Understanding Among Africans
There is something depressing in watching two Africans trying
to communicate by gestures, when one, a Rwandan – with Kinyargwanda as his
mother tongue – has made the effort of assimilating Swahili and French, and the
other, a Nigerian, is capable of using, besides the Agatu of his native village,
three languages as important as Hausa, Arabic and English. The total of
languages spoken by the two of them amounts to seven, and they have devoted many
hours for many years to drilling themselves in the correct handling of difficult
rules of grammar and inconsistent vocabularies. Yet they stand together as
though separated by an insuperable barrier.
At a time when there is so much talk of international
co-operation, contacts among peoples and intercultural communication, would this
problem of mutual understanding not deserve a thorough analysis?
Another example comes to mind. Some time ago, a seminar was
organized in Switzerland for radio people from a number of countries. Before the
first session, everybody noticed the only two African members spontaneously walk
up to one another. It was their first stay in Europe. Alas, the expression of
interested expectation that lit up their faces when they first saw each other
from a distance was soon replaced by one of deep disappointment when they
realized that they could not understand each other. One had come from Tanzania,
the other from Gabon. These two men, who were drawn to one another by so many
common realities – same black skin among a majority of white people, many
aspects of cultural background, life on the same continent, solidarity of
ex-subjects of colonialism – could relate as little effectively as if they
suffered from a brain handicap.
For two weeks they lived together without ever being able to
communicate directly. They always needed a white man fluent in both English and
French to act as an interpreter. Do you think they told each other the same
things as if they had been able to talk alone, face to face? To imagine that,
you’d have to know very little about human psychology. Nevertheless both
belonged to an intellectual elite. How much time had they spent to learn the
language of their former colonizers?
This experience is typical of Africa’s language tragedy.
Schoolchildren in Black Africa first learn to read and write in their local
language, or in a widespread African language, or in the language of the former
colonial power, according to where they live. But whatever the first stage, the
second one, for those who are lucky enough to go on studying, always consists on
devoting long hours for many years to a written language full of difficulties,
whether they be French subjunctives, Portuguese irregular verbs or the enormous
stock of the English vocabulary, which, because the language has tapped both
Germanic and Romance sources, is almost double that of an average tongue.
Whatever the language taught in school, since it is not the
same one everywhere, this huge investment of time and effort in the conquest of
linguistic elements unrelated to African traditions does not solve the problem
of direct communication.
Is there a chance that all African countries might agree to
teach the same language, either English or French, everywhere? It is highly
unlikely, nor is it advisable. Cultural pressures are already enough of an
alienating factor. To give them a monopoly would be intolerable.
Should one envisage the adoption of a great non-European
language, such as Arabic, Swahili or Hausa? For many Africans, the difficulties
would not be smaller and the drawback of unduly favoring one culture over the
others would not be avoided.
Would perhaps the solution to the problem lie in devising a
pan-African conventional tongue, along the lines of what has been done in New
Guinea? Difficulties are already so numerous when one endeavors to create a
national intertribal language that they would almost surpass human capabilities
if the challenge came from a whole continent with all kinds of extremely
different linguistic structures.
On what basis should the vocabulary be selected? How could one
conceive a grammar in such a way that all users might feel at ease? Such an
undertaking, while not impossible – experience shows that planned languages are
really capable of living – would be an extremely slow and painstaking task if it
were to be carried out effectively with due regard to the requirements of ethnic
and cultural equality. The following examples show how varied the African
linguistic reality is. Although they are limited to a small sample of vocabulary
and to one single point of grammar – the plural – they will give the reader some
idea of Africa’s language diversity.
