A Unique Language for the Whole World
Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft. Here is the final 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.
Some years ago, when I was relatively new to Esperanto, I had a few conversations with a man, whose name I have now forgotten, about so-called artificial languages. This individual had investigated both Esperanto and Interlingua, a language which made its debut in 1951. He had noticed something interesting about the people who were seeking correspondents in the two languages. Those whose requests appeared in the Interlingua magazine were all scholars and professional people, while those whose requests appeared in various Esperanto publications came from all walks of life.
In some parts of the world where many different languages are spoken in a relatively small area it is common for ordinary people to be able to communicate, at least to some degree, in more than one language. However, in large countries, where there is just one predominant official language, ordinary people normally are monolingual. Studying a foreign language is seen as a kind of “frill.” Learning a foreign language is the mark of an educated person. Really mastering a foreign language is seen as “a real tour de force”, the mark of a highly educated individual.
Zamenhof did not devise Esperanto only for those who were in a position to invest a great deal of time and money to study a second language. He wanted ordinary people to be able to master the new language in a reasonable amount of time. He wanted not only those who owned and managed companies to be able to converse with their fellows in other lands but their skilled and unskilled employees as well. Zamenhof succeeded in making his language that easy to learn.
People who are seeking correspondents in Esperanto do come from all walks of life. In the September, 1995 issue of the Quarterly Bulletin of the American Association of Teachers of Esperanto there appeared a list of a few dozen individuals and groups looking for correspondents. The editor compiled her list from six sources. Those on the list include:
* A 25-year-old Austrian woman whose special interest was dancing.
* A 39-year-old Hungarian teacher who wanted to correspond with people in her age group throughout the world.
* A 10-year-old French boy who wanted to write to other boys and exchange stamps and post cards with them.
* A 19-year-old chemistry major in a Cuban University who wanted to correspond with young people in the United States.
* A Mongolian teacher of Esperanto who needed correspondents for his students.
* A student in Togo who wanted to correspond with young people in other countries.
* A 22-year-old Algerian who wanted to exchange stamps and Esperanto magazines.
* A group of Lithuanian students from 13 to 25 years of age who wanted to correspond about music, sports, nature, photography and other subjects.
There were listings from nineteen countries: Algeria, Austria, China, Cuba, France, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Mongolia, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Tanzania, Togo and Ukraine.
It is a perfectly ordinary kind of list of people who want to correspond in Esperanto. This kind of list shows that Esperanto attracts ordinary people as well as poets, novelists, linguists and other scholars and professional people.
Leafing through a few 1995 issues of the bi-weekly publication Eventoj which is published in Hungary for a world-wide audience I found, among others, listings for
* A Libyan who wanted to correspond with Esperantists throughout the world
* A 42-year-old translator who “values everything that is conducive to good health, beauty and nobility” and wanted to correspond with like-minded people throughout the world
* A Brazilian married couple in their fifties and sixties who wanted to correspond with a Hungarian family about life, the word of God and the Esperanto movement
* A 61-year-old Brazilian doctor who wanted to correspond with Hungarians
* A 70-year-old Czech retiree
The involvement of ordinary people who want to correspond with people in other countries and on other continents has led some to dismiss Esperanto as being just a nice little hobby for pen pals.
Esperanto is, of course, a nice little hobby for pen pals. Esperanto is also a language for Nobel Prize winners. Esperanto is also a language in which a great body of world literature has appeared in translation. Esperanto is a language of poets and novelists, of literary journals, of international meetings which draw hundreds and thousands of participants. Esperanto is the language of a world-wide culture.
Esperanto is a unique phenomenon in the entire history of mankind in that it is the only planned language that has attracted a sizable world-wide community of users, a kind of a global village. The members of this global village are dispersed throughout a hundred lands. They communicate with each other in the language which they learned specifically for that purpose.
To make up some sort of a language is not an extraordinary thing. There are children who have made up a private language which they use to speak among themselves. I once met a woman who was still speaking the language which she made up as a child whenever she got together with her old friends at school reunions.
Zamenhof’s work in devising a plan for a new language intended to be used worldwide was not unique. A German priest, Johann Martin Schleyer, presented his plan for a language called Volapük in 1879. A large number of people learned the new language, and in 1889, two years after Esperanto made its debut, the Third Volapük International Congress was held entirely in Volapük in Paris. There were hundreds of Volapük clubs throughout the world and seven journals appeared in the language. However, Volapük faded quickly. Its grammar was regular but very complex. Schleyer quarreled with some of the chief proponents of his language because they wanted to simplify it. There may be a very few people who speak it today.
