Claude Piron

More responses to those
who are skeptical about Esperanto


1. "Esperanto has its roots in Western culture, and is rigidly linked, by its 'Fundamento', to that culture as it was in the 19th century."

2. "That also defines the limits of its neutrality, justice, democracy, and suitability in the modern world."

3. "For example, its patriarchical structure is no longer suitable."

4. Wouldn't it be better to create a new and fairer language for international communication.

1. "Esperanto has its roots in Western culture, and is rigidly linked, by its 'Fundamento', to that culture as it was in the 19th century."

Certainly there is a link between the real, practically used Esperanto and the Fundamento, but that link is not at all rigid. 95% of Esperanto users don't know much about the Fundamento and don't much care. The Fundamento has little influence, as you will see if you explore the evolution of the lnaguage. Its influence is essentially indirect, for example through textbooks and grammars, which are mostly written by people who are thoroughly familiar with the Fundamento.

Yes, Esperanto definitely has its roots in the Western cultural sphere. Or more accurately, in the Eastern European; the Western aspects of Esperanto are only surface traits. In my way of seeing things, the relationship between Esperanto and its European roots is similar to that between Haitian Creole and its roots in the French language. Although almost every word in the Haitian vocabulary has its roots in the Indo-European languages, the actual language is not, structurally, Indo-European. There is a large difference between the roots and the mature plant.

In fact, Zamenhof clearly and rightly said, that he was proposing a language that was not constructed according to a European model. This is what he said in the Unua libro [First Book]:

"...each word always retains its original unalterable form—namely, that under which it appears in the vocabulary. The various grammatical inflexions, the reciprocal relations of the members of a sentence, are expressed by the junction of immutable words. But the structure of such a synthetic language being altogether strange to the chief European nations, and consequently difficult for them to become accustomed to, I have adapted this principle of dismemberment to the spirit of the European languages, in such a manner that anyone learning my tongue from grammar alone, without having previously read this introduction—which is quite unnecessary for the learner—will never perceive that the structure of the language differs in any respect from that of his mother-tongue."

After that, he explains that fratino consists of three WORDS: frat, in, and o. That is a typically Chinese way to understand a word. In the cited text, it is immediately clear that Zamenhof intentionally devised a non-European language that has all traits of a so-called isolating language. To say "The various grammatical inflexions, the reciprocal relations of the members of a sentence, are expressed by the junction of immutable words" is to define the criterion for an isolating language.

You are probably amazed that for Zamenhof, linguistic elements like o and in were words. In my opinion, he used that terminology to accentuate the fact that his language consists of unchangeable blocks, which can be combined with one another, without ever modifying the form of the blocks themselves (those sorts of modifications are common in Western languages, like in the English "foot -> feet"; "come -> came"). My impression is that somewhere he saw a description of the Chinese language, with examples; maybe he even had a Chinese grammar at hand, and noticed that that sort of language had a construction with many advantages, one one hand because of the perfect regularity, and on the other hand because of the ease with which it allows the speaker to express complex concepts using the combination of simple words. Well, in the 19th century, the texts written about Chinese were based on the writing, without consideration for the spoken language. They generally used the term "word" when speaking of the basic unchanging blocks which comprise the language. Today, we refer to these blocks as "morphemes" rather than "words".

In fact, the spirit of Esperanto is not European at all. It is not possible in any European language to put into words the same idea, in sentences as grammatically different as li iris kongreson trajne, kongresen li trajnis, li iris al la kongreso per trajno, pertrajne li veturis kongresen,li trajne alkongresis, etc. This variation in expression is owed to the fact that the morphemes are absolutely invariable and can be combined without limit; a trait which Esperanto shares with Chinese. Many Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans contributed to the considerable evolution of the language, in addition to the many Hungarians during the period of the "Budapest school". Expressons like la nova ponto longas unu kilometron, or Unesko ree rezolucias favore al Esperanto, found in Chinese Esperanto publications, are not patterned at all after the mental and linguistic norms of the Western cultural sphere. Even in English, in which nouns are regularly turned into verbs and verbs are regularly turned into nouns, it is not possible to use concepts like "long" or "resolution" as verbs.

To my knowledge, only in Esperanto can the 4-word Confucian admonition to fathers and sons, to fulfill properly their roles in the family, be translated word for word, that is in four words, with a similarly poetic and concise formula, as is found in the Chinese original: Patro patru, filu fil'. The only translation that I have found in English, is Let the fathers be fathers and the sons sons. In French: Que le père agisse en père, le fils en fils. These are much further from the original than the Esperanto translation, not only in form, but also in sense: they are too precise. This simple example shows that the European roots of the language don't hinder it in its function as a tool for intercultural bridges.

2. "That also defines the limits of its neutrality, justice, democracy, and suitability in the modern world."

