Posts Tagged ‘esperanto’

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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Ludwig L. Zamenhof, troubled by hostilities among Russians, Jews, Poles, and Germans where he grew up, invented Esperanto to serve as a “bridge” between languages. Photo taken in 1904.

I’ve posted several times about Esperanto, having been active in the bridge-language movement for quite a few years. As I was driving to Providence recently and surfing channels, I heard Freakonomics pick up the story.

“In our previous episode, we looked at the idea of a universal language. One candidate was Esperanto, a language invented in the 19th century by a Jewish ophthalmologist named Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof. Derived from various European roots, Esperanto was meant to be easy to learn and egalitarian. The idea was not for Esperanto to supersede existing languages.

“On today’s episode: our producer Stephanie Tam takes a trip deep into Esperanto-land.

“STEPHANIE TAM: Estimates for how many people speak Esperanto range, but the Ethnologue, a comprehensive language database, cites 2 million speakers spanning 100 countries. Just 1,000 of those are native speakers, who grow up in Esperanto-speaking families and usually also speak 1 or 2 other national languages. The most famous of these is probably the billionaire financier George Soros. But for the vast majority — well, they might be the only Esperanto speakers in the area. … Why on earth learn it?

“I traveled to the Esperanto-USA National Congress to find out. For the past several years, it’s been held at William Peace University, in Raleigh, North Carolina. …

“Lee Miller [is] a 65-year-old Texan and former sign language interpreter and nurse. He learned Esperanto at 16; now, he teaches it in his retirement. He and another Esperantist picked me up from the airport and drove me to campus. …

“A lot of Esperantists describe their community as a kind of family.

“MILLER: If I were in a group like this and I needed somebody to hold my wallet, with all my money in it, I would hand it to an Esperanto speaker in full confidence that whenever I came back, they would hand it back to me and my money would still be in it. I have that level of confidence and trust in the people.

“TAM: The National Congress is a combination of socializing, workshops, and seminars … This year, there were about 70 attendees, with guests flying in from Canada, the Netherlands, and elsewhere — and about 1,000 streaming from Facebook Live. …

“This year’s keynote speaker was Humphrey Tonkin, an English professor at the University of Hartford and former president of the Universal Esperanto Association. … He delivered the speech in Esperanto, and gave me an English translation afterward.

“HUMPHREY TONKIN: Zamenhof emphasized that, first and foremost, we are human beings, and only secondarily members of particular nations or peoples or languages. If appealing to what is best in humanity rather than reinforcing what divides us is idealistic or utopian, I suppose we must plead guilty. But, if using what brings us together to talk about and celebrate what makes us all different is a rational approach to our divided world, then Esperanto seems to me to make a great deal of sense.”

Tam goes on to interview many of the participants — for example, Orlando Raola, former president of Esperanto-USA.

“RAOLA: I’m originally from Cuba, where I also was part of the Esperanto movement. In real life, I work as a professor of chemistry in Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, California. …

“Having been born in an island, and being an islander by nature, I always had this great curiosity: what is beyond the sea? … I understood early that the only way to communicate with humans is through language, and I was interested in many different cultures. …

“I was always fascinated by the culture of Nordic countries, especially Sweden. I once wrote a letter to the Swedish Institute — it’s a Swedish institution that disseminates Swedish culture outside Sweden. I sent them a letter: ‘I want to learn this language, I want to get to know about this culture.’ A few months later, I got a big package with everything you need to know to learn Swedish — dictionaries, cassettes, courses for learning language, reading material. It was a big box! I said, ‘This is a very difficult language. I’m going to spend how many years learn[ing] this? Then, I will be able to communicate with a very tiny sliver of mankind!’ I am very interested in the culture, but I am [also interested] in the culture of Japan, Hungary, and of China! Do I have time to learn all of these languages? No, there won’t be time. …That’s the day I became an Esperantist.”

The language is easy to learn and, though European-based, has a consistency that appeals to speakers of non-European languages. I do think the accent marks that indicate how to pronounce a letter might turn off some people. But the overall concept is just too logical and loving to ever completely die out.

More at Freakonomics, here.

Photo: Philip Brewer / Flickr
An estimated 2 million people speak Esperanto worldwide. Around 1,000 are native speakers.

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As some readers know, I used to be quite energetic about Esperanto, an invented international language that I’ve blogged about a few times.

Even though Esperanto never took the world by storm, it’s still in use, and the goal to create a widely accepted bridge between languages and cultures is still a worthy goal.

At the New Yorker recently, Joan Acocella wrote about Esperanto’s founder, Ludwig Zamenhoff, a Jew living in Poland at a time of fierce enmity among people of different ethnicities. Convinced that a shared language could promote peace, Zamenhoff decided to do something about it.

The usefulness of a common, intermediary language was not a new idea, writes Acocella. “Ambitious organizations such as the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church made sure that their members, whatever their mother tongue, learned a second, common language. …

“Esperanto’s creator, Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917), a short, sparkly-eyed, chain-smoking ophthalmologist, was a Jew, and, as he wrote to a friend, this made all the difference: ‘My Jewishness has been the main reason why, from earliest childhood, I gave myself completely to one crucial idea . . . the dream of the unity of humankind.’

“By this he may have meant that Jews were broader in outlook. In any case, he felt that they needed to be. In the town where Zamenhof grew up — Białystok, now in Poland but at that time part of the Russian Empire — the population, he wrote, ‘consisted of four diverse elements: Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews; each spoke a different language and was hostile to the other elements.’

