And now for something completely different.
[…] Mi diris decidan adiaŭon al la libereco, al la rilata juneco, al la facila paŝo, saltanta pulso kaj sekretaj plezuroj, kiujn mi ĝuis en la alivesto de Hyde.
I […] bade a resolute farewell to the liberty, the comparative youth, the light step, leaping impulses and secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde.
Literary Corstorphine hasn’t just been about English-language literature. For example, I’ve covered works in French, Gaelic etc on here and in the book. I probably would cover a few more languages… if I understood them. So now for something completely different. – Esperanto! If you don’t know what Esperanto is, I’ve included some information at the end.
I was reading The Early History of Esperanto in the United Kingdom a few months ago, by Bill Chapman. It seems to have been published this year, but is an interesting, if anoraky, historical resource. Among other things, Chapman lists people whose addresses were listed in Esperanto publications in the late nineteenth century and pre-WWI period. There are quite a few names and addresses listed from Edinburgh. One of them is a William Morrison who lived at Ardgour (54 Belgrave Road), a very upmarket house just down from Corstorphine Tennis Club.
If you’ve read Literary Corstorphine, you’ll find William Morrison (1843-1937) is no stranger to us. As I state:
“[He] wrote two volumes in the critically acclaimed and highly popular “Famous Scots” series – “Andrew Melville” (1899) and “Johnston of Warriston” (1901) He was also the author of “Milton and Liberty” (1909)
My researches suggested Morrison was a churchman. Mr Chapman suggests that Morrison was a wine merchant. Both of these occupations fit well with Esperantists of the time – there are a number of churchmen listed in Chapman’s book, and a wine merchant would do a lot of overseas trade, so may have an “international” outlook.
Am I confusing two separate people? Hopefully not. Their addresses match.
Bill Chapman mentions that Morrison had translated The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, another writer who gets a good mention in Literary Corstorphine. Moreover Stranga Kazo de D.ro Jekyll kaj S.ro Hyde (1909) is still easily available online, or in a print version (see picture). For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to Morrison’s translation as “Stranga Kazo”.
Esperanto in Edinburgh and Scotland
What did Morrison’s neighbours make of all this? His wife Sophia* is also recorded as an Esperantist, which suggests she was on board with it. Going through the addresses, I couldn’t find any others in Corstorphine. Leith seems to have had one or two as well. Esperanto in Edinburgh seems to have been largely a middle class undertaking (this was not the case everywhere).
Less than five years after Stranga Kazo was published, the First World War came along. One can imagine the idea of an international language drew very polarised responses in those times.
One of the best regarded Esperanto poets was a Scotsman from Dollar – William Auld – although he is barely known in his own country. Translation was a common mode of growing Esperanto literature – Robert Burns was one of the major early targets. And as we have seen Robert Louis Stevenson was too.
I had intended to contact Mr Chapman, and thank him for his work, and pass on my comments. However, I was sorry to hear out that he had passed away earlier this year. Here is a link to an online Obituary of Bill Chapman
What is Esperanto anyway?
What to say about Esperanto? I know a lot of you are probably familiar with it, but for those who aren’t… I think it is one of those strange things, which always hovers around society, but never quite makes it into the mainstream. It is on the one hand a lot less prominent than when I was a boy, and yet paradoxically, more easy to find on the internet. It’s one of those things which inevitably leads to a lot of ill-informed and controversial opinions, which is what I’m going to give.
Esperanto was a language devised in the 19th century to bring about world peace. It was felt that a new international language would be neutral, and increase understanding. Whether it has achieved that goal, or ever will is moot. It is an international language, but one with a thin spread.
If you’re eagle eyed, you may have spotted it on Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” or even the early episodes of “Red Dwarf” where the character Rimmer tries to learn it.
Esperanto’s quirks even influenced George Orwell, whose aunt was a devoted Esperantist. Esperanto sought to cut down on vocabulary, much like Newspeak in 1984 – one way it did this was to eliminate most antonyms or “opposites”. Like Newspeak, Esperanto has no separate word for “bad”, instead you have to say “malbona” which literally means “ungood”. Orwell saw this as a type of thought reform. Whether language does this is moot. The concept is known as the Sapir-Worff hypothesis. Esperanto has few native speakers, maybe a few hundred. The billionaire businessman and political activist George Soros is among them, although reportedly he rarely uses it now. Draw your own conclusions.
I can read a little Esperanto, with the help of a dictionary. The main problem is that it is full of false friends – words that look like others in different languages but have a different meaning. Its supporters say it is easy to learn. This has not been my experience. I learn languages by hearing them and there is nowhere I could go to hear Esperanto in a natural setting.
It has essentially fallen into the same trap as Gaelic in Scotland. It does attract some interest, but as Sorley MacLean once said, “it has a great future, as a hobby”. The difference with Gaelic is that, while it draws fire from some Scots, it is a badge of pride for others. Esperanto tends to be the domain of a small group of older people in my experience, but is very much a hobby in many cases.
It has also drawn some comparison with fictional languages such as Klingon, Na’avi and Dothraki (from Game of Thrones). It is debatable as to whether this is flattering. It is ironic that a language given so much to international community seems to have ended up as another subculture, albeit a harmless one.
* Not to be confused with the celebrated Manx folk song and folklore collector Sophia Morrison!
Also, my apologies for any formatting errors in this post. WordPress has just introduced a new editing system… this is the first time I’ve used it.
The image is taken from the Evertype print edition of Stranga Kaza which came out in 2014. As usual, no commercial infringement is intended. There is a link to their website below.
- Stranga Kazo at Evertype
- The Early history of Esperanto in the United Kingdom
- Obituary of Bill Chapman (at Esperanto Society of the UK)