Certainly, it's definitely true that the good aspects of Esperanto are limited. No one claims that it's a perfect tool for international communication. Esperanto speakers only want to advise others that Esperanto is, in the current situation, the "least bad", or the "least unsuitable" tool available. It is not perfectly neutral, perfectly just, perfectly democratic, or perfectly suitable. But if you resign your dreams to something absolute, and realistically accept that on this planet everything is imperfect, then you must conclude that Esperanto is, relatively - by a wide margin, however - the best communication tool for an international scale, by those criteria. If you throw it out because it's not perfect, what remains? You are condemned to use even less suitable systems! Does anyone presume, for example, that English (for example) is more neutral, more just, more democratic, and more suitable? If so, I would like to see which arguments and facts are used to defend that point of view.

If you compare the reality of how relationships between speakers of different languages develop (or try to develop) today, you'll note that there are usually seven different linguistic situations:

1. complete inability to communicate;
2. minimal aphasic-type communication (halting, broken, misarticulated use of a poorly-spoken language, with attempts to clarify using gestures, facial expressions, etc.);
3. "broken English" (from minimal functioning in 2 up to the best functioning in 3, there is a whole range of levels of effectiveness);
4. good, high quality English;
5. use of a non-English language spoken fairly well by the people trying to communicate (a common situation in Africa)
6. simultaneous interpretation and translation;
7. Esperanto.

Compare, in practice, these seven methods of approaching international linguistic communication, and you will notice that with regard to neutrality, justice, democracy, and suitability, Esperanto is far superior to all others.

* It is not completely neutral, but it is more neutral than English and other national languages, none of which are free of political and economic, or nationalistic baggage.

* It is not completely suitable, but according to my experience in the different systems of intercultural or international communication, it is less unsuitable than the others, especially than English, whose imprecision, lack of order, and pronunciation, which are difficult for the majority of foreigners, make it poorly adapted to the task of facilitating intercultural communication.

* It is not completely just; to attain a good functional level, it requires (by my estimation) four times as much time for an East Asian than for a Westerner; but this ratio is far superior to that required to learn English, which most East Asians are never able to master at a sufficient level. If a person requires 200 hours to be able to use Esperanto well, and 5000 to be able to use English well, there is more justice in a world communicating with Esperanto. In addition, a system in which all people must strive to learn is more just than one in which a small privileged minority does not have to expend any mental effort at all, but in spite of that, enjoys a constant superiority in the use of a linguistic "weapon".

* It is not fully democratic, but because it allows much more freedom, it is more democratic than the other systems. The other internationally-used languages act like dictatorships: they require the speaker to put a thought into words using this structure, and not that other one. For example, it is a mistake to say in English he helps to me, while in German, "he helpas to me" (er hilft mir) is the only correct form, as it is in Russian (он мне помогает); in French, to use either the English or the German structure, therefore to say il aide moi or il aide à moi, is to expose yourself to ridicule. The fact that in Esperanto, you can say equally li helpas min (English structure), li min helpas (French structure) or li helpas al mi (German and Russian structure), gives a sense of freedom in expression of thoughts, which in my opinion is more respectful of the principles of democracy. The less rigid the structures, the more you avoid the risk of making a mistake, and submitting yourself to mockery or to a feeling of inferiority.

* It is more just and more democratic also because the ability to acquire it has more to do with intelligence, and with reflexive formation, than with memory, and that decreases the differences between peoples with regard to the chance to master it. European languages contain an abundance of arbitrary forms which are impossible to guess, and which you must simply strive, through repetition and hard work, to put into your memory (and then forget in a few years). For a Chinese person, it is easier to learn that 我是 wo shi, 你是 ni shi, and 他是 ta shi are, in Esperanto, mi estas, vi estas, li estas, than to put into their mind I am, you are, and he is. Similarly, it requires less mental effort to make the derivation mi > mia, ŝi > ŝia, completely parallel to the Chinese 我 wo >我的 wode, 她 ta > 她的 tade than to wrap their mind around I - my - mine; she - her - hers. It is easier to form eksterlandano (in Chinese, 外国人 waiguoren) from ekster [outside](in Chinese, 外wai), land [country] (国 guo) and ano [person/member of a group](人ren) than to have to memorize the unrelated foreigner. Similarly, with a series like horse / mare/ colt/ stallion the chances of not being able to retrieve the word from your mind when you need it, are greater than with the series ĉevalo, ĉevalino, ĉevalido, virĉevalo (in Chinese, respectively 马 ma, 母马 muma, 小马 xiaoma, 公马 gungma; compare also, on one hand, ox /cow / calf / bull, and on the other hand bovo > bovino > bovido > virbovo, in Chinese: 牛 niu > 母牛 muniu > 小牛 xiaoniu > 公牛 gongniu).

