Claude Piron

These Terrans Are Real Masochists

No, Excellency, despite what Gorogol says, the terrans are not dumb. What Gorogol takes for stupidity is in fact masochism, associated with a certain tolerance for injustice, all this springing from arrogance, which is in turn derived from insecurity."

Slow down, my son. I'm losing the thread. We sent you to the planet Earth to study planetary communication. You come back rattling off a whole battery of moral and psychological notions having no bearing on the subject."

I'm sorry, Excellency. Stupidity is certainly the first hypothesis that comes to mind when you look at how the terrans organize their international communication. Look at this map. All these patches with different colors are countries, each one with its own government. Here s the United States. This one is called India, this one Angola, this one Italy there are many of them. Now, since they all have reached a good level of civilization, they obviously have to discuss various matters that concern the whole planet. What do you think they do?"

Send their representatives by the easiest means to a place convenient for everyone, where they can get together and discuss."

Exactly. That's what they do, physically. But mentally they don't. A large number of them study languages at school for years and years, but when they meet in such settings as what they call the United Nations, or an institution like, say, the International Civil Aviation Organization, they have no language in common. So they stare at one another, unable to talk together. To communicate with one another they need a whole costly and cumbersome set of machinery, plus an important highly qualified staff."

Gorogol was right: they're stupid."

No, Excellency. If they were stupid, they wouldn't have solved the problems of material communication. What they are is masochists. Look at this small peninsula here. That's what they call Europe. Well, there, the lowliest cheesemaker must translate the labels on his packages into half a dozen languages. It costs a lot and is paid by the consumers. And they have a wide spectrum of international organizations which spend fortunes on translation and interpretation. Governments take the money from the taxpayers' wallets without the slightest remorse."

That's downright perverse!"

But the taxpayers gladly let their money be used for such purposes! They are no less perverse, but the other way around: while the governments are sadistic, they are masochists."

Is that the only means they have to communicate across language barriers?"

No, Excellency. This system is more and more restricted to formal settings. In everyday life they usually get along using a common language."

Why didn't you say so at first? If they use a common language, they re not more stupid or masochistic than we are."

Yes, they are. In our part of the galaxy, we use a common language which is completely neutral and easy for everybody. It is not the language of a given people, or of a given planet, so that we communicate on an equal footing and we don't need much effort to master the means of communication. Ten minutes a day for one year in elementary school and some practicing afterwards is all it takes."

Isn't that what the terrans are doing?"

No. To communicate, they have selected a language that stands out against all the others, because it has particularly little in common with them. Look at the map again. This is continental Europe, this is Latin America, this is Africa, this is Indonesia. Together, they represent many millions of people, probably more than a billion. Well on this huge territory, they have a letter which is written like this: a or A. All those millions of people pronounce it in the same way, even many who have different alphabets, like the Greeks and the Russians (and the latter's tongue is used in this enormous territory in Asia, north of those mountains here). But in the language they have adopted to communicate - which they call English, because it was born on this tiny island here, England - this same letter is seldom used with its practically universal value. It represents a whole range of different sounds. Look at these words and listen how I pronounce the a in them: bad, all, father, courage, face."

Amazing! What a strange idea, to use the same letter for sounds that different!"

It is all the more incomprehensible at the international level. All the persons who have learned to read and write in a Bantu language, like Swahili, or a Latin one, like Spanish, or a Slavic one, like Czech, or a Germanic one, like Dutch, pronounce it in the same way. Even in China - this big patch on the map - kids first learn to write in the Latin alphabet (they learn their own writing system afterwards), and they also pronounce this letter the same way, as do their neighbors the Japanese when they write their names for foreigners. The English speakers, as they are called, are the only ones with this strange way of pronouncing the letters of the alphabet they use. This other letter, for instance: I, i is pronounced the same way all over the planet, including the transcription of Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese, but the English speakers give it different values: compare bite with bit."

So, you tell me that there is practically unanimity on the planet. But what they use to understand one another is just the only language that functions in another way, a more complicated, a more irrational one? They've chosen the only exception as their standard?"

