Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Those Bloodthirsty Esperantists!

At least such was the contention of Ellis O. Jones, writing in the January 1908 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine of January 1908.[1] Really, Mr. Jones? Are Esperantists “surely a bloodthirsty lot”? It sounds unjust.

Mr. Jones seems to have been predominantly a writer of sketches for the stage; most of the contributions to which his name is attached are one-act plays, such as Husband Wanted or Faint Heart, although those are both 1929, and it’s twenty-one years earlier that he’s writing about Esperanto (assuming it’s the same Ellis O. Jones, which seems likely). A little web research turns up more about him.

He had somewhat of a varied career, doing everything from working at Life magazine, to activities in the Socialist movement. Not long after that, he contributed a few “Little Essays” to the New York Times, but came back to their attention more than a decade after writing for Lippincott’s as the Chairman (or, as in the subhead, “chairamn”) of the People’s Day Committee, which gathered in Central Park on December 13, 1918 to mourn the death of Liberty. At the time that he wrote for Lippincott’s, he was thirty-four years old. According to Metapedia, where I stumbled on an article, but with which I am not familiar, in 1908, Mr. Jones was the Socialist candidate for Congress from Ohio.

There was some overlap between the Socialist movement and the Esperanto movement in the early twentieth century, and given that at about the same time, many Socialists felt the Esperanto should be widely adopted, but there doesn’t seem to be anything linking Mr. Ellis to Esperanto at that time. This is not really a surprise, since his views of Esperanto seem to be somewhat dismissive.

But let’s go to his own words.
Esperantists are surely a bloodthirsty lot. They would like to fill the graves of a large number of dead languages. In this respect they are not unlike, although more candidly ambition than, every nation of the globe, each of which thinks its own language by all odds the best, and cherishes the hope, more or less forlorn, that its own tongue will some day become the universal world language. 
One of the chief claims for Esperanto is that it is easily understood and easily learned. That is so, provided you are a college graduate and have studied Latin, Greek, French, German, and a few other languages. The rest of the people, comprising probably as much as ninety per cent. of the population, has about as much chance with Esperanto as a course doctor in a garage. In thirty minutes the college professor can learn more about theoretical Esperanto than he can ever find in books about the practical slang that passes current on the lower East Side of New York. And don’t forget that this slang is expressive. The inhabitants of the Bowery understand one another. They lose no time in turing beautiful diplomatic phrases. With them expression follows concept, quick as a flash. 
There is no doubt that Esperanto is an elegant and ingenious contrivance to those who are able to appreciate it, but, after all, its success or failure turns upon the fundamental question whether a language can be fabricated and instituted by statute or otherwise formally, or necessarily confined by its nature to the “jest growed” Topsy class. A little of both perhaps, with a preponderance in favor of the latter. It Esperanto succeeds in keeping some well-intentioned people out of mischief, it will have served a good purpose.
Ouch, Mr. Jones, ouch. Except a course that in so few words he spreads so much misinformation about Esperanto. Esperantists have never been terribly interested in burying other languages. Since the beginning, instead there’s been this focus on not having to learn relatively complex national languages (usually imposed), and instead freeing up that time so that you can speak your own language within your own linguistic community.

Nor do you need to learn four or more languages in order to learn Esperanto. Mr. Jones has the cart before the horse. It would be more efficient to start Esperanto before a study of any of these, instead of after. The person who knows Latin, French, and German might learn Esperanto a tiny bit faster (I did learn Esperanto before Latin and German, but I don’t know if it had any effect), but studies have shown that learning Esperanto as a first non-native language helps with learning others later.

As for the last line, maybe Esperantists ought to make some mischief.

As for Mr. Jones, he didn't remain a Socialist. By World War II, he was supporting Henry Ford for President, and was a committed Fascist.

  1. This came up in my database search, since one of the databases I use makes little distinction between “jan 19” and “jan 1908.” Unfortunately, that means that unless I make careful searches, the I never see things that are dated month and year only in a timely fashion. Okay, maybe this should be a January 1 post, but here we are.  ↩

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