Fragment from THE STARRY DAY,
oratorio with music by Steve MURISET
with words by Luiza CAROL.
ESPERANTO AS A LINGUISTIC, PSYCHOSOCIAL AND CULTURAL PHENOMENON
Essay presented at the Symposium of the Romanian Academy in Cluj, section Psychology and Educational Sciences, on Nov. 18, 2016. The text will be published in the Romanian language in a volume dedicated to the works of the Symposium.
Esperanto is a linguistic, psychosocial and cultural phenomenon that has existed for almost 130 years. The basic vision of those who promote the Esperanto language and culture is a world with as much cultural diversity as possible, a world in which all people should know a minimum of two languages: their own native language plus Esperanto. It is interesting to note that findings of recent pedagogy experiments prove that knowledge of Esperanto enables students to learn other languages more easily. This fact is similar to the way gymnastic exercises have a positive influence on sports performance.
Today, Esperanto is a living language, spoken and written at different levels by a few million people all over the world, and is used more and more actively in all communication channels in the fields of science, literature, music, tourism, etc.
I. HISTORICAL FRAME AND MOTIVATION THAT LEAD TO THE ESPERANTO PHENOMENON.
- ETHNIC LANGUAGES USED AS INTER-ETHNIC COMMUNICATION BRIDGES.
The Esperanto phenomenon has roots in millennia of traditions that seek an optimal solution for inter-ethnic communication.
From the most ancient times, anywhere people lived, they felt the need to communicate beyond the barriers of language. It is guessed that the first ethnic language used as a bridge between several cultures was Sumerian, beginning from the fifth millennium BC. From that period the first versions of the epic poem “Gilgamesh” are conserved. Sumerian kept its role of bridge-language until about the third millennium BC, when the first peace contracts and inter-ethnic letters were written in Akkadian.
Let us remember that in Europe, the oldest language for communication between different ethnic groups was Greek, beginning in the third millennium BC. Greek was used as a “bridge language” until about the year 140 BC, when the Romans conquered Greece and Macedonia. After that, Latin became more and more used, and it contributed to the formation of many contemporary languages. During the Renaissance (from about the 14th century), Latin developed greatly as a language of general communication for scientific, economic and political relations. It was also used in many historical, philosophical and literary works. Actually, to this day, Latin is the only ethnic language which is really universal and is used everywhere in the limited circles of those who deal with medical science, biology, agronomy, zoology, technology, etc. While Latin is not currently a spoken language, its words are still used in the official naming of plants, animals, and some diseases.
It was only in the 17th century that Latin began to lose exclusivity in international relations. In 1648, after the end of the 30 years war, the contracts of the Westphalia Peace were written in French. At that time, French had become the language for diplomacy. Also, with the rise of France’s economical power, French began to be used internationally.
I was born shortly after the second World War and can testify that my generation witnessed an important change of social psychology: English has replaced French in the role of the main means of international communication. French is still used sometimes, but it has evidently passed on to a secondary level.
What is the common aspect shared by all the ethnic languages which have been used as bridges of inter-ethnic communication from the beginning of history until today? Are they the most clear languages with the easiest pronunciation? No! Are their grammatical structures the most simple and are they regular ones? No! Are their spelling rules the most simple? Again, No!
These languages temporarily played the role of international language due to the economic and political supremacy of an ethnic group during a specific period. Each time the economic and political center changed its place, the main international language changed too. And the speed with which the world’s economy changes is growing from one millennium to another.
All the history of human speech is the history of the competition between different ethnic languages on different continents. The dynamics of the struggles for language supremacy overlaps the dynamics of the struggles for economic and political supremacy. Today, scientists who study the history of idioms deal with interesting psychosocial phenomena that change normal ethnic languages into so-called “cannibal languages” (that is languages that devour other languages). The most relevant example and closer to our era is the phenomenon that happened after “the great geographical discoveries”, when a few European languages gradually destroyed hundreds of ethnic languages belonging to Africa, America and Oceania. The disappearance of a language leads to the disappearance of a whole culture, especially when referring to an oral culture. The concept of oral culture itself had been despised in Europe until about the 19th century, when European romanticism cast a new light on the value of world folklore. Nowadays, anthropologists highly value and struggle to recover anything that can still be saved from the slowly disappearing cultures. There is even the term “linguistic ecology” which is used for the organized actions to protect languages and cultures whose existences are endangered.
