Thursday, April 16, 2015

Esperanto at the International Geographical Congress

Basic journalism, guys:
when, where, and who?
For the first couple decades of the twentieth century there seemed to be an expectation that Esperanto would become the international language of the scientific community, especially as this was promoted by such notable scientists as Wilhelm Ostwald and Sir William Ramsay (each of whom went on to receive Nobel Prizes in Chemistry). Ostwald later favored Ido, and later dropped the whole idea of an international language. I’m not sure about Ramsay, though at one point he moved to table a vote on Esperanto.

A new history of the use of language in the scientific community, Scientific Babel; How Science Was Done Before and after Global English, by Michael D. Gordin, has just been released by the University of Chicago Press. Gordin does look at early adoption of Esperanto by the scientific community, which never went quite so far as many predicted. One of the problems (from the point of view of advocates of Esperanto) is that just as the topic was getting off the ground, it morphed from “should Esperanto be the international language of science?” to “should Esperanto or Ido be the international language of science?” After the late 1907 introduction of Ido, the Ido-schism quickly made itself felt in every aspect of the Esperanto movement.

It’s too simplistic to say that Esperanto would have prevailed except for Ido. Although Ido arrived at a time when Esperanto was just proving itself (particularly with the 1905 first Universala Kongreso), plenty of groups had dithered over the idea of adopting Esperanto for years without ever making progress on the subject. The article in the April 16, 1904 Pacific Commercial Advertiser might actually be indicative of the slowness of any sort of action on international language.

The Eighth International Geographical Congress took place in Washington, D.C., in September 1904. So that can’t be the “recent International Geographical Congress” to which the Pacific Commercial Advertiser is referring. But the Seventh International Geographical Congress took place in 1899 (which wasn’t that recent) in Berlin. Did they mean that one?
There would seem to be no reason, in view of the promise of Esperanto, the new world language, why scholars and diplomats should not acquire common speech. Esperanto is not offered as a substitute for any national tongue but as a means of international communication; and it is thought so well of that scientific men are taking the trouble to learn it. At the recent International Geographical Congress, it put a Norwegian, a Roumanian and a Belgian on common ground, enabling them to discuss technical matters without the aod of an interpreter. One of these gentlemen learned Esperanto in three weeks. Even if the task took three years, a knowledge of a world tongue would be worth while.
Yes, in 1904, scientific men were taking the trouble to learn it, but just never enough of them. Even in 1904, it would be unlikely that any of the Americans at the International Geographical Congress knew Esperanto. There were some Americans who learned the language by 1904, but they were few and far between. Even though references in the American press go all the way back to 1887 (when, as far as I can tell the Deutsches Correspondent of Baltimore Maryland, was the first newspaper in the United States to report on Esperanto). In 1904, there was nearly a year before the first organization for Esperanto speakers in the United States would be founded.

Although the article noted that the three conference attendees managed to talk without interpreters, there probably weren’t any at the conference anyway. People just went to the talks in the languages they spoke. Sure, that French guy may have some exciting results, but if you don’t speak French, tough. Of course, today, just about everything would be done in English, allowing people from diverse countries to converse in what has become the common language of science. Nobody claims, however, that you can learn English in three weeks.

That’s a little quick for Esperanto, if you ask me. If you took the standard schedule for a first-year language class (five hours of class time a week), you could gather a rudimentary command of French or German after a year of study, while an Esperanto class would run out of grammar after the tenth week and have nothing but vocabulary building after that. Instead of “three weeks” or “three years,” if a scientific body preparing to switch to Esperanto gave its members eighteen months, that should be fine.

While some discussed the idea, no scientific or diplomatic body has ever done such a thing, despite the easy conversation of the Esperantist at the International Geographical Congress.
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