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The history of a hopeful tongue

Moa Villemo Wirde
Has Esperanto destroyed as many barriers as its inventor intended? We wonder whether there's any hope for the global language

Whilst generations educated before the onset of the National Curriculum might have been exposed to Esperanto as an introduction to language learning, many people now leave school without hearing the briefest mention of the man-made lingua franca.

A brief historio

Esperanto was developed in the late 19th century by Doctor Ludwig L. Zamenhof. Born in Poland in 1859, Zamenhof grew up in a society that was under Russian rule and fraught with conflict. By his mid-teens he had come to believe that language barriers only contributed to the friction between the isolated communities of Poles, Russians, Germans and Jews. He began laying the groundwork for a language easy enough for anyone to learn, regardless of nationality.

His first book, Lingvo Internacia, was published in 1887 under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto – ‘the one who hopes’. Hope would soon become reality; beginners were surprisingly eager to speak the language, and its simplicity helped to boost its popularity as it spread from Europe to the Americas and Asia. In a time before budget airlines, hundreds of followers made it to the first Esperanto World Congress in France in 1905, keen to be a part of Zamenhof’s great vision.

Despite its promising start, few of us are likely to use Esperanto today – for most, English seems a much more convenient option. But Brian Barker, Information Officer at the Esperanto Association of Britain, is keen to point out that the notion that everyone speaks English is an urban myth: “Take London, for example; even here there are people who don’t speak English. What does that say about the rest of the world?”

He points out that rather than replacing English, Esperanto’s role is to offer a politically neutral alternative. “After all, Esperanto was designed to be an international language; it has no associated country, culture or race. Esperanto already enjoys consultative relations both with the Council of Europe and with the United Nations, so it can’t be denied that it has long-term potential.”

Judith Meyer, a computational linguist from Berlin, believes that Esperanto has failed to become a leading world language because economic interests keep English in its current place. She expects that Esperanto’s window of opportunity will only appear if English declines, provided it can survive the creeping domination of Chinese: “If the choice is between learning Chinese or pushing for a neutral international language, a lot of people and governments will find Esperanto more attractive.”

As a teenager, Meyer aspired to speak all the world’s languages and decided Esperanto was a good place to start. “I thought that if it was really as easy as I had read, I could learn it with little effort and strike one language off my list,” she says. Today she is fluent in 12 languages. “It turns out it was like going 180 miles per hour, and every new piece of grammar felt like a puzzle piece snapping into its logical place.”

Passport to parlance?

Brian Barker, who has been involved in the Esperanto movement since the early 1960s, was also intrigued by the apparent simplicity of the language. “I was about seven years old when I read an article about Esperanto in an English-language dictionary. I remember looking at it and thinking ‘this isn’t easy at all’.” He turned to the language again a few years later, “in desperation”.

“I’d always wanted to learn another language, but thought ‘I can’t do French and I can’t do Italian’. After six months of studying I was confident enough to be pen-pals with another student in Moscow.” Hayley Pockington, an English-language graduate from Newcastle, has only recently taken up Esperanto, and got hooked when writing her final-year dissertation.

“I decided to look at Esperanto and why it hadn’t worked, but ended up convincing myself it would be a great language to learn. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. Within a couple of weeks I could start stringing sentences together and knew the rules without even being aware of them. Many are put off it because it’s not a national language, but the point is that once you’ve learnt Esperanto it becomes so much easier to learn other languages.” Pockington says she now feels a lot more comfortable speaking French and when travelling abroad, but doubts that she will actually get the opportunity to speak Esperanto, as it would be too hard to find other speakers.

Found in translation

This is Esperanto’s main drawback; although it is easy to learn, there are not many places to practise your newfound skill. Today’s Esperantists have come up with a tool to address this problem. Pasporta Servo (Passport Service) is a directory of free lodgings in countries across the world, published by the World Esperanto Youth Organisation. Travellers are guaranteed a bed, and most hosts will throw in a home-cooked meal and even a guided tour around the local area. Anyone can join, as long as they speak the language.

Pockington is “definitely interested” in using the service in the future, and Barker has already offered his London home to speakers travelling from nearly a dozen countries, including Italy, Japan and US. “It gives the guests the opportunity to experience the destination as ordinary people, not just as foreigners or tourists,” he says. And for Meyer, it proved more successful than any dating website – she met her boyfriend of six years through the service.

The wonders of the world wide web have also given modern-day Esperantists a means of creating new social connections. Pockington relies on Skype to practice the language with another speaker and Meyer runs the blog, as well as an Esperanto section on Reddit. Barker, who is now Facebook friends with his Russian pen-pal, is thrilled to see how the internet has helped to promote the language.