Statistical surveys in the first decade of the 21st century, show that English was spoken then by about one billion two hundred million people. This figure represented less than a quarter of the world population, which in the past decade amounted to over 6 billion (and now amounts to over 7 billion). Of the whole Anglophone population, only about 375 million spoke it as a native language, so only about a third. The others spoke it at various levels, from case to case.
- PLANNED LANGUAGES
Esperanto is neither the first nor the last invented language. Countless plans for artificial languages appeared, are appearing, and probably will continue to appear. Some of them are only social games, others are secret codes for a limited group of people and others have been invented in order to become neutral languages of inter-ethnic communication. Most of the latter ones never surpassed the stage of a project. Esperanto is the only one that has formed a strong community of at least 2 million speakers spread throughout 120 countries. For almost 130 years, these speakers have developed a rich culture (fascinating in my opinion) and a well organized network of local and international clubs.
Before giving a short presentation of the planned languages, I have to emphasize that their degree of artificiality may vary. As I will point out, compared to other planned languages, the degree of artificiality in Esperanto is a moderate one.
Everybody knows, but often forgets, that the degree of naturalness of ethnic languages is quite relative. It depends on the education of those using the language. As soon as a child begins to go to school, he or she is engaged in a long process which is expected to gradually refine and enrich the child’s thinking capacity as well as the child’s literacy and speaking abilities. By means of grammar exercises and literature lessons, the speech abilities of millions of pupils are oriented, controlled, somehow “planned”. A native language is really “natural“ only before schooling begins. And it seems worth mentioning here that nations consciously standardize and plan their official languages (and propagate it in schools and mass media), intentionally or unintentionally suppressing all the regional dialects and variations.
Planned languages (also called “artificial” or “constructed” languages) are divided into two great general categories:
A. Pasigraphies – Languages written by means of signs, that are read by each person in his or her own language. Arab numbers are the best known example of pasigraphy. For instance, the number 2 is read “two” in English, “deux” in French, “doi” in Romanian and “du” in Esperanto. So Arab numbers are a universal pasigraphy.
Another such example is the language of traffic signs.
Written Chinese is a pasigraphy too. The pronunciation of the ideograms very much differs from one idiom to another, but their meaning is the same. This is also true of Korean and other languages.
- Pasilalies – Planned languages that can be spoken and read. They are divided into three groups:
B1. Aprioric pasilalies – formed by elements that their creator arbitrarily invented. They may be empirical, aiming only at superficial communication (like the language “solresol”) or philosophical, based on classification of ideas in a descendent order (like “Toki Pona”, inspired by Taoist philosophy and created as a brain exercise, without aiming to become an auxiliary international language).
B2. Aposterioric pasilalies are based on natural elements of ethnic languages. Some of them are considered naturalistic languages, when they closely follow a natural linguistic model, such as is the case with Occidental and Interlingua. Others are autonomous, that is they have their own rules, as for example Esperanto and Ido.
B3. Combined pasilalies display features of both aprioric and aposterioric languages (for example Volapük).
In Europe, the first aposterioric language was “Lingua Ignota”, created in the 12th century by the German nun Hildegardis. That language consisted of more than 1000 words, mostly nouns, used to replace equivalent words belonging to Latin or to ethnic languages. It was created as a secret language for only a small number of persons.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, a few interesting projects of artificial languages were conceived by European philosophers such as J.A. Comenius, R. Descartes, and G.W. von Leibniz. Also, in the 18th century, Jonathan Swift, author of “Gulliver’s Travels”, thought of a way to simplify English that can be considered an artificial language. Closer to our time, another important author, J.R.R. Tolkien, (well known for his books “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings”) had a passion other than literature, and that was to amuse himself by creating artificial languages.
Therefore Esperanto is an autonomous aposterioric language, with a medium degree of artificiality. Its vocabulary has roots in European languages and the simple grammar system resembles that of the Far East analytic languages. My personal feeling is that if Esperanto were a little more artificial than it is, it would not have stuck to my memory in such a natural way. On the other hand, had it been a little more natural, it would probably have seemed to me as difficult as any other language that is not Romanian, my native one. I suppose that what gives Esperanto its original beauty and its high degree of accessibility is the balance between its natural and unnatural elements.
