What was language for again?

The other day, I came across a nice example of the way many Europeans thought at the eve of the First World War.

At that time, Abraham Mossel was making a journey on foot through Europe together with three friends. They became known as de Wereldwandelaars, the Worldwalkers.

One of the studio photos the Worldwalkers sold on their way to finance their journey. This one can now be found in the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam, http://www.jhm.nl/collectie/fotos/40010100.

One of the studio photos three of the Worldwalkers sold on the road, to finance their journey. Abraham Mossel on the left. This postcard can now be found in the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam, http://www.jhm.nl/collectie/fotos/40010100 (the copyright may still lie with an unknown Hungarian photographer).

In 1912, they arrived in Austria-Hungary. Back then, the Austrian-Hungarian empire stretched over a wide territory and contained a huge variety of languages, each with its groups of native speakers. Mossel was amazed at the unwillingness of many people he encountered to communicate with other language communities. On their journey through the country, the Worldwalkers talked to many different people, from workers (‘arbeiders’) to fraternity-students. But all of them disappointed in their lack of cooperation.

Reusachtig arbeidsvermogen, dat voor gezamenlijk opwaarts werken benut had kunnen worden, gaat nu verloren in ‘t bevechten van elkaar.

(An enormous amount of labour power which could have been applied together to progressive work , is now lost in fighting each other.)

The Worldwalkers were Esperantists. They were learning and teaching Esperanto, a language constructed in the later nineteenth century for neutral communication between language communities. It embodied the hope (‘espero‘) for a greater mutual understanding between speakers of different languages, both at a local-community level and between states (perhaps even preventing wars?).

It was an encouraging fact that the Worldwalkers encountered quite a few Esperantists in the Austrian-Hungarian empire. But what was that?

In Weenen vonden we niet één enkele groote Esperanto-vereeniging, maar allerlei kleine groepjes, door elke nationaliteit slechts voor zichzelf gevormd. Als wij daar b.v. op een bijeenkomst van de Boheemsche Esperantisten waren, dan hoorden wij er nooit anders dan Esperanto of Boheemsch praten. De andere talen werden er veel te erg verfoeid.

(In Vienna we did not find one single big Esperanto-club, but all kinds of small groups, formed by each nationality just for itself. When we were there at for example a meeting of the Bohemian Esperantists, we heard speak nothing but Esperanto or Bohemian. The other languages were loathed much too much.)

Such was the situation everywhere in Europe just before war broke out. It made me wonder whether we have become any less exclusive.

 

source: A. Mossel, De Wereldwandelaars. Een zwerftocht door Europa (Amsterdam, 1917), 178-80.

 

 

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