Saturday, April 4, 2015

What Did Professor Oswald Do?

Felix L. Oswald
Probably not an Esperantist.
Certainly not a professor.
Given the way that the Sun casually tosses in a reference to “Professor Felix Oswald of Vienna,” you would think he was some sort of well-known personage. Perhaps one of the early winners of the Nobel Prize or a similar sort of luminary. Or, perhaps, given his inclusion in an article on Esperanto, one of the leaders of the early Esperanto movement. If that is the case, then the correct Professor Oswald has not come to light.

There was an American writer of Belgium origin named Felix Leopold Oswald, who did on occasion style himself “Professor Oswald” (and at other times, the more accurate “Dr. Felix Oswald,” or “Felix L. Oswald, M.D.”). In the 1900 Census, his profession is listed as “author.” This is probably our man, but it still leaves vague just what the Sun was crediting to Oswald on April 4, 1906.

There isn’t a lot of specific detail in this article. I'd rather knew the name of the student.
Esperanto goes marching on. France is its stronghold, and it England it has attained official recognition. Esperantist professors, we believe, find in Canada a happy hunting ground, and in this country the bacillus of bughouse speech is beginning to bite in the colleges. Recently at Harvard a class for the study of the latest—and apparently the strongest—of the “universal” languages has been formed. Now the University of Pennsylvania is to have an Esperanto “circle.”

A student in the dental department of the Quaker college caught the fever and formed a private class; the a Philadelphia professor enlisted in “the cause.” His first lecture attracted little attention; the second was attended by an enthusiastic throng of students from all departments of the university.

Of all the labor saving devices of the get rich quick age Esperanto is the labor savingest. The grammar has only sixteen rules, and a working knowledge of it may be obtained in a few weeks. More than 400,000 persons, it is claimed, are now travelling the Esperanto road of simplified cerebration and frictionless verbal communication whose “formative initiative” is credited to Professor Felix Oswald of Vienna.

As there remain five full months before the meeting of the Esperanto congress at Geneva next September we may expect before the year is out to read the works of Shakespeare, and perhaps the poems of Tennyson and Browning translated by some philanthropic sophomore into the beauteous Esperanto.

The Esperantists inform us that “the international language should be comprehensible to the whole educated world; but no man on the earth except the Volapükist would comprehend even the word ‘Volapük’”—in this way:
“La lingvo internacia estas komprenita de la tuta mondo edukita; sed nenia homo sur la tero ekslusive la volapükistoj komprenas la artan lingvon ‘Volapük.’”
It will take more than a few weeks to educate the world down to that infra-Skiboed-fonetics level.

Ouch. As always, the Sun was happy to report on the Esperanto movement, as long as they could do so with the maximum level of snark. Let’s see, they called it “bughouse speech” and suggested that poetry translations into the language would likely be the work of a “philanthropic sophomore.”

The “Philadelphia professor” of the second paragraph was certainly Auguste M. Grillon, who was a professor of Romance languages. A letter to Amerika Esperantisto by J.W. Twombly, one of the founders of the American Esperanto Association, sought (among other things) to correct a misimpression that Professor Gillon was president of the AEA. He did, however, become vice president of the EANA in 1908. He did not remain long in the Esperanto movement, resigning from the organization in January 1910. He explained in in a letter to Amerika Esperanto that he was leaving for the Ildo movement (that is, Ido). Amerika Esperantisto was fairly snarky about his departure:
The most searching investigation reveals the fact that after more than one year of desperate propaganda the Ildists number: three in New York, three in Chicago, one in Seattle, one in Minneapolis, one in Ohio, on in Tennessee, and with the addition of Mr. Grillon, that will make eleven in all in this country.
They did say he would be welcome back in the movement. Professor Grillon does not seem to have made the impact in the Ido movement that he did in the Esperanto movement. He does not seem to have ever returned to the Esperanto movement.

That brings us back to Professor Oswald, who doesn’t seem to have been a professor at all. This is why writing teachers tell students to avoid passive constructions. Just who is attributing the “formative initiative” to Oswald? Doesn’t that imply that Oswald, though he didn’t do the work, inspired it in some way? Yet that seems unlikely. It’s just not clear for what the Sun is giving credit to Felix Oswald.

Finally, the sample of Esperanto, with its rebuke of Volapük, comes from an item written by the leader of the Nuremberg Esperanto Society, not all that long after they had stopped being the Nuremberg Volapük Society.

Oswald died on September 27, 1906 in a train accident. There does not seem to be any evidence that he was an Esperantist.
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