Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Promising Young Esperantist

William P. Bonbright in 1904
There was more than one William P. Bonbright in 1909. One of them was the founder of a banking firm which bore his name, with offices in New York, London, and Colorado Springs. (The New York Times referred to him as a “New York banker.” Those other places don’t count.) To provide a small amount of clarity, in his case, the P stood for “Prescott.” The other was his first cousin once removed, William Parker Bonbright. That’s the William P. Bonbright who was also an Esperantist.

This is the moment where I need to clear up the genealogy, since the question probably has arisen, “just what is a ‘first cousin once removed.’” If you’re Chico Marx, this would be followed by list of reasons for which the cousin was removed. I could point you to the Wikipedia entry on cousin, and I was tempted to bury this in a footnote,[1] but it seemed to make much more sense to explain it in the main text.

First (or full) cousins are those who each have a parent who is a sibling to the other one’s parent. This is usually what we mean by “cousin.” (If two siblings marry two siblings, their children are double cousins.) The child of a full cousin is a first cousin once removed. I have a (first) cousin who is a grandmother. Her daughter is my first cousin once removed, and her grandson is my first cousin twice removed. The numbers just count up with every further generation, but the shortest line it still from me to the common ancestor, my grandparents.

Our William P. Bonbright was a son of a cousin of the banker (William Parker Bonbright’s father seemed to have been named for his uncle, the father of William Prescott Bonbright.) Although it should be noted that James Bonbright named his son William Parker Bonbright before the great success of William Prescott Bonbright.

Now that we’ve established the who, it’s time for the what. Mr. Bonbright got caught up in the Ido schism, the period in the early history of Esperanto when a group of people who had been Esperanto supporters came up with a substantial set of revisions to Esperanto, which they then insisted that the Esperanto movement was obligated to adopt.[2] Esperantists thought otherwise.

And so, on February 9, 1909, William Parker Bonbright was published in the New York Sun, not on the subject of business, but on the subject of Esperanto, and why the reforms were not needed. In the language of 1909, Ido was still being referred to as Ilo which stood for (in Ido) “Linguo Internaciona” (which in Esperanto would be “Lingvo internacia,” the name Zamenhof first applied to Esperanto.) He was sparring with William J. Phoebus, an proponent of Ido who lived in Brooklyn.[3]
A Universal Language
To the Editor of The SunSir: With reference to “Ilo,” the so-called “simplification” of Esperanto, there is a point which should be obvious to its partisans which they seem entirely to overlook. The success of any project of universal speech hangs on at least two things: The language must be an adequate instrument for the communication of thought, and it must be universally adopted. Esperanto has proved its adequacy a hundredfold. It is no longer a mere Ueberseztungsmittel[4] —there are people who can make extemporaneous speeches and write original vest and novels in it. It is used continually for scientific articles, for descriptions of travel, for original metre translations of classic poetry, for business correspondence, in familiar letters. Seventy periodicals use it as their regular medium. At the Dresden congress n August of lat year were delegates from forty different nations. There is reason to suppose, therefore, that success is in sight, that the dreams of the obscure Polish occultist whom history may recognize as one of the great geniuses of his time are to be realized.

Now it is quite possible that there are ways in which Esperanto can be improved and simplified; but that is beside the mark. The great thing to be done now is to have it approved and accepted and officially recognized. Then the improvements can be incorporated and absorbed gradually, as they are in the natural tongues. To struggle for the advancement of a rival language, even though it actually may be in some ways better than Esperanto, is to confuse the public, to discourage multitudes of possible adherents and the threaten the entire idea with failure and defeat.

After all, what language it is that becomes international is of small importance. The adoption of the auxiliary tongue is simply one step toward the high goal of world unity. It would be a pitiful short sightedness to let interlingual jealousies impede our onward march toward that ideal.
William Parker Bonbright.
New Britain, Conn., February 7
Now in all honesty, the Ido supporters view that the Esperantists were the impediment to universal adoption of an international language. “If only they’d give up their precious accented characters, and a few other things…” Both sides claimed that the other would doom the adoption of an international language. Both sides were wrong, since the real trial was to get more than a small number of Americans to learn any planned language, be it Esperanto, Ido, or Volapük.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bonbright wasn’t around for much more of the conflict over Ido. He died less than four months after sending the letter off to the Sun. On June 3, 1909, William Parker Bonbright went swimming at Atlantic City, New Jersey. The Iron Age, which seems to have been a trade magazine of the metalworking industry, offered an obituary:
William Parker Bonbright, aged 26, a traveling salesman for the Russell & Erwin Mfg. Company, New Britain, Conn., was drowned in the surf at Atlantic City, N. J., Friday afternoon, June 3, while bathing. It is thought he was attached by cramps in the chill water when too far out to be heard, if he called for help, especially so early in the season, and before a force of light guards had been enlisted of the protection of bathers. He was a son of J. S. Bonbright of the Supplee Hardware Company, and was graduated from Haverford College in 1904. He was an all around athlete and captain of the Haverford cricket team during its triumphal tour through England in 1904.
The American Friend, a Quaker magazine, gave the Esperanto connection:
Our readers will regret to learn that W. P. Bonbright, who contributed the article on “Esperanto, a Step Toward Universal Peace,” and “Work,” which appeared in recent numbers of The American Friend, was drowned in the surf at Atlantic the 3d inst. He was a young man of much promise, who graduated from Haverford College in 1904, has since traveled in Europe, and was just starting in business life.

  1. But I didn’t.
  2. A century later, some of them are still at it, attempting to come up with reasons why Esperanto speakers should do it their way.
  3. I’ve already covered Mr. Phoebus’s side of things.
  4. Oh, yeah, I had to look that up. My German isn’t nearly good enough to tackle Überseztungsmittel. it means “translation tool,” and that’s exactly what I needed in order to find that out. ↩

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1 comment:

  1. Did Bonbright think his readers would understand Uebersetzungsmittel without further explanation?
    Is the typo in Ueberse*zt*ungsmittel his own?


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