Claude Piron

Esperanto: A New Form of Humanism

Nothing, it seems to me, is capable of defining humanism more appropriately than the famous line from the Latin poet Terence: Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. "I am a man: nothing human is alien to me." At the base of this concept is a sense of solidarity uniting the humanist with all persons, regardless of their race, religion, or culture. To be a humanist is, fundamentally, to love human beings; and to love them, in the deepest sense, is to want them to develop according to their own nature, to have the desire to relate to them and know them, to care for them, and to respect them in their entirety.

All of these elements are to be found at the root of the Esperanto phenomenon. It may appear strange for someone to dedicate a number of hours to the assimilation of a language almost completely useless in commerce and industry, a language that the diplomatic world ignores, that scientists can apparently do without, and that is not tied to a centuries-old culture. But the person who is skeptical about such a linguistic pursuit is not aware of how richly rewarding it may be emotionally, nor of how satisfying the feeling can be of participating in a wide-ranging activity intended to promote the psychological maturation of human society.

In order to become fully mature, one must abandon both infantile self-centeredness and abstract adolescent idealism. And people, in their relations with the wide world, face the temptation of clinging to these two immature attitudes. The first, the infantile, encompasses a tendency to lock oneself blindly within one's material interests. Once having fallen into this trap, an individual often becomes cynical, unaware of the fact that what he is hiding under his so-called "realism" is actually only a self-centered withdrawal into a protective cocoon that provides shelter from wider responsibilities. The other temptation, typical of adolescence, is to allow oneself to be governed by an abstract idealism. The head is filled with ideas of self-dedication, and the heart beats fervently for the Third World and all humankind; an emotion vibrates every time one thinks about the victims of one dictator or another, or one or another unjust regime. But concretely, practically one does nothing, and continues to live one's small life, though not without a dull sense of guilt. Esperantism, the use and advocacy of Esperanto, proposes a commitment that guards against this double stumbling-block, and its effects are far more profound than might be apparent at first glance.

It prevents stumbling into cynical self-centeredness, because it does not satisfy a purely material or immediate self-interest, and invites you to come out of the protective shell mentioned above. And it prevents stumbling into nebulous idealism, because it is based on a concrete reality, embodied in a veritable means of communication which when appropriately mastered enables you to engage in dialogue with a community of people from all countries and social environments. Names such as Poland, Japan, Brazil, and Iran evoke in the ordinary citizen pictures from a newspaper or television program, or perhaps memories of a vacation. In the Esperanto speaker they evoke a face, an address, a face-to-face exchange or one by letter, tape or e-mail. It is always a matter of people meeting people, of their getting in touch with each other and being capable of directly expressing their ideas about life, or of sharing their joys and torments. Contrary to a widespread opinion, English does not enable a similar type of dialogue, for two reasons.

For one, in the majority of countries it can be used only by a socio-economic and scientific-intellectual elite. For another, even if a non-native English speaker seems to have mastered it almost perfectly, he never senses it as a true personal possession, but always as something foreign that demands more cerebral energy than use of the native tongue. For structural and other reasons, Esperanto once learned is never experienced as foreign.

True Respect to a Foreigner Entails Linguistic Respect

Twentieth-century society has yet to experience a great awakening in regard to language. It speaks much of intercultural communication, international cooperation, technical assistance and so forth, but so far it has not realized that all of this requires a means of mutual understanding. How are you to help someone, at least at a sufficiently meaningful level, without being able to make yourself clear? And how can you make anything clear if a common language is not at your disposal? Isn't there something arrogantly disrespectful in the attitude of the person who from the beginning, while claiming to help somebody else, forces his own language on the other, with the mental structures it embodies and all of his own cultural background? To force on a Burmese, a Thai, a Polynesian, a Bantu tribesman - none of whom are familiar with conjugations in the Western sense of the word - a language such as English or French, in which dealing with things in the past requires subtle distinctions among, say, he went, he would go, he was gone, he had gone, he had been going, he used to go, and so forth, is to force the person with whom one is speaking to adapt to a form of mental gymnastics that is not justifiable from the point of view either of communication or culture. Esperanto, like the majority of languages, has only one past tense, and the nuances expressed in Western languages through an extremely complex conjugation are translated by other linguistic means, as in the languages of the peoples referred to above.

