Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?

Esperanto was invented by Ludwig Zamenhof, a Polish eye doctor, in 1887. His hometown of Bialystock was separated into communities that each spoke their own language - Yiddish, Polish and Russian - and Zamenhof felt that the mistrust between these communities was caused by their inability to communicate with one another. He was furthermore disturbed by the complexity in having to learn additional languages, such as French, English and German, in order to conduct commerce or scholarship with the world beyond Bialystock.

Zamenhof felt that conflicts, misunderstandings and complexities caused by so many competing languages could be resolved if everybody learned to speak a common "auxiliary" language (Esperanto was never intended to replace existing languages, but simply be a second language that everybody could speak in addition to their native tongue). He felt that such a language would need to be easy to learn and politically neutral. Zamenhof called his language "Lingvo Internacia" and published it under the pseudonym "Doktoro Esperanto," or "Doctor Hopeful." The name stuck.

So, 125 years later, whatever became of Esperanto?
Outsiders tend to scoff at Esperanto as an idealistic waste of time. Esperantists harrumph back: with somewhere between a few hundred thousand and possibly 2m learners, Esperanto is far and away world’s most successful invented language. If that sounds like “Finland’s biggest klezmer band”, it shouldn’t. Esperanto has outgrown quite a few rivals. Dreamers have been inventing languages for centuries, from Lojban (designed around predicate logic) to Ladaan (designed to espouse feminism). But languages like Klingon, Elvish, Dothraki, Navi’i and their kin, created for popular entertainment, are the only invented languages that can muster nearly the enthusiasm Esperanto does.

Esperanto remains atop the heap. The Esperanto Wikipedia has nearly 186,000 articles, more than Hindi or Hebrew, and some 87,000 users, far and away the most among invented languages. Esperanto-speakers gather offline in frequent conventions too, discussing the language’s prospects, making friends and falling in love. An Esperantists’ apartment-share service, Pasporta Servo, boasts over a thousand homes in 90 countries where Esperantists can stay with each other for free. The community’s cheery energy is depicted by Arika Okrent in her book “In the Land of Invented Languages". Esperantists’ pride is not totally without foundation.

One element behind Esperanto’s success is obviously its simplicity. Zamenhof designed it to spread. Roots come from the main European languages. Grammar is utterly regular. (Nouns end in –o, adjectives in –a, adverbs in –e. Plurals get a –j, and so on.) And Esperantists are keen to teach: sign up at Lernu and you will find not only free, decent-quality lessons but free tutoring from experienced speakers. There are few actual “native” speakers, perhaps around a thousand. Many have heard Esperanto since birth by idealistic parents, but Ms Okrent describes just one, Kim Henriksen, who speaks Esperanto as his dominant language.
This article was actually sent to me a few weeks ago by a friend of mine who remembered that I was rather geeked up about Esperanto back in high school. Being young and idealistic, I thought it was a great idea. I completed a free ten-lesson postal course on the language (I think I still have the certificate around here somewhere), became a member of the Esperanto League for North America, and even attended meet-ups with fellow Houston-area Esperantists. My enthusiasm for the language didn't wane until I was well into college and needed to devote time to other matters. Even today, a quarter-century after I was first exposed to it, I still think the idea behind Esperanto is worthwhile.

Unfortunately, it's doubtful that Esperanto will ever become the world's standard, common language. In spite of the fact that it is easy to learn and is heavily promoted by a considerable number of dedicated Esperantists across the globe, the number of people who speak it has not appeared to have appreciably grown over time. It certainly hasn't reached the critical mass necessary for its widespread adoption as a common language for business, science or diplomacy. That's only part of the problem:
But beyond sheer numbers, people learn a language in order to enjoy a living and real human culture. This holds Esperanto back. Google “famous Esperanto speakers” and you will find Wikipedia’s list. Many names are not exactly famous. But one jumps out: J.R.R. Tolkien. The novelist (and language inventor) apparently briefly dabbled in Esperanto. But he later wrote to a reader that
Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, Novial, &c &c are dead, far deader than ancient unused languages, because their authors never invented any Esperanto legends.                         [From letter 180.]
For “legends”, we might read more broadly “culture”. People may learn English or German or Chinese to get a job. But they also learn languages to experience travel, food, film, music and literature. Look at the cover of a language textbook and you’ll find an attractive person strolling down a stereotypically picturesque street from the country in question, or maybe a famous landmark. “That,” thinks the learner, “is what I want.”  

What would that picture be for an Esperanto textbook? The community is proud of its respect for existing cultures. Esperanto is to be the world's first choice for a second language in order to protect diversity, not to replace it. So to be motivated to learn Esperanto, you have to be motivated not by a living and breathing culture, but by an ideal of international harmony. That ideal has to compete with French food, Italian fashion, Brazilian music, Spanish nightlife, American rock'n’roll, Japanese film, and so on.
Aside from that, the world already appears to have settled on an auxiliary language: English. Esperantists despise the concept that English is becoming the world's common tongue, and for good reason: English is the antithesis of Esperanto. Esperanto's orthography and grammar are simple and regular, while elements of English - spelling and pronunciation, homonyms and homophones, a bunch of irregular verbs - are maddeningly complex. Esperanto is intended to be a politically-neutral language, whereas English carries connotations of British and American hegemony and imperialism.

Nevertheless, English is doing what Esperanto was supposed to do. Case in point:

A bit over a decade ago, when I was in Prague, I came across a monument erected by Czech Esperantists, written in Esperanto, and commemorating some Esperanto-related event. I thought it was rather interesting; I think I might even have taken a picture of it. And even though it had, at that point, been years since I had studied the language, I could still read and understand most of what was written: a testament, I believe, to Esperanto's logic and simplicity.

Later, the irony dawned on me: why was I in Prague to begin with? I was there visiting my brother, who was living there at the time. And what was my brother doing in Prague?

He was there teaching English to eager-to-learn Czechs.

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