Sunday, March 8, 2015

Esperanto as Religion

Keep it simple?
William J. Phoebus was an early advocate of Ido, and in support of that language, he sent several letters to the New York Sun (as well as other newspapers). During early 1909, there appeared in the Sun sort of a correspondence between Phoebus and an an advocate for Esperanto, William Parker Bonbright. I will have to cover his side of the conversation at some point, but for now, realize that the two were holding a back-and-forth in the pages of the Sun. At this point, I don’t think I’ve uncovered the extent of their correspondence.

Briefly, Phoebus was a forty-nine-year-old man living in Brooklyn. He had been active in the Esperanto movement only a few months earlier, but when he switched over to Ido, he did so with a vengeance. With the zealotry of a convert, he proceeded to attack the Esperanto movement. In 1909, Phoebus is describing the Esperantists as holding a religion, a (erroneous) view that still crops up, as I’ve seen it recently.

Ido had several names before it settled on the one by which it is known today. Phoebus used the early term “simplified Esperanto.” This letter appeared in the March 8, 1909 Sun.

Simplified Esperanto.
To the Editor of the SunSir: The same considerations which lead Mr. Bonbright to advocate primitive or “untouchable” Esperanto impel me to oppose it. To me the present orthodox Esperanto movement is an utterly absurd quasi-religion. It is absurd because the language is so rudimentary and imperfect that it can never become universal in its present form. However, its advocates insist on trying to push it through, reminding one of the famous old lady who tried to sweep out the Atlantic Ocean with a broom. If they want a universal language let them first construct a language capable of contenting the requirements of at least the users of the six principal European tongues—English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian.

As to the quasi-religious character of the orthodox Esperanto movement, I was taught in childhood a little poem commencing: 
“The Master has come over Jordan, said Hannah the mother one day;
He is healing the people who throng Him with the touch of a finger, they say.”[1]

Now although like the father of Little Breeches[2] “I don’t pan out much on religion,” still it grates on my nerves to be told by the Esperantists that the master is Doctor Zamenhof, a little Warsaw oculist! Even if their language should be universally adopted it would no more inaugurate the millennium than has the beautiful Spanish language brought peace and stability to the “scrappy” South and Central American States using it common. To have a millennium worth looking at we must first have a human race fit to enjoy it, and I venture to “opine” that the language a man speaks has nothing to do with his morals. Otherwise one would expect to find the users of primitive Esperanto thieves and cutthroats.

The simplification of Esperanto is a bit of scientific work performed by a committee containing probably the most competent men in their line in the whole world, and it is up to the Esperantists to accept their work with gratitude and thanks and not oppose it for the sake a few books printed in the old form.
William J. Phoebus
Brooklyn, March 6.
For someone who doesn’t “pan out much on religion,” Phoebus seems to know a lot of religious verse. But on the other hand, he was the son of a clergyman, so perhaps memorizing religious poetry was a requirement in his boyhood. But although he claims that the Esperanto movement is “quasi-religious,” he doesn’t provide any evidence to support that, other than that Esperantists referred to Dr. Zamenhof as “mastro,” a role with which Zamenof himself was uncomfortable. If calling someone “master” gave affairs a quasi-religious aspect, what would be say of orchestras, where the conductor is typically addressed as “maestro”?

The dreadful hint in all this is that it’s not so much the existence of a master, but that the master in question is “a little Warsaw oculist,” as opposed to a professor at an institution of higher learning in Paris. Phoebus has been dead since 1917, and so is not around to answer what wouldn’t grate on his nerves. Unfortunately, some of the historic opposition to Esperanto (particularly in the period before WWII) was antisemitic. It wasn’t so much Esperanto that was opposed, but Zamenhof. Was this the case with Phoebus? It’s not clear, but his specific opposition to Zamenhof is troubling.

Nor is it clear what would constitute “a language capable of contenting the requirements of at least the users of the six principal European tongues—English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian,” although I would guess he would claim Ido had accomplished this. Then there is the claim that, based on the language, one would expect Esperanto speakers to be “thieves and cutthroats,” although, again, he doesn’t make it clear why.

While I’ve read many a prediction of how Esperanto might improve the world, early Esperantists seem more grounded in real objectives than the view Phoebus attributes to them. Yes, many Esperantists felt that Esperanto would help bring peace, but only as a neutral ground for discussion, where people in conflict wouldn’t be force to concede ground just to have a conversation.

Finally, the work of the Delegation for the Adoption of an International Auxiliary Language was by no means scientific, no matter how many scientists were on the committee. It’s not as if Ido (or anything else) went through a rigorous series of carefully observed tests. How do you scientifically design a language?

In any case, while Phoebus thought the Esperanto movement should accept the decision of the committee “with gratitude and thanks,” this did not happen. And why would it? If some national body of experts on the English language announced that there would be wholesale changes to English, they would be ignored. We know that, because that’s exactly what happened to the Simplified Spelling movement, just a few years before Phoebus was decrying the stubbornness of the Esperanto movement. But Phoebus wasn’t using simplified spelling. Was he, too, attached to “books printed in the old form”?

  1. This is a hymn by Julia Gill. Other than that she was a nineteenth-century writer of religous poetry, nothing quickly came to light about her.  ↩
  2. Religious poem by John Hay.  ↩

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  1. I've noticed that you don't get too many comments on your blog. I have read every single post (sometimes years after they were written), and I enjoy the content and appreciate the research that goes into each post. While I'll almost certainly lurk in the shadows for years to come, I just wanted to take a moment to say "Dankon" for all the wonderful historical articles and commentaries that you post. This blog is truly one of a kind. And if I ever feel secure enough in my mastery of Esperanto, my future comments will be in that language. On behalf of all the lurkers, thank you for your hard work.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind comments. I do have to assure you that you have yet to read anything on this blog years after the fact, since I'm still just shy of the blog's second anniversary.

    Lately, as I've been working on other writing projects (something I probably should blog about) I've been slightly absent from here, although there are plenty of things still to write about.

    Mi dankas vin kaj esperas ke vi guos mian verkon en la estonteco.


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