Language: Esperanto Lives

Hundon mordas viro, “Man bites dog,might be the motto of this artificial language,which incarnates an impossible,yet democratic,dream

IT’S TEMPTING TO laugh at the Esperantists, and during the two weeks that I spent with 2,200 of them in China, for the International Esperanto Congress, I periodically succumbed. Their dream of world brotherhood through a planned international language is so touchingly unrealistic; the proportion of oddballs among them is so high. On the flight into Beijing my children tried to amuse themselves by picking out Esperantists among the passengers. But the game soon lost any sense of challenge. In the row behind us, for example, seat A held a Japanese salaryman, B another salaryman, and C a ninety-year-old American with beret, backpack, dazed expression, and Esperanto book. The conference itself was heaven for a satirist. At the start my favorite characters were the pack of natty, eager Bulgarians, on their first trip out of the homeland and searching vainly for subgeriatric women on whom to try out their Esperanto opening lines. But as time went on, my attention swung to the sizable corps of vegetarian Esperantists, whose outrage mounted with the appearance of each new platter of chicken or pork. At the last of several grand banquets the vegetarians sat in stony silence, their fiercely crossed arms sending a message that blasted through any language barrier, their cadaverous physiques undercutting their cause. As the dessert course neared, I thought that harmony might at last be restored. But when the waiters arrived with . . . Baked Alaska! one Dutchman stomped out in disgust. “Vot about de eggs?” he said, in English, to the waiter as he passed.

Still, by the end of the 71st annual congress—that is, the Sepdekunua Universala Kongreso de Esperanto—I wasn’t laughing so hard. An improbable cause it may be, but Esperanto also seems an admirable one. If we honor Don Quixote for his doomed crusades, why do any less for these, his heirs?

ESPERANTO WAS devised ninety-nine years ago in Warsaw, by Dr. L. L. Zamenhof, who is usually identified in the movement’s literature as a “Polish oculist.” His goal was to create a language so simple and logical that anyone could learn it, and so neutral in its political and cultural connotations that it could be used as everybody’s second language, removing nationalistic freight attached to English, French, German, and other dominant tongues.

In at least one respect he succeeded, for Esperanto is truly and elegantly simple—not simpleminded, as some pidgin languages seem to be, but relentless in the regularity and simplicity of its “no exceptions” grammatical policy. Once you learn a certain pattern, you can be confident that it will always apply.

For example, every verb, in every possible context or grammatical setting, will end in -as in the present tense—and any word ending that way will be a presenttense verb. For “am,”“is,”or “are,”you can always say estas, and you will always be right. (Verb endings are the same for first, second, and third person, singular and plural.) Every verb root, always, can be converted to past tense with an -is ending, and to future with -os. The -us ending means conditional, -u is imperative, and -i is the infinitive form. Therefore, once you know that star- is the root meaning “stand,” you automatically know many other things: that staras means “stand,” starts means “stood,” staros means “will stand,” status means “would stand,” staru means “Stand!” as a bailiff might say when the judge enters the court, and stari means “to stand.”

In Esperanto every noun will end in -o, and every word ending in -o will be a noun. (Esperanto, by the language’s built-in rules, means “one who hopes.”) Adjectives will always end in -a; plurals of nouns and adjectives, which must agree with each other, will always take a -j after the o or a. If granda hundo is “big dog,” grandaj hundoj will be “big dogs.” Esperanto’s j is pronounced like the English y, so -aj rhymes with “pie” and -oj with “boy.” Words ending in -e are always adverbs. The stress in each word of spoken Esperanto will always be on the next-to-last syllable. Every word will be pronounced the way it’s spelled.

Zamenhof used to brag that Esperanto had only sixteen grammatical rules, which, once memorized and digested, could make anyone competent in the language. This is an exaggeration—I pored over the sixteen rules and had a lot left to learn—but the absence of exceptions gives comfort and confidence to the novice speaker. Precisely because the rules are clear and unvarying, when you learn a few of them you can plunge right ahead and make up new sentences. They may not be profound, but at least they’ll be right.