Yes, Excellency. Isn't that a good example of masochism? Since the system they've adopted is much more complicated than is necessary in order to communicate, it prevents smooth communication for most people. Moreover, it isn't fair. As far as languages are concerned, an English speaker has nothing to learn to communicate by this system, whereas many people have to devote many hours a week for many years to acquire the common means of communication, and they never reach the English speakers' level. I just mentioned to you writing and pronunciation, but similar problems pervade the language. For instance, most languages have only one word for expressing such concepts as freedom , read , unavoidable , buy , fraternal . But you don t master English, or at least written English, which is so important in any contract, any scientific or commercial matter, if you have not learned the parallel words liberty, peruse, inevitable, purchase, brotherly. So people who are not English speakers (or, maybe, who are lower class English speakers) have to learn twice the vocabulary that is needed to communicate in other languages. Furthermore, practically all over the world, words are derived from one another in a way that facilitates memory, for instance dentist is derived from tooth : French dent > dentiste, Japanese ha > ha-isha, German Zahn > Zahnarzt, Indonesian: gigi > doktor gigi. As in many other respects, English stands out as an exception. You have not only to learn tooth and the fact that its plural is not tooths but teeth, but you cannot use that knowledge to remember how the man who deals with your teeth is called. Dentist has a completely different basis altogether."

A strange language, indeed!"

That's not all. There are incredibly many expressions made up from a verb and a little word, and these have many meanings that you cannot deduce from the component parts. For instance, you may have learned what make and up mean, but it doesn t help you to guess the meaning of make up. All the more since there are very many meanings, from compensate to put together passing through many others, as exemplified in this exchange by two characters in one of P.G. Wodehouse's novels:

He's made up his mind to stay in"

Well, I've made up my face to go out." (1)

So, it's a language that requires a lot of time to be mastered. A Korean or a Chinese who wants to be able to use English at a good intellectual level, for instance to negotiate a contract or take part in a discussion in a scientific or technical field, has to devote at least 8000 hours to its acquisition. At a rate of 40 hours a week, this means 200 weeks, or almost four years, full time, without any vacation. Parents the world over see their children spend hundreds of hours at school studying the language without reaching the competence level at which it would be useful. No wonder that thousands of travelers have to struggle with annoyances and misunderstandings because most non-native English speakers cannot use English properly. And how often contacts between people are reduced to a kind of subhuman level! But nobody ever complains. The terrans choose to spend fortunes on this system, to live with annoyance and injustice, although nothing forces them to. Isn't that masochism?"

Wait a minute, my boy. Not so fast. First explain to me why the planet Earth hasn't created a language for inter-ethnic communication when the rest of the galaxy has done so."

But, Excellency, things have developed with them exactly as they have with us!"

In what way? You mean they have a genuine international language too? Why don't they use it then?"

Precisely. The linguistic creativity of the terrans is just as great as ours, and several authors have published outlines for an inter-ethnic language. Most of them, as with us, did not work and soon fell into oblivion. But one day a very modest project appeared, called International Language by its author, who published it, for various reasons linked to the social and political situation, under a pseudonym, Dr. Esperanto. This project, though not much thought of by the elite, was adopted by people of very different language backgrounds as their means of international communication. The language spread little by little across the planet and reached all kinds of people. It grew richer and more flexible as people used it, and through the works of several major writers "

In essence, then, things went very much as they did with us?"

Yes. There was a kind of competition among rival candidates, which manifested marked differences of capacity and dynamism. One language clearly emerged from this process of natural selection the one the public called Esperanto. Life transformed it into a living language, with its songs, its humor, its literature "

Son, I don't understand. Why haven't the terrans availed themselves of this language to solve their communication problem?"

Stupidity, according to Gorogol; masochism, according to me. As an average, ten months of Esperanto brings a communication capability equivalent to the level you reach after ten years of English, if you base your reckoning on the same number of hours per week. If this masochism factor didn't intervene, people would force their governments to require instruction in Esperanto for one year in all schools, after which students could study this or that additional language of their choice, for cultural reasons, if they are interested. This system would eliminate all the problems of linguistic communication without bringing the least inconvenience."

I'm beginning to understand why you talk of masochism. But didn't I hear you saying something about arrogance a moment ago?"

Yes, indeed. This masochism can be maintained only as long as everybody pretends that the international language solution doesn't exist or doesn't work. And this - this comes from people's exaggerated idea of their own competence."


