Wednesday, May 6, 2015

An 1888 Critic of Esperanto — The First American Esperantist

Henry M. Phillips, Jr.
Henry Phillips, Jr. was called “the pioneer of the language in America,” as he most likely was the first American to learn Esperanto. Unfortunately, he died in 1895, a full decade before the Esperanto movement started in the United States. He learned Esperanto because the American Philosophical Society was behind the idea of an international language, and was looking for the right one to support. Phillips was the secretary of the American Philosophical Society. (The Society has a Henry M. Phillips Prize for writing on jurisprudence, but that was created in memory of his uncle, for whom he was named).

An 1896 obituary in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society make his intellectual achievements plain , yet leaves quiet the source of the funds that allowed Phillips to pursue a life of the mind. Suffice to say that his publications on numismatics was unlikely to bring him much coin (sorry, I had to say that). His publications range wider than those listed by Albert H. Smyth in the APS obituary, although Smyth does mention his work in Esperanto.

In April 1888, he wrote a letter to The Critic where he summarized his views of Esperanto. They published the letter in their May 5, 1888 issue, making this one of the earliest press references to Esperanto in the United States. At the time of Phillip’s letter, less than a year had elapsed since the publication of the Unua Libro. I’ve quietly provided a circumflex where the Critic didn’t. The letter contains a strange error about the pronouns, but I'll get to that.
The “Langue Internationale”
To the Editors of The Critic:
The newest claimant for public favor, and by far the most simple and rational, is the ‘Langue Internationale,’ invented by Dr. Samenhof, of Warsaw, in 1887. The principles on which it is based are in the main correct; its vocabulary is not arbitrarily made up, but is borrowed from the French, German and English, with an occasional use of Latin, and contains the words that are similar in these tongues, with a few euphonic changes. In this respect, as well as in its grammar, it is wonderfully easy to learn, presenting none of the disjointed, dislocated, kaleidoscopic effects of Volapük. Its grammar is almost as simple as that of our own language; the rules for the formation of its words are so clear and so easily mastered, that its vocabulary of root-words can be reduced to a very small number. Its phonetics, while much more simple than those of Volapük or Pasilengua, still leave something to be desired.

A good idea of its grammar can be obtained from the following synopsis: There is but one article, the definite, la. All nouns in end in o; in the plural in oi[1] (pronounced oee). There is only one case ending, the accuastive, which ends in n; all other cases are formed by the use of prepositions. Adjectives end in a, but take case and number termination similar to those of the noun. The comparative degree is made by by prefixing pli; the superlative by prefixing plij.[2] The adverb ends in e.[3] The pronouns are mi (I, me); vi (thou, you, ye); li (he, him); ŝi (pronounced she, for she or her); il (neuter it); si (self); oni (French l’on); to form their plurals, add the same terminations for number and case as for nouns. The verb ends in as for the present, is for the past, os for the future, us for the conditional, u for the imperative, and i for the infinitive, and is unchangeable for number. Thus Mi farms, I shall do;[4] Li faras, he will do. There is a more formidable array of participles. There is but one conjugation of verbs, and all are regular.

In my opinion, the faults in this very excellent scheme are as follows: 1st. That the phonology embraces a number of counts not common to the most important Aryan languages, and requiring, therefore, special oral instruction to pronounce.[5] The true scheme for an universal tongue should leave out all sounds of difficult or disagreeable expression, so that it should contain only those that are common to all. There should be no diacritical or accent marks.[6] 2nd. There is no necessity for an accusative case-ending, as modern languages have long since dispensed with this cumbersome effort of early days towards perspicuity. The English has no such form, but does not suffer in any way from obscuirty from this case. 3rd. The adverb need not be separated from the adjectives; in English and German the two are interchangeable, and no harm ensues. 4. The participles are too numerous; they are present, past and future in both active and passive voice; a present and a past are quite enough, even if not actually redundant.

Dr. Samenhof, who writes under the name of Dr. Esperanto, is very modest in his claims, and offers his language for public criticism during this year before he finally moulds it into the form it is to occupy. After its final revision and modification, he desires an engagement to learn it only when 10,000,000 persons have signed the same pledge. I hope that the final revision of this International Language will lead to the excision of the blemishes to which I have averted, so that all the world can with easy conscience give the promise.

