Esperanto – more than a language
Esperanto is underpinned by a desire to bring people
together and by humanitarian ideals.
"There is this extraordinary method of communicating on an equal footing."
[Louis-Lazare Zamenhof created Esperanto as a way of bringing people together (www.helsinki.fi)]
- There are an estimated two million Esperanto speakers.
- Louis-Lazare Zamenhof unveiled his international language in 1887.
- The Universal Esperantist Association was created in Geneva in 1902.
Little wonder, then, that this international language has a long
relationship with the Swiss city of Geneva.
“Behind Esperanto there is the idea of solidarity,” says Claude Piron, a leading authority on Esperanto and resident of Gland, a town located between Geneva and Lausanne.
He has written six novels and several short stories in his beloved Esperanto, as well as numerous articles about the language itself.
“I learned it when I was 12 and I have always remained faithful to it because it has brought me so many friendships,” he says.
– underpinned as it is by a culture of tolerance and respect for others – is an
artificial language, invented by an individual frustrated at the animosity and
lack of understanding among the four ethnic groups who inhabited his city.
He who hopes
Louis-Lazare Zamenhof, who lived briefly in Geneva, was a Jew from Bialystok,
a city in present-day Poland where, Poles, Russians, Germans and Jews lived in
far from peaceful coexistence.
In 1887, he created Esperanto – “he who
hopes”, in his new language – as a way of bringing people together and ending
prejudice and misunderstanding.
The ideals of solidarity, international
understanding and respect for others meant there were obvious links between the
language and the Red Cross movement.
It is no coincidence that the first
international Esperantist Movement was created in Geneva - home of the Red Cross
- nor that those behind it were heavily involved in humanitarian work during the
First World War, tracing missing persons in enemy territory and visiting
Just as the Esperantists went from promoting linguistic ideals
to human rights and civil liberties, so too did the Red Cross promote Esperanto.
In 1921, the 10th International Conference of the Red Cross recommended
that all National Societies encourage their members to learn
After the First World War, Esperanto might have been adopted by the League of Nations as an official language of international relations, had it not been for opposition from France, and - to a lesser extent - Britain.
But by the end of the Second World War, Nazi and Stalinist persecution had led to a decline in the use of Esperanto.
After six months of Esperanto I was more fluent than after six years of
Very much a product of its time, Claude Piron is nevertheless optimistic
about the language’s future.
“The Internet seems to have been designed
for Esperanto speakers,” he says, pointing out that websites and chat rooms
devoted to the language have proliferated on the web.
Esperanto population numbers some two million speakers, but is extremely
scattered. “It’s frustrating to have an international language and not be able
to speak it regularly,” Piron says.
“The internet has changed all that.
You can have discussions as you would in a bar.”
The presence of so much
information about Esperanto on the web, he says, helps to shatter the
misconceptions and prejudice that surround the language: that Esperanto is
rigid, unchanging and not as expressive as one’s mother tongue, that it is
essentially a European language, and that an international language –English –
“The idea that English is spoken everywhere is a
tremendous exaggeration,” Piron says.
The Esperantists’ argument is
well-practiced: once you leave business and tourist centres, the vast majority
of people do not speak English, and those that do find it difficult to master.
“I’ve always been amazed at the masochism of human beings with regard to
language,” says Piron, himself a former United Nations translator.
It would change international relations if people could speak to each other
on an equal footing, with a complete lack of inhibition.
“After six months of Esperanto I was more fluent than after six years of
English,” Piron says. That is because Esperanto is a logical language. “Once you
know a rule, you can apply it across the whole language,” he adds.
Unlike in other languages, there are no irregular verbs and no genders, while all
plurals are formed in the same way. Word order is fluid. Esperanto was
constructed using the best elements of other languages.
If it sounds
Latin-based, that is because 60 per cent of its vocabulary comes from Romance
languages, while 30 per cent is of Germanic origin and 10 per cent Slavic.
But there are also eastern influences – Esperanto is very similar to
Mandarin Chinese in the way it “builds” words in a predictable way from an
Another advantage of Esperanto, Piron says, is that it
is free of the cultural and historical baggage that comes with English, or other
national languages, which many equate with colonial arrogance.
an inhibiting factor when people from different backgrounds are forced to speak
the language of a particular nation. There is a filter to your spontaneity and
emotions,” he says. “In Esperanto, this filter does not exist.”
“It would change international relations if people could speak to each other on an equal
footing, with a complete lack of inhibition.”
swissinfo, Roy Probert in
December 27, 2002 - 11:28 AM