Do You Speak Esperanto?

Included in Midway Village Museum’s collection of postcards is one showing members of Rockford’s “Esperanto Klubo,” or Esperanto Club.  It shows eight young men, sharply dressed, posing proudly for the camera in 1916.  In a community with numerous clubs, this is one of the most obscure ones.

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Esperanto Klubo “Progreso”, Rockford, Illinois, 1916

In 1887 Polish physician Dr. L. L. Zamenhoff devised and introduced Esperanto as a new international language. He created it to serve as a second language that could be used as a linguistic bridge between people speaking different languages.  The idea was not to replace any other language but to provide a common language that is simple to learn and allows people to communicate without having to give up their own native language or adopt someone else’s.  While it is not widely used, there are still lots of people who speak Esperanto and over 100 periodicals published in it.  It is still used as a bridge language by the UN and others to translate documents from say Danish to several other languages.  One person can translate from, let’s say, Danish to Esperanto, then others can translate from Esperanto to any other language.

How did this come to be the focus of a club in Rockford over 100 years ago?  In an era of heavy immigration to the US, it is perhaps understandable that some Americans – including some Rockfordians – felt the need to deal with intense cultural changes by finding a better way for immigrants and long-term residents to communicate.  Esperanto provided an avenue to do that.

In April 1907, Rockford’s Daily Register Gazette reported that several local groups, including the Rockford Temperance guards, the YMCA and a group of south Rockford boys had come together to learn Esperanto.  They announced a “grand rally” to be held at the YMCA building for the purpose of showing off postcards from Esperantoists in over 40 different countries.  Any boys interested in seeing these were invited to come!  The following evening, Floyd B. Hardin, president of the University of Chicago Esperanto Society, lectured on the new language.  The article went on to state that free public courses in Esperanto were soon to be opened in Rockford under the direction of Mr. Hardin with assistance from Mr. E. C. Reed of the Harvard University Esperanto Association.

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The Rockford YMCA at State & Madison Streets.

One of the advantages of Esperanto is that it can be learned very easily.  It has only 16 simple rules to follow (a tad fewer than the English language) and, the local paper reported that the average American student “already knows three-fourths of the words in the vocabulary.”  Therefore, it would only take a couple of months to master the new language.

Subsequent articles in Rockford papers suggest that Hardin’s lecture was a success.  The May 21, 1907 edition of the Rockford Morning Star reported 15 new students for the second class in Esperanto, bringing the total to 100.  Classes were held at the YMCA, then located at State & Madison Streets.

Interest in this new artificial language was high enough in Rockford that the Rockford Republic published three lessons in Esperanto a couple of months later.  Lesson 1 – the Esperanto alphabet and how to pronounce it – appeared on July 18, 1907.  Lesson 2 – article, noun, adjective, present tense – appeared on July 22nd.  Lesson 3 – plural, past tense, future tense, accusative case, and adverbs – was published on July 24th.  Each of these lessons could be printed on a single 8½” x 11” page.  Imagine doing that with an English grammar lesson covering the same topics!

Shortly after these lessons appeared in the paper, Esperantists from all over Illinois met in Rockford to form a statewide Esperanto Association of all the clubs studying the language.  The July 28, 1907 edition of the Rockford Morning Star reported that delegates from 15 societies attended, meeting in the office of E. C. Reed.  Reed was duly elected secretary. The aim of the new group was to “broaden the propaganda and arouse more interest in the study of the language”.

Evidently, Mr. Reed made an impression on his fellow Esperantists as he was selected to be secretary for the Esperanto Association of North America in 1911.  The August 28th edition of the Rockford Daily Register Gazette reported that he was being sent abroad annually by the Association, and that he was the sole American elected a member of the International Esperanto Commission.

Just as evidently, interest in Esperanto flagged in Rockford after its big splash in 1907.  An article in the October 23, 1911 edition of the Rockford Republic included an article that began with the statement that “Esperanto, the international language which was so much talked about a few years ago is not dead in Rockford.”  A new local organization was being formed to study the language.  The new club was to be known as “Progreso,” which gets us back to the postcard that started this discussion.  That name clearly appears at the bottom of the postcard.  Local officers were Herman Hallstrom as president, and Karl Froding, secretary and treasurer.

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Men’s Socialist Party of Rockford, 1910. Future Rockford Mayor Herman Hallstrom is in the middle row at far left.

Hallstrom’s interest in Esperanto may have come from the fact that he was born in Sweden in 1888 and came to America (and Rockford) 20 years later.  By 1910, he was active in the Socialist Party in Rockford.  He served overseas during World War I but returned to his interest in politics after returning home.  He served five two-year terms as Rockford’s mayor, his first three terms (starting with the 1921 election) as a member of the Rockford Labor League and his final two terms (following the 1929 election) as an independent.  Outside of politics, his primary interest was with Swedish American Hospital, serving as a board member and as president of the hospital.  He died in 1961 at the age of 72.

Not as much is known of Mr. Froding.  However, according to a brief obituary printed in the Rockford Register-Republic in May 1949, he came to Rockford in 1903 and worked at the Colonial Desk Company.  He moved to Auburn, Wisconsin in 1948 where he died a year later.  We do know, from the September 23, 1913 edition of the Rockford Republic that the Esperanto Club had resumed its activities at that point, meeting weekly in Froding’s offices in the Columbia Building on 7th Street.  There were also classes for beginners once a week.

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Froding, so central to the local Esperanto movement, worked at Colonial Desk Company upon his arrival in Rockford.

Interest in Esperanto continued locally, or at least at the Rockford Republic, which included an article in their March 30, 1912 edition stating that the Esperanto Association of North America would send pamphlets to any of the paper’s readers who sent their name and address to the Association’s office in Washington.  A 1924 article announced plans to form a club among east side workers for the purpose of studying Esperanto.  The paper quotes Mr. Froding as saying that Esperanto was “believed by many to be the most logical international language….”  He was cited as being an official of the Swedish Socialist Club, headquartered on Seventh Street.

Where does Esperanto stand now?  According to the Journal of the American Medical Information Association, interest in the language increased after World War II, especially as Eastern Europe and China saw the need for a common language but were reluctant to embrace English.  Interest in Esperanto peaked in the 1970s, “receiving serious attention from linguistic scholars, with numerous publications appearing in academic journals.  Perhaps two to five million people studied or spoke Esperanto.  Conventions were held; periodicals and more books appeared.”  However, after the ‘70s, interest in it dropped off as English became the closest thing to an international language. Esperanto was simply not practical.  It wasn’t anyone’s native language, finding people who could speak it (outside of Esperanto conventions) was nearly impossible, and it did not have a means of adapting to contemporary terminology.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Do You Speak Esperanto?

  1. Fascinating! Your last paragraph is far too negative about Esperanto. I’ve used it in about seventeen countries over recent years – outside conventions. Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down and in Armenia when it was a Soviet republic, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it to anyone, as a way of making friendly local contacts in other countries.

    It is true that Esperanto hasn’t yet gained the recognition it deserves, but, all things considered, it has actually done amazingly well. In 128 years, it has managed to grow from a drawing-board project with just one speaker in one country to a complete and living natural language with probably a couple of million speakers in over 120 countries and a rich literature and cosmopolitan culture, with little or no official backing and even bouts of persecution. It hasn’t taken the world by storm – yet – but it’s slowly but surely moving in that direction, with the Internet giving it a significant boost in recent years. About 48,000 people have signed on for the new (beta) Duolingo Esperanto course in just a month.

    Well done, Rockford pioneers!

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