A Journalist meets Esperanto
To the doctor who invented it, it was the key to world peace; yet to Stalin it was dangerous, to Hitler a sign of creeping Jewish domination, and the American army dubbed it ‘the aggressor language’. So does anyone still speak Esperanto? David Newnham travels to a church hall in Ipswich to find out.
Baa Baa Black Sheep
‘Ba, ba, ŝafo! ĉu vi havas lanon?’
‘Jes, tri sakojn: prenu en la manon!
Unu por la mastro, unu por mastrin’,
Kaj unu por la eta knabo ĉe la strata fin’ ‘
Translated into Esperanto by M C Butler
In a Baptist church hall on the edge of Ipswich, 20 people are holding a meeting. Among them are a quantity surveyor and a retired film-maker, an A-level student and a 95-year-old former teacher. Together, they have some routine business to discuss; membership, accounts, that sort of thing. Then, after homemade soup and vegetarian nibbles, there’s a general knowledge quiz, put together by Roy Threadgold.
Threadgold is an Essex dairy farmer whose ewe’s milk cheese wins prizes and, with his jovial face and long sideburns, he looks the part. So when he stands up and announces the first question, it is surprising – almost shocking – to hear his words.
Are they Hungarian? Portuguese? A variety of Slovenian? Some words sound half-familiar, yet this is not French or German, and it certainly isn’t Essex. One thing is clear. Whatever language Threadgold is using, his audience understands him. For no sooner has he begun the quiz than they are teasing him for clues or pressing him for clarification, and all in the same exuberant tongue, with its “o” and “oi” sounds, and its hints of known languages.
An outsider chancing upon this gathering would almost certainly assume that here was a band of expatriates, come together to share fond memories of a distant homeland. Only later might the truth dawn – that it is the shared language, not some common origin, that binds them. For, apart from Dominique, a French database administrator who happened to pitch up in East Anglia, everybody here is as British as the day is wet. They just happen to speak Esperanto.
Not that anyone “just happens” to speak Esperanto. For this language has no territory to call its own. Intended for use as a universal second language – an auxiliary tongue by means of which all people, no matter what their origins, might communicate freely – it is a constructed thing, a deliberate invention that must be deliberately learned.
The fact that, 116 years after the birth of Esperanto, few people reading this article will know a single word of it – may not even be aware of its existence – is an indication of just how reluctant the world has been to take that obvious next step. In 1965, William Shatner starred in Incubus, the first film to be made in the language. Conrad Hall, the cinematographer on that project, went on to shoot American Beauty. But what became of Esperanto? Neither the UN nor the EU has adopted it as a working language, and not a single multinational corporation or charity employs it in its day-to-day dealings. Yet nobody in this church hall seems unduly downhearted. Which isn’t to say they don’t occasionally feel ever so slightly indignant.
Listen to Roy Simmons. A 53-year-old assistant headteacher at a comprehensive school in east London, he has come to Ipswich because, in his spare time, he is president of the Eastern Esperanto Federation, whose meeting this is. Simmons is happy to tell anyone that, until 1994, when he chanced to see a book on the subject, he had never heard of Esperanto. But it was love at first sight. “I was captured by the language,” he recalls, and promptly enrolled on a course. Yet his attempts to pass on his enthusiasm have almost always fallen on deaf ears. And not just deaf ears, but ears that are positively closed.
“What I find strange,” Simmons says, “is that, when you mention Esperanto, people never ignore it. They are violently against it. Even in schools. If you say you’re going to teach Russian, people might say, ‘Oh, that’s a waste of time’, and just forget it. But they will go on at you for ages about why you shouldn’t teach Esperanto. Apart from anything else, Esperanto is a great basis for learning other languages. That is also true of Latin. But Latin takes a long time to learn, whereas Esperanto doesn’t. I became fluent in two years. Don’t forget, he designed it for uneducated farm-workers who had 10 minutes a day.”
He? Ah, that must be Ludovic L Zamenhof.
Bialystok in the 1860s was no place to grow up. A city in the north-east of what is now Poland, it was at the time under Russian rule. Violence between ethnic Poles, Russians, Germans and Jews was commonplace, and every week brought fresh news of barbarism and cruelty between these isolated and mutually intolerant communities.