Plural is expressed by complex variations in which, quite
often, a prefix and a suffix are modified:
gorko ‘man’ ; worgbe ‘men’
rawaandu ‘dog’ ; dawaagdi ‘dogs’
ngeelooba ‘camel’ ; geloogdi ‘camels’
ndamndi ‘he-goat’ ; damgdi ‘he-goats’
kamiong ‘truck’ ; kamiongji ‘trucks’
In principle, plural involves a change of ending, but the
system is not at all consistent, so that for all practical purposes it is
necessary to memorize the plural of every noun:
mutum ‘man’ ; mutane ‘men’
kare ‘dog’ ; karnuka ‘dogs’
akwiya ‘goat’ ; awaki ‘goats’
dutse ‘stone’ ; duwatsu ‘stones’
zobe ‘ring’ ; zobba ‘rings
Usually no distinction is made between singular and plural. If
necessary – but this is quite exceptional – you can use the plural pronouns
awon or won ‘they’: okunrin ‘man’ or ‘men’; awon
okunrin ‘the men’.
Every Swahili noun belongs to a class characterized by a
prefix. To form the plural, the singular prefix is replaced by the plural one of
the relevant class (for one of the six classes, the prefix does not vary):
mtu ‘man’ ; watu ‘men’
mtoto ‘child’ ; watoto ‘children’
mbwa ‘dog’ ; mbwa ‘dogs’
kitu ‘thing’ ; vitu ‘things’
jicho ‘eye’ ; macho ‘eyes’
One of the characteristics of Bantu languages is that the
prefixes of depending words agree with the prefix of the chief noun:
Kisu kidogo kimoja kitatosha ‘a small knife will be
Visu vidogo vitatu vitatosha ‘three small knives will be
Considering the wide variety which appears at all levels of
language, it would be impossible to find a common denominator even in the
limited field of the chief African languages. Decades would be needed to work
out a satisfactory project, and two or three generations would be necessary to
give it life.
Towards a realistic solution
The most satisfactory solution to the problem appears to
consist of a bi-, tri- or quadrilingualism acquired by successive stages
according to the following scheme:
- first two educational grades: learning to read and write in the local
dialect or in the regional or national African language;
- third and fourth grades: continued study of the first African language,
beginning study of the international language Esperanto, the study of which will
be maintained all through the following grades;
- secondary school: for the students who so desire, or according to national
requirement, study of one or two languages such as Swahili, English, French,
Arabic or others, not as a means of communication (Esperanto will serve that
purpose), but in order to broaden the cultural outlook of the youth.
This formula presents several advantages. Pedagogically, it is
realistic, as will be explained in the following pages. It solves easily the
communication problem among African peoples. It confers the role of
inter-African tongue to a language devoid of any colonial, neocolonial,
ideological or religious links. It fully respects cultural values at their
different levels. It entails no loss of identity, either for linguistic reasons
(Esperanto is not, structurally, an Indo-European language; its flexibility and
inter-ethnic tradition enable it to adapt to every mentality), or for cultural
ones (literary life in Esperanto is made up of contributions from the most
varied sources: e.g. Japanese and Hungarian writers have played an important
role in its development).
The system advocated above is based on three facts, which,
although objectively verifiable, are usually unknown or misinterpreted.
The words objectively verifiable must be stressed, because in discussions
on these questions it is not infrequent to find individuals of good will who
nevertheless jump to conclusions without having carefully considered the facts.
This attitude s understandable. It involves all the same a serious lack of
respect for the populations and the individuals whom babelism reduces to an
inferior status, and who deserve more than a superficial judgment.
The facts in question are the following:
- Because of its structure, Esperanto leads more deeply and more rapidly than
any other language to the perception of grammatical and semantic relationships,
which is the basis of any language learning. This is the reason why it allows
considerable economy of time in the later assimilation of foreign tongues.
- The time required to assimilate a language and the ease with which it can be
used depend on various objective features. The more a language is handled with
ease, the less foreign it is felt to be.
- Esperanto is a living language, both rich and expressive, with a long
tradition – more than a century – of intercultural and interethnic
Pedagogical advantages of Esperanto
Leaving aside the problem of communication in limited areas,
where bilingualism or trilingualism in local languages is quite frequent, a
large number of Africans will have to learn a language other than their own if
they want to take part in communication at an interregional or pan-African
level. The adoption of an African language would not dispose of the pedagogical
problems. If Swahili was chosen, for instance, Africans speaking a Sudanese
language or a Hottentot dialect would still have to assimilate the extremely
different structures of a Bantu language, and the distance between those
languages is greater than between Portuguese and Bengali. The same pedagogical
problem arises if the language to be learned is chosen outside Black Africa
(English, French, Arabic...)
