Saturday, July 4, 2015

Esperanto, a New Kind of Volapük

An Irish Esperantist
in Parliament
Not really, but that’s how the New York Times decided to explain it to its readers on July 4, 1903, reviewing J. C. O’Connor’s book Esperanto. They clearly got to this much earlier than the New York Observer and Chronicle, (which didn’t review it until June 28, 1906). Clearly, at the New York Times, they don’t let books sit around for three years while they decide whether or not to review it. They were prompt about this one.

The Times, oddly enough gets to the size of the book, and so for anyone not familiar with book sizes, the spine height of Esperanto, the International Language, the Student’s Complete Text Book is 17.5 cm, or as the New York Times put it, “a 16mo of 176 pages.” I’m familiar with the various book sizes, but tended to think of sextodecimos as being smaller than they actually are (and clearly I’ve been thinking of the next size down, octodecimo). In other words, it’s a small hardback, about the size of a paperback book. Easy to carry about in pocket or purse for use while on the train or while waiting in lines (“on lines” if you’re a New Yorker, or (as this is a British book) in queues).

Now the word “16mo” in the third line of the New York Times review holds no mystery as to its meaning, only as to why the Times decided to describe the book this way, instead of calling it “a small book of 176 pages.” Esperanto texts do tend to be short. Seven years after J. C. O’Connor, Ivy Kellerman Reed called her book A Complete Grammar of Esperanto. It is just a little taller than O’Connor’s book, so technically an octavo (or 8mo), but we’re talking about a half centimeter taller, and it comprises 334 pages. Not a huge book, but it is complete. An introductory text book in French or German would run to far many more pages and still leave plenty of grammar for the next volume.

“Esperanto” is the name of a new kind of Volapük that was invented by Dr. Zamenhof. Under that title J. C. O’Connor has issued a complete textbook for students, a 16mo of 176 pages, yet it contains a full grammar, exercises, conversations, commercial letters, and two vocabularies. The originator of a such a language has three principal difficulties to overcome—he must render the study of the language so easy as to be mere play for the learner; he must enable the learner to make make direct use of his knowledge with persons of any tongue, whither the language be universally accepted or not; he must find some means of overcoming the vis inertia of mankind and disproving them, in the quickest manner possible and en masse, to learn and use Esperanto as a living language and not only in last extremities and with a key at hand. As to the first problem, Dr. Zamenhof says he has simplified his whole grammar to such a degree that it can be learned perfectly in an hour; his vocabulary has been so constructed that, as he says, the student is enabled to create new words for himself, without the necessity of having previously to learn them. Problem 2 was solved, he says, by dismembering ideas into independent, unchangeable words. The final basis of Esperanto seems to be Latin: such words as are common to the languages of all civilized peoples, together wit so-called “foreign” words and technical terms were left unaltered; if such words are needed, and it is impossible to an equivalent term, an ordinary dictionary must be used. By means of a tiny leaflet, a single sheet of paper that can be inclosed with any letter, a German is supposed to be able to write to a Spaniard, say, or an Englishman to an Italian in Esperanto, even though the recipient never heard of the language; the lilliputian lexicon will render the letter perfectly intelligible, it is claimed. The new language seems to have made some progress in France, since several books published in Paris are given in a list appended.
So, who wrote the book? Who was this J. C. O'Connor? Surprisingly, Esperanto Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry for J. C. O’Connor, but the English-language Wikipedia does. John Charles O’Connor was a member of Parliament from Ireland, representing a variety of constituencies over the course the course of his political career. According to the British Esperantist, O’Connor hosted the first Esperanto gathering in London.
On 17th November, 1902, a group of five persons met at the house of Dr. J. C. O’Connor, in St. Stephen’s Square, Bayswater, to study the language. Besides Dr. O’Connor, there were H. Bolingbroke Mudie, Messrs. St. Clair and Banks, and Misses Joy and E. A. Lawrence.
None of this is mentioned on the Wikipedia page, which instead focusses on O’Connor’s role in Irish politics of the late nineteenth century. Have these Wikipedians no sense of what is important? Modern Bayswater does not have a “St. Stephen’s Square,” and I suspect that the launch of the British Esperanto movement happened in what is now called St. Stephen’s Gardens, for the planted areas surrounded by attractive row homes. Someone else will have to do the research for the placement of the blue plaque.

Finally, despite the opinion of the New York Times review, Esperanto is in no way “a new kind of Volapük,” but a wholly independent creation.
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