Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Linguistic Hodgepodge — Either Esperanto or English

Or, as we now say, "hodgepodge."
Reading the newspapers of a century ago is a great way to prepare yourself to rebut the current detractors of Esperanto, because, yes, their arguments are that old. Unfortunately, even though their arguments were rebutted a century ago (yes, even the “English is destined to become the world’s language”), the same arguments still manage to convince people. When you’re an American in a foreign hotel dealing with the clerk’s substandard English, you blame the poor clerk and not the situation that made the clerk expend time in learning a fairly difficult language.

But one of the oddest criticism is that it’s made up out of a bunch of languages, as if some other languages were some sort of seamless whole, sprung from the hearts of its speakers. There’s a graphic going about Facebook that states that English knocks down other languages in dark alleys and rifles their pockets for loose grammar. Vocabulary. English pillages vocabulary, not grammar. But we’re not alone.

Years ago, I took some German. One of my classmates was a massive Francophobe. I just don’t get it, but he hated the French. (Yeah, he was massively pro-German.) When we got to the word for “mushroom,” Champignon, he refused to believe that this was a French word (German also has the native word Pilz). I mentioned this recently to a German couple, with whom we were chatting. On the other hand, while one of them was aware that Salon was directly from the French, she was unaware it it went further back to the root of the German Saal, “hall.” Back and forth it goes. (Etymonline notes that it’s cognate with the Lithuanian word for “village,” sala.) All languages do this. All of them.

There really isn’t anything worth giving credit to in Professor Rivot’s letter to the Washington Herald of August 29, 1910, including his use of the title “professor” (he was a language teacher, but not, it would seem, connected with any institution of higher learning).

Comments on Esperanto.
Editor The Washington Herald:

In contemplating the propaganda being carried on in favor of Esperanto, one might say that a wave of folly, similar to that which sped to the echo the name of Volapuk, is at this moment blowing upon the heads of mankind.

Esperanto! A name, to be sure, pretentious for qualifying that collection of words, the majority without grace, without elegance, without stateliness, and without harmony—a heterogeneous jargon, which has been tagged with the pompous name of international language.

Whatever the promoters of that code may say, and in spite of the presumptions, its utilization is not only problematic, but will be difficult between persons not speaking the same language, as each one will modify its pronunciation in the direction of his mother tongue.

That idiom can therefore serve usefully for correspondence only.

Nothing is more infantile, more commonplace, and more devoid of literary genius than the syntax of Esperanto., than the contraction of these sentences that lack the beautiful style of the French and the English poetry. Truly, a pretty woman will no longer be graceful and charming when speaking Esperanto.

The poems that have appeared in Esperanto are nothing but fantastical versifications. Never will that tongue, formed of shreds of languages, attain the heights of real poetry, for the good reason that such an amalgamation cannot possess true literature. O great shade of Virgil! wouldst thou dare leave unveiled thy face if thine eyes fell on that fantastic translation of the Aeneid in Esperanto?

Dr. Zamenhof has truly shown a great ability in creating Esperanto, but he would have facilitated matters for the general public had he proposed the adoption of the English or French as a universal language and kept the Esperanto to replace the numerous dialects which exist among the peoples scattered between the Baltic and the Black seas, the Krapacks, and the Ural Mountains.
Prof. C. G. RIVOT.
In rebuttal to Rivot’s letter, there appeared on September 5, 1910, fairly long letter by Robert L. Lerch, who described himself as a former Volapükian, now Esperantist.

“Hotchpotch” in Language.
Editor The Washington Herald:
Referring to Prof. C. G. Rivot’s comments on Esperanto in your issue of last Monday, permit one who was also caught in the “wave of folly” on which Volapuk rolled in upon our coast twenty-five years ago, to say a word in justification of the present “heterogenous jargon—formed of shreds of languages.”

A little examination, a little reflection will show that this characterization is not far from the facts and that it fits our well beloved and highly efficient English as well as Esperanto.

