Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Harvard Professor Prefers Volapük to Esperanto

Leo Wiener.
Guess who he knew
When the New York Sun spoke with Professor Wiener of Harvard in 1907, the Volapük movement had collapsed about eighteen years before. Professor Wiener was truly flogging a dead horse, and the article acknowledges this, noting that “now Volapük is mute, and many of its former devotees are working and playing at Esperanto, the language of hope.” (Kudos to the Sun for remembering the umlaut in Volapük.)

From the perspective of the United States, in 1907, Esperanto was still pretty new, even though it was coming up on the twentieth anniversary of its publication. It had not reached the heights of interest that Volapük had achieved, then again, Volupük was published only seven years before Esperanto and Volapük’s fate already seemed to be sealed.

Still, in the Sun article of March 24, 1907, Professor Wiener made unfavorable comparison between Esperanto and Volapük. It seems likely that Wiener was a Volapükian, but there are indications that he was a disaffected Esperantist. Of course, one can be both, as the early twentieth century has plenty of examples of individuals who first favored Volapük, then Esperanto, then Ido (and then went on to invent their own languages).

Esperanto and Others.
A little while ago a number of earnest and hopeful persons were grinding hard at Volapük, the universal tongue. Now Volapük is mute, and many of its former devotees are working and playing at Esperanto, the language of hope. That, too, we may suppose, will have its destined hours and go its way. Its great merit, according to its propagandists, is the ease with which it can be learned; but, as its critics say, that ease is only for the persons who know a good deal or a little of French or some other Romance language. We are not concerned, however, to deny the virtues of Esperanto. We venerate it and hope it will last and be quite as useful as it is beautiful. Some observations made by Professor Wiener of Harvard are not without interest and must be our apology to the faithful Esperantists.

Professor Wiener insists that Malay and Chinese are simpler than simple Esperanto. This assertion might be thought to smack of paradox, but the Cambridge man says it is a matter of arithmetic, Malay and Chinese having no declensions or conjugations. Professor Wiener regards Esperanto as too provincial of composition to serve as a world language. He suggests that Greek, Latin or Persian, purified of Arabic slag, would be better mediums. Moreover, there are difficulties of pronunciation which the excellent Zamenhof did not see:
“For example, ‘b’ is unpronounceable in Modern Greek, except after ‘m,’ and Saxonian Germans pronounce it ‘p,’ in every position; ‘d’ as intended by Esperanto, does not exist in modern Greek, except after ’n’ and is greatly restricted in use in Spanish, Danish, Norwegian; ‘f’ is a difficult sound for Japanese, who can pronounce it only before ‘u,’ and is greatly restricted in the Slavic languages; ‘g’ does not exist in modern Greek, and sounds variously in many European tongues, and is the shibboleth of German, sounding as ‘y’ in Berlin, as ‘k’ in Saxony, as ‘ch’ (in Scotch ‘loch’) in the southwest; ‘h’ does not exist in Russian, modern Greek, Spanish, Italian, and many other tongues; ‘ch’ (in ‘loch’) is unpronounceable to a Frenchman and an Englishman; the ‘l’ of Esperanto is indefinite, as there are many totally unrelated ‘l’s’ which are utterly inaccessible to other speakers, and Japanese changes all ‘l’s’ to ‘r’s’; ‘r’ does not exist in Chinese, and a a German ‘r’ is totally different from a Russian ‘r’.”
Professor Wiener holds that Volapük which steers clear of consonants as much as possible, is preferable to its successor. If a lay opinion may be tolerated, we suggest that standardization and codification of the organs of speech are the conditions precedent of a world lingo. The reform should, and doubtless will, be begun at Washington. Meanwhile, there should be efforts for the standardization of so-called English speech, the adoption of a common English in the States. In this State, in this town, for instance, there are strange dialects of something resembling English and pronunciations to make Dr. Murray stare and gasp. Pronunciation in the public schools in New York and New Jersey, and presumably in other States, is really directed and decided by the pupils, by an unconscious majority vote. Vulgarisms are multiplied. Pronunciation and intonation are harrowing. Perhaps we shall never know whether Dr. Wiener is right in asserting that there are twelve participles in Esperanto.[1] We put aside that made-up language and ask: What sort of English are the public school children and graduates talking? Yes, and when you are about it: What sort of English do the public school teachers use or know, since they seem to permit without rebuke, perhaps without notice, the maimed, deformed and ear offending vulgar enunciation of their scholars?