To impose English or French is, moreover, to make use of a language with a multifaceted historical and political background that for many is a symbol of humiliation. These languages are associated everywhere in the world with memories of economic and cultural oppression, or of colonial administration, and these memories cause mixed feelings: beneath the respect shown to the stronger party, and the desire to learn his language well, quite often lurk envy, jealousy, and hatred. Many Americans who see themselves as sincere, well-intentioned altruists find themselves bewildered at the extent to which people elsewhere in the world hate them in spite of their good-heartedness. They are not aware of the humiliating and traumatic effect brought about by the constant imposition of their language on others. Our language is an important element of our identity; it is our way of thinking and feeling; it is our very self. When we abandon it in deference to another's language, because his superior strength forces this upon us - a constant occurrence nowadays with English in cross-cultural contacts - we feel resentment, perhaps even a desire for revenge, against the one who forces us to adapt and who acts as if this were normal and to be expected, unaware of the sacrifice we are making for him.

Esperanto, on the other hand, evokes no idea of domination. To tell the truth, it has traditionally been regarded as worthless by the rich and powerful. Long disdained by intellectuals, ignored by linguists, looked down on by snobs, and persecuted by dictatorial regimes, its diffusion has come about owing only to its own intellectual and moral qualities. It has never been supported by the force of money or weapons, nor even by the recommendation of a powerful government. In this respect, also, it corresponds to a humanist ideal. One of the bases of humanism is a sense of human dignity, in conjunction with the will never to attempt to solve problems by means of violence. Humanism always prefers intelligence to force. If we possess the sincere humanistic desire to relate to human beings in general and not merely to those of our own class and geographic area, then we want to know what they experience, think and feel, and to communicate to them what we experience, think, and feel. What contribution is offered to this by irregular verbs, wandering accents, exceptions in the plural, and a system of derivation that often borders on the totally incoherent? (1) All of these arbitrary elements - however lovable from a national, historic and cultural viewpoint for the concerned people - inhibit the spontaneous expression of thought by the foreigner, the more strongly as the structure of his or her native language varies from the Western norm. None of them add anything whatever to communication. Human respect demands that persons who wish to relate to each other across language barriers choose a language as free as possible from arbitrary elements that lack informational value. To require a Japanese or Turk to learn a series of separate forms such as tooth, teeth, dental, dentist, while in his own language it is enough to know the basic word and himself derive the others (just as in Esperanto: dento, dentoj, denta, dentisto) is to impose a hardship upon him that nothing can justify. Furthermore, in this example, English creates a specific discomfort because of the /th/ sound, which three fourths of humankind do not learn as children. Because it is not logically justifiable, the inconsistency of such forms is sensed as an arbitrary whim, as the caprice of a ruler who takes advantage of his superior power to force his subordinates to perform gymnastics that are totally unnatural to them. Only the adoption of a language free of arbitrary and senseless elements makes it possible for persons with differing native languages to communicate among themselves, while respecting at the same time the integrity of each party's cultural background.

Even Linguistic Structures Can Be Democratic

This refusal to oppress, to violate, to warp, which lies at the heart of the idea of a language enabling all peoples to relate as equals, is woven into the very structures of Esperanto. Languages such as French, German, and English function as if by edict from a centralized monarchy of the ancient regime. In contrast, Esperanto is a language with a democratic, federative character. In the former, the roots of words tend to be broken up and all types of exceptions abound, which means that the various concepts are not equally able to be expressed.

When you pass, in French, from voir to vu, vîmes, visuel, visible, or, in English, from see to saw, sight, visual, visible, you damage the basic word, so to speak, to such an extent that in French only letter v resists the various transformations, while in English it is necessary to juggle with the strange alternation s/vis for the same concept. In Esperanto you say vidi, vidita, vidis, vido, vida, videbla, and the root vid remains untouched, constant, always respected in its own individuality whatever its role in the sentence, and whatever the concepts it helps to express.

