The Progress And Prospects Of Esperanto (1907)

I’ve always had a love of history so the area of Esperanto history is something I find fascinating. It’s interesting to read articles from a hundred years ago about, what at the time, was a new invention. The late 19th and early 20th century was a time full of new inventions and advances as the world was changing beyond recognition. All areas of life were undergoing rapid change and many wondered if language too would be subject to the modernisation that so many other fields experienced. It is incredible to look back at the early hopes and uncertainties people had towards Esperanto. Who knew what would happen with the language? Would it genuinely become a major world language or was it just a passing fad that would quickly be forgotten?

One of the strongest promoters of Esperanto was The North American Review, a magazine published on a monthly/bimonthly basis and dealt with current affairs around the world (similar to Time or The Economist). Between the end of 1906 and 1909 it published articles about Esperanto on such a positive and regular basis that it can be called an Esperantist magazine. I have obtained access to its back issues and I would like to share the articles with you now.

It all began in November 1906 when the Editor himself endorsed Esperanto in that issues’ Editors Diary Nov 1906 (the Esperanto reference begins on page 7 of the PDF) writing that “we have become convinced that Esperanto will soon be recognized, the world over, as a language capable of universal use, and that, in consequence of such recognition, it will be generally adopted and acquired.” The need for such an international language “is so obvious as to render the setting forth of reasons therefor superfluous.” He then gives a brief history of the language and its spread, estimating that there were 100,000 students of Esperanto, widespread efforts to have it taught in schools and “Briefly, wherever the new language has been introduced it has taken root and achieved almost instantaneous popularity.” (Ah the optimism of early Esperantists, how can you not love it?).

The following December issue had another positive Editors Diary Dec 1906 (starting page 12) which spoke of the hope of Esperanto ending religious and national strife, as it believed that wars were caused by a lack of mutual understanding that Esperanto could provide. It also includes the endorsement of Pope Pius X and a hopeful story of people of different beliefs chatting “gayly” together. Not only this, but the issue also had two feature articles about Esperanto. The first, The Case Of Esperanto, which details the spread and successes of Esperanto while dropping the names of many supposedly impressive people (I recognised the name of Wilhelm Ostwald who would win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1909). After responding to critics, the author notes how easy Esperanto is to learn (you only need an hour to “leisurely” learn the grammar) before mentioning “Neutra” (by which I think he means Idiom Neutral). He then discusses the grammar of Esperanto and emphasises the connection with Latin and Greek (its interesting that at the time this was considered a high compliment) and how knowing merely that “tenton” is Esperanto for temptation, you can construct dozens of words by playing with the affixes. Editoral standards must have been a lot laxer in 1906 because while the article makes some fair points, most of it rambles all over the place into random anecdotes and odd digressions.

The same issue also has Aspirations of the Founder of Esperanto. Dr. Zamenhof’s Address to the Second Esperanto Congress an (almost) completely unedited speech by the creator of Esperanto, Ludviko Zamenhof. It is very impressive that a major publication of the time would publish the speech in whole (translated of course from Esperanto to English) and shows how seriously Esperanto was considered in its early days. Zamenhof begins by decrying the sectarian conflict in Russia, “In the streets of my unhappy native city savage men with axes and crowbars were hurling themselves like the wildest of beasts upon the peaceful inhabitants,whose only crime was that they spoke a different language and had a different religion from those savages.” It is clear that this sectarian hatred was a major influence for him in creating Esperanto. If only people could overcome language barriers then they would see each other not as members of opposing tribes, but as fellow human beings. He quickly dismisses the notion that Esperantists are naive utopians (a notion still used today to dismiss Esperanto out of hand) acknowledging that a common language alone will not lead to World Peace, but it would be a massive step towards mutual understanding.