Philadelphia, April 28, 1888.
Henry Phillips, Jr
Rather than dealing with the pronouns in a footnote, here we go: Phillips is completely wrong here. Scanning the Esperanto texts in the Russian original of the Unua Libro, it’s clear that from the beginning the main pronouns were mi, vi, li, ŝi, oni, and (for the neuter it) ĝi. There is not, and has never been, an *il (though possibly the compositor mis-set li). Nor are the plurals made by adding the plural termination, hence it’s ni (we, us), not *mij (ij doesn’t even exist as a letter combination in Esperanto).

Zamenhof did not take Phillip’s recommendations, since all four of the items he criticizes are in the language today. Nevertheless, he did present himself as an enthusiastic supporter of Esperanto. Louis de Beaufront quoted Phillips in his Petite Brochure sur la langue internationale "Esperanto" (it's not clear from where de Beaufront got Phillps's words):
Ce me sera un grand plaisir que d’aider à la propagation de la langue créée par le docteur Zamenhof. Je vois en lui un honneur pour son pays déjà plein de grands hommes, un honneur aussi pour le 19me siècle.

[It will be my great pleasure to help spread the language created by Dr. Zamenhof. I see in him an honor for his country already full of great men, an honor also for the 19th century. (Translation mine.)]
[Update: Richard Geoghegan's translation A Few Words on the International Language Esperanto includes the English for Phillips's comments. Since he wrote them to a Russian, it's not clear what language he did so in. The French could be the original. Geoghegan has:
It will be to me a great pleasure to be of service in the dissemination of the language invented by Dr. Zamenhof. 
I consider him an honor to his country already full of great men and to the nineteenth century.
The list of Esperanto works at the end of it does note that Geoghegan's work is a translation of de Beaufront's brochure.]

Further, Smyth, in the obituary, wrote:
He became interested in the effort to create a universal language, and at the request of his friend, Dr. Samenhof, of Warsaw, who wrote under the nom de plume of Dr. Esperanto, translated his “Attempt towards a New International Language,” and complied for the work an English-International Vocabulary.
According to Smyth, Phillips died of uremia, and as he notes that it was the “disease that had accompanied him into the world,” it would seem Phillips suffered through his life with kidney failure. He came from a wealthy Jewish family (Smyth writes that “the family was of Jewish origin,” but that could be said of ethnically Jewish Christians) born in 1838. According to 1894 passport application, Phillips was fairly short, just 5’1” (perhaps due to his kidney problems). The family’s stature is probably exemplified by the entry in the 1880 Census; Henry is listed as a lawyer, while his brother Edwin (born 1840) is a “gentleman.” (Edwin also died young, just a year after his brother; most of the family seem to have died young.)

It’s impossible to tell what difference to the Esperanto movement Phillips would have had, if he had been healthy. After all, if he had been more vigorous, he might have followed the practice of law in which he was trained, instead of following an intellectual life. He was still one of Esperanto’s first champions (and critics) at a time when most people had not heard of Esperanto. It’s not clear that his death was the “heavy blow” to the Esperanto movement as William George Adams put it in Amerika Esperantisto, unless it was Adams's belief that the Esperanto movement might have had a five or ten year head start had Phillips (a prominent intellectual figure to boot) been there to lead it.

  1. It’s not clear if the error is Phillips or The Critic’s. Plural nouns end in -oj, which is pronounced “oy.”
  2. Plej, actually. Bona good, pli bona better, la plej bona the best.
  3. There are actually adverbs that have no endings, and others that end in au. Zamenhof probably should have changed these to the -e ending.
  4. I would actually translate mi faras as “I do,” while “I shall do” would be mi faros. It’s not clear if the error if Phillip’s.
  5. Probably a reference to c, which is pronounced “ts” without the possibility of separating it into syllables, on the other hand, I can’t think of a word pair distinguished by a difference between c and ts, and ĥ “kh,” which has been largely supplanted. When Phillips wrote this, Aryan was a completely unobjectionable word.
  6. Oops. Ido attempted to rid Esperanto of some of the features to which Phillips objected, although it actually increased the number of participles. Perhaps if he had lived another fifteen years, Phillips would have gone to the Ido movement.  ↩

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