Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Linguist Spoke Esperanto

Denzel Carr
And just about everything else it seems. Of course when the Daily Ardmoreite wrote about Denzel R. Carr, he wasn’t yet a linguist, just a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, and about twenty years old. However, as the Adrmoreite made clear, he was already showing some talent with languages, since (by their count) he spoke fifteen languages, although their estimate of 30,000 words cumulatively is probably well under the mark, since that would mean that for any one of those fifteen languages, he knew a paltry 2,000 words. It’s not much of a vocabulary. I suspect my rudimentary German consists of more than 2,000 words.

For that matter, the 30,000 word vocabulary for a single well-educated individual doesn’t seem to be that remarkable even for English. Many years ago, a friend and I did an not-very-statistical survey based on the number of words his paperback desk dictionary claimed to contain. I forget how many words we used, and there was probably some way of doing this to get a valid sample. We simply took turns at opening the book at random, and the person being tested would say things like “left page, second column, fifth word.” The person with the book would read the word and judge if the definition was close enough. (At one point, I told my friend I was giving him the point even before he defined it. “You already know this word. It’s jockstrap.”) In the end, we (one freshman, one sophomore) in the end we concluded that we knew about 20,000 words apiece.

I don’t think the Ardmoreite did the math when they wrote about young Mr. Carr in their March 19, 1922 issue.
Norman University Student Knows 30,000 Words From Memory
NORMAN, Okla.—Denzel R. Carr, freshman in the University of Oklahoma, carries around 30,000 words in his head all the time.

And he’s putting in more every day!

He knows more words than Shakespeare, whose vocabulary probably was the largest of all writers.

And he could tie up a party line telephone for a whole day without repeating a single word.

The secret: Carr is conversant with 15 languages. They are: German, Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, Italian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Japanese, Pali, Sansrkit, Latin, Greek, Ro and Esperanto.
The second to last of these, Ro, is an a priori constructed language. I’ve read various criticisms of the language, one of which is that the words in Ro are hard to tell apart. Another is that there is no way to bring the language up to date. The same source notes that the grammar is identical to English.

Carr was born in Kentucky, in 1900. Prior to heading off to the University of Oklahoma, he worked as a printer in Ada, Oklahoma. According to a biography from the University of California, he furthered his studies of Japanese at Berkeley, where he also added Chinese to his list of languages. The UC article mentions his wife, Elizabeth McKinnon Carr, whom he married in 1951 (and who died in January 2013), however, the 1941 Census notes that Professor Carr, then at Hawaii (he wouldn’t return to Berkeley as a professor until 1947) with a wife, Elizabeth Ball Carr, who like Denzil Carr would have been born in 1900 or 1901, as they were both 39. The UC biography does not mention the first Elizabeth Carr.

Carr’s Esperanto proficiency was documented in the May 1917 Amerika Esperantisto, which noted that he passed the requirement for a diploma on the elementary level. Though the February issue had already noted that he was the president of the Esperanto Club of Ada, and was course in Esperanto was being taught at the local high school.
Oklahoma.—S-ro Denzel Carr, Prezidanto de nove organizita Esperanta klubo en Ada, sciigas nin ke oni instruas kurson en Esperanto dum la nuna jaro ien la altlernejo. Vigla klubo “La Verda Stelo,” laboras kun la jenaj oficistoj: Denzel Carr, Prezidanto; Chas. Sugg, Sekretario; Lucille Conger, Vic-Presidanto.

Mr. Denzel Carr, president of the newly organized Esperanto club in Ada, made known to us that one instructing a course in Esperanto during the new year in the high school. A lively club, “The Green Star,” works with the following officers…
Apart from founding an Esperanto club in about 1917, he doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash as an Esperantist.

Update: Since I didn't make it clear, his position at the University of California was that of a professor of linguistics, specializing in the Asian languages. Not just a polyglot, but a linguist too.
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  1. There’s a difference between a polyglot (which clearly Carr was) and a linguist (e.g. Noam Chomsky).

    1. True, but Carr was a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkely, among other institutions.

      He was also, clearly, a polyglot. (I should note that in early-twentieth century usage the term "linguist" was often used to refer to polyglots who had not actually made a study of the phenomenon of language.)


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