According to Albert Valdman, a renowned linguist from the University of Indiana, who specializes in Creole languages and was an observer at the Kongreso, Esperanto is not so simple as it could be. Although its verbs don’t go through the am/is/are conjugations that so many in English do, Esperanto requires two forms of agreement that English does not. Adjectives must agree in number with their nouns (grandaj hundoj), and both must take an accusativecase -n ending when the noun is used as a direct object. (La viro havas grandan hundon—“The man has a big dog.” The is always translated “la,” and a is not translated at all.) Zamenhof thought such agreement a virtue, because it allows Esperanto, like Latin, to be almost indifferent to word order. If you say hundon mordas viro, Esperantists know it’s “Man bites dog” even though the dog comes first in the sentence. The other way around would be hundo mordas viron, or viron hundo mordas.

Creoles, which have evolved from trading languages with ease of learning as their cardinal goal, don’t bother with such case agreement, nor do they prize free word order, Valdman said. For example, the Malay language of Malaysia and Indonesia, although not technically a Creole, is so stripped down that it even lacks a verb “to be.” Instead, like English, it lets word order clarify the meaning. If you want to say “This is a book” in Malay, you say ini buku—literally, a “me Tarzan”—style “This [be] book.” But if you say buku ini, it means “this book” (as opposed to that one). The pattern of pidgin languages—representing the efforts of a real speaker to communicate and make a sale—suggests that word order is simpler to learn than case agreement, Valdman said. Therefore Zamenhof could have taken Esperanto one step further toward his ideal.

“Perhaps this does make it more complicated,” I was told by Humphrey Tonkin, a British-born U.S. citizen in his forties who is now president of the State University of New York in Potsdam. He is regarded as Esperanto’s best orator, was installed in Beijing as president of the Universal Esperanto Association, and will preside at the hundredth-anniversary celebrations, which will be held in Warsaw next year. “But Zamenhof was so idealistic. He thought he was creating an analogue of Latin, or maybe—although he couldn’t say it—of Yiddish.” Zamenhof was a Jew, and during the 1930s both Hitler and Stalin suppressed Esperanto because of its “cosmopolitan” overtones. One straight import from Yiddish is the interjection nu!—roughly, “Well, now . . . ” It can sound bizarre when it pops up in the middle of Esperanto’s typical Italian-sounding trills.

Esperanto offers another sturdy crutch to most new learners: its vocabulary is full of familiar friends.

According to the Esperantists’ gospel, Zamenhof tirelessly searched the dictionaries of the (Western) world, choosing from each the most beautiful, appropriate, and precise roots onto which to graft his new language. From Greek he took the -j plural ending and kaj, which rhymes with “sky” and means “and.” From English he took jes, which means and sounds the same as “yes”; from German knabo, for “boy,” bildo, for “picture,” and some others; from the Romance languages nearly everything else. Tonkin and others deny it stoutly, but I believe that a precocious form of affirmative action, rather than lofty linguistic standards, guided some of Zamenhof’s choices, since he left a little bit of each European language in the final mix. The sequence from one to ten, for example, goes: unu, du, tri, kvar, kvin, ses, sep, ok, naŭ, dek. This looks more like a Democratic Party-style quota system than a choice on the merits.

For whatever reason, most of Esperantos vocabulary is taken straight from Latin or the Romance languages. If you’ve studied any of them, it’s not hard to guess that dormas means “sleep,” manĝas (ĝ is like the soft g in “giant”) means “eat,”and parolas means “speak.” If you haven’t studied them, Esperanto loses some of its instant learnability. My children, for instance, found it not much more accessible than Japanese, which they had to struggle with during our five-month stay in Japan, since in both cases they had to learn many new words from scratch. Their plight is mirrored by that of most Asian Esperanto-learners, who must memorize the dorm-/manĝ-/parol- roots one by one. Asian speakers abounded at the Beijing conference—the Chinese movement was hailed as probably the largest and certainly the fastest-growing in the world. Their enthusiasm, Humphrey Tonkin said, made Zamenhof’s achievement the more impressive. “The Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans have to learn each new root, yet the regularity of the language gives them tremendous confidence.”

After stumbling along in moronicsounding but not-inaccurate Esperanto, I can testify that it offers an easier start than other languages. But is it any easier to attain full, supple, nuanced mastery of Esperanto than of, say, Italian? Tonkin, who as a graduate student at Harvard had an Esperanto-speaking roommate, insisted that it is. The U.S. Foreign Service ranks fluency on several levels, the lowest being Level One. “It’s almost impossible to reach Level Four in Italian,” Tonkin said. “I’d say I was at Level Four in Esperanto within eighteen months.”

