Whatever happened to … Esperanto?
Saturday November 26, 2005
'I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse,” said Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. Had the 16th-century polyglot been born 300 years later he could have said more succinctly (albeit less entertainingly), “Mi parolas Esperanton al ciuj” or “I speak Esperanto to everyone.”
Esperanto, invented in 1887 by the Polish eye specialist Dr Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, was an attempt to create a universal second language that would further international peace and understanding. Descartes, Pascal and Leibniz had all toyed earlier with the idea of constructed languages. Zamenhof, who spoke nine languages himself, took it one step further.
But what exactly is it? The German academic Detlev Blanke describes Esperanto as “lexically predominantly Romanic, morphologically intensively agglutinant and to a certain degree isolating in character”. In plainer English, it is an artificial, amalgamated language of five vowels and 23 consonants based on the western Indo-European languages. Its grammatical rules are logical, its verb endings regular, its spelling phonetic. It is Franglais and Spanglish for grown-ups.
Esperanto's glory days, however, appear to be mainly consigned to the past. In the early 1900s there were fledgling plans to establish Neutral Moresnet as the world's first Esperanto state. After the 1911 Xinhai revolution in China there was even some discussion of replacing Chinese with Esperanto in a process of dramatic modernisation. In the 1930s the language's speakers were regarded as sufficiently dangerous to be persecuted by Stalin. But whereas the Esperanto Association of Britain once enjoyed expensive headquarters in Holland Park, London, today its website directs you to a number in Stoke-on-Trent where the association's representative is away on holiday.
We shouldn't be too cynical, however. A delightful woman, who seems rather surprised to find newspaper inquiries to the Esperanto Association of Britain diverted to her home phone number, explains that the language enjoys a cosy global network of devotees. She tells the story of one man who learned it in his 80s so he could have a contact point among fellow speakers when he visited Russia.
There is also a wealth of little-known Esperanto literature, with more than 25,000 books in circulation. In 1999 the Scottish author Bill Auld was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature for his writings in Esperanto. He explained: “It is a language which brings people together on a level playing field in a world where language is power and power is wielded by the few.” There are even songs in Esperanto, including Can of Corn by a band called Heroin Jake and the Crack Addicts.
Enthusiasts are attempting to reach a new generation with an initiative called Springboard to Languages – aimed at raising language awareness in schools at key stage two through the medium of Esperanto. It is often described as a useful “apprentice language” – in much the same way that learning the recorder helps with other instruments.
For an English speaker, Esperanto is supposed to be five times as easy to learn as Spanish or French, 10 times as easy as Russian and 20 times as easy as Arabic or Chinese. Then again, less internationally minded English folk will point out that speaking slowly and loudly in their native tongue is even easier still.
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