Friday, March 27, 2015

Future Nobel Laureate Nobly Lauds Esperanto

And this is the device that
I've labeled in Esperanto.
In 1904, the British chemist, Sir William Ramsay, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the noble gases (note spelling). To stray far from my area of expertise, the noble gases are those that do not (typically) react with other elements. More than sixty years would elapse between Ramsay’s 1898 discovery of xenon and the 1962 creation of a xenon compound. The first noble gas discovered by Ramsay, however, was argon in 1895, when the Nobel Prizes were still five years in the future.

In addition to being the chemist who discovered argon, neon, krypton, and xenon, Sir William Ramsay was an early British Esperantist, and a member of the British Esperanto Association, which is one thing that doesn’t get mentioned on Wikipedia, although his association with Esperanto and the Internacia Scienca Asocio Esperantista is mentioned on Esperanto Wikipedia. Ramsay wrote a piece on radium which appeared in the British Esperanto magazine, The Esperantist.

In 1904, just a few months before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Sir Willaim Ramsay wrote a piece that appeared in the March 27, 1904 Chicago Daily Tribune, promoting Esperanto. It’s a fairly long piece, but since there isn’t a location where I can just point you to read it, here goes:

Esperanto Promises the Fall of Babel.

By Sir William Ramsay, K.C.B.
The progress of science during the last fifty years has had the effect of convincing men that much more lies in their power than their ancestors dreamed of.

The intercourse between nations had made it necessary to find some means of communication by which ideas can be interchanged. For long French was the medium of the court; and in Germany and Russia, and Sweden, at least, it was at one time considered unfashionable to speak the languages of these contries; they were thought fit to be used only in speaking to the peasants or to the bourgeoisie. But the spirt of nationality has spread, and now even Serivans, Roumanians, Norwegians, and Hungarians publish books and journals in their respective languages, and in France attempts are being made to revive Provençal, and in Ireland Erse, as a national language. However much we may regret this aspect of national spirit, it must be faced as a growing tendency.

The result of this spread of the fashion popular at the date of the tower of Babel has been an attempt to minimize the difficulties of intercommunication by the invention of a language which shall be easily learned and easily spoken and written. By why not choose an existing living language? Here international jealousies arise. It may be argued that English (bar spelling) affords the simplest, most convenient means of expressing ideas; that is is spoken as their native language by about 120,000,000 people, and is the lingua franca of educated India. Commercial rivalry, however, obviously renders this impossible. Is it to be conceived that Russians, Germans, and French would give England such a preponderating advantage in commerce as weould be caused by the adoption of English as a means of advertisement, of contracts, of delicate negotiations. The answer is hardly doubtful.

Why not return, then, to Latin? it was once the medium of communication between all learned men. But every schoolboy knows that, even after eight years’ study, he would still have difficulty in asking what o’clock it is, or what are the latest odds on the Derby favorite. No; the day of Latin is past. It is too cumbrous and it is too irregular. As a means of communication of ideals on commercial, scientific, and political subjects, therefore, a simple, common regular language is a desideratum.

Several attempts have been made. Some years ago Volapük was invented by Father Schleyer, a Roman Catholic priest. Let us see what Volapük is like. Its words are supposed to be borrowed from European languages, and “dom” is an easy form of “domus,” a house. We have “doma,” “dome,” “domi,” for of a house, to a house, and a house (accusative), and adding “s” gives the plurals. We have “labob,” I have; “labobs,” we have; “binob,” I am; “binobs,” we are. “Flens nilela labobs demis” means “the neighbors’ friends have houses.” It is not to be wondered that this attempt failed. The world is too old for an inflected language like Latin; people have too much to do to learn unfamiliar words awkward and difficult to pronounce, and not like anything they know already.

I have heard of “La langue bleue,” but I have not seen it. Its name does not commend it. There are many others; has any one come to stay? I think Esperanto has. It is so simple that all who have any knowledge of French or Latin roots can read it. It is perfectly regular, and it is pretty. The idea is not to form an inflected language, but, so far as possible, to do away with inflections. It is almost incredible that the whole essential grammar of a language can be given in a paragraph, but it is none the less true.

Here is the Esperanto grammar: Ami to love; amanta, loving; aminta, having loved; amonta, about to love; amata, being loved; amita, having been loved; mi amas, I love; vi amis, you loved; il amos, he will love; ni amus, we should love; ili estas amata, you are loved.[1] Similarly, esti, to be; havi, to have; veni, to come. All present tenses end in “as,” past in “is,” future in “os,” conditional in “us.” All nouns end in “o,” all adjectives in “a,” all adverbs in “e.” Thus bono, a good thing; bona, good; bone well.

At one stroke half the adjectives are done away with. There is no word for “bad”; it is “malbona,” not good; no word for “slowly”; it is “malrapide.” “Homo” is a man, “homoj” men (pronounced “homoy”), “la homino” the woman, “la hominoj” the women.[2] Not is “ne”; “mi ne havas amikon,” I have not a fried. Here it is to be remarked that the objective case (in n) follows the verb, but it is only used in that connection—not after prepositions. Questions are introduced by the syllable “ĉu,”[3] pronounced choo; thus: “Ĉu vi ekiras?” are you going out? Comparatives of adjectives are made by “pli,” more; thus, “pli bona,” better; “malpli bona,” less good; “pli malbona,” worse. The language also admits of the modifying particles, such as the “in” of “homino,” which conveys the feminine; for example, “mastrino,” a mistress; “et,” which gives the idea of smallness; “bebineto,” a little baby girl,[4] and so on. These particles are particularly useful in constructing words. Here is an instance: “Ig,” means the art of causing or making; “bona,” good; “bonigo,” making good; “plibonigo,” making better—i.e.: improvement.

Attempts are now being made to get the Association of Academies; or learned societies, which will hold a meeting in London in June, to take up the question, with the ultimate object of inducing the various governments to move in the matter, and to make the language a compulsory subject in schools. Should that be successful the next generation will find themselves able to communicate freely with each other. Fairly rapid progress is being made. No fewer than 150 societies, with a membership of many thousands, have been formed, and they received recruits daily.

It must be remembered that no attempt is being made to displace any modern language. The men and woman of each country will continue to speak their native languages, but at the same time they will be able to converse with, and to write to those speaking a different tongue. It is much to be desired that this movement should receive careful consideration, for there can be no doubt that the promoters are in earnest, an that they are likely to receive support from many goverments.
Sir William does a good job of describing Esperanto, although his errors are somewhat surprising and a little alarming. From the perspective of more than a century past, we now know that various governments and people of countries where English is not a native language have made their peace with the wide use of English.

Then he slams poor Volapük. Yes, Volapük was pretty much dead at the time, so why slam it? It’s not that in 1904 anyone was suggesting that Volapük might have renewed viability as a candidate for an internationally used auxiliary language.

His prediction that the promoter of Esperanto would receive “support from many governments” can be chalked up on a list of failed predictions made by renowned experts taking out of their field. History was quick to disabuse Sir William on this point.

  1. This last one is a mess. “Ili estas amataj” means “they are loved.” If you want to translate “you are loved,” it’s “vi estas amata.”  ↩
  2. Actually, “homo” is a person, “viro” is a man. The examples should be viro, viroj, la virino, and la virinoj. “Homino” would be “a female person,” and would sound as artificial in Esperanto as it does in English.  ↩
  3. Written cu in the text.  ↩
  4. I think most Esperantists would actually put this as “bebetino.” The text has it as “babineto,” but “babo” isn’t an Esperanto word.  ↩

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