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

By 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.net, 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.

Marion Franck

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