One other linguistic feature makes Esperanto more complicated than it might initially seem, but also more interesting. In keeping with his doctrine of learnability, Zamenhof cooked up a way to generate a large variety of meanings from a small lexicon. The heart of the language is fewer than two thousand root words—comparatively few—plus a variety of prefixes, suffixes, and infixes that, in mix-and-match style, can make one root stretch to cover dozens of meanings.

For example (these definitions are taken from Montagu Butler’s EsperantoEnglish Dictionary): Sano is a noun meaning “health.” By the normal manipulations, sana therefore means “healthy” and sane means “healthily” (with the final e it is pronounced “sahn-ay”). The prefix mal- is quite common in Esperanto, and it reverses a word’s meaning. So malsano means “illness,” and malsana means “unhealthy.” Near the end of a word -ul- means those in a category, so a malsanulo is an invalid. -Eg- intensifies and -et- diminishes, so sanega means “lusty and brimming with life,” while malsanega means “at death’s door.” Mal-saneguto, of course, means “the terminally ill,” and malsaneta means “mildly indisposed.”-Ig- gives a word an instrumental or causative sense, so saniga means “health-giving and restorative,” malsaniga means “unsanitary,” sanigi is “to cure,” and malsanigi is “to make sick.” The infix -ĝ- means to become, so malsaniĝi is “to fall ill" and saniĝi is “to recover.” (Esperantists don’t say they “learned" or “studied" the language, they say they Esperantiĝis, “became Esperantists.”) -Antmeans one who does something, so saniganto could mean “a healer”—and those who attended the Kongreso were Kongresantoj.

I could go on practically forever: -Emmeans having a certain tendency, so malsanema would mean “sickly.”But I think the point is already clear. Esperanto’s “agglutinative” nature distinguishes it from most modern languages (Albert Valdman said that Turkish has the most similar structure) and, to me at least, accounts for most of its chess-game-style intellectual allure. At the same time, it constitutes the major aesthetic objection to the language, since the more agglutination, the fewer new, rich words from which to choose.

I realize that my knowledge is limited, but to me Esperanto’s vocabulary often seemed paltry, mainly because of the heavy reliance on affixes, especially mal-. The standard word for “short” is mallonga; for “small,” malgranda. Esperanto has no standard word for the direction left except maldekstra, or “un-right.” Its word for open is malfermi, “un-close.”

When I complained about mal- to Humphrey Tonkin, he gave a knowing smile. “Many people have noticed that,” he said. “Once after I’d given a talk about Esperanto, a woman raised her hand and said, ‘You mean to tell me that your language has no word for “unhappy”?' ” Other Esperanto luminaries were more sympathetic to my complaint. Reto Rossetti, a Swiss-born writer who lives in England and is Esperanto’s leading poet, said that there are times when a poet wants to describe an old man and doesn’t want to use malnova or maljuna. “You don’t want to take this to extremes,” he said. “Zamenhof didn’t make us say malblanca for black; he gave us nigra.”

The dispute over mal- illustrates the one titanic ideological struggle under way within the Esperanto movement, at least among those seriously interested in the language’s structure. On one side arc the purists, who love the austerity of Zamenhof’s scheme—few roots, many permutations. On the other side are the naturalists, who don’t at all mind dressing the language up with a few modern additions.

About ten years ago Humphrey Tonkin received a visit from a ninety-yearold man named Baker, who was calling on Esperantists around the country on a Greyhound Bus pass. Baker had been active in the movement before the Great War, had given it up as doomed, and had decided after a fifty-year layoff to get back in touch. “He spoke what sounded like an antique language,” Tonkin told me. “But it was also extremely inventive in its grammatical tricks. I had the feeling that they had worked out linguistic solutions we have lost, because we’ve just imported new words.”