Many people besides Schleyer and Zamenhof have set forth plans for international languages. Many of these were intended to be improvements on Esperanto. Here are the names of a few such languages which came out in the decade before World War I: Perio (1904), Lingua internacional (1905), Ekselsioro (1906), Lingwo internaciona (Antido) (1907), Romanizat (1908), Romanal (1909), Reform-Esperanto de Hugon (1910), lingw Adelfenzal (1911), Esperanto de Stelzner (1912).
Such plans still keep popping up from time to time.
A few planned languages other than Esperanto have seen a certain amount of use. Interlingua was devised so that people who already knew English or a Romance language would be able to read it with very little help. Publications have appeared in this language, including translations of many books of the Bible, and it has been used to provide summaries of scientific papers. Ido had a large number of users before World War II, but then it became moribund. Of all of the planned languages only Esperanto has maintained the status of the language of a sizable world-wide community.
One of the reasons why Esperanto has survived and flourished is its unique combination of conservatism and creativity. From very early on Zamenhof saw that a language that was constantly changing in a radical way had very little chance for survival. He therefore persuaded the first Universala Kongreso, back in 1905, to adopt La Fundamento de Esperanto with its sixteen basic grammatical rules, its glossary of a few thousand items, and its “Ekzercaro”, which consists of about 5000 words of model prose as the untouchable foundation of the language. Except for the constrictions of the basic rules, and the inability to do away with the fundamental vocabulary and the turns of speech demonstrated in the Ekzercaro, the community of users was free to adopt new words, including synonyms for the established ones, and new turns of speech as desired. Because this community of users was the highest authority in the language, its members sensed that Esperanto belonged to them and that it was not something being imposed on them by some higher authority. At the same time, because the foundation of the language was unchangeable, users could feel confident that the basic rules and vocabulary that they had learned would never become suddenly obsolete.
Because continuity was assured by the adoption of the Fundamento as the basis for the language, writers were encouraged to create a sizable body of original literary work and translations, and people who learned the language had confidence communicating in it whether orally, as when traveling, or in correspondence.
Another reason for the survival of Esperanto was what Zamenhof called its internal idea, the idealistic belief that all people, including ordinary people all over the world, should be able to communicate with each other easily in a language which they could learn in a reasonable amount of time. This idealistic vision proved very powerful in attracting hundreds of thousands of people who learned the language and even more who supported it.
A third reason for the success of Esperanto was the unique combination of features which the language enjoyed:
1. Esperanto is completely phonetic.
2. Esperanto has one simple way of conjugating all of its verbs.
3. Esperanto lets its users combine small words (morphemes) to create new words as they like as long as the resulting words make sense.
4. Esperanto lets its users use any word as a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb simply by utilizing the appropriate ending, as long as the resulting word makes sense.
5. Esperanto lets its users change the transitivity of any verb by using the appropriate suffix, –ig or –iĝ.
6. Esperanto lets its users bring in new words whenever those words have obtained wide international usage. The single proviso is that the new words have to conform to the Esperanto system of spelling.
7. Esperanto makes it easy to identify words as being nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, direct objects and so on by means of easy-to-spot endings.
Esperanto has been described as “a linguistic experiment on a grand scale.” It is more than that. It is a language that rose from the status of a boy’s dream to that of being the language of a world-wide community with a large body of literature in less than a century.
But Esperanto is too important to be left to the Esperantists.
Esperanto has the potential – were it universally taught for a year or two throughout the world – to empower ordinary people to communicate effectively worldwide on a scale that far exceeds that which is attainable today by the most linguistically brilliant among us. Esperanto offers the opportunity to improve communication in business, diplomacy, scholarship and other fields, so that those who speak many different native languages will be able to participate fluently in international conferences and chat comfortably with each other after the formal presentations are made. Nowadays that privilege is often restricted to native speakers of English and those who have special talents and opportunities for learning English as a foreign language.
Esperanto offers the potential of saving a great many billions of dollars, which are now being spent on translators and interpreters, billions which would be freed up to serve the purposes of the governments and organizations that now spend so much of their resources to change words from one language into the words of another. For instance, instead of the World Health Organization devoting enormous sums to making translations, it would be able to devote those huge amounts of money to improving the health of stricken populations throughout the world. Alternatively, the budgets of organizations could shrink, relieving tax payers of an enormous although largely hidden burden.
It might be argued that some day an even better international language than Esperanto will be devised, but today Esperanto stands alone as a language which has been devised for international use and has been tested successfully for such use for more than a century. Esperanto is not a perfect language, but it is a language that has been used perfectly well for international use. This can be seen at the annual Universal Congresses and at other meetings at which Esperanto-speakers from different countries gather. Such meetings are held every day of the year.
We can choose to do away with the Babel syndrome and take an honest, conscious look at Esperanto. We can choose to make cost-benefit analyses of the efficacy of adopting Esperanto for general international use. The sooner that we do this, the sooner all the members of our global village will be comfortable directly communicating with one another.