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Why I would never study Esperanto

September 5, 2010

Not only because I am lazy. Though it could be one of the reasons. They say laziness is a natural protection mechanism of your body against performing unnecessary work. So yes, I would be lazy to even attempt to study Esperanto or any other artificial language. With all respect to the enthusiasts of such languages, and with sympathy for the noble cause the creators of such languages have pursued, I do believe that studying them is a waste of time.

And I don’t mean ancient languages like Sanskrit or Latin because they are real. Because they are the forefathers of modern languages. Because even if they no longer live and breathe, they used to live and breathe. Esperanto has never lived or breathed even if it has hoped to (and the word actually means ‘hoping’ or ‘the one who hopes’). I don’t believe a language is a living language unless it grows out of a culture.

If I want a truly international language, I already know it. It’s English. It is also one with cultural roots.

Since the end of the 19th century a number of languages have been created by enthusiastic geniuses with the aim of uniting the world. The most well-known ones include Esperanto, Volapuk and Interlingua. While browsing the web I also chanced upon this impressive effort to create a pan-Slavic language: www.slovio.com. There are communities of speakers of these languages. According to estimates, there are up to 2,000 native speakers of Esperanto in the world today, i.e. those who learned it from their parents (one of them being George Soros, interestingly enough!), and a lot more people speak it as a ‘foreign’ language.

Now I do believe that every human is free to get their kicks from any fad they choose as long as it does not represent a hazard to other humans, so I am glad those people have found their passion. I’m glad they have a reason to get together, talk in their language, sing songs in their language, write and read magazines in their language, maybe even shoot films in their language. I don’t mind if they advertise their passion in any way they choose. It’s just that I will never join their club.

If I were asked to explain very briefly why, I would put it like this: The difference between a real language and an artificial language is like that between a human and a cyborg. I would never befriend a cyborg, not matter how perfectly designed and how masterfully put together it is. There are so many humans around.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew permalink
    September 6, 2010 10:52 pm

    I find it interesting that you find it waste of time to learn it, but find it important enough to write about it. It seems almost a waste of time to read it.

    I highly disagree with your view that English is a “truly international language”. In my opinion not even close. English is so biased and flawed. Perhaps widely spoken, but that hardly makes it “international”. And the cultural baggage that comes with it is perhaps a reason certain countries do not like english speakers.

    • September 6, 2010 11:17 pm

      Thanks for your comment Andrew. To begin with, writing that post didn’t take me as much time as learning Esperanto would, so I didn’t waste a lot 🙂 Sorry if you felt it was a waste of time for you to read it. To tell you the truth, I just wanted to write something controversial to finally see some comments on my new blog and get to know some people who are interested in languages, even if they disagree with me. So I’m happy to see your feedback! 🙂
      As regards English being the most widely spoken language in the world (I accept your term), I believe it is reality rather than something we should cheer and encourage. Let it be sad reality but English does allow me to communicate with people across the world, and I do love English culture so here’s a combination of passion and practicality. In fact, you may have noticed on the About page that my objective is to promote the study of national languages rather than an English-led globalization.
      Have you studied any constructed languages yourself?

  2. September 7, 2010 12:27 am

    Were Esperanto the way you describe it, chances are I wouldn’t have learned it, either.

    Esperanto indeed started out artificial – when it was published in 1887. But soon after, its inventor set it free, and people picked it up and ran with it. Using it in every imaginable situation, working out the wrinkles, they transformed it into the complete, real, living natural language it is today. There is absolutely nothing of the sterile cyborg you mention in modern Esperanto: Esperanto lives and breathes because it is used the same way as any other living, breathing language.

    Esperanto is anything but devoid of culture. In fact, with Esperanto, you get a triple dose of culture. First is a home-grown, indigenous culture that sprung naturally from the community of like-minded people (like-minded in a couple of regards, anyway) who share a common language, complete with trappings like festivals, legends, a certain sense of community and a rich original literature. Second is a cosmopolitan formed of the intermingling of the native cultures of all the world’s Esperanto speakers as they communicate with each other. Third is direct access to the minds, hearts and cultural products of the geographically, linguistically and culturally diverse members of the Esperanto community through the communication medium of Esperanto. Esperanto is easy enough to learn – several times easier than ethnic languages – to make this possible by placing near-native fluency in a common language within reasonable reach of everyone.

