“Cxu vi parolas Esperanton?” he asked.
“Iomete” I responded, startled that someone had actually asked me that.
We were outside a conference in Chisinau, Moldova; he was Romanian. He did not speak my language, I did not speak his, yet we mustered a conversation about linguistic minorities. What was going on?
My last two language blogs have both focused on Ulster Scots, and specifically on some people’s desire to use government money to provide translations in a language which is in fact made up. I have noted that this is a gross inefficiency and total nonsense, because there is a real Ulster Scots in which it is possible to write formally (as I demonstrated by writing both pieces in formal Ulster Scots). I noted also that, for all that, if you are developing a language which has fallen largely out of use, the very formal end is the wrong end to start.
The other thing, of course, is that not only does real Ulster Scots exist, but so do real made-up languages. However, they are usually “made up” in a consistent and logical way. Some have a specific dramatic purpose – Klingon was made up, for example, and even contains irregularities for realism. Others have been deliberately designed to be regular and easy to pick up (much unlike the garbage put out too often under the heading “Ulster Scots”), the most famous of which is Esperanto.
L.L. Zamenhof, topically perhaps, grew up in the mid-19th century in a town which was then within the Russian Empire but which is now in Poland, and where the contemporary dialect was in fact a version specifically of Belorussian. Himself a Jew, he in fact probably spoke Yiddish (closely related to dialects of Western Germany) natively, and married a Lithuanian. This mix of languages (his father also taught French and German) seemed to him to cause confusion and confrontation, and so as a young man he created a wholly new language, with a vocabulary predominantly of Latinate, Germanic and Slavic origin, to be used as everyone’s second language. He did so under the pseudonym “Dr Hoping” or, in his new language, “Doktoro Esperanto”, and so the story (and the name) began.
The language he designed had just 16 “rules”. He had begun in 1878, entered into widespread correspondence and thus changed his language to something very close to the current one by 1887, attempted a reform based on further correspondence in 1894 which was almost universally rejected by supporters, and then laid out the “16 rules” of the new language in the “Fundamento de Esperanto” of 1905.
Zamenhof was a remarkable innovator. He did many of the simple things well – ensuring that all parts of speech and all tenses were formed entirely regularly, for example. He also did some complex things well, developing an elaborate system of affixation from which new words with immediately understandable meanings can be derived (for example sana ‘health’ goes to malsana ‘ill-health’ to malsanema ‘prone to ill-health, sickly’ to malsanujo ‘sick person’ to malsanulejo ‘hospital’ in the same way that bela ‘beautiful’ goes to malbela ‘ugly’, batalo ‘battle, war’ goes to batalema ‘bellicose’ and lerni goes to lernejo ‘school’). He did introduce some tricky but arguably simplifying measures such as the 45 “correlatives” (translating words such as ‘how’, ‘hence’, ‘what kind of’, ‘in this way’); and some quirks such as an accusative case used even with adverbs and what is, in effect, a subjunctive mood.
From 1905, however, Esperanto developed in very much the same way as any other language. There were battles over usage (particularly around participle tenses and neologisms, i.e. new words entering the language). There was even a split, as 10-20% of speakers left on 1907 to speak a reformed version called Ido (meaning “derived from”), which removed some awkward sounding letters and some of the quirks, but also became slightly less predictable. Some innovations have crept in – new affixes or even derivations from affixes, and the ability to convert adjectives directly into verbs (e.g. vi belas “you are beautiful”).
Zamenhof’s own destiny, having designed a language as a vehicle for world peace, was to receive a cruel lesson from human nature. He himself died with the world at war, in 1917, and yet even worse was to follow – all three of his children perished in the Holocaust a generation later. Sadly, there is rather more to peace than communicating in the same language, as we know in this part of the world.
Therefore, the goal of the so-called pracelistoj (roughly “original goal people”) has not been achieved and never will be – in any case, English fulfils most of the role they were proposing for Esperanto globally, despite their rational claims that this gives the English-speaking world an unfair advantage. However, Esperanto retains a sizeable speech community, as many now in East Asia than in Europe, and given its “origins” in a mix of the three main Indo-European branches (spoken by more than half the world’s population), it does offer on account of its regularity a potential bridge into language learning – not least for a Chinese person wishing to learn an Indo-European language or indeed, say, for a Spaniard (Latinate) wanting to learn Russian (Slavic). Some primary schools in England are even trialling its use as a first “foreign language” because children find they can communicate in it so quickly that they are then inclined to continue language learning rather than deem it “too difficult”.
There are qualifications and diplomas available which can be attained quickly given the language’s regularity and predictability. I got mine in 2004, but to my shame have not kept it up – mi estas malfelicxe eksesperantisto; mi estis gxin plejparte forgesinta. It is a pity. It was later in 2004 that I went to Chisinau. I would not now be able to have a conversation with a random Romanian outside a random conference in a random venue in Moldova. Yet it was a remarkable thing that the conversation took place – Esperanto may not have achieved its “pracelon“, but it has certainly achieved something.