Elias Molee was born in Muskego, Wisconsin, in 1845, the son of John Evenson Molie and Anne Jacobson Einong (the family name was originally Molie). His father emigrated from Tinn in Telemark in 1839 and was an early farmer in Muskego. Although Elias Molee worked at various occupations during his lifetime, his principal reputation focused on his linguistic work. In this capacity he created a “planned language” (or “universal language”) called Alteutonic which was a mixture of Germanic languages, included a system of shorthand and used only lower case letters (for example, he used “e” in place of “the”).
At the age of 18, Molee came to “e lutheran college” staying for one year, 1863-1864, but used the surname “Velo” at the time according to Luther College Through Sixty Years. In Molee’s autobiography written in 1919, molee’s wandering, he describes the start of his year at Luther saying, “i had to wander away over 300 miles to e state of iowa, west of e great mississippi river, a grand state divider.” He continues by summarizing his study at Luther as being “e happiest time i have ever enjoyed in my wandering life in this wide wild n wonderful world.” The few pages he uses to reminisce about Luther College are especially significant since he was one of the earliest students to study at the College. Molee demonstrates his early interest in languages pointing out that “i did not love latin n greek. i hated them to e bottom of my heart. … why not spend our valuable young lives in learning e living german, french, spanish, russian, chinese, japanese or alteutonik? latin and greek are dead languages.”
While at Luther, Molee became friends with Rasmus B. Anderson, the renowned Norwegian scholar, who was a fellow student. Molee followed Anderson to Albion Academy where he received his “ph.b” (philosophae bachalauris) in 1868, the credential he customarily used behind his name in all his publications. He later enrolled at the University of Wisconsin where he briefly studied under Anderson who was the founder of the Scandinavian Studies Department.
After his formal education concluded, Molee began a series of jobs in various locations. He served as county treasurer of Houston County, Minnesota, homesteaded in South Dakota, taught school, and owned a newspaper. He also was a land speculator. Toward the end of his life he lived and worked in Washington State where he promoted the southeastern area of the state as an attractive alternative for Norwegian settlers. In 1903, he left the area moving to Tacoma where he lived until his death. He died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound in Tacoma in 1928. Molee had been briefly married to Maren Myra Velo in 1869 but was divorced in 1880. Although Rasmus Anderson mentioned a second marriage for Molee in his autobiography, it has never been verified.
Molee dedicated much of his effort during his adult life to promoting his planned language. The planned language he created is considered an “a posteriori language” since the language possesses a grammar and vocabulary derived from natural language. As an aside, it is should be noted that another person associated with Luther College, W. John Weilgart, Professor of Psychology (1964-1978), also created a planned language. Known as aUI, it is considered an “a priori language” since its grammar and vocabulary were created from scratch. Both languages are representative of the dozens of planned languages proposed over the last century and a half, according to Mark L. Louden, Co-Director of the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin. Esperanto, created in 1887, is perhaps the best known and most successful of the planned languages.
Molee’s language, first called “Tutonish” and later renamed “Alteutonish” was a mixture of English, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian languages. In his autobiography, he related playing with children as he was growing up whom, while speaking in Norwegian, German and English, began to mix the languages with perfect comprehension. From these origins, he began to create his planned language in a series of books, many self-published. In an early book written in 1888 titled Plea for an American Language he stated that his goal was “the forming of the ultimate homogeneous American People.” He continued by arguing that “a gradual simplification of our language in the lines here proposed will facilitate the outer unification and strengthen the consciousness of inner relationship between the representatives of the Teutonic race, of which our population in the main consists.”
As his thinking progressed, he wrote Tutonish: a Teutonic International Language in 1904 which outlined his philosophy behind the planned language and explained the grammatical structure. He argued for adoption of Tutonish among the Teutons saying, “The other races are too different and uninteresting for a language union with us. Let them unite themselves, if they will and can.” Later he expanded on his theories in the books Nu Teutonish and Altutonish. In the latter, he added 800 fundamental vocabulary words used in daily life. The simplification of grammar and spelling rules as well as his plan for only using lower case letters were part of his theory. In addition, Molee created a form of sign language symbols, many of which were included in an appendix in his autobiography.
A few clues help to clarify the view of others toward Molee’s linguistic work. Some of his early books were reviewed in the New York Times, in 1903 and 1904 and mention of his linguistic work is also made in that source in 1907. 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.” Rasmus Anderson wrote about Molee in his 1915 autobiography, saying “He has reflected great credit on Albion academy and earned an honorable position among its most distinguished sons. He has made the name elias molee immortal.” He also pointed out that one of Molee’s books was published by “the great Trubner publishing house of London” which was proof of “distinguished attention.” H. L. Mencken, in his classic work The American Language, first published in 1919, speaks of Molee’s efforts but dismisses them as “difficult of acquirement.” Marvin Slind points out that Molee’s 1928 obituary in Minneapolis Tidende described him as “the notable Norwegian-American language researcher.” Finally, it should be observed that in more recent years, Plea for an American Language was reprinted by Routledge in 2003 and again by Kessinger Publishing in 2007. According to Amazon the book is a scarce antiquarian book included in a special Legacy Reprint Series. The same book was part of an eight-volume work entitled American English, 1781-1921 also published by Routledge in 2003.
All the books by Molee in the Luther College Special Collections were donated to the College by the author. In 1911, he inscribed his Altutonish with the inscription “to e nor. ev. Lutherish kolleg mio dier ‘alma mater’ mit frendli grietinga fon elias molee.” They are shelved in the Alumni, Faculty/Staff, Luther College Press Collection. Archival collections of material about Molee are contained in the Norwegian-American Historical Association Archives in Northfield, MN, and at the South Dakota Historical Society.
Ref: Slind, Marvin. “elias molee and “auteutonic”: A Norwegian-American’s “Universal Language.” Accepted for publication in Norwegian-American Studies, edited by the Norwegian-American Historical Association; Louden, Mark L. “Elias Molee and the Dream of an International Language.” Max Kade Institute Friends Newsletter. 13:4 (Winter 2004), 4-6; Anderson, Rasmus B. Life Story of Rasmus B. Anderson. Madison, WI: s.n., 1915; Mencken, H.S. The American Language. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923.
Photograph courtesy of Marvin Slind.