    You could take my word for it, but much more convincing would be to see for yourself by learning and experiencing Esperanto. Lernu.net is a good place to start, with several free self-study courses of varying levels. After taking an introductory course (“Ana Pana” comes highly recommended) and an intermediate course (“Gerda Malaperis” is a good choice), seek out other Esperantists among the couple of million or so speakers – easy to do since the advent of the Internet – and use your Esperanto. You’ll see that it’s nothing like what you describe.

    • September 7, 2010 1:20 am

      Thanks for your contribution Micjo. Your enthusiasm is contagious and I admit you’ve convinced me that Esperanto is not the kind of cyborg I made it appear. True, the culture of Esperanto is no less ‘real’ and exciting than any other culture. However, an important distinction, I believe, is that with Esperanto it’s the culture that grew out of the language, while with English, Japanese or Swahili it’s the language that grew out of the culture and grew together with the culture. Esperanto still originated as an artificial language, although I’m sure it’s been developing and has changed a lot since Zamenhof set it free.

      So I think in the end it’s just a matter of personal taste, because I love languages due to their irregularities and their idiosyncrasies, which are products of their natural development over centuries. Contrived simplicity may be a value in practical terms but not something I admire. Why did I bother to write about it at all? To let people know what I think, to hear the opposite point of view and to get to know people like yourself. So thanks for leaving your comment in my blog. I hope someone sees your link and decides to take up Esperanto. Not myself at this time, sorry. My plans are to expand my knowledge of traditional languages and to help protect national languages that are in danger of extinction.

      • September 8, 2010 11:40 pm

        Thanks for your candor – I really appreciate it. However, I do think it’s important that people get accurate information, hence my reaction.

        Esperanto is indeed simpler than other languages, but I have not found it to be simplistic; planned, but not contrived. My experience with Esperanto has been like my experience with French, Arabic and, to a lesser extent, German and Hebrew: it seems and feels artificial at first, but becomes natural with familiarity and expertise. Esperanto’s simplicity and regularity, in particular, feel perfectly natural when you get the hang of it.

        In spite of its simplicity and regularity, Esperanto has a definite soul and personality. While it is possible to deduce that of Esperanto by reading about it, they become much more evident with usage. Esperanto is not an amorphous mass, but has a structure, albeit simple and regular, that, as in any other language, allows some modes of expression while forbidding others, encourages some while discouraging others, with a great deal of freedom in between, all of which gives it a certain look and feel. I have found that Esperanto’s lack of many of the difficulties one finds in other languages makes it no less real and expressive – in fact, I find that it gives Esperanto a special personality. Having said that, Esperanto is not perfect, nor has it ever claimed to be. It, too, has its idiosyncracies – they’re just easier to navigate. Esperanto has its works of genius, and it has its duds. The duds, however, say more about the authors than the language; the works of genius say as much about the language that made it possible to create them as about their creators.

        Think of chess. With a 16×16 sqare board, two sets of 16 pieces, and a set of rules that takes half an hour or so to learn, it’s difficult to get much simpler or more regular. Yet, no one would call it simplistic or contrived. It’s possible to spend hours playing a single game, and a lifetime exploring all the strategic possibilities. For experts, it becomes a natural part of them. A chess game can be an expression of genius, but if it falls short of that, it speaks more of the players than of the game of chess. And in spite of its simplicity and regularity, chess has a soul and a personality of its that become manifest when it is played. So it is with Esperanto.

        You mention your zeal for protection of national languages – a totally admirable and laudable goal. You may be surpised and interested to know that the ongoing disappearance of ethnic languages is a problem that is near and dear to many Esperantists’ hearts. A widespread opinion in Esperantodom is that Esperanto can actually help protect and even foster the use of ethnic languages.

        Here’s how it could work: Promote Esperanto as the language of international and interlingusitic discourse. With its ease of learning, it can be mastered in a year of serious study, even after early childhood. The first years of a child’s schooling could then be devoted to learning and studying in his or her ethnic language, no matter how small. When that language is firmly established, Esperanto could then be introduced later on and mastered in just a year, equipping the student with the ability to communicate with every other Esperanto speaker. If the student desires to learn other languages after Esperanto, no problem: experiments have shown that Esperanto is an excellent training ground for learning languages in general, to such an extent that the time saved on the following language can be less than the time spent on Esperanto. Without the pressure to devote enormous amounts of time learning difficult ethnic languages for mediocre results – which is the case today – the choice of subsequent languages could more easily include small, endangered languages.

