaw prostitutes. I made that entire thing up. It never happened.  ↩
  4. Fear not. I keep a ever-growing list of future topics.  ↩
  5. This would be Mark Fettes’s fervid dream.  ↩
  6. Curious who wrote that poem? Look him or her up in the Adresaro de la Esperantistoj. One book, Provo de Esperanta Nomigado de Personaj Nomoj identifies its author as “Esperantisto n.o 10,072.”  ↩
  7. This is a wholly gratuitous (see reference to the word elsewhere in this post) reference to Downton Abbey, but I’m still enamored of the idea of early twentieth-century toffs putting together an Esperanto party. Surely Oscar Browning might have done such a thing.  ↩

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