Because of the lesser memory load, which concerns hundreds of thousands of language elements, Esperanto is acquired much more quickly than other languages, and stays alive in the brain more easily. In addition, the sense of linguistic comfort is greater in an Esperanto-speaking international environment than in an environment using another system. People feel more respected. The feeling is that the language is made for people, to enable interpersonal communication, and not that the person is the one that must submit to the language, i.e. to the arbitrary caprices of the ancestors of the people in question.

Because of all of this, Esperanto becomes closer to the unattainable ideals of neutrality, justice, democracy, and suitability. When facing many options, doesn't wisdom present an invitation to choose the best, even if it is not ideal?

International relations are intensifying very quickly. For example, the number of immigrant laborers has grown from 75 million to 200 million in 30 years. An intelligent organization of society would require that it compare, from the viewpoint of the cost/efficiency calculation, and also from the viewpoint of justice etc, the various methods of intercultural communication - chiefly, English and Esperanto - and choose the one with the most favorable cost/efficiency. The scores of people who suffer frustrations and injustice because of the inability to communicate in a language deserve more attention than is dedicated to them.

3. "For example, its patriarchical structure is no longer suitable."

Is it really true that Esperanto has a patriarchal structure? Certainly not more than the other languages currently used in international relations. If Esperanto were not marked by its roots in living languages, by way of its birthplace and time, its critics would say that it is an abstract, lifeless product of a laboratory. It owes much of its spirit to the place and time in which it was, shall we say, brought to life. But precisely because of that, it has a life, a soul, its own atmosphere, that the other international language projects never acquired, and which is an advantage, psychologically, because through using it, the speaker has the sense of using a normal human language, not a code.

But, however it may be, I don't understand why the patriarchal roots of Esperanto, if they even exist, would make it a less suitable international language than English (or Latin, or Japanese...). Don't those have a patriarchal structure? I should emphasize again that it doesn't make sense to search for a perfect language. What the world needs is a language capable of truly, seriously curing people from societal aphasia, to which the worldwide use of English now condemns the majority of people who need to communicate with speakers of other languages.

Esperanto is the only language for which it has been objectively proven that it relatively quickly cures people of that more or less aphasic manner of communication, that characterizes today's international relations based on use of English (or on systems like simultaneous interpretation, in which a large part of the participants in the discussions are forced to speak a language other than their own).

4. Wouldn't it be better to create a new and fairer language for international communication.

I digress from a very practical point: what choice would people make nowadays? Instead of taking a non-existent ideal language as a basis for reference, I will compare Esperanto to the communication methods that are available in practice. In addition, I will take into consideration the fate of non-western peoples; for me that is a extremely important point, as any of you who have at some point read my article "The Western Dialect" or my book "The Good Language" will certainly have realised. But I note that if the non-westerners do not choose Esperanto, they must either resign themselves entirely from direct international contact, or they must try to learn English. The latter carries with it the bad, overly western traits of Esperanto to an enormously, truly enormously higher degree, in fact to such a degree that only a small élite from those peoples (at least in eastern Asia) succeed in learning the language well enough to be able to communicate effectively. Esperanto gives considerably better results. I have collected many testimonies from eastern Asians who have learned both English and Esperanto. They are unanimous in the finding that reaching an effective level in Esperanto necessitates much less effort and time than English.

From this I conclude that, as long as another better common language of communication has not become established and does not live, a world with Esperanto is a fairer, more comfortable and more pleasant than a world without Esperanto for those who have to communicate between ethnic groups.

Indeed, I am not only thinking about adults - although my temporary work with refugees has made me aware of the dearth of complications caused by the lack of a language - nor only about the people who have to communicate across borders, but also about the millions and millions of young people in the entire world who are forced to inculcate themselves with the countless incoherences of the English language, which they will never master, while if they were taught Esperanto, their chances would be much greater of eventually mastering it with a much less frustrating and lengthy amount of effort. That huge investment of mental energy into an enterprise that is for the most part a failure is absurd. That is not how society intelligently uses its money and people's brainpower.

That's why it seems to me that it's worth actively informing people that Esperanto is a better solution, even if it is not at all ideal - much is lacking, to reach that point. And even if the activism lasts several centuries. It was worth struggling to fight slavery, even when its abolition seemed impossible, and when the progress in that direction seemed discouragingly slow. Of course, activism for Esperanto would not be possible if it were reduced only to that idealistic motive. The many pleasures that the language now brings to those who have learned it also merit cons and complementary to an idealistic vision.

Concerning a more ideal language, not only would bringing it to life require at least a century of worldwide multifaceted practice following its publishing, but without an ideological base comparable to that which Zamenhof gave to Esperanto, it would have a very small chance of becoming a true living language and acquiring for itself the necessary social base. At least with Esperanto, that process is already complete, and the language is now ready.