“He went on, ‘I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all men were brothers, and, meanwhile, in the street, in the square, everything at every step made me feel that men did not exist, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews.’ …

“[At one time a Zionist], Zamenhof became disillusioned with Zionism. … He wanted Judaism purged of all narrowness. Let the Jews keep some of their nice things, their High Holidays and the stories and the poetry in their Bible. But, as for theology and ethics, they should confine themselves to the teachings of Rabbi Hillel (first century B.C.), which, according to Zamenhof, consisted of just three principles: that God exists and rules the world; that He resides within us as our conscience; and that the fundamental dictate of conscience is that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. …

“At his nineteenth-birthday party, in 1878, he surprised his guests by giving each of them a small dictionary and a grammar of a new language he had invented.” It was the beginning of an international movement.

More here. The New Yorker article is a review of Esther Schor’s book Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language.

There’s a lot more to the story of Zamenhoff and the rise of Esperanto, which today is spoken in surprising places all over the world. (When I was first learning it, for example, China was publishing propaganda stories in the language.) To learn more, start with the New Yorker book review — and then maybe the book itself.

Photo: Loyal Books
Ludwig L. Zamenhoff (1859-1917), the eye doctor who invented Esperanto as a language to bridge disparate cultures. The word Esperanto means “one who is hoping.”

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Some time ago, I blogged about the book In the Land of Invented Languages  and followed up with another post on Esperantists in the subway.

Among the invented languages that people actually speak is Klingon,  which came from a television series, Star Trek. Today television is inventing more languages.

As Amy Chozick notes in the NY Times, “Game of Thrones” needed the feeling of authenticity that language (and subtitles) can impart.

She writes, “At his best friend’s wedding reception on the California coast, David J. Peterson stood to deliver his toast as best man. He held his Champagne glass high and shouted ‘Hajas!’ The 50 guests raised their glasses and chanted ‘Hajas!’ in unison.

“The word, which means ‘be strong’ and is pronounced ‘hah-DZHAS,’ has great significance for Mr. Peterson. He invented it, along with 3,250 other words (and counting), in the language he created for the HBO fantasy series ‘Game of Thrones,’ called Dothraki”

More here.

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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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When you have a doctor’s appointment in the morning and go to work late, you see a whole different crowd riding the subway. In the summer after rush hour, there are a lot of families on outings. A woman and a boy of about 11 got on and sat near me. The boy began to tell his mother that he had been reading about a made-up language called Esperanto. She said she had heard of it and thought it had been popular a long time ago but hadn’t worked out. An older kid they didn’t know chimed in to confirm the woman’s view. Esperanto was intended to be used as an international language, but nobody spoke it anymore.

That was too much for me. “Well,” I said, “hundreds of thousands of people speak it. I speak it.” If I may say so, the boy and his mother were delighted. Could I speak a few words, they asked?

“Mi parolas Esperanto,” I said. The boy repeated the “I Speak Esperanto” phrase several times. He then wanted to know “hello.” “Saluton,” I said. I told him and his mother why Ludwig Zamenhoff had felt a need for such a language more than 100 years ago in a war-torn part of Eastern Europe.

When the woman and the boy were leaving the train, they asked how to say “good-bye” and told me good-bye in Esperanto.

Now get this. Here is William Shatner, long before “Star Trek,” in a spooky black and white movie called “Incubus” — filmed in Esperanto!

That is so bizarre, I thought at first it must be a hoax. Maybe some Esperantists dubbed it for a joke on YouTube, I thought. But Wikipedia is very careful about such things, and it confirms that William Shatner performed in a movie in Esperanto that was thought to be lost. The recently rediscovered print had subtitles in French, which have now been converted to English. Read Wikipedia here. (Read my previous post on invented languages here.)

And just in case you are now inspired to learn the language, this little clip offers a pretty good lesson.

I hope the boy on the subway finds it. A terrifically curious and open-minded young man.

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I’ve been thinking about a book I read earlier this year, In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and The Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language, by Arika Okrent. I thought it was a hoot! Even though some parts were impenetrable to anyone not a linguist like the author, I really enjoyed it. Okrent is a very good writer and knows how to choose and lead up to the funniest aspect of a constructed language — or of the inventor. I learned a ton of random facts, and I thought I knew it all, having a decent knowledge of Esperanto. Turns out, there are more than 900 known invented languages. One that was invented to express a woman’s perspective is Laadan and has words like this: “radiidin, non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help.”

Okrent gets into the wildly varied reasons people invent a language and why natural languages are more flexible. She covers some languages in depth (like Star Trek’s Klingon, invented only for artistic fun). I loved the part about the U.S. Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation asking “semiotician” Thomas Sebeok in the 1980s how to post warnings that would last 10,000 years on waste-storage sites. Sebeok recommended posting signs in all known languages, plus pictures, icons, and all sorts of symbols, and having the keepers every 250 years rethink the warnings based on current messaging. He also recommended creating a spooky mythology around the site that would be passed on from “priest” to “priest” beyond the time they could be expected to know the reason for it. All they would know is the “curse.”

Too many great tidbits to describe here. I laughed all the way through.


Asakiyume writes: Your mention of Thomas Sebeok’s foray into how to convey a warning about nuclear waste sites reminded me of this article, “This Place Is Not a Place of Honor,” by  Alan Bellows, which includes interesting images designed to convey horror and stay-away-itiveness.

The poetry of it–it horrifies viscerally.
This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it!

Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.
What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is in a particular location… it increases toward a center… the center of danger is here… of a particular size and shape, and below us.
The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

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