Friday, April 24, 2015

Who would bother to learn the ‘language of hope’?


July 1, 2011 |

* Editor’s note: Marion is on vacation. This column was first published in 2002 but has been updated.

This year marks the 152nd anniversary of the birth of Ludwig L. Zamenof, inventor of Esperanto. If his idea had caught on, we might be setting off fireworks today and singing “Feliĉan Naskiĝtagon.” Instead, I bet half my readers don’t know what I’m talking about.

Esperanto is an artificial language, whose name means “the hopeful one.” I thought it was as dead as a doornail.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I discovered on the web that the 59th annual convention of the Esperanto League for North America took place in Emeryville two weeks ago and the International Congress meets three weeks from now in Copenhagen. How did I miss this?

And, according to, Esperanto is spoken as a second language by at least 1 million and maybe 2 million people in all parts of the world, especially small nations and Asian countries, notably Japan. Books are written in Esperanto, and Esperanto-speaking tourists are encouraged to phone their counterparts when they pull into town in Europe, Asia or Africa.

Esperantists are active on the Internet, where I got an answer to my email asking how to write “Happy Birthday” in 40 minutes. Not many years ago, you could take an Esperanto class at the International House right here in Davis. Although that is no longer available, instructional programs have multiplied on the web.

I first heard about Esperanto in high school, when it was as little known as it is today. Like any teenager, I let most random bits of knowledge float by me, but for some reason Esperanto got my attention, perhaps because I was laboring fiercely at the time to learn French and Spanish. I didn’t study Esperanto, but I acquired a general knowledge of its structure and goals.

Everything about Esperanto is logical, designed to make it easy to learn and easy to speak. The 28 letters are always pronounced the same. Every word is accented on the second to last syllable. Only 16 grammar rules apply, and you can recognize any part of speech by its spelling. On the negative side, Esperanto strikes me as euro-centric, using our alphabet and words drawn from European languages.

(Don’t imagine that I remember all these details from high school. Most of this information comes from a recent look at websites.)

The inventor of Esperanto, Zamenhof, was a physician who lived from 1859 to 1917 in a multiethnic section of Poland that suffered from frequent conflicts among speakers of Polish, Russian, German and Yiddish. Zamenhof did not want to replace existing languages, but he hoped that his invented second language could help people in every part of the world “just get along.”

When I first read about Esperanto, during the Cold War, America was powerful, but we didn’t dominate the world. All high school students were required to study foreign language. When I went to college, the smart money was on students who majored in Russian, positioning themselves for jobs in diplomacy.

Esperanto, with its ease of learning, sounded like a wonderful alternative to years of irregular verbs, but it didn’t catch on. Instead, in the course of my lifetime, English took over as the international language, despite its horrendous grammar and spelling.

I was not totally surprised. Even when I first heard of Esperanto, I couldn’t imagine everyone agreeing to learn the same second language. A language, I thought, can’t be born artificially, any more than a baby.

As it turns out, babies are born artificially now (almost) and so are languages (almost), the most amazing example being modern Hebrew, which was created as the language of Israel by immigrants who didn’t speak it.

Despite these developments, I assumed that Esperanto was dead and gone. Instead, I find conferences, correspondence courses, ski weeks in Switzerland and translations of Shakespeare.

Do I get this? Do I have even the slightest understanding why people are still promoting a language that was invented in 1887 and hasn’t caught on? Don’t people ever give up? I’m trying to figure out whether I admire people who keep at it or whether I think they’re a little crazy.

How can anyone ever expect humans to agree on something new that requires effort and commitment by people all over the world? Are such tasks ever worth it?

Then I think about world peace.

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected] Her column is published Sundays.



  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

  • .


    New design submitted for conference center

    By Dave Ryan | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    Water and power have a troubling interdependency

    By New York Times News Service | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    Bob Dunning: Fairness is an afterthought for them

    By Bob Dunning | From Page: A2

    Los Angeles march to commemorate Armenian killings

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    Hostage deaths a reminder of risk of ‘deadly mistakes’

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    Walkers head out three times weekly

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4Comments are off for this post

    Got bikes? Donate ‘em!

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Need a new best friend?

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4 | Gallery

    Beginning tai chi classes start May 5

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    College Night set April 30 at DHS

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    School board hears report on health services

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A5

    Tour of co-ops precedes Sacramento conference

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A5

    Mamajowali will perform at benefit house concert

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A6 | Gallery

    Explorit: Celebrate International Astronomy Day

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A6

    Learn basics of composting in Woodland

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A6

    Winkler Dinner raises funds for enology, viticulture activities

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A8 | Gallery

    Raptor Center welcomes visitors at May 2 open house

    By Trina Wood | From Page: A8 | Gallery

    Take a peek at region’s past at Tremont Mite Society’s social

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A8 | Gallery

    BeerFest expands to include cider

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A8

    Mapping where human action is causing earthquakes

    By New York Times News Service | From Page: A9

    Hummingbird health: Appreciating the little things

    By Kat Kerlin | From Page: A12 | Gallery



    Thanks for supporting the arts

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: B4

    Bike Swap another success

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: B4

    Drink is a tasteless insult

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: B4

    Tom Meyer cartoon

    By Debbie Davis | From Page: B4

    The fight for gender pay equity

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B4

    It’s a depressing beat

    By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5



    Lehner talks about the UCD student-athlete experience

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1

    Reeling Blue Devils stop skid against Sheldon

    By Evan Ream | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Aggie Spring Game environment will up the gridiron fun factor

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Rare DHS track loss still full of highlights

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

    DYSA roundup: Lester, Osborne lead Storm over Dixon

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B3 | Gallery

    Lady Demons’ fundraiser a smash hit

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B3 | Gallery

    Pro baseball roundup: River Cats lose their fourth straight

    By Staff and wire reports | From Page: B12





    ‘Ex Machina': The perils of playing God

    By Derrick Bang | From Page: A10 | Gallery

    Ceramicist works will be featured at The Artery

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A11 | Gallery



    Chamber expands Korean sister-city opportunities

    By Felicia Alvarez | From Page: A5 | Gallery

    Car Care: Tips for buying your first ATV

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B6

    Subaru goes rear-wheel drive with sporty BRZ coupe

    By Ann M. Job | From Page: B7 | Gallery



    Whitney Joy Engler

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

    Valente Forrest Dolcini

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4



    Comics: Friday, April 24, 2015

    By Creator | From Page: B5