Poor old English language!
It ends with a condemnation of public school teachers, something that has persisted across the century to our own time. (It probably wasn’t new then.) Still, it’s nice that the Sun started off by saying that Esperanto is beautiful.

The Professor Wiener, whom the article cites, was Leo Wiener, a professor of Slavic languages and Harvard University in the early twentieth century. A few sources[2] do note that he was an Esperantist, but since he’s already dismissing Esperanto in 1907, he clearly got out early (just to put this in perspective, when this article came out, the conference where Ido was released was seven months in the future). Wikipedia notes that Wiener knew twenty languages. I’m usually skeptical of such claims, although he did grow up in a polyglot region. Unfortunately, the page does not cite a source for his number of languages.

Wiener came to the United States in 1882, and was a member of the Harvard faculty from 1896.[3] He was clearly there in 1905/1906 when Professor Wilhelm Ostwald was promoting Esperanto at Harvard. (Not the real reason for his visit. He was there to lecture about chemistry. Convincing people to learn Esperanto was a side line.) But Wiener did not learn Esperanto at the time of the visit of his illustrious colleague (let’s be blunt: in intellectual history, Ostwald is just one of many people who eclipse Wiener, something I’ll get to).

According to an article by Jens Stengård Larsen, “La truoj de Otto Jespersen (1860–1943)” (“The Holes of Otto Jespersen”), Wiener was a classmate of one Ludovik Zamenhof, and was among those who learned pra-Esperanto, Zamenhof’s first attempt at an international language.
Wiener siatempe estis samklasano de Zamenhof en la gimnazio, kaj estis unu el tiuj kiuj kunkantis la himnon de praEsperanto en 1878. Intertempe li transmigris al Usono kaj fariĝis la unua profesoro pri Slavaj literaturoj de tiu lando.

[Wiener in his time had been a classmate of Zamenhof in school, and was one of those who had sung the anthem of pra-Esperanto in 1878. Subsequently he moved to the United States and became the first professor of Slavic literatures in that country.]
It seems entirely possible that Wiener had become disillusioned with the idea of an international auxiliary language even before Ostwald made his visit. Did Ostwald know that a boyhood friend of the creator of Esperanto was a professor at the university where he was a visiting professor? I was tempted to title this post “Boyhood Friend of Zamehof Disdained Esperanto,” but I didn’t want to give away the big surprise. Larsen also notes that in Russia Wiener encountered official barriers to Jewish intellectuals, despite his prefect Russian, while in the United States his imperfect English was not a bar to a prestigious university position.

As I said above, Leo Wiener was the first professor of Slavic languages in the United States, still, that’s not much of a distinction. Professor Wiener’s fame is eclipsed by that of his son, Norbert. Norbert Wiener was, in 1907, a twelve-year-old, but he was a twelve-year-old Tufts undergraduate. He went on to found the field of cybernetics.

The only references I’ve found linking Norbert Weiner to Esperanto are ones in which he rejected the idea of using an intermediary language, such as Esperanto, to facilitate machine translation between two languages (which then, of course, would be three). But given his father’s Zamenhof number[4] of 1, it seems likely that that younger Wiener knew of Esperanto, even if he wasn’t an Esperantist himself.

  1. It’s actually six, but who’s counting? Perhaps since participles are pretty much adjectives, he was counting their singular and plural forms.  ↩
  2. His page in Esperanto Wikipedia, and this page about Otto Jespersen in Danish (thank you Google Translate). The Danish article says that Wiener had written “several articles against” Esperanto, but I have been unable to find these.

    However, the Esperanto Wikipedia may be linking to the wrong Leo Wiener, as the works in Esperanto date from the 1930; it seems strange to think that after all those criticisms, Wiener would be turning out nine books in Esperanto.  ↩
  3. Emigration from census, academic history from Wikipedia.  ↩
  4. The Zamenhof number is my own invention, in playful imitation of the Erdős number.  ↩

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