In Western languages, word order is to a great extent arbitrarily fixed, as if by some central power. If you speak English, you are not permitted to say I him see, you have to say I see him. In French, a literal translation from the English is not possible: you must say, not je vois le, but je le vois. There is a lack of freedom. In Esperanto, mi lin vidas is just as correct as mi vidas lin. Expression in this language occurs through a cooperative interplay of independent units, whose physical integrity and freedom of movement are constantly respected. The practical result of such a structural system is that you learn the language more by intelligence than by memory. And an invitation to be intelligent is not only more effective and agreeable, it is also a proof of esteem for the foreigner, and a way of treating him as a fully enfranchised person.

To propose the use of Esperanto is to say to the person with whom you intend to relate: "I don't want you to be embarrassed about your pronunciation. I don't want you to make mistakes that could make people laugh at you. I don't want you to stammer or to be unable to say what you mean because the vocabulary of my language is too complicated for you to master it perfectly. Therefore I propose we use a language in which your local pronunciation will be respected equally with mine to as large an extent as possible, a language whose grammar has been devised so that you will not make more mistakes than I do, a language whose lexicon follows the psycholinguistic laws of spontaneous expression so closely that the word needed will present itself to you in the same moment in which your thought is formed. In such a way, when we speak together, you will not feel foreign."

And indeed, Esperanto is arranged in such a way that you experience a kind of great liberation in the formulation of your thoughts. We have forgotten that when we were young children we enjoyed a burgeoning linguistic creativity. We did not strictly imitate the language of the grown-ups, but recreated it from within, tearing the words apart and putting the pieces together again in accordance with our perception of their logic. My foots, a child says, or he comed. This is the natural way of expressing oneself. Children also form words like unmarry instead of divorce. For years they continue creating words and grammatical rules using basic material drawn from the language of older people. But little by little this linguistic creativity disappears, as the grown-ups explain to the little one, when he or she creates an unsanctioned word, that this is called "wrong," and the school afterward takes pains to eliminate as completely as possible the spontaneous creations and the personalized spelling.

Of course, the parents and the school are right. The child must indeed assimilate correct usage and learn how to handle correctly the national or regional language. His or her future depends in part on an adequate mastery of his or her mother tongue. It is nonetheless a pity to eliminate in this way, without compensation, the child's valuable creative ability. Esperanto makes it possible to recover this fundamental creative tendency without even slightly harming the attained mastery of the native language. One of the experiences most striking to Esperanto teachers is to witness the pleasure that adults show when, applying the basic rules of Esperanto word formation, they produce a new word on the spur of the moment and joyfully realize that they have been immediately understood. The rules of word formation in Esperanto are quite similar to the principles followed by a child's spontaneous language creation. This pleasure opens to the students a door that was closed in their childhood, and this is a psychological enrichment that should not be underestimated.

A Universality of Linguistic Laws

But of most interest to us here is the observation that this childish language formation develops in accordance with the same laws all over the world. The forms differ according to the child, of course, but the manner in which they are produced is everywhere identical.

When you approach comparative linguistics, you at first marvel at the fantastic diversity of human languages. But if you delve further into its study, you'll soon notice that this superficial diversity of forms conceals a remarkable identity at the deepest level. What do a Malay, an Iranian, a German, a Japanese, and an Israeli of Moroccan descent have in common culturally? Not much. Yet, in each of their languages the word meaning "hospital" is formed in the same way with two elements, one of which means "house" and the other "sick persons." What is common, historically, to a Frenchman, a Chinese, and a native speaker of Swahili? Almost nothing. And still, in their languages, the word "invisible" consists of the same three elements: one for expressing negation, one for sight, and one for ability.

In making word formation explicit and transparent, Esperanto reveals something universal in the process by which the human mind analyzes reality. It captures the concept at the level where it is formed, and thus creates at the same time a deepening and a broadening of the mental experience: a deepening, because it goes down to a more primordial level than that of the forms used in ethnic languages; and a broadening, because it brings with it the discovery that our manner of expressing ourselves, if one scrapes away the external covering, extends to all peoples of our planet. In this respect, also, Esperanto proves to be perfectly humanistic: this dual expansion, vertical and horizontal, gives rise to a better knowledge and understanding of humanity at large.

