Thursday, February 26, 2015

Esperanto for the Blind

Edward K. Harvey
Taught Esperanto to
blind students
The February 26, 1906 item in the New-York Tribune seems wholly misguided, and then there’s the other problem that one statement made in the article is wholly out of date. The topic at hand was a group of students at the Perkins Institution for the Blind who had taken up Esperanto. The Tribune described the whole thing as “unnecessarily cruel,”[1] and compares it to an attempt to defraud a blind beggar. (Oddly, the Tribune doesn’t seem to view it as a problem that blind men were reduced to begging in the street.) Indeed, the word used by the Tribune was “inveigle,” as if the Perkins students were deceived.

This is one of those situations when, from the lofty perch of History, we can know more than what the newspaper reported. Other reports indicate that no one was defrauded. The students had a reason for what they were doing, and I suspect that if the Tribune had reported on it, donations would have flowed from the generous people of New York to those blind students in Boston. We know who convinced the students to learn Esperanto and why they organized a public demonstration in Esperanto.

It’s a shame the Tribune didn’t give the missing details.
Esperanto, the new universal language, was recently put to a novel test at the expense of an unfortunate class. The students at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, in Boston, were recently inveigled into giving a so-called entertainment in which addresses, songs and a little comedy were rendered into that ambitious dialect. It is stated that Esperanto textbooks for use by the blind are now being prepared, and that steps are being taken to organize a national society in the United States for the propagation of the new language, similar to the one already existing in France. The recent experiment in Boston seems as unnecessarily cruel as dropping a lead “nickel” in a blind man’s hat.
Who was responsible for this outrage! That would be William K. Harvey, who had dropped out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to take up a teaching position at the Perkins Institution (he later returned to MIT). William Harvey had been one of the founding members of the Boston Esperanto Society a year previously, and the Boston Esperanto Society had quickly spawned the national organization, the American Esperanto Association, so the organization that the Tribune described as not yet organized was about to celebrate its first anniversary (it was founded on March 16, 1905).

One thing is clear about the Esperantists at the Perkins Institution: they didn’t complain about the Esperanto diacritics.[2] As the Wikipedia entry on Esperanto braille points out, they aren’t even supersigns, but subsigns, appearing as a mark in the lower right-hand corner of the letter, postion 6. The purpose of the entertainment put on by the Perkins students was to raise funds so that one of their number could go to the 1907 Universala Kongreso in Cambridge, England. Harvey later wrote that they had hoped to go as a larger group, but when that proved financially impossible, they worked together to raise funds for two to go. In the end, the generosity shown to them allowed four to attend the conference. In 1908, Harvey wrote:
At first the boys had an idea that all of their number were going to England—that it was to be a huge club picnic with the writer as guide. (I was planning to attend the same Esperanto Congress and had promised to wait for the boys and help them during their voyage.) But after a few weeks they saw the impossibility of this, and then they did the bravest thing in the history of their club—they calmly selected two of their number to represent them abroad, and went ahead with their concert arrangements just the same. [Emphasis in the original.]
William Harvey’s account of the experiences of the young Esperantists is really quite stirring, especially coming from an era when the Tribune was comparing them people begging in the street.
In Cambridge, England, they were, with twenty or thirty other blind Esperantists, entertained as guests of Prof. Theophile Cart, editor of the Braille Esperanto magazine, La Ligilo. Two weeks were passed here in one continual round of meetings, teas, drives, festivities, and sight-seeing. They mingled with blind from Denmark, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Holland, and England, conversing freely in Esperanto.
Not too bad for something the Tribune compared to a donation of counterfeit coin.

  1. Which does raise the question as to whether the Tribune felt that there were necessary cruelties that one should inflict on the blind.
  2. It has long struck me as odd that some of the loudest complaints about the accented letters in Esperanto (ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ and ŭ) have come from people whose native languages made extensive use of accented letters. I mean when a French speaker complains about accents in Esperanto (as actually happened to Zamenhof), you really just have to laugh in his face. Four accent marks, which collectively give rise to thirteen accented characters. When you’ve got é, è, ê, and occasionally ë, you’ve little room to bitch about ĝ. (I’m blanking on the name of the French Esperantist—I think it was Théophile Cart, but I’m not certain—who felt that diacritics were potentially injurious to the eyes. Clearly though, diacritics form a much larger role in French than they do in Esperanto.) Update: Nope, not Théophile Cart.  ↩

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...