Learning a foreign tongue always involves two operations:
decoding and recoding. Apart from exclamations such as hm! oops! ha!,
language necessarily implies an analysis of a series of relationships.
Obviously, even an expression of emotional life such as "I love you" must
include linguistic means of distinguishing the subject from the object.
Otherwise, it might mean ‘You love me’, which is, of course, completely
What is called here ‘decoding’ consists in making explicit this
unconscious analysis. It is a crucial phase, and if a third language is learned
more easily than a second one, it is because this stage has already been dealt
with to a large extent.
Esperanto facilitates the decoding process because it consists
exclusively of invariable units, so that the grammatical and semantic analysis
of words and sentences is both consistent and transparent.
For instance, once you have learned that the past tense of a
verb is expressed by the ending –is, you can yourself - consistently –
form the past tense of any verb: mi estis ‘I was’, Patro faris
‘Father did’, vi iris ‘you went’. Moreover, every time you meet a word
with the –is ending, you know – transparency – that it is a verb in
the past tense. Such consistency and transparency pervade the whole language.
Once you have assimilated the endings and particles, you can at first glance,
even without knowing the meaning of a single word, make out the grammatical
analysis of a sentence.
Esperanto also makes semantic analysis explicit, i.e. it
analyzes complex concepts. Let us consider for example the Esperanto equivalent
of incurable. It consists of six units. The central element is san
‘healthy’. Ig means ‘make’, ‘render such or such’, so that sanig
means ‘to make healthy’. Since re shows repetition or returning,
resanig means ‘make healthy again’, ‘restoring health’ and thus ‘to
heal’. If you add ebl, which conveys the idea of possibility, you get
resanigebl, ‘can be healed’, ‘curable’. With the ending –a, which
corresponds to the adjective function, you know that the idea is expressed as an
adjective: resanigebla ‘curable’. To negate an idea you use the word
ne, so that neresanigebla is ‘incurable’. If you want to express the
concept as a noun, you just replace –a by –o: neresanigeblo
‘incurability’. By replacing the ending by –is, which, as we just saw,
indicates that you use the word as a verb in the past tense, you can form li
neresanigeblis ‘he was incurable’ (the same idea can also be expressed, of
course, by a literal translation of the English sentence: li estis
neresanigebla). Perhaps it should be added that the prefix re-
‘back’, ‘again’ is not always necessary. In many cases nesanigebla is
Whether you consider vocabulary or grammar, Esperanto is a
language in which relationships appear concretely:
frata / frato = onkla / onklo
fratino / frato = onklino / onklo
Frata ‘fraternal’ has with frato ‘brother’ the same
relationship as onkla ‘avuncular’ has with onklo ‘uncle’.
Fratino ‘sister’ (and fratina ‘sisterly’) has with frato
‘brother’ the same relationship as onklino ‘aunt’ (and onklina
‘relating to an aunt’, ‘pertaining to an aunt’, ‘typical of an aunt’) has with
The fact that in Esperanto every grammar rule, every ending,
every prefix or suffix, in fact every linguistic trait, can be immediately
generalized increases to an extraordinary extent the productivity of any effort.
Once he has learned the pattern hundo / hundino ‘dog’ / ‘bitch’, the
child will himself "invent" all nouns of females: kamelino ‘she-camel’,
bubalino ‘female buffalo’, porkino ‘sow’, kaprino
‘she-goat’, simiino ‘she-monkey’, etc. Similarly, generalizing the case
of hundejo ‘kennel’, he will easily form porkejo ‘pigsty’,
kaprejo ‘enclosure for goats’, kamelejo ‘place where camels are
kept’, and so on. (The plain root, in nouns referring to animals, is used as a
general term; the forms with vir- ‘male’ and –ino ‘female’ are
used only when the sex is emphasized: chevalo ‘horse’, chevalino
‘mare’, virchevalo ‘stallion’; porko ‘pig’, porkino
‘sow’, virporko ‘boar’).
