Chapter 23
The Resistence to Esperanto

Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft.  Here is the 23rd 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. 

At the start of the third millennium the situation regarding Esperanto is rather curious.  The propagandists for Esperanto make the case that there are millions of Esperantists around the world, that the movement for this easy-to-learn international language is growing and that someday there will come “la fina venko” the final victory, when Esperanto will be universally recognized as the international auxiliary language for the whole world.  Everywhere people will study Esperanto for a year or two and everywhere in the world people will be able to freely communicate directly with each other with no need for intermediaries.  The faith of hundreds of thousands of Esperantists and of supporters of Esperanto is still strong.

On the other hand there are the Raumists and those like them who are happy to participate in a unique vibrant international culture.  This culture has participants in more than a hundred countries around the world.  It produces a constant stream of books and magazines and literary journals and newsletters and postal letters and electronic messages, as well as a few regular radio programs that come from countries like China, Cuba, Poland, Austria and the Vatican.  It provides information in more than forty languages on the Internet.  It places significant amounts of its poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction, original works and translated works on its Internet sites. 

Esperanto Ignored

Now, at the start of the third millennium, for most people throughout the world this unique language is invisible.  A great many people do not even know what Esperanto is.  Many of those who have heard of it think it is an old-fashioned idea that died out long ago.  If anyone were to inform them that an excellent 365-page computer dictionary in Esperanto appeared as a book in 1995 and was later placed on the Internet and updated, they would find that almost as strange as if they were to hear of a new computer dictionary composed in Latin or Anglo-Saxon. 

Except for a flurry of attention during the language’s centennial year in 1987, Esperanto has received very little notice from the American mass media in recent decades.  A search of a magazine article database in the United States in 1996 showed a handful of articles.  One dealt with postage stamps devoted to Esperanto.  Another, which appeared in The Atlantic in October, 1995, dealt with lost causes.  This latter contained an insert with some favorable information about Esperanto.  Articles do appear from time to time in newspapers, and these are carefully noted in Esperanto USA, the official publication of the Esperanto League for North America.  One of the most recent was an article in USA Today in January, 2000 by Dru Sefton about a proposal in Europe to make Esperanto the new Latin of the Catholic Church. 

Esperanto Ridiculed

Often when Esperanto is mentioned by otherwise well-informed people in the media, it is in the form of an off-hand quip that assumes Esperanto is not a “real” language but rather some sort of an antiquated, odd-ball impractical dream that never really worked and that never could work. 

A certain number of those who have heard of the language and know a little bit about it demonstrate a powerful antipathy towards it.  Some rail against the language.  Many mock it.  This has been going on for a very long time.

Esperantists believe there is a world language problem and that it consists of this:  The overwhelming majority of the people on this earth cannot speak to each other or correspond with each other without employing a translator.

It is fashionable, at least in the United States, not to see this as a big problem.  Many native speakers of English think that there is something wrong with all of the people in the world who do not speak English.  In 1988, just before the Olympic Games were to be held in Seoul, a journalist from one of the Detroit newspapers visited the Republic of Korea and reported back that it was a strange place.  Among the odd features of Korean culture that this reporter noted, along with the fact that some people ate dog meat, was that the people there did not speak English.

A monolingual American woman travelling in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, decided to leave her tour group and go off exploring the city on her own.  When she needed to ask directions she could find no one who could speak English.  When she spoke to people they looked at her and shrugged their shoulders.  They could not help.  In other words, she got the same reception that a person who spoke only Czech would receive on the streets of a typical American city.  When this kind of thing happens to Americans, many of them are shocked.

It is obvious that nobody can master all of the major languages of the world.  It is easily demonstrable that the methods now commonly used for oral communication between those who speak different native languages impede the spontaneous flow of information which people enjoy when they talk to each other in their native language.  It would make sense to at least seriously consider a remedy that has been proving itself in practice for more than a century.  However, an enormous number of people dismiss that remedy without even ten minutes of serious consideration.  This has proved to be enormously frustrating to fluent Esperantists who know from their own experience how well the language works.