Over the years, Esperanto dictionaries have grown and grown. Radios, telephones, televisions, and a thousand other less tangible innovations have come into being since Zamenhof’s time. Esperanto’s choice was to invent its own word for “talking across great distance" or to acquiesce (as it has) to telefono. Does it make sense to insist on malsanulejo (-ej- means a place for, so this is “place for the sick”) or to go with hospitalo. like most Western languages? To enforce komputilo (-ilo signifies a tool) or bow to komputero, in keeping with the rest of the world? Esperanto has an Academy, supposed to give or deny approval to new usages, but most academicians I spoke with thought that the future lay with imported words. Not even at mealtimes were the Kongresantoj spared the agonizing dilemma of word choice. The wooden eating implements with which most of the delegates fumbled in their rice bowls: should they be called haŝio (ŝ is pronounced like the sh in “shall”), in keeping with the Japanese and Chinese name, hashi? Die-hard Esperanto purists thought not. Instead they took the Mr. Potato Head approach of combining approved root words and coming up with mangobastonetoj, or “eatsticklets.” I’d love to make fun of mangobastonetoj, except that “chopsticks” was put together just the same way, chop being Asian pidgin-English for “fast.”

In grammar as well as vocabulary, Esperanto has trouble managing linguistic change. While English and other natural languages are constantly in flux, the billions of daily conversations creating momentum that no language purist can control, Esperanto is not used enough to create real pressure for change. (Esperantists cringe at the term “natural” language, used to distinguish French or German from their “artificial” language. They call everything but Esperanto a “national” language, as distinct from the “international” or “planned” language.) English may have its Edwin Newmans tut-tutting about change, but the Esperanto movement can plausibly view change as a dire threat.

“In principle, this language should never change,” I was told by Diccan Masterman, a full-bearded, swashbuckling Englishman in his forties who recently finished a four-year term as director of the congress section of the Universal Esperanto Association, in Rotterdam. “When it changes, it loses regularity. But if you read what was written long ago, you notice a great stylistic difference. So it does have dynamism, though not as much as a national language.”

Esperanto is almost devoid of idioms, the juicy, not literally true expressions (like “juicy”) that give life to national languages. I asked several authorities to prove me wrong on this, and they all came up with the same pallid word: ĝis!, a shortened version of ĝis revido (“so long!”). Later Tonkin offered a much better idiom: kabeiĝi, meaning “disappear from the Esperanto movement,” after a man named kabe who was for a while enthusiastic and then gave up. But because this idiom has to be explained, it runs counter to the no-exceptions creed. To me, Esperanto seemed to have the pluses and minuses of a very fine computer-programming language. It is logical, learnable, and somewhat sterile, but still satisfying for the righteous purity of its approach. Indeed, computer programmers are well represented in the Esperanto membership book, coming in close behind the leading occupational category: “retired.”

MAYBE LINGUISTIC and aesthetic arguments about Esperanto are all beside the point. If the worldwide usage of Esperanto approximates that of Pig Latin, does it matter that one is a real, even elegant, language and the other is a joke? Esperanto has endured for ninetynine years, longer than any other artificial language. But when it was invented, German was the international language of science, English of commerce, French of diplomacy and snobbery. Now English serves in all those roles—so why should anyone bother with Esperanto?

To this question—the question— Esperantists offer many answers. Among those gathered at the Kongreso there was no shortage of persons ready to explain their interest in Esperanto by means of atypical life stories. One man learned the language in a study group in Dachau. One woman learned from her parents, as a red-diaper baby, when Esperanto enjoyed a leftist vogue in the 1930s. On the bus to and from the meetings I sat next to a woman from the far northern reach of Sweden, who spends most of each year with no companions except reindeer and lives for the fellowship of the Kongreso. The tour guide on our bus, dragooned into temporary service from his regular job as a Chinese-toEsperanto translator, spent the years of the Cultural Revolution slopping pigs on the farm.

The Baha’i faith fielded a big delegation. So did the Oomoto movement of Japan, which has adopted Esperanto as its vehicle for exporting the Shinto religion worldwide. (Considering that Shinto amounts to the worship of Japaneseness, this project seems more ambitious than Esperanto itself.) There were blind Esperantists, handicapped Esperantists, a gay Esperantists’ group call Samseksamaj Geesperantistoj, or “same-sex-loving male and female Esperantists.” The only conspicuous absentees were Soviet Esperantists, who stayed away for various political reasons.