In the course of my researches, I questioned a large number of terrans. In many cases, when I mentioned the word Esperanto, I was met with irony and superior smiles. Not always. Some people were genuinely interested and ready to accept the idea: these people did not allow themselves to be taken in by arrogance. But with many people, especially in Europe, the first reaction that you meet is scorn. And this scorn comes from the certainty of knowing all that there is to know - a kind of grand presumption that comes from obstinately judging without studying the facts."

Are you saying that they reject Esperanto without knowing anything about it?"

Precisely. As soon as you start to question them on the matter, it becomes evident that they haven't the foggiest idea what Esperanto is. Most simply don't know that there are people who use that language to communicate with foreigners, that there are children who speak it, that it has been adopted by poets of real merit, that it is regularly used for radio broadcasts or that many people correspond in it by electronic mail. They attribute non-existent faults to it and have no notion of its true limits. But it doesn't occur to them that before they pass judgment they should look at the facts."

It's hardly credible."

But it is a fact. Look at this. This is one of their newspapers, USA Today. This article gives some positive information on Esperanto, although its emphasis on religious aspects may somewhat distort the picture. But part of the article quotes a certain Robert Trammel of the Department of Languages and Linguistics at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton as saying:

The reason it hasn't caught on is because it's always something the speaker has to learn in addition to his or her native language - it's something extra." (2)

Well, if it's a common language for international communication, how could it be used without first being learned in addition to the mother tongue? This is sheer stupidity!"

Yes, but the stupidity stems from arrogance. Because this man teaches at a university department of languages and linguistics, he believes he can say anything on a language before gathering the facts. In this case he misses the point completely. But only people who understand what it's all about realize this. Most will only remember that a language specialist dismisses Esperanto, that it is not serious. Another sentence by the same person, who is quoted as saying that "it's essentially an Indo-European language", shows that he allows himself to judge without first proceeding to a linguistic analysis applying the criteria usually used to classify a language. As a matter of fact, Esperanto consists of invariable elements (linguists call them morphemes) that can be combined without restriction. The fact that you derive my from I (mi > mia) and first from one (unu > unua) is something that you find in a language like Chinese, but in no Indo-European one..."

Please, son, don't be that specific. I know nothing about languages. But I think you're right. This man discusses a subject he knows nothing about. It is wrong. If he imagines that because he knows much about languages, he can discuss any language without familiarizing himself with it, he is indeed arrogant. But is this case typical?"

It is, Excellency."

If it is typical, it appears that people over there don't look at the question in a large enough context."

True enough. All kinds of factors are involved in international linguistic communication - political, economic, social, psychological, educational, cultural, linguistic, phonetic. They demand detailed analysis and deep reflection. But the lowliest terran believes he can deal with the matter in a few seconds, and the superior expression on his face is no illusion: it's arrogance all right."

You're young, my son, and I wonder if there is not a certain lack of tolerance in your judgment of the terrans. Aren't you yourself perhaps a little arrogant? Are you sure that you are not oversimplifying an extremely complicated problem?"

Well - That's to say, Excellency - Well - I Uh "

Instead of stuttering, you would do well to remind me to what you attributed this arrogance a moment ago."

I told you, Excellency, that the arrogance comes from insecurity."

Why insecurity?"

Many terrans do not easily accept their weaknesses, their smallness, their altogether too human condition. They live in a constant atmosphere of insecurity, conscious with some of them, repressed with others. For many this has an immediate consequence: they deny the existence of a problem. You feel much more secure when a problem is solved than when you still have to confront it, don't you? So, to reassure themselves, the terrans seize on all kinds of myths."

What myths?"

They have lots of them. For example, that the system of translation works well, or that you can get along with English anywhere in the world, or that you can learn an ethnic language in three months (that's what they claim in advertisements) or in the course of one's time in school. As soon as you take the trouble to check the facts without preconceived ideas, you see that these statements don't stand up or need to be seriously qualified. There are just as many myths about Esperanto. The first reflex of many terrans when you mention it is to believe that by definition it must be inferior to ethnic languages, for example in its powers of emotional, poetic or intellectual expression. But if you study it, you find that it is not inferior to them in these aspects. In many instances it is, if anything, superior."

My son, I have the feeling that you like this international language, this Esperanto, and I wonder whether you are really being objective. Aren't you inclined, like Gorogol, to look at the terrans from too superior a vantage point? Perhaps Esperanto also has weaknesses that you are not taking into consideration."

