Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Mild Advocate for Esperanto Calls for a Congress

Love those decorated letters.
First, I’d like to note that any time the New York Times decides to bring back decorated initial capital letters, it’s fine with me. The first “E” of G. W. Wishard’s June 4, 1904 letter to the Times gets this lovely decorated initial, though the Times has probably long since disposed of their cold type. I love this sort of old-fashioned layout (and it was already old-fashioned in 1904). I hope Mr. Wishard appreciated this, as they did not treat his letters with such ornate care every time he wrote to the Times.

Wishard had letters printed by the Times on at least six occasions, with this being his first. Most of his letters were on the subject of language. Not just Esperanto though, as he also held forth on simplified spelling, Latin, and the Bowery dialect. The “G” does seem to stand for George, and by 1904, he had evidenced an interest in international languages, as he was probably the G. W. Wishard cited in Elias Molee’s 1902 Tutonish, or Anglo-German Union Tongue. Molee quotes from A Philosophical Language, by G. W. Wishard, although this G. W. Wishard lived in Lebanon, Ohio (this many not have been a book-length work; I’ve found no other references to it, though Molee cites it repeatedly). In 1913, in his book on Ro, Edward Powell Foster thanked a Mr. G. W. Wishard of New Richmond, Ohio.

Our G. W. Wishard is likely a Scottish immigrant who lived in Greenburgh, New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. His letter appeared in the New York Times Book Review on June 11, 1904.

A Consideration of the Merits of the Language Called Esperanto.
New York Times Book Review:
Every now and then a short article appears in the The Times Book Review on Esperanto, the language made a number of years ago by Dr. Zamenhof of Russia. The question is usually asked in its discussion whether it will ever become the international language. The answer frequently given to this query is in substance: “Language is a growth and cannot be made.” In reply to this it can said: “So the horse is a growth; yet man make the iron horse, and this marvelous creature of strength, speed, and endurance goes from New York City to Chicago in twenty hours, and takes along with it many a score of passengers.”

It is preposterous for an age that can talk through a thousand miles of wire to say that it cannot speak any language that has never been used for centuries by savages and barbarians. Language has existed under countless forms, and there is no reason to suppose that it cannot exist under others. It is within the power of man to analyze the various languages and determine what are the essentials and what are the mill stones hung about their necks. It is within the power of the present generation, with its wealth of intelligence and power of execution, to construct a far better language than any that sprang up spontaneously in the untutored minds of savages ages ago, and that has been perverted ever since with inharmonious additions from dead languages—a plan never thought of by the uneducated barbarians.

It is true that Esperanto is not perfect. Nor is any other language perfect, or ever will be perfect. The vocabulary of Esperanto is far from being as complete as it ought to be; this this defect may in a great measure be remedied in the course of time. But, worse than this, Dr. Zamenhof gave case and number to the adjectives. He might have well profited from taking a lesson form the general tendency of the languages to throw off their useless inflections.

Dr. Zamenhof and some of his followers have struggled with heroic perseverance in the propagation of his language, and it has slowly gained adherents, and will probably do so for some time yet. But, when it reaches that point where many will think that it stands a good show of succeeding, then a host of languages and schemes will be put forward in competition, and the people will have no confidence in any of them being adopted, and consequently the whole matter will end in confusion and failure, as in the case of Volapük, unless an international congress be called to discuss every phase of the great problem, and then to select or construct a language for common use among the nations. If such an assembly, after a full, free, and fair consideration of the subject, stamps a two-thirds vote upon a particular tongue, then that tongue will have a prestige that will go far to make it international.

If Esperanto arouses such a discussion as to lead to the formation of a great congress on international languages it will certainly perform a valuable service for humanity, though it will be defeated by a much better language. It seems clear that no language will become international with being backed by the decision of a great congress.
Irvington, N. Y. June 4. 1904.
In a way, Mr. Wishard was quite prescient. Not only did was a great congress assembled to debate and select and international language in 1907, just three years after his letter to the Times, when Esperanto showed some signs of succeeding, Ido was “put forward in competition” and it’s clear from reading contemporary reactions that this lead to people having “no confidence in any of them being adopted.” I’m not sure about the “confusion and failure” part.

On the other hand, Wishard was in 1904 that the real key to success was the backing of a “great congress.” Esperanto didn’t get this, though there are some indications that the proceedings of the Delegation for the Adoption of an International Language did not make a “full, free, and fair consideration of the subject” (rather, the Esperanto movement was told that Esperanto was a shoe-in, only to find that the entire affair seemed stage-managed to introduce Ido).

George Wishard lived in the village of Irvington in the town of Greenburgh, New York. He was fifty-five years old in 1900 and worked as a clerk, so in 1904, he would have been fifty-nine. His letter to the Times seems largely agnostic as to which international langauge be selected; no one would call him a fervent supporter of Esperanto. Soon after his letter to the Times he seems to have soured a bit. To the North American Journal of Homeopathy, he wrote that “Volapuk and Esperanto did not fulfill requirements.” He had a scheme, published at the end of 1904 for assuring the adoption of an international language. And it would only cost five billion dollars.

[Bragging rights: I’m proud that my readership is global, despite my continued failure to regularly blog in Esperanto. Mia kulpo, mia plej granda kulpo. Since the term billion is used to refer to two quite different numbers, let me put this into numeric form, as Mr. Wishard, like most Americans, was using short scale. He’s talking about $5,000,000,000. 5 x 109.]

Five billion. That’s in 1904 money. A check on the website Measuring Worth to compute the value of that currently, ranges from $105,000,000,000.00 to $3,360,000,000,000.00. Piffle. On the high end that’s only one-sixth of the U.S. national debt. I’m sure the UEA could get Esperanto adopted as the international language if it had $3.6 trillion to spend on promoting the language. He gave this plan in his pamphlet The Cost of an International Language. A brief item in L’Espérantiste does refer to this item as “vere bagatelo” (or, in the French column, “une bagatelle en vérité“), just a trifle, nothing that the Esperanto movement could do this much more cheaply. It’s not clear that Wishard was a member of the Esperanto movement, but they certainly had heard of him. (The letter included in this post was noted by Lingvo Internacia.)

No created language movement has ever had $5 billion to use to promote the language, nor will any ever. Though I am no finvenkisto (that is, I don’t feel that the possibility of Esperanto become the international auxiliary language is a reason to learn it, rather I think learning Esperanto has other, current, benefits), it could still happen. And it’ll do so without anyone laying out an immense pile of cash.
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