From the peculiar obsessions file we arrive at the unusual life and work of Elias Molee who lived in Tacoma from about 1900 until his suicide in 1928. Elias’ family had come to Wisconsin from Norway and he was quick to escape from farming to a life of self styled academics, elected office as a county treasurer in Minnesota, grammar school teacher and newspaperman in South Dakota before heading west for Tacoma. By then he was in his mid 50s determined to achieve his life purpose of teaching the entire country a single language-his planned language which he called Altutonish.
Altutonish, or Tutonish as he first called it, was an amalgam of Scandinavian languages (mostly Norwegian) mixed with English, Dutch and German with his own flourishes about grammar and spelling thrown in. Common words were shorted to single letters, the became e for example. Capital letters were discouraged and phonetic spelling was used to shorten words wherever possible. The inscription he wrote in the copy of his book donated to Luther College in Iowa read “to e nor. ev. Lutherish kolleg mio dier ‘alma mater’ mit frendli grietinga fon elias molee.
Molee was a prolific if somewhat verbose and rambling writer who saw value in creating shortcuts in both spoken and written communication. The problem was that in both his writing style and his gruff personality, he was the last kind of person who should be searching for a concise path to language. Nevertheless he was convinced that “a gradual simplification of our language in the lines here proposed will facilitate the outer unification and strengthen the consciousness of inner relationship(s)”. Small wonder his autobiography was titled Wanderings.
In his quixotic search for brevity, Elias wrote more than ten books, some of which he rewrote in different languages. He was like the hand writer who would start a letter in normal size and as the paper begins to fill up his writing would shrink in size and then begin running up the margins in a microscopic stream that would eventually become unreadable.
In the early version Altutonish ran to about 20,000 words and just kept growing. For comparison, the Chinook jargon used as a trade language for centuries in the Pacific Northwest was made up of about 700 words.
While working out the eventual 60,000 words in the language, along with its rigid rules of grammar, usage and pronunciation, Elias developed an irritable edge towards people who didn’t embrace and speak Altutonish. In the first sentence in his 1903 book on the language he started with “In presenting this book to the public, the author does so with the expectation of criticism, knowing full well the tendencies of the public to regard any innovation as the result of Crankism.” How do you say Chip on your shoulder in Altutonish?
Molee was convinced that for 50 years, the chosen people of the world should study his “union language’ for 15 to 30 minutes a day. The United States and New Guinea were his idea of good places to start. By that time, he calmly observed, “the present old people would have died away,” and everybody would or should know Altutonish.
Elias was also not real big on any books other than his own mainly because they were written in the wrong language. He put it like this,
I should burn the most of it to get more room for new books. Not more than one book in a hundred is worth reading or being translated. A few great poets, artists and historians, could easily be translated. Religious and scientific books are constantly changed and republished, except the Bible. Those books may as well be republished in the union tongue, after the people have learned that easy language. Few read old books.
In his increasingly angry linguistic evangelicalism, he augmented his self publishing with travels and rants to various audiences around the world. He managed to have an audience with King Haakon VII of Norway about his planned language in 1909 reporting in his autobiography that “e king ws very friendly t me.” The same wasn’t true with the notice he received from the notoriously scathing critic H.L. Mencken who dismissed Molee’s work as minor and “difficult of acquirement.”
At home in Tacoma Elias Molee was an obscure character who was not widely known. Even as invented languages like Esperanto gained attention and some acceptance Molee and his language lived mostly in obscurity even in his own home town. In a July 17, 1980 letter to Murray Morgan, newspaperman Paul Sandegren remembered him like this;
“Your lower-case style of letter writing reminds me of a person who used to have tracts printed in my father’s shop. He had invented an international language which he was promoting, but about the only thing in connection with it that I remember was that he used no capital letters and had shortened the words; for instance, “e” stood for “the.” His name was elias k. molee, a Norwegian, and it’s a wonder that I remember his name because I’m notoriously derelict in that respect. The old guy had quite a bit of money for those days, I was told, and in one of his tracts he included his will, providing, in part, $10,000 to the University of Heidelberg if it would hold one lecture a year in the interest of his language. Whether the university ever got that $10,000 and, if so, whether the lectures were ever held I do not know. My father used to say that he would gladly have given the lectures for the 10 thou.”
On September 28, 1928 Elias K. Molee took his own life in Tacoma. In doing so he may well have murdered the world’s last speaker of Altutonish.
Thanks to Lane Morgan for her uncanny ability to find the oddballs in Tacoma’s history and for the introduction to the unusual life of Elias Molee.