“The fact that it’s now a selectable language option on popular websites not only shows that it’s as recognised as any national language, but also helps end the assumption that nobody speaks Esperanto,” he says. He is hopeful that the estimated two million speakers worldwide will increase as well: “The spread of Esperanto used to be limited to word-of-mouth, but now a lot of people see Esperanto pop up on people’s Facebook profiles,” says Meyer, whose Reddit post received over 200 comments in just a month. “Anyone wanting to find out more can learn the relevant facts in just a few minutes without having to take a trip to the library or local Esperanto club.”

But is there any truth to the preconception that the Esperanto community consists largely of an academic elite? “When I left school I didn’t even have any O-levels,” says Barker. “I went into business and got a management NVQ, but I wouldn’t classify myself as an academic. Esperanto speakers come from all walks of life.” Meyer agrees: “There are a lot of different people in the Esperanto movement. At meet-ups there are more students, freelancers and pensioners than employees, but I think that’s just because other people don’t have the time to travel.”

The great language barrier of China

There are some compelling reasons for taking up Esperanto: an exclusive sofa-surfing club, a thriving community and, crucially, ease of learning. A quick play with Google Translate supports the latter: sweater translates as svetero, bicycle is ciklo, lamp is lampo and telephone is telefona. Even a novice could spot the influence of European vocabulary – but isn’t the unique selling point of Esperanto that it allows communication on an equal footing? It would seem that European Esperanto learners have an advantage over the average Asian student.

Pockington interprets this as something positive, highlighting Esperanto’s role as a ‘gateway’ language: “It would be harder for a Japanese-speaking person to learn Esperanto, but they get more long-term benefits from it. Once they’ve learnt Esperanto they can quickly learn English, but an English speaking person who’s learned Esperanto would still struggle with languages such as Chinese and Japanese.”

“Asia is the most disadvantaged continent language-wise, and even there many people have studied some European language that could help,” says Meyer. “Europeans do have an advantage in terms of vocabulary, though not as much as one might think.” As Meyer explains, grammatically Esperanto is actually close to some agglutinative languages, such as Turkish and Swahili.

All words consist of a stem plus a grammatical ending, and in the case of Esperanto there are no exceptions to this rule. Zamenhof wanted Esperanto to evolve like any natural language, as long as the number of word roots stayed low (there are only 500 word roots in Esperanto, while most European languages have at least 3,000). New words are constructed in a logical manner. For example, malsanulejo translates as ‘place for the unhealthy people’.

This format has encouraged a lot of creativity, and speakers often toy with the language to create new words; some even call Esperanto the original open-source project. The rigid rules don’t stop the language from having a playful side, and as with any language, slang can develop organically. “Slang happens when one person tries it, another likes it and then more and more people adopt it,” says Meyer, who uses saluton (hello) to illustrate the language’s playfulness. “Saluton is regularly shortened to sal, which is redoubled to salsal and from there it can become salsa, like the dance. Some say salaton, which means salad; it’s funny and only one letter off.”

In defence of a dialect

Meyer has a lot of experience in clarifying Esperanto’s purpose, as a result of frequently having to defend it from its detractors. Hounded by political leaders and often overlooked by the masses, it has received a fair bit of criticism over the years. Historically, the mid-20th century provided Esperanto with its hardest test, as dictators including Hitler and Franco declared it to be a Jewish conspiracy and Communist plot. Although speakers are no longer persecuted, Esperanto still struggles to gain acceptance.

Only recently, the Financial Times editor Patrick Jenkins dismissed the language as “daft” and The Guardian‘s Timothy Garton Ash mocked it for being “ridiculous”. Both Barker and Meyer think the criticism is a result of ignorance, although, “not in a nasty way.”

He says: “It’s not our job to blame people for their lack of knowledge. Our job is to explain what Esperanto is about.” “It’s disconcerting that people criticise others for learning Esperanto,” says Meyer. “But I think language is something very close to our hearts; it’s natural that people have strong opinions about it.”

Although it might not have become the linguistic dove of peace that Zamenhof intended, Esperanto has weathered persecution and ridicule with grace. In a society where time is often at a premium, the ease of learning Esperanto might make it attractive to anyone who wants to learn a second language. And if you get your skates on, you may be even fluent before the Universala Kongreso in Reykjavik has kicked off.

Moa Villemo Wirde is a media analyst and freelance translator. @MoaVillemo


I speak Esperanto like a native - Spike Milligan



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