Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Jest for Esperanto

Warning: Not real Esperanto
Jokes about waiters seemed to be a special theme in the humor column “A Line-O’Type or Two” that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on June 16, 1903. There’s a longish item item titled “The Perfect Waiter,” attributed to “Sambo J. Johnson, Esq.” and an item signed “B. L. T.” includes a waiter joke. And the somewhat tongue-in-cheek endorsement of Esperanto also seems to include a waiter joke.

I’ve skimmed through other insertions of the column (which later gets attributed in its entirety to “B. L. Taylor”), and waiter jokes are pervasive. The handbook for waiters joke continues through several issues. It’s an early treatment of Esperanto as a source of humor, since in 1903 it was pretty obscure in the United States; you couldn’t count on people to get the joke. A few years later, it was still being described as “the new universal language,” even though it had been published nearly sixteen years before. Yet the column describes (accurately) as “not so new.” For comparison, consider that the period encompassed between the publication of Volapük and the collapse of the movement was only nine years. At fifteen, Esperanto was still getting off the ground, with its first convention not even an idea yet.

Skimming past the waiter jokes and and other such items (and the two mocking comments about King Peter of Serbia—there’s a third at the end of the column) we get the the Esperanto part:

[Esperanto is a universal language. It is not so new. Ten papers are printed in it. It has not, however, got a start in this country, and as we regard it as a good thing, we propose to push it along. Esperanto is a simple language. Count Tolstoi learned it in two hours. It took us 2:05:16. This argues that Tolstoi is a better linguist than we are; but as nobody held the watch on him we must take his word for two hours flat. Esperanto not only looks well, but sounds well when played on the piano. Follow the lesson for today: 
La frapo de attendistoj estas en la aero, kaj la attendisto estas en la supo. 

For the best triolet written in Esperanto we offer a fine cigar case. Competition closes July 1.
I should note here that the competition (if there truly was one) closed on July 1, 1903. Anyone starting a triolet is more than a century late. I suspect the particular verse form was chosen because of its difficulty. I’m not writing one in any language.

The phrase in the “lesson” is interesting, because though it makes errors, it’s not total gibberish (or, as would be said in Esperanto, volapukaĵo). Someone used an Esperanto source and, probably not finding the word “waiter,” actually figured out how to phrase “one who waits.” There, the problem is Zamenhof’s.

The word for waiter in Esperanto is kelnero. It’s right there in the Universala Vortaro of 1894, but perhaps the Tribune was working from the shorter word list of the 1887 Unua Libro, which does not have the word kelnero. Or, maybe the wording of the Universala Vortaro confused them. Compare these two entries:

kelner’ garçon | boy | Kellner | половой, кельнеръ | kelner.
knab’ garçon | boy | Knabe | мальчикъ | chłopiec.

Wait! Is this something that means the same thing in French and English, but something different in German, Russian, and Polish? Happily, my small amount of skills in German helps me through this, since the German is clear: kelnero is “waiter,” and knabo is “boy.”

Attendistoj is an impossible word in Esperanto, though it’s a good guess. According to the rules of word formation in Esperanto, you’d have to break up the word as at-tend-ist-o-j. All of these parts exist in Esperanto, but you can’t assemble them to mean “waiter.” At can only be used as a suffix; it indicates the present passive participle of a verb (it only goes at the ends of words). Tendo means “tent.” The rest would be fine if they dropped that second t.

But even atendisto isn’t a great word in Esperanto. Yup, it literally translates waiter, as in “one who waits around professionally.” Is there money in that? I have a French translation dictionary (dated 1991) which under “waiter” puts “garçon” first, then “serveur.” The Larousse dictionary on my iPad switches these two. Servisto is closer to the French, but is really going to mean “servant.” I suspect these are the sorts of thoughts that Zamenhof went through in choosing vocabulary.

Even with the substitution of kelnero, it’s still a pretty strange phrase:
The blow of waiters is in the air, and the waiter is in the soup.

The claim that Leo Tolstoy learned the language in just two hours was an oft-repeated on in the early days, which did come from the authority of Tolstoy himself. I suspect that the two hours of study allow Tolstoy to create a letter by flipping through the (then very limited) word list and applying various word endings, so that he could compose a letter. We’re not talking someone who could just drop into casual conversation. I mention this because with the recent release of Esperanto on Duolingo, I have seen the question, “how long does it take to learn Esperanto?”

That’s hard to quantify, of course. It depends on how diligent you are, probably some innate abilities, and what level of competency you mean by “to learn.” If you go by the example given by “A Line-O’-Type,” the answer is “infinitely long.”
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