Zamenhof’s speech discusses two important points that have been at the core of the Esperanto movement ever since. Firstly, Esperanto is politically neutral and does not take sides in political conflicts. Secondly, whoever uses Esperanto is an Esperantist. There is no right or wrong way to use the language, you do not need to subscribe to certain beliefs in order to use the language. Yet he makes it clear that Esperanto is not merely a tool. It has an inner idea (interna ideo) which should guide Esperantists like the green star that is its symbol, if this inner idea is lost then you might as well burn every piece of Esperanto writing. Interestingly, that while modern days advocates of Esperanto emphasise how easy it is to learn as Esperanto’s main selling point, Zamenhof took a more idealistic view “we are all very well aware that in working for Esperanto we are dominated not by thoughts of its practical utility so much as by that greater, more sacred, weightier idea which underlies the inter national language. This idea is brotherhood and justice among mankind.”

The Editors Diary Jan 1907 (page 10) praises Zamenhof for working so hard for Esperanto for little reward (Zamenhof renounced all claim and copyright to the language). It then quotes an endorsement from Leo Tolstoy who wrote that “The study of Esperanto, then, and its diffusion, is assuredly a Christian labor which hastens the coming of the kingdom of God, the main – should say, the only – aim of human life.” People don’t talk like that anymore! As an Atheist Esperantist, do I have to pick between the two? Where does this leave Zamenhof, who was Jewish? Another promoter is quoted saying that “the movement continues to grow as it is growing now, within a few years every book published in the civilized world will be printed in two languages – its native tongue and Esperanto. The one in Esperanto will open the book to the whole world, and it will be the same as though the work had been translated into every language.” If only! While it is easy to scoff, it would make the spread of ideas far easier (as well as greatly saving on costs) if every book was written in its native language and Esperanto. The Editor goes on to describe the lessons and Esperanto club that the Review will provide (more below) and membership will be free.

This issue contained What Is Esperanto written by none other than Zamenhof himself, specifically for the review. The article is an excellent guide to the core principles of Esperanto as well as an insight into why Zamenhof created the language. Interestingly, he believes that one America will one day become the centre of the Esperanto movement. This is understandable, after all, at the time America was a massive multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic state (it didn’t really solidify until the World Wars). There were huge populations speaking languages other than English and a large number of newspapers which published in non-English languages. As unlikely as it seems now, having a neutral language would have actually suited America quite well. Zamenhof gives a brief history of international languages and Esperanto. He makes an important point in that: “If some one speaks to me in my own language I feel that he is spiritually akin to me, even though he may dwell in a far country; but if he speaks another tongue, he is a stranger to me, even though he dwell in the same town with me.”

The Editors Diary January 1907 (there were two issues that January) writes of the positive response to the club and Esperanto in general. The Editors Diary Feb 1907 too is excited for the spread of Esperanto claiming that “The human race instinctively welcomes and clings to what is good. It has accepted Esperanto.” and “Whole nations are rapidly becoming converted to [Esperanto]”. Oh those early Esperantists and their wild exaggerations. It quotes the vice President of the British Esperanto Association, who counts 377 Esperanto societies in the world and estimate the number of Esperantists at 300,000 (while acknowledging that an accurate census is impossible).

Not only did The North American Review write articles in praise of Esperanto, it also provided lessons too. As far as I can tell, these lessons were provided over 10 issues from December 1906 to April 1907, however, I have been only able to obtain the lesson given in the February 1907 issue,  Esperanto Lesson IV-X. It seems the lessons were contained in a seperate supplement which is probably why I can’t access it (I would be grateful if anyone else can find them). The lessons are short and to the point, with only two pages per lesson, probably to emphasise how quick and easy Esperanto is. Its interesting that no vocabulary list is given, instead words are learned from examples. I actually learned Esperanto from The Esperanto Teacher, a textbook published in 1907 that strongly resembles these lessons.

