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Posts Tagged ‘bridge language’

Photo: Henri Caudevelle (1861–1936)
Zamenhof and Michaux families at the first Esperanto Congress, Boulogne 1905 (Familioj Zamenhof kaj Michaux ĉe la 1-a Universala Kongreso de Esperanto en Bulonjo-ĉe-maro en Aŭgusto 1905).

As some readers know, I used to be quite involved in spreading the word about the “bridge” language called Esperanto. So although I don’t use it these days, I am always interested in stories about it that pop up on the internet. Joshua Holzer, assistant professor of political science at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, wrote about Esperanto for the Conversation recently.

“In the late 1800s, the city of Białystok – which was once Polish, then Prussian, then Russian, and is today again part of Poland – was a hub of diversity, with large numbers of Poles, Germans, Russians and Yiddish-speaking Ashkanazi Jews. Each group spoke a different language and viewed members of the other communities with suspicion.

“For years, L.L. Zamenhof – a Jewish man from Białystok who had trained as a doctor in Moscow – had dreamed of a way for diverse groups of people to communicate easily and peacefully.

“On July 26, 1887, he published what is now referred to as Unua Libro, or First Book, which introduced and described Esperanto, a language he had spent years designing in hopes of promoting peace among the people of the world.

“Esperanto’s vocabulary is mostly drawn from English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin, Polish, Russian and Yiddish, as these were the languages that Zamenhof was most familiar with. Grammatically, Esperanto was primarily influenced by European languages, but interestingly, some of Esperanto’s innovations bear a striking resemblance to features found in some Asian languages, such as Chinese. …

“The promise of peace through a shared language has not yet caught on widely, but there are perhaps as many as 2 million Esperanto speakers worldwide. And it’s still spreading, if slowly.

“Having grown up in the multicultural but distrusting environment of Białystok, Zamenhof dedicated his life to constructing a language that he hoped could help foster harmony between groups.

The goal wasn’t to replace anyone’s first language. Rather, Esperanto would serve as a universal second language that would help promote international understanding – and hopefully peace.

“Esperanto is easy to learn. Nouns do not have grammatical gender, so you never have to wonder whether a table is masculine or feminine. There are no irregular verbs, so you don’t have to memorize complex conjugation tables. Also, the spelling is entirely phonetic, so you’ll never be confused by silent letters or letters that make different sounds in different contexts.

“In Unua Libro, Zamenhof outlined Esperanto’s 16 basic rules and provided a dictionary. This book was translated into more than a dozen languages, and at the beginning of each edition, Zamenhof permanently renounced all personal rights to his creation and declared Esperanto to be ‘the property of society.’ …

“Between 1907 and his death in 1917, Zamenhof received 14 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, though he never won the award. …

“After World War I, the League of Nations – the predecessor to the United Nations – was founded in hopes of preventing future conflict. Shortly thereafter, the Iranian delegate to the League of Nations proposed that Esperanto be adopted as the language of international relations.

“However, this proposal was vetoed by the French delegate, who feared that the French language would lose its position of prestige in diplomacy. In 1922, the French government went a step further and banned the teaching of Esperanto at all French universities for supposedly being a tool to spread communistic propaganda.

“Ironically, life behind the Iron Curtain wasn’t much easier for Esperanto speakers. In the Soviet Union, Esperantists were alleged to be part of an ‘international espionage organization.’ Many were persecuted and later perished during Stalin’s Great Purge. … During the Third Reich, the Gestapo received specific orders to search for the descendants of Zamenhof. All three of his children died in the Holocaust – as did many Esperanto speakers.

Despite such events, in 1954 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO, passed a resolution recognizing – and entering into a relationship with – the Universal Esperanto Association, which opened the door for the Esperanto movement to be represented at UNESCO events pertaining to language.

“In 1985, UNESCO passed a resolution encouraging countries to add Esperanto to their school curricula. For yearsChina has offered Esperanto as a foreign language option at several of its universities, one of which houses an Esperanto museum. There is now a program in interlinguistics offered at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland that’s taught in Esperanto.”

More at the Conversation, here. No firewall.

Just for fun, listen to a guy sing the Dolly Parton song “Jolene” in Esperanto.

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To paraphrase a character in the Brian Friel play “Translations,” if you impose a language on people, one day you may find that their speech “no longer fits the contours of the land.” Language is critical to identity. People can always learn the language of the power group later, once they have learned how to learn.

That is the rationale behind a new effort in Haiti.

“When Michel DeGraff was a young boy in Haiti, his older brother brought home a notice from school reminding students and parents of certain classroom rules. At the top of the list was ‘no weapons.’ And right below it, DeGraff still remembers: ‘No Creole.’ Students were supposed to use French, and French only. …

“DeGraff is now an associate professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he is using his influence to try to destroy the barrier that essentially fences off most of Haiti’s children from a real education.” Read the Boston Globe report here.

The dominance of a few languages was one of the concerns behind creating Esperanto as a bridge. With a bridge language, Esperantists hoped, less common languages would not die. It hasn’t turned out that way.

“There are more than 7,000 languages in the world, and if statistics hold, two weeks from now, there will be one less. That’s the rate at which languages disappear. And each time a language disappears, a part of history — a subtle way of thinking — vanishes too.

“A new documentary called The Linguists, [which aired August 4] on PBS, follows ethnographers David Harrison and Greg Anderson as they race to document endangered languages in some of the most remote corners of the world.

“From the plains of Siberia to the mountains of Bolivia to the tribal lands of India, Harrison and Anderson have hopscotched the globe, but they sat down for a moment with NPR’s Scott Simon to discuss their race to capture the world’s endangered languages.

“Harrison, a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College, specializes in sounds and words; Anderson, who directs Oregon’s Living Tongues Institute, is the verb expert. Together, they speak 25 languages.” Read more here.

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