Furthermore, if Esperanto attains a level more universal than the other languages, it is not in the abstract, but through a very concrete system. It uses words, not formless concepts, and each word has its own identity, musically, rhythmically, etymologically, and emotionally.

The Contribution of Individual Cultures

While every language provides an analysis of the reality shared by all humankind, it also has its unique way of expressing the particular culture, history, and ways of thought and feeling typical of the people who use it. This is the reason why untranslatable concepts exist in every language.

The Esperanto lexicon consists chiefly of borrowings of such words and notions. As a result, the words have passed over to the international language carrying with them most of the harmonics of the original language. When a speaker of Esperanto says krevi as a slang way of expressing the idea "dying", the atmosphere of the word is purely French, but when he says hejma (hey'mah) he evokes a typically Germanic atmosphere: that warm relation to the house and the family - the home - that no French word can similarly express. And when he says klopodi, to express a striving or effort directed to a defined goal, he speaks from a cultural world specifically Slavic in nature.

It is clear that universality, for the user of Esperanto, is always embodied in something individual, concrete, living. This is perhaps why many Esperantists are so strongly tied emotionally to their own home area, to their particular roots. They love their region, their piece of the earth, and they love making it loved by others.

A similar observation may be made about literature. Esperanto speakers like to share the beautiful achievements of their culture. Because of this they are constantly translating, with love, the most noteworthy texts produced by their writers and an impressive proportion of their songs. Who can read Swedish poetry, Hungarian drama, Japanese historical texts, and the great epics of Finnish, Estonian and Argentinian literature from translations as reliable as those in Esperanto (because made by a person from the very country)? Esperanto had scarcely penetrated into Pakistan, when a noteworthy Slovakian anthology appeared in Esperanto translation. Nobody knows if the young Pakistani Esperantists will want to read the works in this collection, but if they do they will be able to. Esperanto opens to them the door of a literary world to which neither their native nor a foreign language would enable their approach and easy access.

I once visited an extremely poor Italian Esperantist, a working woman, who lived in a kind of shack without running water or electricity. On the single bookshelf I could see, among other things, a book of Estonian literature, a collection of fables translated directly into Esperanto from Bengali, and a South American work. I have found a similar cultural diversity on many occasions, for example in a Chinese home in Singapore, in a Brazilian attorney's library, and during an Esperanto meeting in the Netherlands.

The Human Being: Collectively Universal and Individually Unique

To rejoice, to suffer, to doubt, to love, to hate, to fear, to grieve, to hope - these are universal human experiences. But the forms in which they are manifested, the situations that evoke them, the responses they elicit are different, depending on the society and the person. To become acquainted with the literatures of the world means to start becoming acquainted simultaneously with the universality and the diversity of humanity.

Cultures are like people. All of us have a face, but no one has a face identical to his neighbor's. Esperantic humanism consists to a great extent of the following: to discover the face in its being apart, unique, irreplaceable; but to uncover also that it is a human face, and thus able to be known, understood, and appreciated, so that a meeting can serve as a starting point for working together, exchanging confidences, or participating in communal responsibility, and thus as a basis for a valuable ethical enrichment.

This desire to present the human individual in both aspects, universal and unique, has presented to the world a newborn cultural phenomenon, until now not widely known: an original literature, the literary medium of which is Esperanto. From the first appearance of the language, those who learned it felt the need to use it in literature. The works, awkward at first, became more and more polished, and several great poets and novelists transformed the somewhat rigid code of the early period into a language extremely flexible, dynamic, and expressive. The general public knows nothing of this. It imagines (or at least that part of it that has heard anything about the language) that Esperanto is now just as Zamenhof, its initiator, presented it. This is not true. Several highly talented writers have strongly influenced the language, and the ability to take advantage of their enhancement has been an immeasurable boon to Esperanto.

