Monday, August 31, 2015

Esperanto Goes to War, Almost

Make Esperanto, Not War
One of the great promises of Esperanto is that it is significantly easier to learn than any national language (and, for that matter, many constructed languages). The only problem is that, easy or hard, a language doesn’t have much utility if you’ve no one to speak it to. (Personally, I expend some effort just so I can have a change to speak Esperanto with people.) The problem with this (as my own experience has demonstrated) is that you need someone else to have learned it, or you’re just babbling.

French, on the other hand, is fairly difficult language. There are tougher, but given the disconnect between pronunciation and spelling in French, and a good number of verbs which though not irregular, might be termed “idiosyncratic,” teaching the American troops French probably wasn’t high on the list of things to do in 1917. Writing to the the New-York Tribune, in a letter they published on August 31, 1917, James McKirdy of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had another idea. Why not Esperanto?

In an earlier blog post, I caught up with this at the end, noting that McKirdy sent the letter to the below to both the New-York Tribune and the New York Sun (and probably others as well). The Tribune printed it on August 31, 1918, the Sun on September 2. In that earlier blog post, I did not not quote the letter at full. Here is the full text of James McKirdy’s letter to the press:

Esperanto for Soldiers
To the Editor of the Tribune.

Sir: When the American soldiers go to France the first great difficulty they will encounter will be their inability to converse with French soldiers. In the course of time each of them will pick up a smattering of French that will enable him to make known his simplest wants, but they will find that on account of its idioms French is not at all easy to learn.

There is, however, a way by which in the course of a few weeks the American soldiers may be able to converse fluently with the French. There is an international auxiliary language known as Esperanto, of simple construction, and so easily learned that a person of quite ordinary intelligence can read it after a few days’ study and can speak it inside a couple of months. The writer knows of one man who learned to read it in six hours and speak it in three weeks. The language is thirty years old, has gone through the acid test of use for a vast number of purposes and has shown that it is really a great help in facilitating intercourse between those speaking different languages.

There are thousands in France who know Esperanto. Booklets giving the keys to thousands of words are to be had for a nominal sum. The grammar is absurdly simple and the language is, unlike the French, destitute of idoms.

The Esperanto Association of North America and the various state Esperanto associations would gladly coöperate in helping the American soldiers to learn Esperanto. If systematic instruction were given both offers and men they woudl be able to speak the language fluently by the time they reached France, and would find that their intercourse with the French natives, including the soldiers, would be rendered far easier and more pleasant.

The French Esperanto associations would gladly coöperate by aiding the French soldiers to learn Esperanto so that they might be able in turn to converse wth the Americans.

Esperanto would be of such great benefit to the American soldiers, and with the expenditure of so little effort, that the Federal government should urge the learning of Esperanto as the duty of every American soldier.
Pittsburgh, Penn., Aug. 28, 1917.
McKirdy (as the name is more frequently spelled) was right that Esperanto can be learned with great rapidity. A couple months of dedicated study and you’ve learned the language. While most foreign languages have plenty to learn in the second year, with Esperanto, you’re out of new topics by the end of the first semester. Really, every grammatical point, expression, and so forth can be squeezed into a ten-week quarter.

There were soldiers in the European armies who spoke Esperanto. That’s known. But McKirdy doesn’t even rely on that. His idea was not to rely on French soldiers who already spoke Esperanto, but instead to convince the French to do the same. Why not get the British troops in on it too? Hell, why not the Germans too? After all, they were already send off war dispatches in Esperanto to support their claims in the war. Although, those in the prisoner of war camps did learn Esperanto in order to communicate.

As popular as Esperanto was in France, even there it could have used a boost, thought the French government was unlikely to establish official support of Esperanto in 1917. Just a few years later, the Minister of Education was banning Esperanto instruction from public schools and universities. Even if the U.S. military had gone along with the idea, they would encountered French troops who said, “Je ne parle pas l’espéranto.”

James McKirdy was a lawyer who specialized in the codification of law. He wrote several books, all of which are probably total page-turners if you’re into that sort of thing, although his Constitution of Pennsylvania; analytically indexed and with index of prohibited legislation does make me wonder about that “prohibited legislation.”[1] It wasn’t all obscure stuff, there was Pennsylvania Laws Made Plain; Laws and legal forms prepared for the use of farmers, mechanics and business men and it certainly would have been useful to know (in 1912) the Liquor Laws of Pennsylvania. He also wrote Bill Drafting and Report on the Codification of the Statues.

In the Esperanto movement, James McKirdy was on the Executive Board of the Esperanto Club of Pittsburgh (later Pittsburgh Esperanto Society) as early as 1908, so by 1917 he had been in the Esperanto movement from its early days in the United States. He was also involved in the Pennsylvania Esperanto Association (as a director) and on the Propaganda Committee of the Esperanto Association of North America. McKirdy also was the translator of the “Mad Song” from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, which Sedohr Rhodes was unable to memorize in time to sing.

In 1909, work commitments took James McKirdy away from the General Council of the Esperanto Association of North America, but he remained the head of the Esperanto section at the Academy of Science and Art of Pitsburgh until at least 1919 (not long after which he moved to Washington, D.C.). In September 1912, his son was announced as a new Esperantist, not because Richard McKirdy had learned the language, but because James and Nora McKirdy had a child.

There’s no indication that Richard McKirdy became an Esperanto speaker, and not long after he graduated from high school, his father died. James McKirdy died on June 4, 1931. By 1940, Nora was working as the head cataloger for the Federal Works Agency.

But, what a different world we might have had if the doughboys had been taught Esperanto.

  1. Article I, Section of the Pennsylvania Constitution is identical to the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s prohibited to pass a law that in times of peace homeowners should quarter soldiers. The law makes no exception for those who have been taught to speak Esperanto.  ↩

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