It was here, where lack of understanding translated readily into racial hatred, and racial hatred begat violence, that, in 1859, Ludovic Zamenhof was born to a language teacher and her linguist husband. By his mid-teens, young Ludovic had seen enough of man’s inhumanity to man to convince him of the need for a common language that would facilitate understanding between peoples.
Having been brought up to speak Polish, German, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, and having a good knowledge of English and French, Zamenhof knew that no existing language would fit the bill. For one thing, the fact that they were associated with a particular country, race or culture meant that they lacked the neutrality any international language would need in order to be accepted. And, for another, the fact that they were weighed down by copious rules, yet at the same time were riddled with illogicalities and exceptions, meant that they lacked another essential characteristic of a universal second language: ease of learning by ordinary people. This difficulty factor also ruled out Latin and classical Greek – all of which left Zamenhof with only one option: to devise his own language.
But inventing languages doesn’t pay the bills, so Zamenhof studied medicine and became an oculist. By day he fixed eyes and in the evening he wrestled with problems that would make a poet weep. How rigid should he be in his pursuit of simplicity? Was it possible for Shakespeare in translation to sound like Shakespeare? At what point should he stop listening to his head and begin hearing with his heart?
He wasn’t alone in treading this difficult path. Pascal, Descartes and Leibniz all toyed with constructed languages, and Johann Schleyer, a German cleric, was even then working on his own creation, Volapük. But whereas Schleyer’s language was considered alien and ugly when it appeared in 1880, Zamenhof was to craft a language that many regarded as a thing of beauty. Moreover, while Volapük was almost as hard to learn as Latin, Zamenhof’s language was to have only 16 basic rules and not a single exception. It is probably the only language to have no irregular verbs (French has 2,238, Spanish and German about 700 each) and, with just six verb endings to master, it is reckoned most novices can begin speaking it after an hour.
Rather than create a vast lexicon of words, then expect people to learn them all, Zamenhof decided on a system of root words and affixes that alter their meanings (“mal-” converts a word into its opposite, for example). And because word endings denote parts of speech (nouns end in “-o”, adjectives in “-a”, etc), word order is immaterial. Although modern Esperanto now has around 9,000 root words, most meanings can be expressed by drawing from a pool of about 500 and simply combining them – a creative process that is regarded by Esperantists as acceptable and even commendable.
Three-quarters of the root words are borrowed from the Romance languages, the remainder from Germanic and Slavic tongues, and Greek. This means that around half the world’s population is already familiar with much of the vocabulary. For an English speaker, Esperanto is reckoned to be five times as easy to learn as Spanish or French, 10 times as easy as Russian and 20 times as easy as Arabic or Chinese.
While critics seize on the obvious downside of this Eurocentricity – namely that it puts speakers of other languages at a disadvantage – Esperantists argue that the regularity and simplicity of Zamenhof’s scheme quickly outweigh any lack of familiarity with root words, and point to the popularity of Esperanto in Hungary, Estonia, Finland, Japan, China and Vietnam as proof of Zamenhof’s pudding. Apart from its logical construction, Esperanto has another appealing characteristic: it is phonetic and orthographic, meaning that each letter represents only one sound, and each sound is represented by only one letter.
In 1887, at the age of 28, Zamenhof was ready to go public. His first brochure on the language, just 40 pages long but setting out the entire structure, was published under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto” – “Doktoro” meaning “Doctor” in the new language and “Esperanto” meaning “he who hopes”. As the booklet moved around the world, letters began pouring in, many written in what people were calling “Dr Esperanto’s International Language” – a name soon abbreviated to “Esperanto”.
After 12 months, Zamenhof published the names and addresses of 1,000 supporters, among them the secretary of the American Philosophical Society. In Germany, members of the World Language Club printed a magazine in Esperanto, and by 1905 it was time to pull everything together and call the first ‘Universala Kongreso’, or Universal Congress. Nearly 700 Esperantists from 20 countries assembled in Boulogne to converse in the new tongue and, quite soon, Schleyer’s Volapük was history.
But as the advancing century grew ever more bloody, Zamenhof’s hope that this new form of communication might elevate the human condition was to be sorely tried. Alongside his medical work, the doctor developed his ideas through correspondence with enthusiasts around the globe. But by 1917 he was exhausted. He died aged 57, while the worst human conflict the world had yet seen still raged around him. And worse was to come. Had he lived another 20 years, he would have seen Esperantists being rounded up and shot. Even Zamenhof’s hopes might not have survived such a blow.