Claude Piron

Betting on Esperanto

It all began in the 1870's in a part of the Tsarist Empire which is now Poland. Four languages were then spoken in the town of Bialystok: Polish, Yiddish, Russian and German. It was a traumatic experience for boy growing up there, in a town fragmented by four communities, four religions, four languages (with four alphabets) and four hatreds. It was a place where just to express yourself was to label yourself. Straight away you found yourself either part of the despised "them" or else part of the colluding "us". Everything that happened took place against a background of heightened ethnic and cultural awareness. If a Pole had official business to sort out, it would be unthinkable for a Russian official to speak to him in Polish: the Pole, with bitter fury in his soul and vengeance in his heart, would have to stammer out his request in Russian.

Rilke once said that a writer is someone who writes because he cannot not write. That is how the young Zamenhof came to establish the fundamentals of Esperanto: he could do no other. Bialystok's different cultural communities were at one another's throats. And they showed themselves most strongly of all in language and in accent. In this context, using someone else's language was not just granting him a kind of superiority which your own ethnic pride had to revolt against, it was also submitting yourself to a contortionist's struggle against grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. It was running a gauntlet of snares which seemed almost to have been set on purpose to make you into a laughing-stock.

This climate of hostility and humiliation was traumatic for the young Zamenhof, a sensitive and gifted boy. The situation was intolerable. He had to try and do something so that everyone could stay loyal to his own culture but nevertheless be able to communicate with others without the insults to social and cultural identity which were an everyday fact of life in Bialystok.

This meant having a language belonging to no one group, with a structure conforming as far as possible to the natural flow of linguistic expression, a language that did not force you into contortions, a language which even people lowest on the social scale could master. No such language existed? Never mind! He would create one. With the naive enthusiasm of youth, he set to work. He brought together the remorseless logic of the child (he was scarcely more than a child) and the systematic working methods of an artist, eyes firmly fixed on an aesthetic ideal, never ceasing to polish and refine what he had done.

Had he, seriously, the slightest chance of success? Look at it from a betting point of view. Would you, in say 1876, have risked a wager that this 17-to-l8-year-old youth, hidden away in a small provincial town in an obscure country (relative to what were then the centres of influence), was likely to achieve his ambitious goal of being midwife to a new language? Let us look at the story stage by stage. The young man's father sends him away to study at a distant university and makes him promise to give up playing around with language. Surely the boy must see how absurd his project is? Yet he goes on. At the age of 27 he decides to get the fruit of his labours published. He goes the rounds of the publishers. They are not silly: none of them says yes. So he has an unprepossessing booklet printed at his own expense (he is not rich). With no distribution network to place it in the bookshops, what chance does he have to bring it to people's attention? Would you have bet money, then, on this unknown?

All the same, the project attracts a handful of supporters, mainly in the Russian Empire. A periodical is launched, written in this infant language. Fired with enthusiasm, Tolstoy writes for it. But he falls into disfavour with the state, and the tsarist censorship bans the magazine, the only link between the first users of the language. Hearing this, would you have bet that a living language could spring from a project plagued by such an abortive beginning?

But life obeys a different logic. In all quarters of the world there are people who hear about the language and set about learning it. The linguists sneer: everyone (they say) will slavishly follow his own habits of pronunciation, grammar, and semantics. No one will be able to understand anyone else. Now, which would you bet on? The young amateur? Or the specialists, unanimous in their rejection?

At the first congress, in Boulogne, in 1905, the speakers of the new language do understand one another. But why would anyone take such a tiny bunch of cranks seriously! Looked at from the standpoint of the salons of Paris, which at the turn of the century are the arbiters of value for everyone, the language does not look attractive. It is full of un-French letters like k and j, and has consonants with ridiculous accents on top. It looks repulsive, barbaric. The world over, intellectuals reject it. The author's unrealistic attitude is shown in his perverse decision to adopt accented letters which no printer has available, so that publishing anything in the language means first casting new printing sorts. Common sense tells you that betting on the survival of this language would be throwing money down the drain.

It is 1914. War breaks out. Zamenhof dies. Lay your bets, gentlemen... Who will bet on this orphaned language, symbol of a relationship based on equality, in a world ruled by the law of the jungle?

It is the twenties. At the League of Nations, Iran proposes the adoption of Esperanto for international relations. All are astonished. The great powers swing into action. "This project must be buried. It would jeopardise our cultural superiority." These member-states are rich and influential. Their delegates do not hesitate to distort the truth in the most shameful manner. Once again the project is ridiculed and rejected. Honestly, would you have bet on it then?

