Friday, January 15, 2016

Max Nordau and the Breakdown of Esperanto

Max Nordau
(about 1895)
No fan of Esperanto
Detractors of Esperanto have claimed almost from the beginning that were the language adopted across the world, it would splinter into countless mutually unintelligible dialects, the way that English really hasn’t. Yes, the vulgar[1] Latin of the Roman Empire did split into a variety of languages, but there were some special circumstances and a whole lot of time applied there.

Time alone probably isn’t enough. Some years ago, when I was getting my bachelors degree, one class had a single lecture (out of a survey course) on glottochronology, the idea that not only languages change over time, but there’s a a specific speed for such changes. To quote Wikipedia, “any replacements happen in a way analogical to that in radioactive decay in constant percentages per time elapsed.” Then I went to my advanced Old English seminar, where we had a jolly laugh over the idea. (Wikipedia does describe glottochronology as “controversial,” notes attempts to disprove its mathematics, and says that it “has been rejected by many linguists.”)

Certainly, in my class we leaned toward the view expressed as “language change arises from socio-historical events which are of course unforeseeable and therefore, uncomputable.” Sure, maybe Hari Seldon of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series could have computed how the Battle of Hastings was a historic inevitability. But if King Harold had beaten William of Normandy, the English language probably wold have been quite different today.[2]

As a result of the Norman Conquest, [3] English changed more between 1066 (Battle of Hastings) and 1400 (death of Chaucer) than it did between 1400 and 1734 (same number of years). If we move forward to 1589 (earliest likely composition of Shakespeare’s earliest play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona) and apply our 334 years (time between the death of King Harold and Geoffrey Chaucer), we get to 1923, and there really isn’t a lot of difference between Shakespeare’s language and that of 1923. (And I think we can all agree that people in 2016 can read texts from 1923 with no difficulty whatsoever, apart from knowing some forgotten bit of cultural trivia.)

Despite the spread of English across the globe, it has not degenerated into a pile of mutually unintelligible dialects. We might then have some suspicion when we’re told that the adoption of Esperanto would lead to just that. One such person was the writer Max Nordau, whose views were given in the January 15, 1907 Caucasian[4] of Shreveport, Louisiana (I did have to finally come to an actual historical article):
For and Against Esperanto
Max Nordau in an article against Esperanto admits “the absolute necessity of an international language,” but gives the opinion that “this can never be Esperanto.” He says: “It would be impossible for an artificial language to retain unity of character—in other words, it would invariably lapse into dialect, producing as many Esperantos as the nations adopting it.” In answer to this argument a writer in the Buenos Ayres Herald says: “Latin was the recognized medium of exposition by the learned of all the nations of Europe up to the end of the seventeenth century. We have yet to learn that each country created its own Latin dialect. French is the language of a large part of Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, etc., and yet it remains practically French all the time. Latin was preserved as Latin because there were always accessible sources of reference and rectification. The same may be said of French, and the same may also be said of Esperanto.”

Nordau was not a linguist, but a social critic and activist, far more active in the Zionist movement than Zamenhof (Nordau was one of its leaders). According to Winifed Stoner Sr., Nordau did learn some Esperanto. In her Manual of Natural Education, Stoner said:
Tolstoi learned to read Esperanto in one hour. Max Nordau grasped its meaning in less than two hours. We may not have the brains of a Tolstoi or Nordau, but we can easily gain a knowledge of the formation of this language so as to ask for the ordinary things to eat and express simple thoughts in two weeks.
In an era when people seemed to puff up their intellectual accomplishments, it’s refreshing to see that Stoner suggested that two weeks’ work in Esperanto puts at at a rudimentary level. It seems so refreshingly more honest than the people who claimed that they sat down after dinner and an hour later they were reading and writing Esperanto with ease. We don’t know if Nordau ever crossed the two-hour mark with Esperanto. Nordau isn’t simply saying that Esperanto can’t do it, but suggesting that no artificial language could, and therefore the role of an international language must fall to a natural language (almost always the speaker’s own[5]).

What my classmates and I realized as we chuckled over glottochronology is that the rate of change in English has been slowed down, to a large degree, by widespread literacy. Many of the people who fought in the Battle of Hastings couldn’t read English, no matter what side they were on, because the vast bulk of them were illiterate in any language. Nor were there widespread demonstrations of how educated speakers were expected to speak. Some have noted that regional variations are becoming less prominent as people are more and more exposed to flat middle American, that placeless way of speaking English.

We would expect the same with Esperanto. If you were turning on the evening news and listening to one American-born, native English-speaking anchor speaking perfect, cultured Esperanto to the French-born, native French-speaking anchor who speaks perfect, cultured Esperanto, who then cut away to the Osaka-based reporter who gives her report in not her native Japanese, but (everybody together now!) perfect, cultured Esperanto, then your Esperanto is going to tend toward being more perfect, more cultured. Certe. We don’t have to run the experiment to know that Nordau was wrong.

It would be nice to actually have Esperanto as the international language, to know that when dealing with things internationally, one could use this simple language in order to communicate with others. There really would be no worry that one might have to learn “Brazilian Esperanto,” “French Esperanto,” or “Tibetan Esperanto.” Just Esperanto.

  1. That is, “of the people,” the older meaning (from the Latin vulgaris, “of the common people”), not meaning that it was filled with lots of fucking obscenity and goddamn profanity. I’m a big fan of maintaining the distinction between obscenity (bodily terms) and profanity (religious terms).
  2. Mark your calendars! October 14, 2016 will be the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.
  3. Wikipedia points out that there were a series of conquests by the Normans.
  4. Not making this up.
  5. Angela Merkel’s support of English a notable exception.  ↩

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