6 October 2006
Esperanto: a personal experience
Learning Esperanto teaches you a great deal about language and language politics.
Telling people that you're interested in Esperanto immediately evokes a response ranging from ridicule to pity. In fact, my interest in Esperanto surprised even me. It developed purely as a result of my having time on my hands in a Budapest bookshop café one afternoon. I scanned the selection of Teach Yourself language books, and chose the Esperanto one to sit down to read with my coffee.
Despite my politics degree and my two-decade long experience in teaching English as a foreign language, I knew very little about Esperanto. Just after leaving university, I had met Mark Fettes, an academic linguist and fluent Esperantist, at a dinner party, but had thought the whole Esperanto idea a little off centre. My thinking was, to put it simply, that very few people spoke the language, and for that reason very few people saw any point in learning it, and vice versa. So as Esperanto was doomed as a universal lingua franca, why on Earth should one spend time with such a marginal and eccentric project?
My language learning efforts have always been minimal. At school I had learnt French to O level, and in my first year at university I had taken a further course, but I never acquired more than a basic vocabulary which allowed me to ask the way and buy things in the shops. My German, despite some very unsatisfacotry lessons at school, was largely self-taught. Though basic, it was put to good use in visits to the Federal Republic and the then German Democratic Republic. In 1993 I took up an on-going temporary residence in Hungary and struggled with the Magyar tongue, which in terms of its complexity, or difference from the Indo-European languages I had met so far, made it a learner's nightmare. My final dilettante meddling has been with Slovak. The few phrases I have acquired have proved surprisingly useful in Slovakia and other Slav speaking lands, so the minimal investment has paid off.
So what was it about Esperanto, which turned me from a casual inquirer into an advocate, if not a devotee? Certainly, if I hadn't had an intellectual curiosity about language I wouldn't have read on, but there is an aspect of Esperanto which impresses itself on you immediately: you make meteoric progress, at least compared with any other ethnic language you've learnt. The grammar rules are remarkably simple: no irregular verbs; verb forms remain unchanged irrespective of their subject; plural formation is wholly regular. In addition, the vocabulary is easy to pick up for two reasons. First, the vast majority of the words are drawn from the Romance and Germanic languages; so much of vocabulary (e.g. familio, birdo, hundo, simila) is readily digestible for English speakers. Second, more complicated words are formed by putting together the bits of words (morphemes) to derive new lexis; hospital, for instance, is not-healthy-person-place, (malsanulejo). Summing up then, given the simple grammar and vocabulary, you make more progress with the language in a few hours than you would make with an ethnic language in several weeks.
But what really hit me was something else. After about thirty hours work spread over a couple of months, I was more or less able to read the language. True, one word in twenty had me reaching for the dictionary, but if the subject was familiar even that was not the case. The truth was that I was reading in Esperanto more easily than in any other language I had met so far. And if that were the case for me, a native speaker of English, then the same would be true for other speakers of Romance and Germanic languages. Of course there are some people who argue that Esperanto should not be considered a neutral universal language precisely because of its Romano-Germanic roots. But the point should be made in reply that the vast majority of people in the European Union and the Americas speak Romance or Germanic languages, and of course Esperanto's competitor for world language, English, is itself a Romano-Germanic language
English is without doubt the lingua franca of the age; if a Greek meets an Estonian, the chances are that they either can't communicate, or else they speak English. The power of English owes its origin to two centuries of Anglo-Saxon world economic and political dominance: first the British Empire and then the USA. There is nothing intrinsic to English that makes it best suited for the role of World Language. Yet it has become the world's de facto lingua franca, and I have made my career facilitating that role. So English and Esperanto, the Goliath and the David?
Well, I know as a teacher of English that it takes a Frenchman or a German more than a few months to learn to read English, but I also now know that it takes only that long to learn to read Esperanto. In other words I know that for many purposes English as a lingua franca is quite simply an inefficient fraud kept in place by a self-fulfilling momentum facilitated by history and US political and economic power. Indeed, the reasons why English is dominant, and not say French or Spanish, is widely known; the fact that English is also inefficient, as a lingua franca can only become apparent from knowledge of Esperanto.