II. BEGINNINGS OF THE ESPERANTO LANGUAGE AND COMMUNITY
In 1887, a chapbook entitled “The International Language” was published in Warsaw. The book also appeared in Russian, Polish, French, German and in many other languages during that same year. Its author, the ophthalmologist Ludoviko Lazarus Zamenhof, wrote under the pen-name “Dr. Esperanto”, a name which means “The hopeful one” in the language created by him. This first chapbook, with only 37 pages A5 (in the Esperanto edition that I own) contains an explanatory introduction, a small grammar manual, a vocabulary plus the first six short texts that had ever been published in this language. The texts include “The Lord’s Prayer”, the first paragraph of “Genesis”, a model letter and three poems. One of the poems is a translation from German and the other two are created by the proponent of the Esperanto language. It would seem that the birth certificate of the language is at the same time the birth certificate of Esperanto literature (both the translated and the original one). The first vocabulary of this language, as it appeared at that date, is not a list of words, but a list of “word roots”. Each of the 947 roots of that list may be combined with other roots in tens of ways, according to a simple and smart system. A speaker of the language is able to understand and instantly create tens of thousands of words only by referring to the original list of word roots.
Due to rapid evolution of the language in all fields of human communication, Esperanto dictionaries contain far richer material now than they did 130 years ago. All the same, the rules of vocabulary enrichment are unchanged. A beginner in Esperanto need not know more than a few hundred roots in order to be able to express himself with the same ease and on the same level as one who knew many thousands of words in an ethnic language.
Esperanto grammar is simple and its rules do not have any exceptions. Its orthography is perfectly phonetic, which means each sound is rendered by one single letter. Pronunciation is very easy. Words
with more than one syllable always bear an accent on the syllable preceding the last one.
Students of ethnic languages usually spend a great deal of time and effort trying to imitate the intonation of native speakers. This does not apply to Esperanto, because there is no compulsory intonation for it. Actually, there are only a few thousand native speakers of Esperanto in the world and almost every one of them began speaking in Esperanto as well as their ethnic language at the same time. Today, the proficiency of those who speak Esperanto as their mother-tongue depends on the frequency with which they use the language, and whether or not they are literate in Esperanto. Similarly, some immigrants hardly remember their native ethnic language if they no longer use it in their new country, while others speak it perfectly. Such differences in individual proficiency depends on a variety of factors: whether they had schooling before they immigrated, family circumstances, etc.
The creator of Esperanto was a man with a lot of musical feeling and poetic talent. As such, he created a language full of melody which is an ideal instrument for poets and composers of vocal music. Zamenhof realized that the regularity of the accent combined with the regularity of the semantic suffixes and grammatical endings might lead to rhythmic and melodic monotony. To overcome this problem, he invented an optional system which involved skipping the article and suspending noun endings for nominative singular. This unique system (graphically marked by an apostrophe), typically appears in poems and songs. Because of this, poets and composers may play with the number of syllables.
As has been intimated, the first Esperanto speakers were self-taught and learned by using the original chapbook “The International Language”. This group immediately began to correspond in writing.
Among the first enthusiastic supporters of Esperanto were the writers Leo Tolstoy and Jules Verne. Rumor has it that Leo Tolstoy learned Esperanto in two hours . While this is surely an exaggeration, it is true that an adult who already knows two or three European languages may easily be able to grasp the meaning of a simple text by the help of a dictionary, after only a few hours of studying the language’s structure.
Nowadays, Esperanto is taught in many schools and universities throughout the world and more than one hundred Esperanto courses are offered by Esperanto associations. Also, knowledge of Esperanto is spreading as never before because of the internet. I strongly recommend the course I took from the program “lernu” http://lernu.net/en
A recent and popular self-learning course is “duolingo” https://www.duolingo.com/welcome. In one year, more than 400,000 students enlisted for this free course, which is said to be amusing as well as effective. About thirty people finish this course each day, after acquiring basic elements of the language.
III. THE EVOLUTION OF ESPERANTO
Through the years, the history of Esperanto language and culture experienced spectacular rises and falls. A serious study of the whole social phenomenon linked to the Esperanto movement might reveal some interesting aspects of recent world history.
People have asked me: “Who actually speaks Esperanto today?” Before giving an answer, I will ask a parallel question, after which I will present a comparative response. Here is the parallel question:
Who are the English speakers of today?
1. They are native speakers from English speaking countries. They have to be taught to read and write in English, so as not to remain illiterate in their native tongue.
2. Immigrants to English-speaking countries. Their degree of proficiency in English depends on age, education, profession, etc.
3. Temporary workers in English speaking countries. Their knowledge of English depends on the length of their residency, plus the same factors as for the previous category.
