Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Third Esperanto Jest

On June 16, 1903, the Chicago Tribune humor column “A Line-O’Type or Two” included an item headed “Our Esperanto Department.” This was followed up on June 18 with the second “lesson” of “Esperanto in Six Easy Lessons.” If, on June 20, 1903, Tribune readers turned to the column with anticipation of more Esperanto, they were not to be disappointed.

Well, not yet.

Near the end of the column, Bert L. Taylor, did include a third Esperanto installment, this one titled “Esperanto in Six Easy Lessons—III.” I would caution anyone who thinks this might be a substitute for learning Esperanto on Duolingo, or with the book Saluton, or at the site Lernu, that Taylor’s “easy lessons” don’t actually teach Esperanto. This third installment brings up an interesting question.

Just who was this aimed at? It raises the suspicion that Taylor learned Esperanto, wanted to play with it, and since he had full control over the contents of the column, he got to. It’s not really a lesson though.

Tie vivis homo en Otranto
Kiu provis skribi Esperanto
En verso. Sed li
Malkapabla skribi,
Kaj falis sur unua canto.
The bulk of the Esperanto lesson (as such) is a limerick (that much, even non-Esperantists who have read this far figured out). Who wrote it? Did Taylor? And for whom? Seriously. The number of people who could have read that limerick and understood it well enough to get the joke numbered in the small dozens (if that) in the United States of 1903. Everything published in the United States up to 1903 in and about Esperanto would have made a fairly small amount of reading. The assembled Esperantists of 1903 would have been a small gathering. It seems strange to include a joke in a column that no one is going to get.

Despite Taylor’s promise of “Esperanto in Six Easy Lessons,” this third installment was the last. While he may not have had editorial interference, he probably was responsive to his readers. Perhaps letters to the Tribune convinced him that no one was getting the joke anyway (since previously there was the suggestion that his Esperanto was Polish or Czech), and so he dropped the whole thing. Pity. As I researched, I was looking forward to lessons four to six.

Mr. Taylor made a nice try, probably working from an Esperanto dictionary (inexpertly), but in the ned there's a pile of problems in just five lines. I suspect some compositor saw “kanto” on the page and reflexively corrected it to “canto.” This limerick wouldn’t pass muster in an Esperanto publication, and it’s an error from working from English to Esperanto, so I decided to try to fix it, and the first change I was to change out the word skribi for verki. The confusion comes from the versifier making an error in word choice.

Skribi means “to write,” but in the physical sense of putting words on a page with a writing implement (skribilo in Esperanto). Verki means to write in the sense of creating a document. This blog post was written by typing keys on a computer keyboard (that would be verki), but never written out (skribi). Tiu blogaĵo estas verkita, sed ne skribita. (I do, occasionally compose longhand, but this is not one of those occasions.)

As a descriptivist, I acknowledge that if the bulk of proficient Esperanto speakers used skribi to mean both “put words on paper (or similar)” and “compose text,” then the word would mean that. David K. Jordan in Being Colloquial in Esperanto cautions against that, however, Plena Ilustrita Vortaro does include this meaning as the fourth definition of skibi, backing up that definition with five citations from Zamenhof, who created the distinction in the first place. This, perhaps, should be a warning not to be too prescriptivist. Perhaps I should have left skribi in place.

I didn't have to dig as deep as the second line to find an error. The first word of the limerick, tie means “there” only in the sense of “at that place.” For phrases in English like “there are clouds in the sky” or “there once lived a man from Nantucket” the word is simply implied in Esperanto (the two are estas nuboj en la ĉielo and iam vivis viro de Nantucket.) That’s our next correction. Happily, tie and iam have the same number of syllables.

Further, to endlessly critique the word choices of the poet (hyperbole: there really is an end), while “write Espernato” is a perfectly sound phrase in English, you can’t say it in Esperanto. You could say skribi “Esperanto,” which literally means “to write out the letters E-s-p…,” or you could say skribi Esperanton or skribi Esperante, neither of which fits the rhyme (verki has the same problems, and only last two choices). I have hit about a solution.

The fourth line is a mess. Just as in English, you can’t use an adjective (-a word, in Esperanto) to modify a verb. Also, the sentence doesn’t have a conjugated verb in its first clause. Oops. That’s a tough one. This is beginning to require more editing.

Since I’ve pointed out some flaws with the limerick, I thought I should redeem it by providing a version which I think takes care of the Esperanto errors and I think I’ve improved on the last line. I present here, built from the bones of Taylor’s limerick, my version of his limerick:
Stulta junul’ de Otranto
Provis verki pri Esperanto
En verso. Sed li
Malsukcesis verki,
Kaj mortis per malbona kanto.
Let me sum up: I kept one word (Otranto) in the first line, two in the second, all four of the third, completely rewrote the fourth, kept only the first and last words of the fifth. Is it my poem yet? Okay, here's the English. I’m making a minor change in the sense so that they both rhyme.
A stupid young man from Otranto
Tried to write about Esperanto
In verse. But he
Wrote clumsily,
And died from a bad canto.

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