The story of Claude Piron is instructive in this regard.  As a boy in neutral Switzerland during World War II, Piron came across some old copies of a magazine for boys.  The magazines contained a number of Esperanto lessons.  From them Piron taught himself the language and then he taught it to his brother and a number of his schoolmates, and they used the language as their own secret language.  One of his schoolmates learned Esperanto in just one month.

Later Piron learned that there were other Esperantists.  He corresponded with Esperantists in many other countries including China.  This stimulated his interest in languages, and he learned, among other languages, English, Russian and Chinese.  As has been noted, he became a professional translator and a supervisor of translations at the United Nations and the World Health Organization. 

Piron knew first hand how difficult it is to translate from one national language to another.  He knew how a great deal of what was said by speakers was necessarily omitted by interpreters who were rushed for time.  He listened while interpreters made up speeches out of whole cloth when they were completely unable to understand the pronunciation of a speaker who was forced to use an extremely difficult foreign language in an international gathering. 

From time to time Piron mentioned to other translators that if Esperanto were universally taught and used, these problems would disappear. 

His suggestions about using Esperanto were uniformly met with ridicule.

From his own experience Piron knew that Esperanto worked very well.  When he travelled abroad to serve as a translator, he looked up local Esperantists.  He communicated with people in Asia and America as well as in Europe, writing Esperanto, speaking Esperanto.  People sang in Esperanto and they joked in Esperanto and they published books and magazines in Esperanto, and professionals in the field of translation still ridiculed the very idea of the language. 

When everyone around you is treating you as though you are crazy, doubts about your own sanity start to creep in.  That happened to Piron.  While he was working at the United Nations in New York, he decided to consult a highly recommended local psychotherapist.  After listening to him the psychotherapist told him that he would have to check the matter out. 

When they met again Piron was told, to his relief, that he was not crazy at all but that the people who were ridiculing Esperanto, dismissing it out of hand, were the ones who were acting crazy. 

This incident sparked an interest in psychotherapy in Claude Piron.  Eventually it led him to a successful second career as a psychotherapist.  He now practices psychotherapy in his native Switzerland.  He has done marriage counseling and psychotherapy in his native French, in English and in Esperanto.  He finds Esperanto to be a language very well suited for communicating nuances of meaning, of feeling, not only in ordinary discourse and in literature, but also in psychotherapeutic sessions. 

Actually Piron would rather not use the term “psychotherapist.”  He would rather call himself a plifeliĉigisto.

pli = more
feliĉ = happy
ig = make
ist = a professional person
o = [noun marker]

By plifeliĉigisto ( a professional “more-happy-maker”! ) Claude Piron means someone whose profession it is to help other people become happier. Most of the people who consult him are not mentally ill.  They just want to become happier.

Because Piron has full professional qualifications in both the field of translation and the field of psychotherapy, he is in a good position to consider why a large number of otherwise perfectly normal individuals reject Esperanto out of hand without first spending as much as an hour examining the facts about the language.  He has written essays and, in 1994, a book, Le défi des langues (The Challenge of the Languages) about the psychological resistance to Esperanto.

This is why Piron believes there is so much resistance to Esperanto:

When we start to speak at about eighteen months, the big people around us are enchanted and amazed and delighted.  We say “Mama”, and Mother grins and makes a wonderful fuss.  Our first words have a magical effect on the loving giants around us.

We rapidly become articulate in our native language.  We progress from single words to two-word expressions to whole sentences to compound sentences to complex sentences.  All of this takes place long before we spend a day at school.  Our progress continues to have a magical effect on our parents.  Not only are they delighted when we speak but we discover that we can at least sometimes get them to do things for us by asking for them.  We can tell them what we want. Articulating our desires often leads to our parents fulfilling those desires, whether they be getting some ice cream or getting a favorite video put on or acquiring a certain toy. 

Most of us learn our native language by talking with our mothers.  Our native language literally becomes our “mother tongue.”  Because this mother tongue gives us powers which appear magical;  it becomes precious to us on a deep psychological level.  It becomes definitely something not to be monkeyed with.

