Can Feelings be Expressed in Esperanto?
Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft. Here is the fourteenth chapter of Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village. You may make electronic copies and paper copies for your personal use, and you may freely distribute verbatim copies which include this notice provided that you do not charge for these copies. You may not post this material to any site. You are invited to insert links to this site. For any other use, including publication, you must first get permission.
I once attended a small Esperanto weekend conference in eastern Pennsylvania. Esperantists came from such states as California, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York. The age range of the people who attended was from three years old to retirement age.
During this conference I met another retiree. Although we were both native born Americans, we naturally spoke with each other in Esperanto throughout this Esperanto conference. We not only conveyed a lot of information to each other but we also wound up sharing experiences which had affected us deeply. We spoke about family tragedies. In the course of two or three days we spoke of those kinds of losses which bring tears to the eyes. We also shared other kinds of experiences, experiences that made us break out laughing.
I have had this kind of experience before. Perhaps the fact that we were using a language that we learned for idealistic reasons brought out a side of our personality, our character, our soul, that we would have been a little more hesitant to reveal had we been speaking English. I can’t be certain. What I am certain of is that we were both deeply moved by meeting each other, that we both learned a great deal about each other, and that our lives are richer for having known each other over a period of time that can be measured in hours.
During the same conference I had a long talk (in Esperanto, of course) with a student at one of our country’s leading universities. We went into questions of the meaning of life, the kind of questions that led me when I was a young man to the study of philosophy. We discussed these themes for an hour or an hour and a half after the evening session ended. Words flowed as readily as they would have in English. If we did not know a word we needed, a word came to us made up out of the little words, the morphemes, which we already knew.
Years ago a world-famous Esperantist stayed with me for a few weeks and, in the course of talking about a great many topics, we too shared tragedies and the near-tragedies that had wrenched our lives. The Chinese Esperantist I have already mentioned whom I drove from Chicago to Detroit told me in Esperanto about her concerns about her son.
Umberto Eco, the Italian semiotician was once lecturing in a university about language. He jokingly said that although people may use a planned language for dealings with people publicly, people do not make love in a planned language. He received a somewhat embarrassing letter from one of the women in the class. She wrote, “Sir, you are mistaken. It is certainly possible to make love in Esperanto.” Then she added by saying that she does it.
Eco gave a series of lectures at the Sorbonne on the idea of a perfect language. He later published his research on this topic in The Search for the Perfect Language. In this book he quoted with approval Antoine Meillet who wrote, “Toute discussion théoretique est vaine: l’Esperanto fonctionne.” (All theoretical discussion is beside the point: Esperanto works.) After studying the language Eco became a proponent of Esperanto.
In an interview he reverted to the theme of his student’s letter.
He said, “People have taught Esperanto under very bad conditions for some decades, and look – human beings make love in Esperanto. Latin has been taught very intensively for hundreds of years, but you can be certain that even if a priest and a nun were to make love they would not use it under those circumstances. Draw your own conclusions!”
When people make love in Esperanto such as Eco’s student or the couples who speak different languages who get together in Esperanto, date in Esperanto, make love in Esperanto, establish families and raise children in Esperanto, you would think that it would be impossible to claim that Esperanto is not a real language.
However, there are still people who know next-to-nothing about Esperanto and dismiss it out of hand as not being a real language.
The philosophical term a priori means “before checking out the facts about something.” Such people state a priori that Esperanto is not a language in which you can express deep feelings, that it is not a language in which you can do philosophical analysis, and so on. There is no way to argue with them. People cannot be made to see what they are determined not to see.
If I were to say that I have discussed philosophy in Esperanto, such people would scoff. If I were to say that I have been brought to the verge of tears when others have shared the tragedies of their lives while speaking Esperanto, they would act as though I were suffering from some kind of delusion. If I were to describe how a man and a woman who did not speak each other’s native languages met at an international Esperanto gathering, came to know each other and love each other, got married and raised children, all while speaking Esperanto with each other, such people would either ignore me or smile at what they would consider to be my fantasy. If I went on to tell how their children became fluent native speakers not only of their father’s native language and of their mother’s native language but also of the language that brought their parents together, such scoffers would probably compliment me on my wonderful imagination.
These a priori thinkers set up logical structures and deduce from them all kinds of reasons why Esperanto cannot work. They remind me of the people who proved with irrefutable logic that human beings could never construct heavier-than-air flying machines. The logic of such people is perfect. If you grant their assumptions, then their conclusions necessarily follow. The only catch is that the conclusions which stem from their perfect logic are based on assumptions which are not true.
There is another term in philosophy, a posteriori. This means “after checking out the facts.” Sometimes scientists make up wonderful, sophisticated theories which explain the known facts. They rigorously construct these theories. Their logic is perfect. Teachers and professors expound upon the theories in schools and universities all over the world. There is no a priori reason to suspect that there is anything wrong with the theories.
But then some investigator uncovers new facts. These facts do not fit the theory. Long ago the prevailing theory was that everything in the heavens revolves around the earth. That theory was elaborate and consistent and it fit the known facts. It was universally accepted. But then people looked closely at the heavens. Hearing of the Dutch invention of a new device to see distant objects, Galileo Galilei built the first telescope used for astronomical purposes. He looked at the wandering star named Jupiter and found that four moons were revolving around it and not around the earth. This finding conflicted with the theory that everything in the heavens goes around the earth.
There was nothing wrong a priori with the old theory. However, it turned out that there was a great deal wrong with it a posteriori. In the course of the centuries great institutions which held tenaciously to the old theory that everything in the heavens revolves around the earth finally had to give it up. The only alternative was to look foolish by supporting a theory that conflicted with a whole panoply of well-established facts.
Similarly all of those who argue that Esperanto is, in a very bad sense, an artificial language without a soul (unlike English, Latin, Swahili, Indonesian and Sioux), that it cannot be used to create works of literature or convey deep feelings — such people tenaciously hold on to their a priori positions about Esperanto. They can do so as long as they do not look at the facts.
I myself was not on the moon when Neil Armstrong took his first step there. I myself was not in Rome when Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. I myself was not at Auschwitz when the Germans used hydrocyanic gas to kill enormous numbers of Jews and other members of what they considered to be inferior races. Yet I have good knowledge about these events. That knowledge is based on evidence such as films, photographs and eye-witness accounts. I know that those events happened just as I know that my father married my mother, even though I was not there.
In the same way I know that people read books in Indonesian, that they speak in Indonesian, that they make love and argue while speaking Indonesian, and so on. I know this even though I have never seen an Indonesian book or heard a word of Indonesian.
There are people who have no problem accepting all of these facts about Indonesian (or about any other of the thousands of languages used around the world) but who refuse to accept them about Esperanto. They hold a priori positions and, as such, their positions are irrefutable, even though those positions are not in accord with the facts.
In spite of the a priori opponents of Esperanto, the language works very well, not as a copy of some other language, but in its own way. You can do anything in Esperanto that you can do in any other language. The difference is that it does not take long years of study to get to the point where you can do it.