what is esperanto

Learning a language as an adult can be discouraging. But Esperanto, a language constructed by Polish ophthalmologist and amateur philologist Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof during the 1880s, seems specifically engineered to keep that initial linguistic optimism—Prosecco-induced or otherwise—from fading. Its rules are reassuringly reliable: consistent pronunciation, regular grammar, and a limited but durable vocabulary. There are no silent p’s, no irregular verbs, no grammatical genders, and few of the colloquial expressions that can get non-native speakers into such a pickle. Esperanto is amuza and facila. In fact, learning Esperanto feels like a bona ideo all round. (See, you’re catching on already.) So why isn’t la tuta mondo joining in.

In its short life, Esperanto has been widely praised and roundly denigrated. Leo Tolstoy and J.R.R. Tolkien were early supporters; the ever-paranoid Stalin called it “the language of spies” and oversaw the deaths of an estimated two thousand Soviet Esperantists in purges in 1937, and the imprisonment of thousands more. With the tiresome predictability of the anti-Semite, Hitler saw Esperanto as a Jewish plot, denouncing it in a speech in Munich in 1922 and renewing the attack in Mein Kampf. In 1936, the Nazis outlawed the teaching of Esperanto, and during the war many Esperantists (many of whom were also Jews, Communists, or both), including three of Zamenhof’s children, were murdered.

Today the common belief is that the practice of Esperanto is harmless and irrelevant. After all, English is the new international language—at least that’s a notion accepted with easy complacency by many English speakers. And yet, the Esperanto movement persists. (Esperanto means “one who hopes.”) Though a Danish linguist joked at a 1954 unesco conference that Esperanto was a language “suitable only for Uruguayan menus—“sparking a nasty Danish-Uruguayan diplomatic incident—it is estimated that two million people can now order soup, gossip about Paris Hilton, and possibly even discuss epistemology in Esperanto. Of those, as many as two thousand are actually native speakers who grew up in Esperanto-speaking homes.

From a twenty-first-century viewpoint, Zamenhof’s dream might seem airy, but it was grounded in his day-to-day experiences as a Jew growing up in Bialystok, at that time a corner of the Czarist empire with a fractious population divided into Russian, Polish, German, and Yiddish speakers. Zamenhof felt that the anti-Semitism and ethnic strife he witnessed were exacerbated by communication problems. His scheme for a planned international language was, in its optimism and scientific rationalism, quintessentially nineteenth century, but Zamenhof was also working within a larger tradition, one in which language is a bridge to a utopian dream of perfect understanding, of absolute harmony among what is meant, what is said, and what is heard. In this sense, Esperanto isn’t meant to be merely a convenient way to order a cup of coffee in a distant land; it is a way of imagining the future.
Inventing, refining, and arguing about constructed languages requires passionate commitment and a certain level of linguistic ability, so it’s not surprising that the movement is full of pedants and people who speak Klingon. Unfortunately for the auxlang side of things, the kind of person who is drawn to a planned language is often the same kind of person who feels compelled to make up his or her very own, which means that widespread acceptance of a universal idiom is constantly being scuppered by self-defeating schisms.

Esperanto has its share of splinter groups—the Riismo movement aims to eliminate sexist usages, for example—but its great crisis came back in 1907 with the “Ido split,” which one Esperantist historian laments as “characterized by a high degree of scheming and conniving and treachery.” The defection of prominent French Esperantist the Marquis Louis de Beaufront to the Ido variant, which he is thought to have helped develop while acting as Zamenhof’s trusted lieutenant, was seen as a perfidious personal and linguistic betrayal. (Esperantists take great pleasure in pointing out that de Beaufront was a fake marquis.) Those pioneering Idists viewed themselves as revolutionaries and the Esperantists as stuffy and short-sighted. The Esperantists, on the other hand, felt that the early Idists suffered from the “constant reform” problem, with their dictionaries becoming outdated even before they were published.

Original article : http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2006.09-language-tongues-of-the-world-unite/

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