Since the word or suffix ido designates the young of an
animal, the student has no trouble expressing the idea of a ‘puppy’
(hundido), a ‘piglet’ (porkido) or a ‘kid’ (kaprido). A
great number of people who have studied and practiced English for many years –
including the writer of this article – do not know if there is an English word
for the young of a camel, but the reader who has no knowledge at all of
Esperanto apart from the few examples just given will readily produce the
corresponding noun: kamelido. In Esperanto, unlike most other languages,
vocabulary acquisition proceeds by multiplication, rather than by addition. One
single new element can multiply the vocabulary already assimilated in an
This system enables the user of the language, not only to
translate accurately and without difficulty words from his mother tongue, but
also to coin new words which are immediately understood by speakers of Esperanto
all over the world. For instance, once you have assimilated the
sam-----ano pattern of samlandano ‘compatriot’ (land-
‘country’) and samreligiano ‘coreligionist’ (religi- ‘religion’),
you can coin such words as samvalano ‘person from the same valley’
(val- ‘valley’), samrasano ‘person of the same race’ (ras-
‘race’), sametnano ‘person of the same ethnic group’ (etn- ‘ethnic
Esperanto represents a synthesis, exceptional in the spectrum
of languages, that harmoniously integrates rigor and freedom. Rigor, since any
grammatical function must be expressed. Freedom, since within the framework of a
small number of strict rules, you are free to phrase your thoughts the way you
please. Few languages are based on such a perfect integration of both brain
hemispheres, the left one (in right handed people) dealing with rigor, the right
one with creativity and freedom.
In English, you have to say you obey him. Saying you
obey to him or you him obey would be unacceptable. In French you must
say vous lui obéissez; forms like vous l’obéissez or vous
obéissez lui, although perfectly understandable, are incorrect. Esperanto
allows you to say equally, without making a mistake, vi lin obeas, vi obeas
lin, al li vi obeas, vi obeas al li, etc. Rigor: subject and object of the
action have to be clearly distinguished. Freedom: whether this distinction is
made by a preposition or an ending is irrelevant, as is the word order.
Here is another example. Provided you respect the precise
meaning of prepositions and endings (rigor), you generally have the choice of
expressing the same idea through an adjective, verbal, adverbial or substantive
form (freedom). Esperanto for ‘train’ is trajno (aj is pronounced
approximately like the pronoun I; stress, as in Swahili, always falls on
the last syllable but one). In the sentence ‘He came by train’, the concept
‘train’ can be expressed by a noun: li venis per trajno, an adverb: li
venis trajne; a verb: li trajnis or an adjective: lia veno estis
This high degree of freedom, which actually results from the
rigor, is obviously an important advantage for style and expressiveness. The
extent to which this advantage is exploited by writers strikes all those who
read original Esperanto literature, especially poetry. Furthermore, it has great
pedagogical value for those who, having learned Esperanto, study other
languages. Familiarity with Esperanto as spoken and written in today’s world
acquaints the user with a wide variety of linguistic forms that are nevertheless
always clearly understandable. It is thus an introduction to linguistic
expression in general, which frees the learner form the constraints of the
mother tongue without immediately imposing the rigid structures of a foreign
In the sequence "mother tongue / Esperanto / foreign language",
the Esperanto phase is the stage of discovery and creativity. Those who go no
further will have acquired an instrument of world-wide communication which is
very useful in practice and has great cultural and human value. The freedom with
which words are formed will have stimulated creativity and developed a feeling
for nuances. Those who are capable and willing to proceed further will discover
that the assimilation of foreign languages is made remarkably easier by the
pleasant and entertaining linguistic training of the Esperanto stage. They will
have learned more about the universal structures or human linguistic expression
than by the theoretical study of grammar or by proceeding without an
intermediate phase to the study of a national or ethnic language.
