Monday, December 30, 2013

Explaining Esperanto

Esperanto is an artificial language designed for international communication on a neutral and free basis. Who designed it? Well, a prototype of Esperanto was launched in the Polish city of Warsaw, in 1887, by Lejzer Ludvik Zamenhof, a 28-year-old eye doctor. He insisted on not being called its designer and on hiding behind the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto, the doctor who hopes, which people then turned into the name of the language. Zamenhof was not the first person to launch a constructed language project (this point is explained a bit later). But he was the first person to choose, on day two, to hand over a prototype to the community of users who would flesh it out and develop it as a full language.

How does it work? Quite apart from its phonetic writing which means there are no strange spellings to learn by heart, Esperanto words are also designed to be easy to learn and use. This is mainly achieved by breaking an idea up into little pieces of thought and putting these bits together. Arbo, a tree. Aro, a group of things. Arbaro, a forest. Skribi, to write. Aĵo, something concrete, something tangible. Skribaĵo, some writing, something written. Ilo, a tool. Skribilo, a pen. Skribilaro, stationery, a bunch of things you need to write with, paper, pens, erasers, etc. Ejo, a place. Skribejo, a room where we sit and write. Skribilejo, a place where you keep pens. Isto, a professional. Skribisto, a professional writer. Skribilisto, someone who professionally makes or sells pens. Skribilaristo, a stationery producer or seller.

Why does this make the language easy to learn? Because it cuts your learning time to a fraction of what you need for other languages. You don’t have to learn separate words for frato, brother, and fratino, sister, for frateco, brotherhood, or for fratineco, sisterhood. Once you know lerni, to learn, you also get lernejo, school; lernanto, schoolboy; lernantino, schoolgirl; lernilaro, textbooks and lab equipment; lernilaristo, a professional who works to make or sell these things; lernado, constant study; lernaĵo, lesson; lernigi, to teach; lernigisto, teacher. You can also joke by using a word like lernisto, which can only mean professional schoolchild, maybe your way of showing impatience that somebody has been repeating a class, year after year, and is much older than all the other children in the class!

To see that this works for other examples, think about vi vidas, you see, and you automatically learn also vidaĵo, view; vidado, vision; vida, visual; vidanto, viewer; videjo, gallery; vidinda, worth seeing; vidindaĵoj, tourist sights or attractions; vidindaĵisto, tourist guide. In no other language can you learn so little and immediately get so many meaningful words made with the bits you’ve picked up.

What is the point of having an easy to learn language like this? The point is that this is the least painful and the least unfair way for people from different countries to find a common language of world peace and friendship. It is fair that everybody should make some effort to learn a neutral language. Since the language belongs to no group, there’s nobody with a native accent who can laugh at foreigners. That makes everyone equal. And nobody has to make a huge effort to get into the language, which makes it fair.

That’s about justice. But is it any use? What can you do with the language? Where does anybody speak it?

Eastern Europe, where Esperanto was first launched, is still where the largest concentrations of people speak it. But speakers exist all over the world, from Iceland to India, from Korea to Colombia. Esperantists, as speakers of the language are called, use it mainly to get in touch with others across frontiers, especially when they travel. Finding your counterparts abroad is easy since many Esperantists are listed in directories, which are increasingly web-based. They also communicate a lot through the Internet.

Okay, so you can reach people in this language. What does it get you in real life? When you stay at homes of fellow Esperantists you’ve located through a mutual hospitality network like Pasporta Servo ‘passport service’, you not only stay and eat cheaply, you also get good advice about low budget tourism. The hosts you meet this way put you in touch with people in your profession in various countries.

This may not look like a practical gain if you think that since English is the most widely learnt foreign language you can reach the world through English. At the sheer practical level, though, a trip through Japan or Spain or Poland is much easier to manage in Esperanto than in English, which is not spoken by the passers-by, shopkeepers and ticket counter staff you need to deal with. In those countries, for very little money and with a good deal of personal warmth, you can get Esperantists to escort you on the crucial shopping trips or to draw you foolproof maps.

Besides, knowing Esperanto gets you the friendship of people who like new ideas and fairness. You see, those are the people who are attracted to a neutral language of international cooperation. So you meet friends who save energy, who respect tribals, who help the handicapped, who protect the environment, just as you do.

English can’t get you this. To see this, think about news magazines. There are no news magazines in English that give you the viewpoint of Icelanders about Iceland, of Lithuanians about Lithuania, of the Japanese about Japan, and so on in one place. In Esperanto, the popular monthly Monato does exactly this, and the result is a vigorous debate that shows up in the letters to its multinational team of editors.

Why can’t any news magazine in English be fair to the viewpoints of the various countries of the world? Well, that’s very simple. The idea of making everybody try to learn English is not a fair arrangement, is it? Americans and Britishers get a free ride while the rest of us have to slog to learn what comes naturally to them, and then they get a chance to laugh at our foreign accents. You need to think about whether you really want this, or think that this is fair. One way that this is not fair is the simple fact that, despite all the propaganda about the neutrality of English, in fact there is not a single news magazine in a language as powerful as English that allows people from each country to write about their country, whereas something as small as Esperanto has been able to keep such a magazine going for 33 years.