- Those born in a country that may afford the luxury to enable pupils to learn English three or four hours a week free of charge, for at least 10 years. (The reader might wish to ask English teachers from such countries what percentage of their high school students are completely fluent.)
- People who had the opportunity to receive private English lessons in their childhood.
6. Adults motivated to learn English (either self-taught or in a class) because of their profession or in preparation for travels abroad.
Who are the Esperanto speakers of today?
1. A few thousand native speakers who were born in Esperantist families and have learned from the beginning both Esperanto and the ethnic language of the country where they spent their childhood (and often the ethnic language of a parent, if different from that of the country where they live). The degree to which they are still using Esperanto at a mature age differs very much from one case to another, because it depends on motivation, life circumstances, etc.
2. People who, for various reasons, have never had a chance to learn a language that is widely-used. They depend on Esperanto to rescue them from undeserved cultural and social handicaps. On every continent there are volunteer teachers who organize free (or almost free) courses to help such people contact the dispersed Esperanto-speaking community.
3. People who do speak one or many languages that are internationally used and have learned Esperanto at a mature age because of their interest in the Esperanto phenomenon.
I am often asked what motivates the latter category to learn Esperanto. I am going to offer a number of reasons, although I must confess that I did not organize a questionnaire. So what follows are merely approximate answers, based on my eleven years experience in the Esperantist community. Each Esperantist has his or her own motive for learning the language and I suppose each could be more or less framed within one or more of the categories presented below in an empiric way.
a. A desire to befriend people living in other lands. Today, learning a language offers opportunities to converse by phone or Skype or to correspond by email and other such means. Long distance friendships can widen our intellectual and spiritual horizons by presenting the chance to know different traditions and philosophies of life.
b. A desire to experience tourism the Esperantist way and to take advantage of the internationally organized Esperantist meetings, which might include universal congresses, international cultural festivals, cultural symposiums, congresses of physicians, lawyers, scientists, ecumenical religious meetings, sport events, art exhibitions, and so forth. Of course, one can go on a tour with a professional guide addressing everybody at the same time, but I believe that visiting people who were befriended by correspondence is a form of Esperantist tourism which can lead to unforgettable memories. Best is when you have found friends to accompany you to places linked to your particular interests and tastes. Esperantist tourism is usually a kind of delightful social game in which the roles of travelling guest and hosting guide are inter-changed.
c. Curiosity about a unique linguistic and psychosocial phenomenon might be another reason for wanting to learn Esperanto. Esperanto is not just another language. It is a life experience that one cannot really understand unless one lives it to its fullness under all its aspects.
d. Curiosity towards the literature originally created in this language. It is a literature which was born at the same time with the language itself, like “an old baby”, suitable for poetic expression from the first day of its life. It is a unique cultural experience! Without Esperanto, there is no way to read the original version of a work, when its author has another native language than yours, unless you learn perfectly the native language of the author or … the author learns perfectly your own language and creates its work in your language. Taking into account the difficulties of learning any ethnic language, the Esperantist approach is much more efficient and universal. Translations are practical when it comes to entertainment literature or commercial ads, but when it comes to scientific research or very serious literature, the original is always preferable. One of the greatest joys the Esperantist experience gave me was that I could read the original versions of splendid literary works, created by authors from Iceland, China, Portugal, Poland, Vietnam etc. As a writer myself, I also lived the uncommon experience to be directly approached (without the filter of a translation) by readers from all the continents. I think that ideally speaking, all writers should be bilingual, that is they should be able to create Esperanto versions for part of their works or to have a good control over the Esperanto translations done by somebody else. This way, a great part of the inherent disadvantages of translations could be avoided. In fact, I am inclined to believe that no writer does ever really translate his or her own works. Any endeavor in that direction is in my opinion an original version in a new language. I am asserting this, because I know from my own experience how natural it seems to me to improve an initial text, when I know I have no obligation to be faithful to anyone but myself. But maybe other people have different attitudes in this respect….
e. The understanding of a social injustice and of a great inefficiency in the way people are using nowadays the “bridge-languages” of interethnic communication. Some people feel they should try to correct this problem.
IV. WHAT DOES ESPERANTO MEAN FOR MYSELF
The “Tower of Babel” always struck me as one of the most mysterious and fascinating Biblical episodes. A frequent interpretation of the story suggests that God’s act of creating multiple languages among the builders of the tower came as a curse or punishment. But to my mind, the diversification of languages was not a misfortune. On the contrary, I believe that the variety of tongues and cultures enrich our world and this is a blessing. I also tend to believe that the human aspiration to reach the heavens is natural, and not deserving of punishment.