Stalin and Hitler rise to power. Hitler regards Esperanto as the language of conspiring Jews and freemasons; Stalin, as the language of bourgeois cosmopolitanism. As we reach the forties, these men exercise totalitarian power over almost the whole of continental Europe, Esperanto is forbidden, books in the language are burnt, many of its supporters are sent to concentration camps. In Japan, China, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere, the authorities are less severe, but have the same general attitude. Tell me: would it not be wise at this juncture to bet on the disappearance of Esperanto in short order?

The Second World War comes to an end. Simultaneous interpretation comes onto the scene. This device might seem to solve the communication problem in congresses and conferences: but in fact it scarcely serves to disguise a development which leads to the uncontested supremacy of English. Everyone can see that English has a tendency to monopolise international relations. It is the language of the news agencies, the multinationals, scientific publishing and the pop music which young people, dressed in American- style clothes, dance to throughout the world.

Up against this Goliath, Esperanto is a David so small as to be practically invisible. Looking at these rivals, who would rationally vote for the second of them? Is there any sense in betting on a language not backed by any vast social movement, ignored by financial powers, unsupported by the media, and which the intellectuals either jeer at or else believe to have been stillborn? Under regular attack politically and intellectually since first published, it has neither ally nor external aid. In an age when image is all, it has no means of gaining publicity. It spreads only by its own intrinsic qualities.

And yet, judging by objective criteria - books published, participation in international meetings, the geographical spread of small ads in the Esperanto press, the number of Esperantist events, regular radio broadcasts, the number of places where a representative of the language can be contacted, and the like - in the face of this, it can be seen that in the ebb and flow of political and economic vicissitudes Esperanto has never ceased to spread; and over the last dozen years, in particular, its progress has accelerated remarkably.

In 1976 there were thirty university-level institutions teaching the language. Now there are 125 - more than a four-fold increase in ten years. Esperanto is the medium of a considerable body of literary activity which continues to grow. More songs are translated into Esperanto than into any other language in the world. It is in daily use in public broadcasting in countries as different as China and Poland. It is the everyday common language of numerous married couples of different national backgrounds, and the first language of some of their children. In intercultural communication, objective cost benefit analysis shows it to be clearly superior to English or to systems based on translation and simultaneous interpretation.

If your had held Zamenhof's little booklet in your hands back in 1887, the new and untried proposal put forward by an unknown 27-year-old, could you ever have imagined have a century later the largest international conference ever held in China would take place in this language? Would you have bet that by 1986 not a day would pass without a congress, a conference, a meeting or some other cultural event in Esperanto somewhere in the world? Yet that is what has come to pass.

The mismatch between rational forecasting and the actual outcome of` events makes one think. Looking into matters more deeply it is clear that negative views on the future of Esperanto are based on one repeated error, namely the failure to check on reality, the failure to investigate how Esperanto works in practice, as compared with the other systems available for intercultural communication. Furthermore, there is a tendency to over-estimate outside pressure and to underestimate the role of the individual's affective feelings in the process of spreading a language and giving it fresh life. Why does Esperanto display more vitality than some languages with official status, such as Irish or Romansch? Because human beings like creativity, play, the enjoyment of freedom and loving relationships.

Esperanto's structural qualities stimulate linguistic creativity, which in most languages is firmly repressed from the moment a child enters school. They give the language a kind of playfulness which unsettles those who take themselves too seriously, but which corresponds to a psychologically important yearning hidden deep within us. With its great flexibility in grammar, vocabulary, and style, Esperanto gives the user a feeling of freedom in self-expression such as no other foreign language permits, all without the necessity for years of dull study. Above all, it lets the user form real and lasting friendships across cultural frontiers, thus satisfying a psychological need which is deeper than most people imagine.

These are the facts: in the one hundred years of its existence Esperanto has woven over the whole surface of the globe an abundance of networks of friendship, linking men and women from all social strata from every cultural background. In this field it has no rival. It would have every right to look down on all those who have bet against it for a hundred years and who have consistently lost. But that is not its style. It does not push itself forward. It is enough for it to be and to be alive. Available, for those who care to join in. Discreet, even invisible, for those who prefer to communicate using systems which are more expensive, more unfair, and more complicated. It is rather disappointing that its aims and achievements are so often misunderstood, and that people continue to overlook the valuable contribution it can make not only to friendly and easy relations between the peoples of the world but also to fairness and respect for everyone's linguistic dignity.