Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Esperanto at the Congress of Academies

Spoke Esperanto
for peace
With the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a great push to speed up the process of globalization. Bring everything together for human progress! One vision, as expressed in a June 2, 1901 article in the New York Sun was the creation of an “International Congress of Academies,” an umbrella organization for all of the learned societies. We could imagine that a learned society might have regional chapters, but above them all with the International Association of Academies.

Despite that people gathered in Paris to form this International Association of Academies, it was not long lived. It was disestablished the year before World War I (and there is very little about it). The Sun article is too long to quote, and only the last bit pertains to one of the themes of this blog: the connection of Esperanto to turn of the twentieth century progressive movements. The last six paragraphs (out of ten) were the possible language that this academy might use. (Wherever the Sun writes “Congress of Academies,” please substitute “International Association of Academies,” the actual name of the organization) I’m going to spare myself the first four and dive right in, just as it seemed the International Association of Academies planned.

This same article was printed in the Chicago Tribune on June 3, 1901, under the title of “Plan Union of Thought,” and attributed to the foreign correspondent of the Chicago Tribune (who seems to have sent things quicker to the Sun). This is end of the Sun article:
Into the proceeding of the congress there is no need to enter at length. As a matter of fact, all that was not highly technical was purely preliminary. But there was one interesting question opened. The Congress of Academies determined to tackle the difficult matter of a universal language. The need of such a language is being felt more and more every day. As trade become more and more extended, taking in every country in the world, the language question becomes a formidable difficulty. A large American firm will, in the course of a year, have to write and receive letters in every dialect spoken wherever American goods are used. Instead of having to employ many translators, waste a quantity of priceless time an in the end do business unsatisfactorily it would be infinitely better to have recognized business language, adopted in every country and learned as a matter of course by every one who proposed, either as a clear or as a principal, to enter commerce.

Several experiments have, of course, been made in this direction. Perhaps the most prominent was Volapük. But Volapük is now as dead as the traditional doornail. The reason is easily stated. It lacked authoritative sanction; and it was ill-constructed in this respect, that being purely fantastic, having no relation to any existing tongue, it laid a heavy burden on the memory. Relatively few people cared to learn a difficult language when they were not sure that the day after they had acquired it a new and better system might not appear and be more generally adopted.

A philological committee of the Congress of Academies will study the question in all its bearings and expects in the court of the few years to work out or adopt from the outside some artificial language which will meet the conditions of universal success. Such a language will have to be absolutely simple in construction, with no elaborate rules, easy of pronunciation on phonetic laws by every race likely to use it, easily learned by being composed as far as possible of root words common to the greatest possible number of languages.

These conditions are not so hard to meet as it might seem. Pronunciation and grammatical rules are simply a matter of universal agreement. As for aiding the memory by use roots common to many languages, they can be found in the Latin words which abound in nearly every tongue. English is full of them; French, Spanish and Italian are almost exclusively made up of them; German has a good many.

Already a language has been formed on this principle. It is called Esperanto and is the creation of a Russian scholar, and Count Tolstoi declares that after only three hours’ study he learned to read it as fluently as his own tongue. Any one with a smattering of Latin would certainly master it in a week. It may be that Esperanto will be adopted by the united Academies. If it be, the congress will use all its international influence to get it officially accepted by every country; perhaps even to have it made a compulsory subject in public schools all over the world. In that case every educated man in the next generation would be able to communicate with all the educated people he had to do with in any land.

Of course, the universal tongue would not kill existing languages; that is as impossible as it would be regrettable; it would simply be a more or less perfect vehicle for the conveying of the ordinary affairs of life and of trade between representatives of different races.
Ouch. They are tough on Volapük, despite that the last Volapük congress was only two years previously. Clearly the collapse of the Volapük movement was sufficiently evident at that time for the Sun to call it “as dead as the traditional doornail.” The first Esperanto congress was still four years in the future. The likely marker of the death of the Volapük movement was probably the death or conversion to Esperanto of various Volapük societies.

As can be expected, the International Congress of Academies looked at Esperanto and realized that it fit the bill. A summary in the Proceedings of the Tenth International Peace Congress (1901) makes it clear was the sequel was. The Peace Congress also picked up the issue for their congress, as they were involved with the International Congress of Academies, and sent Gaston Moch to be their representative on this matter.

Moch was an Esperantist (although he late turned to Ido, and later yet rejected planned languages in general), it’s not a terrible surprise that he proposed to the Peace Congress that they support Esperanto. (He was also Jewish, and a military officer, and all this was during the Dreyfus Affair—Moch believed (correctly) that Dreyfus was innocent.) Instead, they tabled the discussion. The International Association of Academies eventually decided that it wasn't their decision to make. It’s yet another example of an international body thinking of supporting Esperanto, but never quite getting there. Given the fate of the International Congress of Academies, it probably didn’t matter.

Further note: In yesterday's post I mentioned Alfred H. Fried, the Austrian Jewish Esperantist and peace advocate.
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