Of course, Excellency. Esperanto is not perfect, but, among persons with various languages, it is far better than English or than simultaneous interpretation. No language can express everything. This or that expression in French has its own special flavor that can't be rendered in Esperanto, nor, for that matter, in English or German. But the opposite is equally true: this or that juicy or piquant turn of phrase in Esperanto has no equivalent in any ethnic language. Esperanto isn't a code. It s a full-fledged language with a soul, a countenance, a personality. But the terrans don't want to see it. And yet - How can one pass serious judgment on a reality one doesn't know, or be just to something with which one has only superficial acquaintance?"

If the terrans are not dumb, as you claim they are not, these are surely things that they understand perfectly well."

No, Excellency, because they studiously avoid looking at the facts, so that they can, like good masochists, enjoy the difficulties. With us, when some large business - let s call it business A - learns that a little business (business B) has found a thoroughly satisfactory and economical solution to some nagging problem costing business A millions a year in inadequate palliatives, business A wastes no time in going to see how business B does it and in applying the same formula."

And the terrans don't do that? I can't believe it."

No. They don't do it in the language field. On their planet there are organizations called the United Nations or the European Union which spend millions a year trying to overcome language barriers with systems whose cost-effectiveness is appallingly low. There are also organizations like the Universal Esperanto Association, where the people who take part in activities, conferences, or administrative work come from different language backgrounds but communicate directly and on an equal basis without allocating a single cent to the interpretation of a single speech or the translation of a single paper."

And you claim that the organizations in question, the United Nations, the European Union, and so on, have never studied how linguistic communication takes place in these associations? That's not possible!"

Not only have they never studied the facts, but it hasn't even occurred to them that there are any facts to study. It's an a priori, systematic refusal. And they don't even have a guilty conscience. It's curious, isn't it?"

Yes indeed. I'm having trouble enough acknowledging the masochism, but it's even more difficult to understand the lack of curiosity."

But what amazes me, Excellency, is the lack of a sense of responsibility. The money spent so unconcernedly comes from the mass of the population. They could do so many useful things with the astronomical sums they sacrifice to Babel."

You're right, I'm tempted to condemn them out of hand. But you know that I am easily persuaded to mercy. Tell me a few things to lessen my indignation and to help me look on them with compassion."

You are kind, Excellency. I will say this: their excuse is their unconsciousness. To them it is obvious that Esperanto isn't something serious. Why go and study it then? This reminds me of what they said to another terran who sought to question their certainties: It is evident that the Earth is flat. If you look for the Indies in the West you will fall into the abyss. "

It's strange, though. With us, as soon as anyone put forth an idea like this, we would set about verifying it."

True, but the terrans live in fear. When you're afraid, you hang on to things. You hang on to your privileges, your certainties, your crutches. To confront the truth, you must renounce the idea that you already know everything there is to know. Giving up this idea involves abandoning the crutch of condescension (I know that it s ridiculous) to see yourself in the nakedness of your ignorance (I just repeat what I heard, or say what first comes to mind, but, really, I know nothing on that subject). You run the risk of discovering that reality is other than you imagined it. And how can you risk abandoning your crutches when deep inside you feel small and weak, uncertain whether you can stand? There is something very touching about this basic insecurity of the human inhabitants of planet Earth."

Poor terrans! The problem of planetary communication can't be easy to manage under such conditions."

It isn't. I'm sorry, but I don't see what we could do. There, Excellency, I ve told you the essentials. You will find all the details in my written report. What you should remember is that psychological insecurity leads the terrans into presumption, and presumption blinds them to the obvious solution, so that they are forced into all kinds of difficult, complicated and expensive makeshifts, in short, into an absurd system in which people accept injustice and discrimination with resignation, all the while making efforts out of all proportion to the results obtained. Have I convinced you, Excellency? Do you agree with me that Gorogol's thesis is indefensible, and that the issue is not stupidity but a concatenation of elements in which masochism predominates?"

Without a doubt, my son, without a doubt. But, frankly, don't you agree that you have to be pretty stupid to be that masochistic?"

1. P.G. Wodehouse, Doctor Sally (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), p. 92.
2. Don Sefton, "A Religious Belief In Esperanto", USA Today, January 27, 2000.