Without fear of contradiction I will say that English is a hotchpotch of Latin, French, Saxon, Scandinavian, Greek, &c., together with a rude basis of several native British dialects; and how rich, full, flexible and expressive it is in consequence! So with Esperanto, the difference being that whereas English grew up a heterogeneous jargon in haphazard fashion, with many crudities of spelling and grammar for evolution to wear away, if it can, the Esperanto vocabulary were systematically chosen and evolved by a stroke of genius.

This “jargon formed of shreds of languages” is made up of mighty good shreds, for they are the very root words most commonly current in the great languages of England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, &c. There are almost no Slavic roots, the bulk being Teutonic and Lantinic or Romance. And therein it bears a strong similarity to English. Indeed, it is true that the English student will meet in Esperanto about sixty familiar root words in each 100; a German, over 40 per cent; a Frenchman, Italian, or Spaniard, nearly 70 per cent—all because of the “hotchpotch” principle of selection exercised by Dr. Zamenhof; truly a flash of genius.

How crude the first English version of the Bible must have seen to the linguistic arbiter elegantarium and his set in England, to whom French and Latin were the only insignia of culture! The critics of Prof. Ribot’s type can best sympathize with them as they gaze with a sort of fascinated horror upon this latest hotchpotch, forgetting that in their day the brilliant and versatile French, the stately and sonorous Spanish, the idyllic and mellifulent Italian, aye, and heaven help us! even the noble and dominant Latin were all, each and several, evolved on the hotchpotch plan. Each seemed a jargon to the speakers of previously evolved tongues, of course; and had there been any Max Mullers or Grims in those days, could not they have seen through the “shreds of languages” and would not they have foretold how such “a collection of words, without grace, without elegance, without stateliness, and without harmony,” could never succeed even as a spoken tongue, not to mention literature?

The great American people is a hotchpotch of English, German, Irish, Scotch, Scandinavian, Jewish, African, French, and other stocks, all of these elements having been hotchpotches in their day.

It really seems as if the Divine Architect rather preferred this as the best plan of evolution; in fact it has come to be almost an automatic principle in nature. Zamenhof’s inspired vision was the first to see and apply this in shaping a neutral language which all may readily comprehend and use without prejudice to their mother tongue. This is only one of its many drawing powers. Possibly evolution may yet do things to Esperanto in the section that we think spells improvement, just as it did to English; but kill it it hardly can, for Esperanto is another great hotchpotch.

It is one that the world citizen needs, and what the world truly needs it generally gets or makes for itself, like the signs and symbols of mathematics, music, medical prescriptions, international code of signals, Arabic numerals, Roman alphabet, and the like.

Pure breeds are excellent in languages, horses, doges, and men, endowing each with a subtle quality and capacity of its own. The great trouble is, however, that nature invariably intervenes and starts new breed (hotchpotch) that improves upon its predecessors. Therefore, I, for one, cry “vivu Zamenhof,” long live the hotchpotch! both abstract and concrete, for one cannot get along without them.
R. L. Lerch.
Robert Lerch was an employee of the Navy Department. The 1920 Census describes him as an expert in nautical science, and a Navy report of 1912 says that he was in charge of the office that printed and published pilot charts (they had some criticism of his department). This is probably the same department of which he was chief of, according to the 1910 Census.

Mr. Lerch was born in Ohio in 1863 of German parents. He was active in the Esperanto Association of North America as early as 1908, and was part of the Propaganda Committee of the newly founded organization. In 1909, he stepped down from the presidency of the Washington local group, and was succeeded by B. F. Schubert, although he remained active in the society.

He doesn’t show up in Amerika Esperantisto after November 1910, opening the speculation that after the wave of Esperanto receded he swam out of that as he had Volapük. He died in August 1922.

[A final note: When I post these, I translate the titles into Esperanto for a couple Esperanto groups on Facebook. Of course I had to look up “hodgepodge.” It’s mikspoto.]
You can follow my blog on Twitter (@impofthediverse) or on Facebook. If you like this post, share it with your friends. If you have a comment just for me, e-mail me at
This blog runs solely on ego! Follow this blog! Comment on this post! Let me know that you want to read more of it!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...