Factors governing the ease with which a new language can be
learned and used
The more consistent the structures, the easier the language.
Contrary to what is often believed, consistent structures are much more
important in acquiring a new language than similarity with the mother
The Esperanto verb system is quite different from the verb
system of the Romance languages. Does that mean that a French speaking person
will find it more difficult to use Esperanto verbs than Spanish ones,
considering that the Spanish conjugation presents a wealth of forms and
inconsistencies comparable to that of French? By no means. From the first lesson
on, the students know how to use all verbs in all persons in the
present tense. Once the relevant ending is assimilated, they proceed to the next
one, so that an average of twelve lessons is all that is needed for the
Esperanto verb system to be fully assimilated. Spanish is quite different. The
correct use of only two verbs – ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ – requires more than the
same number of lessons.
Obviously, this reasoning applies to the African situation as
well. In Hausa, as in French, nouns have a gender, every one being either
‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Does that mean that French will be easier than
Esperanto, a language without genders, for a speaker of Hausa? No. While the
structure is similar in Hausa and French, it is consistent in neither.
Madara ‘milk’ is feminine in Hausa, whereas its equivalent lait is
masculine in French. Viande ‘meat’ is feminine in French but the
corresponding word nama is masculine in Hausa. Their translations in
Esperanto, and in English, are easier to handle for a Hausa, even if the
language is more different in that respect.
Let us consider a still clearer example: plural. In Yoruba, the
concept of plural is extremely vague, as in Chinese. Although it is possible to
express it, it is not a linguistic necessity and it is done only if deemed
really indispensable. In Esperanto, as in English, you have to use a form which
indicates whether you speak of one or several things, of one or several persons.
That fact implies a real difficulty for speakers of the Yoruba language.
But what is their choice if they want to enjoy a system of
communication that goes beyond the local level? The languages with which
Esperanto might compete in Africa are English, French, Swahili, Arabic, and
perhaps another important African language like Hausa. Not only have all these
languages a clear opposition singular/plural, but also plural is in none of them
expressed in a thoroughly consistent way. In both Arabic and Hausa, the plural
form must be learned with the singular of practically every word. In Swahili,
the plural varies according to the complex system of "classes" among which all
nouns are distributed. In French, there are a number or irregular forms; for
example, many, but not all, words ending in –al and –ail change
this to –aux in the plural and there are such deviant forms as oeil
/yeux ‘eye’/’eyes’; plural forms of verbs can also be complicated. In
English, irregular forms are not numerous, but they still exist: foot/feet,
woman/women, sheep/sheep, child/children, mouse/mice, etc.
In Esperanto, there is only one ending to be learned -
-j pronounced as y in boy – and it is used in all cases.
The Yoruba who learns one of the languages mentioned above must learn two
things: (1) the correct use of the category "plural"; (2) the various forms in
which it is concretized in the relevant language. In Esperanto, only the first
of those requirements exists, since the question of form is disposed of in a
fraction of a second.
Experience gained in Japan and China shows that the difficulty
with plural, though real, should not be exaggerated. Learning a language always
involves difficulties. What distinguishes Esperanto from most other languages is
that its difficulties are not arbitrary. A Yoruba who has learned the Esperanto
plural will have assimilated a linguistic concept useful for communication,
whereas the formal difficulties of its potential rivals in Africa have no
relevance for transmitting ideas or feelings. People would understand one
another just as well if they said mouses instead of mice,
chevals ‘horses’ instead of chevaux. The observation of
children’s speech shows that consistency is more natural than inconsistency. The
spontaneous tendency of linguistic expression is to use consistent
The examples given above were taken from the field of grammar,
but vocabulary also deserves to be considered, since inconsistent lexical
structures are also a source of difficulties. French people say concevable
‘conceivable’, but perceptible ‘perceptible’, imprenable
‘which cannot be taken’, ‘impregnable’, but incompréhensible
‘incomprehensible’. Knowing the verbs concevoir, percevoir, prendre,
comprendre is of no avail when you need the corresponding adjectives
(consistency would require to say *conceptible and *impréhensible,
or *percevable and *incomprenable). In Esperanto, koncepti /
konceptebla, percepti / perceptebla, preni / prenebla, neprenebla, kompreni /
komprenebla, nekomprenebla is a consistent system where finding the word you
want is a matter of intelligence, or of reflex, rather than memory.