        Anyway, sorry for being so longwinded. I’m not trying to twist your arm into learning Esperanto – Esperanto is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, and there are plenty of other worthy endeavors. If you decide to take a closer look after reading this, that’s great; if you don’t, that’s great, too. Whatever happens, I wish you all the best with your language learning.

  3. September 9, 2010 12:30 pm

    Thanks Micjo. Not long-winded at all, it’s actually very informative. I know a lot more about Esperanto now than I did when I wrote my post, so thanks for that. It’s very interesting to know that Esperantists are actually concerned about protecting endangered languages. There’s definitely logic behind your scheme to save time by teaching Esperanto and then focusing on native languages. So I also wish you all the best with your projects.

  4. Svetlana R. permalink
    September 9, 2010 12:49 pm

    Hi Alex!

    My knowledge of anything more than basic about Esperanto stems from this radio program

    http://www.svobodanews.ru/content/transcript/1904171.html

    I don’t think I would compare it with the cyborg equivalent of a real person.

    As for a personal note – I am speaking with an increasing Russian accent and increasingly sloppy English in the USA – for the reason I know nothing about. So it would be interesting to hear your take on accents and the necessity of “speaking like an Englishman/American” and also in connection to linguistic superiority – Do you think that American accent is indeed inferior to British, as we are prompted to believe by our school education?

    • September 9, 2010 9:40 pm

      Nice to see you here, Sveta. Thanks for the link, the interview is very enlightening. I think the best way to get to know more about something is to criticize it in a blog, so you’ll get some interesting responses from people who think differently. 🙂 I can see there’s a lot of history and passion about the language, and for that reason you can’t compare it to a cyborg. On the other hand, it’s different from ‘natural’ languages in that it can be constructed by the speakers from stems, prefixes, suffixes, etc, so there’s a linguistic game going on in a sense (I now understand why Micjo compared it to a chess). That must be a lot of fun but then again, it’s not exactly the way we use a traditional language, which is always full of surprises.

      On your second comment, you may have noticed in my other post (‘Linguistic Arrogance’) that I am a believer in the equality of all languages. In fact, such an egalitarian am I that I even think that all dialects of a language have the same value. 🙂 So no, of course US English is not inferior to British.

      I first learned British English about 20 years ago, then I became a fan of everything American and tried to speak American for about 15 years, and in the last two or three years I’ve been exposed to British English a lot more, so I’m turning into a British speaker again. I don’t think you should get hung up on the way you speak now, but as you stay longer in the US you will pick up the accent naturally. I remember catching myself speaking with a deliberate Russian accent at times when I was in the US and UK, and I think that I subconsciously wanted to distinguish myself from locals – in particular when I asked some ‘stupid’ questions about something that all locals should know. I guess in those situations it was less embarrassing for me to sound foreign. Anyway, thanks for your comment and hope to talk to you again in my blog.

      • September 10, 2010 2:14 am

        Actually, the reason I used the chess metaphor was to show how something could be simple and regular, yet rich and expressive, not to portray Esperanto as a mere game. Esperanto does indeed offer a productive word-building system that allows speakers to create words almost at will, but that does not render Esperanto unnatural. This feature, called agglutination, is present in many ethnic languages. Turkish is one such language; theoretically, it sets no limit on the length of words that can be created by assembling basic elements. Mandarin Chinese exhibits some of the same characteristics by expressing concepts by simple juxtaposition of building blocks to form compound, aggultinated “words”. English also has a certain propensity for agglutination, although we typically call it “compounding” when talking about English. It is certainly possible to make a game of compounding in Esperanto, but one can do the same in any other language that allows it. Or, one can do what occurs most of the time: use it naturally, unconsciously, in Esperanto as in any other language.