When someone suggests reforming the spelling of our native language, protests come loud and clear.  That would be monkeying with our precious mother tongue.  If someone were to suggest that we simplify the grammar of our native language, for example, by making the irregular verb “to be” regular so that it would be conjugated like this:

*       I be

*       you be

*       he bes

*       she bes

*       it bes

*       we be

*       you be

*       they be,

this suggestion would be met with outrage.  Even though language historians show that hundreds of less common irregular verbs in English became regular between Chaucer’s time and the eighteenth century, any suggestion that we deliberately and consciously reinstate this process would be greeted with dismay or ridicule. [1]

This is because our native language, our mother tongue, the language we learned at our mother’s knee, the language which when we first learned it conferred upon us magical-seeming powers, is taboo to fundamental change.

We do not think about this consciously.  We think about this on a deep level beneath the level of consciousness.  We just know that it’s so.  Hands off our language!

We are willing to adopt new means of transportation.  In the last two centuries with relatively little resistance and with a great deal of excitement we accepted railroads, automobiles, airplanes and spaceships.  We are proud of the way that we have re-engineered means of transportation.  However, let someone suggest that we re-engineer our native language, which is our main means of communication, and we abhor such suggestions as unthinkable. 

On the one hand there are practical reasons for this.  If we were to radically change our native language we would be cutting future generations off from reading the literature of the past with the same ease that we enjoy.  Even now we read the works of Shakespeare not with his spelling, which was wildly irregular, but with a thoroughly modernized spelling.  If we were to switch to a completely phonetic system of writing English, future generations would have great difficulty reading the works of, say, Mark Twain, except in versions with radically altered spelling. 

English is the native language or an official language of a large number of countries world-wide.  The language is pronounced differently in different countries.  If each country spelled English phonetically according to the local pronunciation, it would be more difficult for us to read the written output of the other lands. 

Similar points could be made about changing other features of the language.

When Esperanto is suggested as a solution for the world language problem, this activates the taboo for many individuals.  A hundred years ago a young man, starting his work as a teenager, developed the plan for a language, so that people all over the world could use that language to communicate easily among themselves.  Suppose that the Esperanto dream were to be carried out.  What would that mean?

All over the world billions of people would be communicating in a language based on a plan thought up by one man.  When people would write technical manuals or put out other publications for world-wide distribution they would normally use the language which he and others developed from his plan.  When speeches would be made in international gatherings, they would be made or translated in his language.  His language would become more widely used than any other.  It would, from a certain point of view, attain a status higher than any other, including the languages which we learned at our mothers’ knees.

Such a thought is unthinkable to many individuals.  This is the way they think:  This so-called language could not be a real language.  It could not move us as deeply as the language we learned at our mothers’ knees.  It is an intrusive language.  It is a Frankenstein monster of a language!  It should be rejected out of hand, without even being looked at.  It should be dismissed without looking to see how people actually use it. 

If someone like Piron brings up Esperanto, such people will simply ridicule his impossible suggestion.  That is the best way to get rid of it, because if they were ever to do a cost-benefit analysis that would compare how Esperanto works with how English works, with how French works, with how simultaneous translation works, with how consecutive translation works, they would have to face the possibility that billions of hours of language study and billions of dollars in less-than-accurate translation are wasted each year because of a refusal to consider what would be gained by adopting Esperanto as a world-wide auxiliary language.

A large number of people do not want to even look at the facts.  According to Piron they suffer from a neurosis.  This is not a neurosis on the individual level, but, rather, a psycho-social neurosis, what Piron calls the Babel syndrome.  Like any neurosis it would quickly fade away if those who suffer from it were to directly confront what they feared.  Like any neurosis it protects itself by maintaining itself at a subconscious level.  Like many neuroses it entails enormous costs. 

[1]  If you doubt this, say things like “He haves a nice car” or “She bes a good student” or “He sitted down and eated his food” and, when people correct you, explain that you have decided to treat all verbs as regular verbs.
Chapter 24    A Unique Language for the Whole World