You think Esperanto too is ultimately unfair, because it was launched by Europeans and is full of European words? That’s a good point. But you need to place it in context. People had been trying for three centuries to design a perfectly fair language equally remote from everybody. The best result of those efforts had been the 1879 project called Volapük. It sounded like this: O Fat opas, kel binol in süls, paisaludomöz nem ola. Kömomöd monargän ola. Jenomöz vil olik, äs in sül, I su tal. (Esperanto translation: Ho Patro nia, kiu estas en la ĉielo, sankta estu nomo via. Venu regno via. Fariĝu volo via, kiel en la ĉielo, tiel sur la tero.) Pronouns show how regular it was: ob ‘I’, ol ‘you’, om ‘he’, of ‘she’, os ‘it’; obs ‘we’, ols ‘you all’, oms ‘they men’, ofs ‘they women’. This was the first international project that hundreds of people learnt and started using. When Esperanto came along in 1887, why did many Volapükists switch over to it at once? Why have all later efforts to replace Esperanto as the default invented language for international use uniformly failed, to the point where nobody seriously tries any more?

The secret is simple. Esperanto has its doors open to the internationally used words like telephone, telegraph, capitalism, industry, hydroelectricity, etc., which most languages, even Japanese and Indonesian, have on the whole borrowed from Greek and Latin. To make these imports work properly, it helps that other Esperanto words are a bit like them. But at the same time, as explained earlier, the language leans over backwards to make it easy for users to invent words that express what you mean without learning lots of new words.

The language does this? That’s just a way of talking. The Esperantist public does it. This public has been working hard to make the language easier and more democratic, to open its doors as wide as humanly possible. How is this actually done?

After Zamenhof’s death in 1917, the public developed one of his initiatives to the point of spreading it all over the language. From the 1920s onwards those little word-pieces, affixes, became separate words across the board: ilo, a tool; ejo, a place of work; aro, a set; ilaro, a toolkit; ilejo, a tool room; ino, a female; ismo, a way of thinking; inismo, feminism; isto, a professional; ilisto, someone who works with tools; ilaristo, someone who makes toolkits; istaro, the staff; istarejo, a staff room.

This playing around with the language by the public was a giant step forward. The public had taken over the language. Early Esperantists had timidly stayed with longer forms like organizaĵo for ‘organization’ much like the words in English and French. Now the public shortened such a word into organizo. The verb organizi ‘to organize’ could add the noun-piece o and should at once mean ‘organization’. Why bother to add that aĵo to make it sound concrete? Surely organizo, as a noun, is already concrete enough? Likewise, from an adjective like valida ‘valid’, the early users would timidly make the noun valideco, copying English validity or French validité from Latin validitas. From the 1920s onwards, ordinary users have shown us all that it is enough to say valido, where the noun affix o already tells us we have a noun. People no longer need to say validECo. Also, to say a sentence like ‘that membership card will work until 2004', we now say ‘tiu membreco-karto validos ĝis 2004', where validos is a future tense verb. We don’t have to say ‘restos valida’ for ‘will stay valid’; the verb tense ending is enough.

If you really think Esperanto needs an injection of Asian words, maybe it does. Quite a few such words have made it already. But if you are keen on increasing their numbers, you should put your effort where your thoughts are. You can learn the language and join the community to tell it exactly what you propose – to just launch your favourite words of Asian origin in large numbers. Perhaps you will then pull off what the general public in the 1920s was able to. You can inject whatever words you like and perhaps push the rules in a new direction. The community has shown it listens to people with reasonable ideas. Nobody, after all, owns the language. It will be yours too.

What about countries and institutions? Well, no country teaches Esperanto as a compulsory subject, though it is an optional school subject in many countries and a radio broadcast language in Poland, China and a couple of other countries. It is a popular school subject in Hungary. Esperanto rides piggyback on the Hungarian educational system’s language testing arrangements with the Association of Language Testers of Europe that runs the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages under whose umbrella their official testing of proficiency in French, German, Hungarian… and Esperanto takes place. The UN has recognized the desirability of learning it and the contribution of Esperanto to world peace since the 1954 UNESCO resolution that led to the recognition of Universal Esperanto Association, based in Rotterdam, as an apex non-governmental organization. The main purpose of the world Esperanto movement is to work as a clearing house across ethnic groups working for fairness, for the survival of high quality in the small languages, to make sure that literature written in these languages is read and valued outside its countries of origin. Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić and Mato Lovrak’s wonderful children’s literature in Croatian or Abel Montagut’s ecologically sensitive science fiction epic or the great Czech poet Jiří Karen’s (also ecologically oriented) poetry can only be read in Esperanto, unless you know Croatian, Catalan or Czech. Since the nomination of the Esperanto poet William Auld for the literature Nobel prize in 1998 and 1999, followed by several other such nominations, the world’s literary institutions, such as PEN, have come to recognize Esperanto literature as one of the serious enterprises. This language of peace will become popular as war gradually gives way to peace. Good things always take time, and the number of those who are interested is always small in the early centuries after a good idea is born. Democracy, after all, was born around 500 B.C., and has become widespread only very recently. Espero, hope, is something Esperantists are not very likely to give up just yet.


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