The goal of Esperanto is to serve as a bridge among cultures. This may be why those who originally wrote in this language often treated themes involving a plurality of nations or of viewpoints. For example, several novels of the Hungarian Baghy deal with the Russian civil war, which the author lived through in Siberia during the 1920s, and present the events equally from the Red and the White Party viewpoints. The masterpiece of the French writer Raymond Schwartz, Kiel Akvo de l' Rivero (Like Water from the River), takes place during the two world wars, at times in France, at times in Germany, but the situations are perceived from within, so to speak, in accordance with alternating German and French perspectives. For these and many other works, there is no doubt that the original literature in Esperanto presents in itself a great contribution to true humanism, regarded as essentially universal.

By its very nature, humanism entails a tendency to overcome national boundaries, and thus inclines toward universality. Many forms of humanism in history have utilized a language that did not belong, or no longer belonged, to a nation, such as Wenyan (the ancient written Chinese language) in the Far East, Sanskrit on the Indian subcontinent, or Latin in Europe. In this way the members of the elites over wide parts of the world communicated among themselves without the feeling of being foreigners one to another.

Humanism: Meeting the Other as an Equal

Nowadays, public education and the media have developed to such an extent that to use an international language restricted to an elite and to only part of the globe would be archaic. Besides, classical humanism, if not corrected in some way, presents the risk of instigating a flight into the past. But the idea that people must be able to meet each other as people whatever their native language has in no way lost its timeliness.

In order that people cease to be foreign to each other, they have to be able to meet as equals on the most specifically human terrain, the terrain of dialogue, of intercommunication, the idea being that everybody, conserving their own language and culture, may be able to make authentic contact with the rest of the world without having to clothe themselves in the identity of another country.

Interest about real people in the extraordinarily diverse situations in which they are found, attraction to the multi-colored cultural panorama to which human societies have given birth, a respectful consideration to the members of other peoples and social classes, regarded as our equals in dignity however much they may differ from us - these are the basic attitudes that Esperantic humanism promotes and develops.

To believe that these attitudes will be able to spread rapidly to all people, or even to those in the world who forge public opinion, would be to fall into a regrettable utopianism. In order to love our human brothers and sisters and to feel for them the consideration required by the humanistic attitude embodied in Esperanto, we first have to stop fearing them, and also stop fearing the discovery of what we ourselves are. Because it is not easy to overcome such fears, withdrawal into self, ethnocentrism, an urge to run away from the risk of seeing in the other person something that could make us doubt our own infallibility - all of this is much too strong in society not to mobilize a gigantic force of prejudice, disdain and indifference against the progress of Esperanto and of the manner of thinking which it mirrors. Modern society in many respects resembles a jungle, where the need to defend and augment that which has been conquered is too urgent for people to have the time to ask themselves the questions to which authentic humanism should give rise.

The Esperanto community in no way expects rapid progress, or the satisfaction of witnessing victory upon victory. This notwithstanding, it holds its own and continues to strive persistently. A century of history has made possible the realization that Esperantic humanism has never ceased to attract living forces. People are indifferent and egotistic, yes, but also generous and broad-minded. That which is unlike and unknown frightens, certainly, but it also attracts. Esperanto has never interrupted its slow but steady progress. It penetrated into Kirghizistan a little more than a decade ago, and only a few years ago did the first Esperanto congress in Togo take place. Announcements in the Esperanto press from Africa are a new and current phenomenon. Esperanto tranquilly follows its destined step-by-step progression. And this is enough to justify the efforts dedicated to it. Homo sum, nil humani a me alienum puto ("I am a man: nothing human is alien to me."). The attitude defined by this statement lies at the base of the love of Esperanto. Without fearing the mockery of those who prefer to judge superficially rather than to study the facts - and whose condemnatory attitude is thus automatically condemned - the Esperantists persistently develop their culture and enjoy their incomparable relationships.

Among the various pleasures available to us, isn't the pleasure of engaging in dialogue one of the most specifically human? To communicate without difficulty in a transcultural setting, and thus by one's own experience to come to know the cultural diversity of the wide world, this is enabled by Esperanto, and, today, in such a direct way, only by Esperanto. In this function, it incontestably shows itself to be an invaluable contribution to authentic, universal humanism.

This article was translated from the Esperanto original by Roy McCoy, a former Massachusetts Humanist currently living in The Netherlands

1. Just think of the switch of meaning between hard and its derivative hardly: I worked hard vs I hardly worked.