Usona Esperantisto № 2018:4 (jul-aug)

Leo Wiener: The First Proto-Esperantist in America

Lasta ĝisdatigo: 2018-08-31

Welcome to the first intallment in a column featuring forgotten gems from the past — one of the results of our project to build a digital archive of Esperanto publications from the United States. Following Kristy Lommen’s article about America’s “original Esperantist”, it seemed fitting to share this article from 1980 about America’s first “proto-Esperantist”, written by the great Bernard Golden.

In this article I should like to bring out of obscurity a man who has been forgotten in the Esperanto movement. He was not an Esperantist but a proto-Esperantist, who came to America before Esperanto was made public in 1887, the year in which Dr. Ludwig L. Zamenhof published his first modest textbook known as the Unua Libro.

First let us determine the earliest date when Esperanto became known in the United States. In 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, John Fogg Twombly, with the help of European Esperanto groups, set up a stand to inform the public about the new international language. In the following year the first local club was founded in Boston with Twombly as president. The first national organization, the American Esperantist Association, also came into being in 1905. I wonder whether the members of the Boston group were aware that one of the earliest European followers of Zamenhof was residing only a stone’s throw away in Cambridge, Massachusetts … but that is getting ahead of our story.

Esperanto, in fact, had been known in the United States almost two decades before the organized movement got under way. In 1887 the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia undertook an inquiry concerning international languages and collected data about various projects. The committee appointed to examine the languages first turned its attention to Volapük, invented by the German priest Johann Martin Schleyer in 1879. Volapük was rejected by the committee, which established its own principles for an ideal international language. When it was found that Esperanto had the required qualities, the secretary of the Society, Henry Phillips, Jr., translated the Unua Libro into English, and it was published together with the reports of the committee in 1889. Since Henry Phillips, Jr. learned Esperanto in 1887, using the French translation of the Unua Libro, he can be regarded as the first Esperantist in the United States. However, the follower of Zamenhof already mentioned had been in America for five years when the American Philosophical Society first dealt with Esperanto. Who was he and how did he get to the United States?

This part of our story began in Europe, in Bialystok, Poland, the birthplace of Dr. Zamenhof. A boy named Leo Wiener was also born there in 1862, three years after Zamenhof’s birth. Perhaps the two became acquainted while they were children in Bialystok. In 1873 Zamenhof’s family moved to Warsaw and Ludwig, then a teenager, entered the 4th class of the 2nd Classical Gymnasium. After having begun his secondary education in Minsk, Leo Wiener, too, came to Warsaw four years later in 1877. At that time the boys became friends although they did not attend the same school.

Ever since coming to Warsaw, young Zamenhof had been experimenting with different forms of an international language, and he had succeeded in interesting a number of his schoolmates and other friends in language which he called Lingwe Uniwersala. This was the earliest form of Esperanto; Esperantologists call it proto-Esperanto 1. Its first public presentation occurred just over 100 years ago on December 17 (December 5 according to the Old Style Julian calendar), 1878. Nineteen-year-old Ludwig celebrated the Day of Giving Life to the Universal Language by organizing a party at his home. The festivity, attended by his mother, brothers and sisters and six or seven members of the Lingwe Uniwersala group, was solemnized by the recitation of a four-line poem which is the only extant example of that early Esperanto dialect:

Malamikete de las nacjes
Kadó, kadó, jam temp’ está!
La tot’ homoze in familje
Konunigare so debá.

Zamenhof’s own translation:

Malamikeco de la nacioj
falu, falu, jam tempo estas!
La tuta homaro en familion
unuiĝi devas.

Leo Wiener, too, was present to join in the singing. The following year the two friends were separated. After graduation from the gymnasium, Zamenhof went to Moscow to begin his medical studies at the university in the Russian capital. A year later, in 1880 Leo Wiener enrolled in the medical faculty of the University of Warsaw, but he soon found that he was not cut out for the medical profession. He then went to Germany to study engineering at the Polytechnic Institute in Berlin in 1881-1882.

In the meantime, because of financial difficulties, Zamenhof had returned to Warsaw to complete his studies at the university in that city, and he received his medical degree in 1885. Leo Wiener’s study of engineering lasted just about as long as his interrupted medical career. Obsessed by malaise in Europe, he began to look for greener pastures abroad. Having become a vegetarian during his stay in Germany, Wiener conceived of a plan to found a Utopian vegetarian community in British Honduras where the British government was making land available for such ventures. Wiener was joined by a fellow idealist, but while on the high seas headed for Central America, certain disagreeable personal qualities of his partner induced Wiener to abandon the project of a tropical colony.

Wiener disembarked in New Orleans in 1882 and spent the next few years tramping about the south and midwest, trying his hand at various occupations and acquiring an intimate knowledge of American life. He later found his place in academic pursuits, first teaching modern languages at the University of Missouri from 1892 to 1895; then from 1896 to 1930 he taught Slavic languages and literature at Harvard in the department which he founded.

Leo Wiener apparently made no attempt to participate in the early Esperanto movement in the United States, since his name is not mentioned in any of the publications which I have been able to consult. He was a polyglot and devoted himself to a wide range of philological studies. He contributed etymologies to Webster’s New International Dictionary, published a book on 19th century Yiddish literature, translated the works of Tolstoy — 24 volumes — into English, studied Bantu African languages and Indian languages of Central America, wrote on medieval Germanic laws and also investigated the gypsies. However, I know of only two articles which he wrote on international languages, both published in 1907 in a Berlin scientific weekly. In the academic community Wiener was eclipsed by his son, Norbert Wiener, the eminent mathematician and founder of the science of cybernetics.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the presentation of Lingwe Uniwersala, it is fitting to call attention to the role of Leo Wiener in the early Esperanto movement. As one of the enthusiastic learners of proto-Esperanto, he encouraged Zamenhof to continue to perfect his language. As an immigrant to the United States he became the first follower of Zamenhof to reach the shores of the new world.