Next we come to the article which gives this blog post its name, Progress And Prospect Of Esperanto, (I felt my alternative title “Esperanto In The North American Review 1906-9” was as dull as it was accurate). The article is a great insight into the early Esperanto days and its initial period of growth. I find even the little things quite interesting, such as how Zamenhof’s first name is given as Louis, which I have never seen used, though it is a passable translation of Ludwig. Or how Louis de Beaufront (this was before the great betrayal) is referred to as a “young French marquis – with a touching romance of his own – who has been content to be known as plain Monsieur Louis de Beaufront,” (while he claimed to be a Marquis, he was no such thing). Ironically, it is written that “but for de Beaufront it is hardly too much to say that little would be heard of Esperanto to-day.” The author goes on to describe the various Esperanto groups and the diverse situations in which he was able to use the language. This is far too detailed to discuss here, but I do recommend you read it. In another piece of foreshadowing, he ends the article by looking forward to the report of the “Delegation for the Adoption of an Auxiliary International Language.”

Speaking of foreshadowing, the next article, Esperanto In France, is by the man who called himself Marquis Louis Beaufront (who was neither a Marquis nor named Beaufront, his real name was Louis Chevreux). In it Beaufront described the hard work and effort he put into building Esperanto in France and how he even abandonded his own personal language Adjuvanto which he spent twelve years working on (there are doubts as to whether this was true as no evidence of this language has been found). For those unaware of the irony of the situation, Beaufront is the Judas of the Esperanto movement who split away to create Ido (a controversey that deserves a post in itself). But the article gives no indication that any doubts existed in Beaufront’s mind. Reading it, he seems as confident and enthusiastic as anyone. He even ends by declaring that within ten years France will have millions of speakers and that if America joins then in fifteen years the whole “civilised” world will speak Esperanto.

The Editors Diary April 1907 (p12) contains some suggestions for the use of Esperanto and writes that “a few days ago the entire staff of one bureau of the Department of Commerce and Labor formed an Esperanto club and joined the Esperanto Society”. It ends with an endorsement of Esperanto as “one of the surest aids in the promotion of international peace and brotherhood.” The Editors Diary May 1907 (p7) highlights the importance of spreading Esperanto among English speakers.

An article on The Esperanto Movement in Russia shows how much difficulty Esperanto had to overcome in Russia and despite being the home of Zamenhof, why the movement was not the home of the movement. At the time Russia was ruled by the autocratic Tsar and the article notes how all new inventions were treated with suspicion for fear that it would undermine their power. Having the people of the Empire unite and communicate in a secret language probably struck fear into the heart of the censors and so Esperanto spent a lot of its early years struggling to be left in peace (in fact its a wonder the censors let Zamenhof publish Esperanto in the first place). The censors restricted the early movement in its activities for fear that it would be “atheistic, immoral or revolutionary” (How far we have come from the 19th century). The movement succeeded in winning the praise of the famous author Leo Tolstoy, but unfortunately he wrote an article for the Esperanto journal that resulted in it being banned (although this article doesn’t mention it, the offending article was critical of religion). This seriously dented the movement in Russia, which had to look abroad for most of its growth.

However, the Esperantists were persistent and they succeeded in having a new journal published on the basis that they avoid political topics and due to the luck in having a censor who did not speak Esperanto. This new journal was an astounding success (at least according to our biased narrator). However, the Revolution of 1905 caused problems and when the journal published a report (with pictures) of a massacre of workers, the censor destroyed the article. However, the journal continues and a thousand copies of its monthly edition are produced. These are apparantly very popular among the student population of Saint Petersburg, many of whom, the article notes, are Social Democrats.

Despite the large number of articles I have gone through in this post, I am only halfway through the collection, the second half I will complete in a post tomorrow. I will finish this post with an article from the October 1907 issue, entitled The Esperanto Society. It is about the Esperanto Society set up by the Review, which had close to 1,400 members. The article has a list of all of their names with a hope that a national movement could be formed from this (although there already was a national movement, the American Esperanto Association).

All in all, Esperantists could be quite confident with the state of their movement in 1907. The language was thriving and growing and getting lots of attention from the media. New clubs were being formed and new publications were being made in the new language. It had been shown that Esperanto was a real functioning language that could be used among people without any other common language. The International Congresses were a success and laying the foundation for a solid movement. Little could these hopeful Esperantists know that conflict was about to erupt . . .

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