While one of the difficulties of English for many non-European
people derives from the numerous shades of meaning expressed in conjugation
(forms such as he went, was going, has gone, would go, used to go, had gone,
had been going, has been going, etc. are not easy to handle for people whose
language has just one past tense), another lies in the astonishing heterogeneity
of the vocabulary.
Such a series as country, national, foreigner,
fellow-citizen imposes on memory a heavier burden than its Esperanto
equivalent lando, landa, eksterlandano.
samlandano. Similarly, the forms tooth and teeth do not
help you when you want to express such concepts as dental and
dentist. Compare with Swahili: meno ‘teeth’, (w)a meno
‘dental’, daktari wa meno ‘dentist’. The following table shows to what
extent the consistent structures of Esperanto favor the memorization and
retrieval of words, and thus ease in expressing oneself, in cases where English
requires more effort because it often derives an adjective from Latin or French
even though the corresponding verb has a Germanic origin:
(Hyphens are included here just to emphasize the invariability
of the Esperanto and Swahili verbal morphemes; they are not used in standard
Esperanto is not the only language in which both grammar and
vocabulary have such a high degree of consistency. Chinese, Caribbean Creoles,
Malay, Malagasy, etc. are also composed of invariable elements that combine
freely to express the speaker’s ideas. Swahili roots are also mostly invariable.
But those languages have features that make them less adapted than Esperanto to
inter-ethnic use in today’s world. Haitian Creole, for instance, lacks many
abstract words and replaces them either with long cumbersome phrases or with
words borrowed from French. Chinese has a phonetic system which most foreigners
find difficult to adapt to, because of the so-called tones: the word transcribed
as shiyan means ‘experiment’, ‘salt’, ‘test’, ‘rehearsal’, or ‘pledge’
according to whether the voice is ascending or descending on this or that
syllable, as well as according to the relative pitch.
Tones exist also in many African languages, but it is easier
for somebody accustomed to a tone language to use a toneless one – i.e. a
language in which the melody of a sentence is a matter of style, emotional
expression or regional accent rather than meaning - than to use a language with
a different tone system.
In Bantu languages, the system of classes makes it more
difficult for the speakers of non-Bantu languages to express themselves
spontaneously. It requires less drilling to learn, and less practice to use
spontaneously, the Esperanto preposition de ‘of’ than the Swahili
–a which has the same function, but varies according to the class of the
pordo de domo
mlango wa nyumba
pordoj de domo
milango ya nyumba
muroj de domo
kuta za nyumba
libro de infano
kitabu cha mtoto
libroj de infano
vitabu vya mtoto
In Esperanto it is also possible to use a simple word
combination, similar to its English equivalent except that it is written as a
single word and that the first element usually loses its vowel ending:
dompordo ‘house door’, dommuro ‘house wall’, infanlibro
‘child’s book’, etc.
Esperanto, a living language
The idea, quite widespread in the West, especially in Europe,
that there cannot be a cultural, really human language without all sorts of
exceptions and inconsistencies is a pure ethnocentric prejudice. Chinese is a
highly consistent language, from which the very concept of irregular verbs or
plurals is completely absent. It has nevertheless a beautiful and rich
literature: cultural richness is independent of grammatical complications.
As for the idea, equally widespread, that Esperanto is an
Indo-European language, it stems from an insufficient analysis of facts.
Structurally, Esperanto has more features in common with isolating and
agglutinating languages than with the flexional languages of the Indo-European
and Semito-Hamitic families. Word roots were borrowed from European languages,
but this does not change the deep structural reality. The spirit of a language
is determined by its structure rather than by the shape of its words. Caribbean
French Creole is evidence that a language can have a vocabulary etymologically
closer to Romance tongues than Esperanto and still stand, structurally, outside
the Indo-European family.
