Invented in the late 1800s by a charismatic internationalist, Esperanto is getting its second wind thanks to language learning apps and a vibrant international travel community, writes Divya Guha
Language is a method of human communication said somebody with no imagination. But a language may exist with no one to speak it. In a diagrammatic representation, language uses the figure of a tree, with ancient Indo-European roots giving rise to the Iranian, Indic, Germanic and Roman branches which embrace the whole of the earth. And some languages are artificial, invented by geeks such as the 12th century German abbess, Hildegard von Bingen, who created Lingua Ignota—Latin for ‘hidden language’. She used it for writing hymns but no prelate spoke it after she died.
Almost a millennium on, the Oxford English Dictionary recognises the term conlang an abbreviation of ‘constructed language’; and millennials meet the fictional horse-worshipping warriors in Game of Thrones, spouting the wonderfully rhythmic and sexy Dothraki, an invention of David J Peterson for the HBO show. Before conlang was a word, an inventor of language would probably be called a philologist, but conlangers have always existed—the English author JRR Tolkien was a masterful one.
Dr Esperanto’s Formula
Ludwik Zamenhof, a Russian-jewish oculist from Bialystock (now in Poland) created the internacia lingva, or international language. He grew up under Russian occupation and saw some tough neighbourhoods made up of German Protestants, Polish Catholics, Russian Orthodox Christians and Jews.
In 1886, he published a textbook that contained 16 basic rules of grammar and a 900-word vocabulary. The contents of a language (Esperanto) he had laboured over for 10 years, which met his criteria for simplicity and could be learned in a month.
The first time you hear Esperanto, it may sound like a Japanese-Scandinavian person speaking Portuguese. But the voweled soft endings and its rhythmic sonority, proves right what Kalmano Kolacsay, considered a literary colossus in the community, said ‘the language was betrothed to poetry’. Mouldable, new words can be made up to fit in a poetic metre. This quality lends itself to music too (and there is plenty of it online in all genres)’.
So, for example, if you don’t know the word for constellation—konstelacio, you could form it as stel-aro (star-group). ‘A confederacy of dunces’ would translate konfederacio de dunkoj but you could make it dunkaro, which sounds like a respectable insult. The basic rule is that if your combination makes sense, it is valid. These can further be combined, so one may coin a new word, combining existing roots like san-ul-aro (healthy-person-group). Such flexibility allows people to think the way they’re used to knowing others will still understand them.
In 1887 Internacia Lingva became Esperanto which came from Dr Esperanto, the pen name Zamenhof used for his first textbook. Sperare in Latin means to hope and Esperanto is one who hopes. By 1889, two textbooks by Zamenhof had been translated into several major European languages.
Polish engineer, Antoni Grabowski, a polyglot who spoke some 30 languages was the first to ever speak to Zamenhof in Esperanto. He also edited the first book of original poetry and did a great many translations mainly from Polish and Russian to Esperanto. Zamenhof signed away his rights to the language after the second textbook to let it flourish on its own. An independent body of language scholars, the Akademio de Esperanto, oversaw the evolution, making sure it was consistent with its fundamental principles. But cabals don’t belong to the Esperanto ideal. The language belongs to whoever speaks it.
“The founder was a visionary of a very unassuming kind but who had a compelling way of presenting the dream,” says Probal Dasgupta, a Calcutta-based linguistician ex-president (2007-2013) of the Universal Esperanto Association, the largest international organisation of Esperanto speakers. “He had no ‘might makes right’ kind of backing and there was something touching about it. At the same time he assumed from day one that certain ideas could not spread unless other people who were attracted to the idea took it on.”
Others came to believe what Zamenhof did. Ivo Lapenna, a law professor from Yugoslavia, president of the World Esperanto Association from 1964 to 1974 said, speaking Esperanto added a wider aspect to its speakers’ social personalities. Besides belonging to their national/social community, Esperanto speakers believe they are citizens of the world.
The language provided an embodiment of mankind’s longing for the harmony of the human race, said Geoffrey Sutton in his Concise Encyclopaedia of Original Esperanto Literature, “This gave the language, heart and soul, “ he said, “a character without which no language can hope to prosper. Thus imbued, it gained serious-minded adherents.”