Because talk of world brotherhood figures so prominently in Esperanto rhetoric, I was expecting heavy overlap between Esperantists and the anti-nuclear movement or the Greens. But when I asked Humphrey Tonkin about other leaders’ polities, he said he didn’t know, because no one ever talked about it. When I asked Diccan Masterman about Esperanto leftism, he started telling me about his career as an RAF bomber pilot. Someone else pointed out that Reed Irvine, of Accuracy in Media, the scourge of America’s pinko press, was once an active Esperantist. Most of the Americans at the conference were from California, and they included many don’t-tread-onme individualists.

But the most crazed-sounding reason for studying Esperanto—the one most likely to provoke ridicule from those outside the fold—is its “practicality”: learn Esperanto and see the world! For a few of the Kongresantoj, the language actually had opened doors. The Bulgarians, the Iranians, and many of the Chinese didn’t know any other world language and probably didn’t have any other excuse for getting a visa. “Many people see it as an attainable language,” Masterman said. “They may think they can never learn English, but this gives them a start.”

Masterman and Osmo Buller, a sober young Finn who now directs the central office in Rotterdam, were full of “practical” illustrations of how Esperanto was just about to catch on big. China was training more people in Esperanto—and had put out for thirty years a classy, slick-paper magazine called El Popola Ĉinio (ĉ sounds like the ch in “church”), or From People’s China. Esperanto was starting its own academy of sciences, based in San Marino, where experts from many lands would read technical papers in Esperanto. The Common Market countries were considering using Esperanto for computerized translations. Instead of working up separate translation programs for each pair of European languages—Spanish to Danish, German to Greek—the EEC might have programs to take each language into and out of Esperanto, which would be the clearinghouse.

But even at the Kongreso such practical talk was the exception. Whenever the Esperantists wanted to speak to anybody outside the club—Chinese taxi drivers or hotel clerks, for example— their choices were English or Chinese. On a post-Kongreso tour to south China, an English-speaking local guide who’d blundered in among the Esperantists recognized that my family shared her plight. She met us in a bar, described China’s language-training programs, and made clear that sensible parents would kill themselves if a bright child studied Esperanto instead of English. The day after the Kongreso ended, a bedraggled Eastern European man was trying to get travel instructions from a clerk at the headquarters hotel. He posed a question in Esperanto. “Speak English!” the clerk snapped, rendering judgment on the two weeks past.

“I’ve grown much less practical-minded than I used to be,” Humphrey Tonkin told me. “Fifteen years ago I might have stressed the practical advantages to learning Esperanto. Now no one can pretend that Esperanto will compete with English. But I’m more idealistic now. Esperanto permits a kind of communication that English makes hard.”

Two weeks earlier I might have laughed at this, too, but by the end of the Kongreso I think I understood what Tonkin meant. Most delegates to the conference could speak English, but Esperanto let them communicate without worrying so much about who was one-upping whom.

In some parts of the world—Southeast Asia may be the best example— English is used just to communicate, not to carry the extra judgmental freight. Chinese, Malays, and Tamils all speak it as a second, trading language and waste little time worrying about pronunciation and “skill.” But this is the exception. Americans and Britons can use English around the world—but the other party to the conversation will always be “speaking uphill,” as William Harmon, a shipping-company executive from California, put it.

Precisely because no one is a native speaker, Esperanto eliminates this problem. Some people speak more fluently than others, but no one has the native speaker’s right to sneer at mere beginners. I began to appreciate this difference when I spoke to a French Kongresanto in French. For the previous week I had blundered ahead, unembarrassed, in pidgin Esperanto, but when I dared attempt his own language, my friend’s eyes narrowed in disapproval of my many gaffes. Later that day I spoke in Esperanto with a Norwegian who (I later discovered) was perfectly comfortable in English. “We’re just paying attention to each other’s words when we speak this way,” she said. “You’re not distracted by my Norwegian accent in English.”

Is this reason enough to master Esperanto? For me it’s not. I’d rather spend the time swotting up my Japanese. But it’s no longer in me to laugh at those who make the effort. They do no harm, and at a personal level may do good. If you’re interested in joining them, the address of the Esperanto League of North America is P.O. Box 1129, El Cerrito, California 94530.

—James Fallows