Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The New York Times Discovers Esperanto

All the Esperanto news
that's fit to print!
Although the New York Times is one of the United States’ most prominent newspapers, they were scooped on Esperanto, finally deciding to report on the “well-written little pamphlet” on March 26, 1897, nearly a decade after Zamenhof’s publication of the Unua Libro. Esperanto seems to have been fairly unknown in the United States at the time, but it had already hit the American press, including other New York newspapers.

Two newspapers (and I know of a third that I haven’t written about yet) managed to write about Esperanto in 1887, almost ten full years before the Times (the pamphlet wasn’t released until July 1887). They were the Deutsches Correspondent of Baltimore, and the New Orleans Daily Picayune. I’ve actually tracked down seven articles (so far) that precede the New York Times writing about Esperanto. I’ve also noted that articles in the New York Sun seem to far exceed those in the Times. (Although the Times didn’t make the error that the Sun did and attribute Esperanto to a Spaniard)

Still, there’s that prestige. It’s “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” The article is a little long, but it is the first on for the New York Times.
—In a well-written little pamphlet the comes all the way from Grodno, Russia, somebody named L. Samenof reveals that he like so many other people, has been worrying about the world’s need for a universal language. Incidentally, he also revels that he has invented a new language called “Esperanto,” which he presumably regards as well calculated to repair the misfortune that befell the human race, according to the legend, as a result of an attempt to prove the possession of an architectural audacity equal to its astronomical ignorance. L. Samenof does not sing the praises of “Esperanto,” however, but, after rehearsing in pellucid French the dire losses and endless inconveniences arising from diversity of tongues, and after telling again the long-familiar advantages there would be in an international language, if people could only be persuaded to select and learn one, he tells in detail of a scheme by which the choice at least may be made. He asks everybody who is interested in this great subject to send him a short article, in no matter what language, stating the writer’s views and the idiom whose selection he advises. These essays M. Samenhof purposes to publish exactly as received and in three volumes—price, 6f, each. Suspicious persons will shy at this point, and think they see in the plan merely an ingenious device for making money out of that portion of the public which has visionary ideas on the language question. Such does not seem to be the case, however, as the sum demanded is hardly large enough to cover expenses. Be that as it may, each contributor is asked, after reading his own and the other articles, to fill out and send to Grodno a blank form, stating whether he thinks an already existing language, living, dead, or artificial, and if so, which, should be made the international one, or whether an entirely new language should be constructed. The result of this vote will be published, and M. Samenhof thinks the most difficult part of the task will have been accomplished. Perhaps so. At any rate the scheme has interesting features. If it is carried out, and if the majority of participants cast their ballots in favor of English as the world’s language for science and commerce, the adoption of that tongue for those purposes, which is inevitable anyway, may be appreciably hastened.
First, should the “M. Samenhof” throw anyone (from the second reference onward), it stands for Monsieur Samenhof. Since they comment on the pellucid French of the document, it seems likely that they received the French translation. For that matter, it seems unlikely that the New York Times would have bothered with a document in the original Russian. It seems strange that they would have relied on the French translation, since by 1897 there were already two translations into English and an adaptation as well. How might the Times have reacted to the translation by Geoghegan or the adaptation by Phillips? Also, if they were working from the French, shouldn't that have been “M. le Docteur Samenhof”?

And did Zamenhof really propose three volumes of essays on the choice of an international language? How would he have known how many essays he was going to receive? In any case, the whole idea of the vote has the same problem as was inherent in the Delegation for an International Language, in that those who weren’t voting weren’t going to be held to the decision. You can’t vote in an international language, it can only come about by people actually preferring it among the various alternatives. By 1897, it was probably too late to submit your essay.

With their first reference to Esperanto, the Times was already considering that the likely future choice was weighted toward English, largely because it was backed by American cash. Thirteen years later (1910), John Barrett would point to increased tourism by Americans as a reason that the world needed Esperanto. Those seeking to capture those tourist dollars found it much more effective to learn the language Americans already knew, instead of offering them one more that they didn’t.

[Final note: unlike many of the newspapers whose articles I cover here, the New York Times is still around. The article I've cited can be found in their archives.]
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  1. Dankon, John. Tre agrablas ke la aŭtoro menciis belarusan urbon Grodno.

  2. Dankon, John. Tre agrablas ke la aŭtoro menciis belarusan urbon Grodno.

  3. I find it interesting that the issue of an international language was such a common topic at the time, such that the author is almost bored of it. There must have been a lot of proposals and debate.


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