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Alaskan who knew more than 200 languages could find the right word

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published August 18, 2017

The students in Robin Shoaps' University of Alaska Fairbanks linguistics course last spring, "Klingon, Elvish and Dothraki: The Art and Science of Language Creation," did more than study languages imagined through works of fiction.

They invented a language of their own called "Fosk," devising a vocabulary of 1,000 words. "Nix fadstälnaw r"idi chyai" means "Let's explore somewhere new."

I don't know whether Fosk will ever be as popular as Klingon, Elvish or Dothraki — languages put forward in "Star Trek," the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and "Game of Thrones" — but that its creation took place in Fairbanks is more fitting than the Fosk speakers may realize.

Richard Geoghegan as a young man before he moved to Alaska in 1903.

That's because the linguist who did more than anyone to introduce the world's most successful invented language to English-speaking people lived in Fairbanks for 40 years and wrote the first English textbook for the invented language, called "Esperanto."

He was Richard Geoghegan, an Englishman of Irish descent who came to Alaska in 1903 as a clerk for Judge James Wickersham.

He had an unbelievable gift for learning to write and read in different languages, many of which he never spoke because there was no one to speak with.

This intellectual bent, combined with a shy personality and childhood accident that damaged one of his legs and forced him to walk with a cane or crutches, set him apart.

Anthropologist Fredericka Martin, who considered him one of her greatest teachers, scoffed at claims from Geoghegan said he knew a "smattering" of languages.

"His smatterings consisted of an encyclopedic knowledge of over 200 languages and dialects ranging from his own native Gaelic, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Egyptian, through the modern European tongues to obscure Oriental dialects," she wrote in a 1944 introduction to his study of the Aleut language.

Biographer David Richardson wrote that the estimate of 200 languages was "surely understated" and Fairbanks residents knew little of his prowess. Geoghegan could, as one said, "translate anything into anything."

He once said he could learn a word by studying it for six seconds and expanded his vocabulary by copying word lists, spending six hours a day or more when learning a new tongue.

Long before he came to Alaska, while studying Chinese at Oxford in 1887, Geoghegan had learned to read and write Esperanto, invented by a Polish ophthalmologist who dreamed of a second language to break down barriers among humans.

Geoghegan corresponded in the artificial language with its inventor, Dr. L.L. Zamenof, and dozens of other Europeans who adopted it. He translated and wrote various books in Esperanto, but didn't encounter a speaker of the language in person for 12 years.

"To recognize his dedication and linguistic accomplishments, Geoghegan was elected, in absentia, to the precursor of the Academy of Esperanto in 1905," writes Esther Schor in her new book, "Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language."

He was the first English speaker to take up Esperanto and designed its flag.

"My official number as an Esperantist is 264, indicating I was the 264th person who signified his adhesion to the language," Geoghegan wrote.

From his small cabin in Fairbanks, Geoghegan kept up a steady correspondence with people all over the world in many languages, having never met 90 percent of his friends, known to him only through the exchange of letters.

Many of his compositions, preserved at the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives, qualify as works of literature for the wealth of detail, humor and word play that flowed from his typewriter.

He enjoyed the solitude and freedom he found in his small Fairbanks cabin. Material possessions meant little to him and he was satisfied — surrounded, as Richardson wrote, "by his books and the friendly clutter of half-finished studies, unpublished papers and indifferently collated data on a thousand subjects."

During his years in Alaska, Geoghegan also studied Native languages and wrote a dictionary and grammar book about Aleut, published after his death. At first, he looked for comparisons with other languages he knew — Japanese, Korean, Manchu, Tibetan, Chinese and Russian, among others.

Martin said that to linguists around the world, "his name bore the seal of an authority." She said that to her he provided enlightenment and "new goals of nobility and perfection for which to strive."

"Although the circumstances of his life might seem to have debarred him from the rewards of fame and academic honors, his influence encircled the globe and has not yet ceased to affect men and women in all walks of life," she said.

Geoghegan fell in love with and in 1916 secretly married a Fairbanks woman who worked as a prostitute, Ella Joseph De Saccrist, who went by the name Lola Belmont in her profession. She died in 1936. Other women who worked in the prostitution district set aside by the city looked after him in his final years.

He lived seven more years and said he wanted to be buried next to her with this inscription on the gravestone in Irish, "LAIMH LE RUININ A CHROIDHE," which means "Beside the darling of his heart."

Various printed sources say this beautiful inscription was placed on the stone, but they are not on De Saccrist's grave and neither is his name. The marker only says "IN EVER LOVING MEMORY OF ELLA JOSEPH DE SACCRIST," along with the dates of her birth and death.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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