I don't want to make the case that Esperanto is kept on the sidelines solely out of fear of the American jackboot. Esperanto remains peripheral rather for the same reasons that Britain decides to continue driving on the left-hand side of the road. Sure, there is a benefit to driving on the right: lower car prices and fewer fatal misunderstandings, but the cost of change is just too great, and the effects too disturbing to too many people. The same reasoning also prevents us adopting a decimal clock.
Esperanto is an efficient tool of communication, but my interest and support for it derives from more than a mere love of a potentially efficient tool. Esperanto has a political history which is both elaborate and colourful. And more than that, it has been entwined over the years with social values which I believe are politically worthwhile.
Dr Ludvik Zamenhof, after more than a decade of preparatory work, published the fundamental grammar and vocabulary of Esperanto in 1887. He saw Esperanto as a solution to the language problem which was so evident in his home town of Bialystok in what is now Poland, but was then part of the Russian Empire. The town was linguistically ghettoised into Russian, Polish, German and Yiddish speaking communities. Zamenhof's solution was simple: invent a neutral, logical and easy to learn language as a lingua franca, and even if you haven't got heaven on earth at least you can have people talking to one another.
Well the idea took off, even if it didn't convince a majority anywhere; and by the early Twentieth Century the number of people who knew Esperanto could be counted in the tens of thousands. What Zamenhof did was to project the cosmopolitan ideal into language. This was not the idea of nationalism (us and our culture above them and theirs), not the now sometimes fashionable idea of multiculturalism (equal respect for each culture and its practices irrespective of its content), but instead the idea of going beyond ethnic and national identities to forge a future based on human understanding and rationalism. How old fashioned such modern thought sounds today, when the only supranational culture is MacDonald's and Coca-Cola.
So Esperanto fitted in to my cosmopolitanism and rationalism. And precisely because of those qualities it found favour with the political left over the twentieth century. The now Paris based organisation SAT (Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda), founded in Prague in 1921, has promoted Esperanto in the ranks of the left for nearly a century. So for me Esperanto nicely resonated with two highly attractive ideologies: liberalism and socialism.
So is that all? Esperanto as a tool of potential efficiency and as a historical comfort blanket for my politics. Well there is a third thing: the language itself.
Esperanto does a strange thing to your brain; its precision and concision simplify the mental leap from the word on the page to the thoughts in the head. Think of an adjective meaning "worth seeing" in English and it's hard, but Esperanto through bringing together two word bits (morphemes) does the task, vidinda (stress on the penultimate syllable). Now think of a noun for a person who is about to fall. In Esperanto we have one word for this falonto. How easy is it to say in English the adjective-noun construction vidinda falonto?
Perhaps, the aesthetic attraction of Esperanto is reserved for the initiated, but I have found it; and I'm sure many who shun political and social statements have nonetheless quietly enjoyed the language merely as a language. So, my conclusion for the language is to see Esperanto as a tool that works, as good politics and as art. So given its virtues, does Esperanto have a successful future?
Well if you judge Esperanto in terms of its success so far in becoming world lingua franca it has been a complete failure. Nobody in the next few years can easily see Esperanto playing a key role in solving any language inter-ethnic problem in the world. In fact, if we look at the claim of Esperanto as becoming the future universal second language of the world, then, in those terms, Esperanto has not even chalked up a one percent success rate. Put bluntly, it has totally failed.
Yet look at the same situation the other way round. Has Esperanto enabled tens of thousands of people to communicate with each other who otherwise wouldn't have been able to? And hasn't it enabled them to communicate on a more neutral basis than would be possible with any ethnic language? If you can agree with me that Esperanto is a noble project, and that greater knowledge and use of the language is worthwhile, then I suggest you invest some time in it. Who knows, you might actually enjoy it!