        Consider the actual, non-contrived English word “antidisestablishmentarianism”, constructed from the following elements: ( “anti” = “against” ) + ( “dis” = negation or “absence of” ) + ( “establish” ) + ( “ment” = rheification ) + ( “arian” = “prone to” or “characterized by” ) + ( “ism” = “system of conduct or belief” ), with “establish” + “ment” forming an idiomatic compound meaning “state”. As long as you know the meanings of the building blocks, you don’t have to think about its meaning, and memorizing it is nearly effortless. Nothing could be easier for a fluent Esperanto speaker than to form the same word in Esperanto (hyphens inserted to make elements stand out more clearly): kontraŭ-sen-ŝtat-em-ismo. If that word is contrived, then so is it contrived in English.

        Esperanto does not boldly go where no man has gone before: it goes where languages have already gone, only going a bit farther by making everything regular. Esperanto’s word-building system entails three kinds of regularity: morphological (building blocks don’t change spelling when combined), semantic (building blocks don’t change meaning when combined), and combinatorial (any building block can be combined with any other building block). Is that unnatural? If it is, then English, Turkish and Chinese are also unnatural. While not completely regular, they do allow a good amount of freedom to combine building blocks spontaneously into compound words or concepts.

        As I mentioned above, all foreign languages seem unnatural, artificial – a game – when first being learned. However, once they become second nature, they cease to be so and feel perfectly natural. Esperanto is the same.

  5. Chris permalink
    September 10, 2010 6:05 pm

    Hey Alex! I salute your defense of lazinesss. I also really appreciate your blog — it’s thoughtful and imbued with this humane spirit that’s really refreshing. I’d like to know whether you think, as some have argued, that as English becomes more global and less connected to lived experience, that it might become a sort of postmodern Latin? Not that it will cease to be spoken, but that it will cease to be spoken in ways that matter.

    Also, thought you might like this Russell essay “In Praise of Idleness.”

    http://www.zpub.com/notes/idle.html

    • September 10, 2010 11:59 pm

      Thanks for another enlightening comment Micjo. You are very convincing as always. I guess I need to do some research on how agglutination works in different languages. I know about if but have never researched it properly.

    • September 11, 2010 12:30 am

      Hi Chris,

      It’s great to see you here and thanks a lot for your kind words about my blog, in particular the spirit of it, as I really wanted it to be more than just a collection of thoughts.

      As regards your question, I must admit I didn’t entirely get what you meant by ‘ways that matter’, but I think I got the thrust of the argument. Yes, indeed, what has happened is that English has turned into a lingua franca in the modern world, and most cases of its use are as removed from the cultural medium where the language originated as never before.

      I’m not sure there’s a threat to English proper as it will continue to be spoken in England, USA and other English-speaking countries in ‘ways that matter’. In my MA course though, someone suggested there are actually two Englishes these days, the lingua franca one and the ‘native’ one, the former being actually practiced by a lot more people than the latter. We had a debate in our student forum whether, as teachers, we need to teach the former or the latter (in particular we discussed pronunciation, as some prominent TEFL’er has actually come up with a phonetics of English as lingua franca and is promoting the intentional teaching of that ‘international’ version rather than native accents).

      So will the ‘pure’ English eventually be eclipsed by the ‘Latin’ version of it? I don’t know. Though if I draw from my own theory of the world potentially moving toward a single language, which I brought up in one of my posts, and if we imagine that the language is English, the chances are it will be a very different version of English, which will have lost most of its connection with English culture .

      Let me know if I’ve misinterpreted anything about your argument.

      Thanks for the link. Very interesting! (Just skimmed it, will read it more carefully later).

  6. Michael Farris permalink
    September 11, 2010 4:21 am

    I would no longer classify Esperanto as ‘artificial’ since that’s a largely meaningless term when speaking of a language with a speaker base (first or second fluent).

    My new brainstorm is NCO language where NCO means ‘non-conventional origin’ a category which would also include pidgins and creoles and mixed languages as well as many, though not all, sign languages.

    Now I just have to come up with a grant proposal and a catchy name, maybe LONC (Language whose Origin is Non-Conventional…..

    • September 11, 2010 4:33 am

      That would be interesting. Currently, the official term for languages such as Esperanto is ‘constructed’ as it doesn’t convey any attitude, unlike ‘artificial’, whose connotation is negative. NCO, or LONC, I guess would be even more politically correct and if it were to include pidgins, sign languages, etc, I think that would be a good generic term. So good luck with your grant proposal! 🙂

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