Nobody would dare to pronounce a judgment on a car, a
restaurant or the poetic flavor of this or that African dialect without having
driven that car, eaten in that restaurant or become acquainted with the relevant
poetry. Intellectual honesty requires the same restraint in the case of
Those who have heard speakers of Esperanto from 20 countries
laughing at the same second while listening to one of their humorists know that
humor can have a universal quality that can be conveyed by that international
language. Those who have attended a debate in it, read Esperanto cultural
journals, discovered its songs an poetry and heard how children use it in
playing know that it meets all the requirements of a modern language, both
popular and literary.
There is nothing surprising in that fact. Expression is all the
more fluent as the speaker is less inhibited by grammatical and lexical
difficulties or by the fear of making mistakes. Whoever reads the poems written
in Esperanto by Miyamoto Masao or the rendering in that language of Omar
Khayyam’s Rubaiyat marvels at the simplicity of Zamenhof’s language, in
which the finest of non-European sensibilities express themselves with an ease
and an art without rival in the realm of intercultural communication.
There are people who blame Esperanto – without being familiar
with it – for being "artificially constructed" or "the work of just one man".
Again, this stems from an ignorance of facts that are not difficult to check.
What Zamenhof published in 1887 with the name "International Language" was only
an embryo: 16 grammar rules, a few hundred morphemes and a few examples of
texts. The meagerness was intentional. He had understood that a language is a
social, collective and anonymous phenomenon. He had the wisdom to realize that
only practice could give life to this slender skeleton, and he also succeeded in
giving this linguistic nucleus a structure suited to bringing about its natural
development through simple contact with the demands of life.
History has proved him right. A number of people in quite
different cultural settings adopted this embryonic new language to communicate
freely with one another. As anticipated by Zamenhof, the linguistic nucleus,
simply through being used, developed into a full-fledged language. Besides the
modest and anonymous community of first users, there appeared talented writers
and poets whose contribution to the growth of the language was extremely
important. The publication of Esperanto versions of the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita
and the Koran, as well as of several texts belonging to the Confucianist
tradition, have also helped people from various cultures to find answers to a
number of linguistic questions.
As a matter of fact, Esperanto is the product of the collective
will of a number of people, scattered in a bit more than a hundred countries, to
communicate with as few inhibitions as possible across language barriers. Many
of the features or the language have come about unconsciously by the process
that linguists call "the influence of the substratum" with the peculiarity that
the substratum is the most intercultural that ever existed in the history of
language. Africans who join the Esperanto diaspora can only bring to its
evolution an original contribution which will be a new cultural enrichment for
the whole world.
Esperanto is hardly known in many regions of Africa. This is
the result of various historical factors. It was in the interest of the
colonizers to tie to their own culture the people they were colonizing. France
is still carrying out in Africa an extremely active policy designed to maintain
its influence through the French language and the culture linked to it. The old
maxim of "divide and conquer" has never become obsolete.
Some members of the African elites will probably be reluctant
to consider seriously the suggestion made in this paper. They may see in it a
threat to the privileged position that goes with a real mastery of difficult
languages such as English and French. But all those who have the interests of
the African populations really at heart have the moral duty to inquire seriously
into the possibilities offered by Esperanto for effective communication across
the language barriers of Africa.
Africans need to communicate among themselves. Why should they
use for that purpose languages which, besides being associated with cultural
pressures from powerful countries, are full of complications that are totally
irrelevant to the African context, not to mention the fact that using European
languages can only perpetuate divisions stemming from the colonial past? If
Esperanto were introduced into elementary schools all through Africa, every one
could retain his dialect or language and the culture associated with it, and
still be capable of communicating with fellow Africans – and with many people
all over the world, many of them not belonging to the socially privileged –
whatever their respective mother tongues.
Instead of spending years of painstaking efforts to master the
intricacies of French past participles or the elusive subtleties of English
grammar and usage, would it not be a benefit for all African children to acquire
an easy but expressive language which, belonging to no people in particular,
belongs equally to all?