Bangalore-based science writer, Sandhya Ramesh who started learning Esperanto a few months ago, and who is also a card-carrying Game of Thrones expert says, Dothraki and science fiction languages have different sets of consumers, “Besides, Dothraki is a fun language while Esperanto is a useful one,” she says, “and Dothraki does not have as much literature.”
This is true. There is a long list of Esperanto novelists and poets. Anna Lowenstein who founded a feminist Esperanto magazine and has written two books in Esperanto says her list of top authors come from everywhere: “Scottish poet William Auld, Icelandic poet Baldur Ragnarsson, the British writer Marjorie Boulton, the Hungarians Julio Baghy and Kálmán Kalocsay, Estonian Hilda Dresen, French Raymond Schwartz, Japanese Miyamoto Masao, Croatian Spomenka Stimec, Australian Trevor Steele, and dozens of others.”
Some ask, what use is Esperanto when millions already speak English? The answer is in the long list of countries where English is spoken by less than 10 per cent of the population.
The Future Belongs To The Nerds
A typical Esperantist is usually highly literate and perhaps that is the secret of the fellowship now, as it was politics before. When ranked by the number of articles, Esperanto Vikipedio which is run by Berlin-based American, Chuck Smith, ranks 34th on the list of 298 Wikipedia’s. This also means it has among the highest proportion of articles to the number of speakers (estimated at 2 million in 2015) in the world.
Smith, a polyglot, programmer and entrepreneur spends most of his day using Esperanto. He headed the team that made the English-Esperanto version of the popular language-learning app, Duolingo, which is the only explanation he has for the self-taught Esperanto community growing as much as it has in the last two years. He also set up Amikumu, an app that helps you find speakers of any language near you. They have members in 135 countries who speak 430 languages.
Soutik Biswas, the India Correspondent for the BBC remembers people saying that Esperanto was the global language of the future in Calcutta in the 1980s, “one guy was even beaten up for cursing in Esperanto in Esplanade. Alas, the revolution in Calcutta didn’t last.”
Things are a little different now as the traditional club-structure of the Esperanto ‘movement’ as Rao calls it, has become secondary. The primary community is virtual—the Duolingo Esperanto Learners group on Facebook.
In India, workshops at the National Translation Mission at Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysuru welcomes ideas about Esperanto.
Esperanto attracts people who are open to other cultures,“people who are curious about other ways of life. Xenophobia is alien to us. Rarely are Esperantists cultural chauvinists. Quite a lot of mutual learning happens in a typical Esperanto gathering,” says Bangalore-based Esperantist, Giridhar Rao, a faculty at Azim Premji University.
Smith first heard about Esperanto while writing a paper for an Artificial Intelligence class in 2001. He says the most common occupation of Esperantists is software development. There are many teachers, too. “While I thought it was a stupid idea, I found a free email correspondence course and the worldwide hospitality network, Pasporta Servo, where Esperanto speakers host each other and I thought why not give it a shot? I figured if it was a waste, I’d lose a half hour of my life. However if there’s something to it, I could open up a whole new world. Whether traveling through Japan, Hungary or Brazil, I’ve talked with so many great people that I wouldn’t have been to communicate with in English. As much as I’d love to, I unfortunately don’t have enough time to learn Japanese, Hungarian and Portuguese, so Esperanto gives us a neutral language for fairer communication,” says Smith.
Rao learned Esperanto in 1994 at University of Hyderabad while researching science fiction (SF) for his PhD, where he met Dasgupta who taught at the Centre for Applied Linguistics and Translation Studies. He suggested Rao check out the SF in Esperanto. Rao did and also sent Dasgupta postcards in half-baked Esperanto that the latter corrected and mailed back.
There’s plenty of tolerance between fluent speakers and beginners. At an Esperanto Congress, “conversations are often multilingual, first in Esperanto, followed by a translation. After a week or fortnight of immersion, however, their Esperanto is transformed,” says Rao. Esperanto is a resource that thrived in the digitised world to improve offline life; “when email arrived an entire Esperanto-world opened up. Once people discover it, they find that Esperanto in fact gives them many more international friends than English does,” says Rao.
It may be a small planet but Esperanto is a large world. There are more than 1430 places —streets, squares, parks, monuments, plaques, etc—named after Zamenhof. It has two million speakers worldwide and 350 native speakers—that is children who grew up speaking the language at home. Onlookers might dismiss it as a hobbyist’s pursuit but, if there were a time when useless knowledge was trifled, geekiness is most definitely having its day now.