Having discovered the Esperanto language and culture, I began to see the Biblical story as a sign for humanity that in order to achieve anything, we need to collaborate in harmony. We must respect and love one another despite differences between us. It is because of our differences that cultural evolution is possible. The great challenge posed by the Babel story seems to be: Would every member of the human race be able to maintain an ethnic cultural identity as well as contributing to an international spiritual unity? I suppose the phenomenon of Esperanto is a way forward to accomplishing such an ideal.
The existence of a neutral and easy auxiliary language alongside one’s native language would promote creative cooperation so that “the tower” of human culture can finally be constructed. More than a technical achievement, “the tower” might be viewed as an ideal of superior understanding, love, and respect between peoples.
My eleven years in Esperanto culture have enriched my mind and soul and improved the quality of each day.
V. THE PERSPECTIVES OF THE ESPERANTO PHENOMENON
At the moment, Esperanto has a relatively small number of speakers. Will it ever become a universal bridge-language? History teaches us that sometimes people adapt very slowly to new ideas. For instance, about half a millennium had to pass from the time the idea of “zero” was brought to Europe by the Moors (in the 11th century), until the time “zero” began to be currently used in Europe (in the 16th century). Before the idea of “zero” was generally accepted, some people had actually been burned at the stake, because the Inquisition accused them for using the “devilish sign” of zero… In a similar way, the Nazis and the KGB put fire to Esperanto libraries and condemned innocent Esperanto intellectuals to death with false accusations of being “international spies”. In spite of all that, Esperanto is more alive than ever now. And the internet enables people to communicate with a speed that could scarcely have been imagined just a few years ago…
I have internalized the Esperanto language to such an extent that I may even dream in it sometimes. For me, this is the most convincing proof of the viability of the language. I should add here that I have friends who have fallen in love in Esperanto and raised children who are native speakers of Esperanto.
Now I am going to end this essay with a quotation dear to my heart, which expresses an interesting point of view about the future of the Esperanto phenomenon and is also a precious observation on life in general: “I believe in Good. And, opposite to many people, I believe that Good is not at all symmetric with Bad, but it is much stronger than Bad. A badly built house is going to collapse. If it is well built, it will resist the attacks of natural forces, even if they are terrifying. That is why I have no doubts as to the future of Esperanto language. If we compare it with other solutions of inter-ethnic communication, it is clear that Esperanto is the best solution. I am looking upon Esperanto as upon one of the concrete forms of Good”. [The quotation is from the article “Mi kredas je la Bono, mi kredas je Esperanto” (I Believe in Good, I Believe in Esperanto) by Claude PIRON, from the manual of Boris KOLKER “Vojaĝo en Esperanto-lando” (Voyage in Esperanto-Land), UEA, Rotterdam 2005).]
I tried to avoid repeating the very general information, which are easy to find by anybody who searches in Internet in any languages the words: “Esperanto”, “Universal Esperanto-Association”, “L. L. Zamenhof” etc.
Here is the bibliography I have used for this essay:
* D-ro ESPERANTO “Lingvo Internacia” (Dr ESPERANTO: International Language) edited by the translator, Haifa 2008. Translated by Aleksandr KERBEL from the Russian original “Дръ ЭСПЕРАНТО: Международный Языкъ.” 1887.
*Boris KOLKER “Vojaĝo en Esperanto-lando” (Voyage in Esperanto-Land), UEA, Rotterdam 2005.
*Nikolao GUDSKOV “Epitomo de esperantologio”(Essence of Esperantology) , Impeto, Moscow 2001.
*“Gvidlibro por supera ekzameno”(Guide-book for Superior Examination), edited by Alfonso PECHAN, Hungara Esperanto-Asocio, Budapest, 1979.
* Alain FAVRE “Ĉu ekzistas lingva ekologio?” (Is There Such a Thing as Language Ecology?) in the bulletin “Svisa Esperanta Societo Informas” no 1, La Chaux-de-Fonds, 2007.
* List of Countries by English-Speaking Population:
* World Population:
* EF EPI (Education First, English Proficiency Index):
* “Cognitive and Linguistic Processing in the Bilingual Mind” by Ellen Bialystok, York University and Fergus I.M. Craik Rotman Research Institute of Baycrest, Toronto, Canada, 2010: