World Languages

Baltimore Evening Sun/July 28, 1910

Esperantists from all parts of the world will gather in Washington on August 14 for their “sena internacia kougrego.” Dr L.L. Zamenhof, of Warsaw, the inventor ad first missionary of Esperanto, will be on hand, and for six days and six nights, 2,500 delegates will discuss the present and future of the new language No one seems to now just how many Esperantists there are in the world today. The estimates vary from 200,000 to 3,000,000 according to the exuberance of the estimator. Half a dozen kings are said to be enrolled, and at the other end of the scale are the anarchists, who incline to Esperanto as an easy means of communication between their widely scattered groups. Shakespeare has been done into Esperanto and played at Cambridge, within the shadow of England’s ancient university. The little bugger duchy of Moresnet, lying snugly between Germany and Belgium, plans to make Esperanto its national language The Hon. Edward Rossman, of the Baltimore School Board, holds that it should be taught in the local grammar schools. Esperanto is in the air.

But despite all this, it seems very unlikely that the new language will ever sweep the world, as its more enthusiastic adherents expect it to do. That sweeping, if it is ever done at all, will probably be done by English. Five hundred years ago the language of civilization was Latin and one hundred years ago it was French. Today it is English. The tongue of Shakespeare is making gains which reduce those of Esperanto to nothingness. Wherever it comes into competition with another language, that other language is doomed to disappear It is driving French out of Canada, Dutch out of South Africa, Spanish out of the Philippines and the West Indies There is good reason to believe that, in the course of time, it will invade Mexico, South and Central America. Japan, China, the whole of Africa ad most of Europe.

The Reign of English

English is a necessary tongue to ever race engaged in international commerce. There is not a ship captain in the world who cannot make shift to speak it, there is not a great merchant in any part of the world who does not use it in his business. It is taught to the school children of Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland and Japan. It is driving out Greek and the trade languages in the Levant and in the Far East. It is becoming, more and more, the language of science as well as of trade, of diplomacy, as well as of science. Nearly 200,000,000 human beings now use it as their common speech, and probably 20,000,000 more speak it with some approach to facility. It gains adherents at the rate of 10,000,000 a year. No other language is growing so fast and none other has half so many missionaries.

Against this competition it is highly improbable that Esperanto or any other artificial, lifeless speech will ever prevail. The trouble with all such manufactured tongues is that the force of necessity is not behind them. Men study them, not because they have to, but because studying them is a pleasing intellectual diversion, and their mastery brings with it the agreeable privilege of exchanging polite postcards with strangers in Mesopotamia. It is different with English. The Danish school boy struggles with our irregular verbs, not because he likes it or because he wants to write postcards, but because he yearns to get a good job in a herring house—and such jobs, he is well aware, go only to youths who speak and write the tongue of the herring trade. And that is why the Japs and the Germans, the Finns and the Boers study English, too. We of English speech lack the gift of tongues. We refuse to tackle Japanese and German, Finnish and Dutch. So the other folk of the world, if they would have to do with us, must learn English.

Why Study English?

The present advantage of English, of course, lies in the fact that it has got a good start. A hundred years ago the Englishman who yearned to cut a figure in the world had to master French,, but since then the tables have been turned, and today the French are hard at work studying English. The very policemen of the Paris boulevards struggle with our parts of speech Crossing into Germany, one finds English spoken on all sides. It would be scarcely an exaggeration, in truth, to say that there is not, in all Germany, a single German worth knowing who isn’t able to make himself understood in English. The Germans aspire to the trade of the world They must ask for it in English—and they know it.

No wonder the foreigner studies English. It gives him a world language of immediate and certain value. It is spoken by more human beings than any other tongue; it is understood by the highest castes of all civilized nations; it is sufficient, in itself, to carry a man around the world; it is sufficient, again, to bring the world’s history and philosophy to his table. The Spaniard or Servian or Portuguese who has mastered English has gained the means of making himself a civilized man. It is a hundred times as valuable to him as Esperanto would be, and a thousand times as valuable as Esperanto could ever be to an American or Englishman.

The Fate of Volapuk

If it were possible, by fiat, to compel every human being in the world to master Esperanto within 30 days, and to remember it after mastering it, the enthusiasm of the Esperantists would be more understandable But nothing of the sort is possible. Artificial languages lack that vitality which lies in immediate and obvious usefulness. They arouse, for a while, the interest of philologists, and sometimes thousands of idle persons begin to study them with great enthusiasm, but soon or late the fad passes—and the world returns to English.

The case of Volapuk is probably still in mind. Invented in 1879 by Johann Schleyen, a German priest, it began to sweep the world in 1884. By 1886 it was being studied by 250,000 persons. In Vienna alone there were 2,500 students. Eleven monthly journals set its merits before the world; 140 societies were devoted to its propagation; hundreds of books in Volapuk poured from the presses. Huge international congresses of Volapukists were held in 1884, 1887 and 1889. It was freely predicted that within 20 years Volapuk would be the universal medium of international communication.

And then came the descent of the balloon. It came down faster than it had gone up. Today Volapuk is as dead as the tongue of the Incas.

 (Source: University of North Texas Microfilm Collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.