In the course of my Chinese adventures, all other languages started to seem a lot easier. So needless to say that Esperanto, one of the easiest of them all, looks like just a walk in the park now. In particular, I’m interested in what the glossophiles here think about it, i.e. yalensis and Lazy Glossophiliac. Here are my rambling thoughts on it:
* It is easy. VERY easy. I have been studying it for three days, and I can already say many phrases: e.g. the one in the title (“Esperanto is the easiest language in the world”). Its vocabulary is about 60% Latinic, 30% Anglic-Germanic and 10% Slavic; its grammar is simplified Latinic; its morphology and semantics are largely Slavonic. Being a natural language, everything is very logical, it is entirely phonetic and there are no exceptions. Root words can be easily transformed from verbs (add in “i) to adjectives (add an “e), an adjective (add an “a), a place where it is done (add “ej”), a professional who does it (add “ist”), a female version (add “ino”), a diminished version (add “et”), a magnified version (add “eg”), etc. For people with some familiarity with European languages, the vocabulary is a piece of cake. It will be a lot tougher for Asians, but nonetheless even for them it will still be an order of magnitude easier than starting from a natural language.
* Despite its easiness, I’m discovering Esperanto is very flexible. In a sense, even more so than languages like English or Chinese, which are largely bound by the Subject-Verb-Object structure. Though I may change my mind as I get more advanced, so far it seems to me to be as flexible as Russian, which is amazing considering its grammar is orders of magnitude simpler. Quite frankly, of the languages I’ve looked at it in any detail, it is my favorite by far (the full rankings: Esperanto; Spanish; Russian; Latin; Chinese; English; French; German).
* Why learn it? First, there are studies showing that students who spent a year learning Esperanto were able to assimilate French and other languages quicker thereafter, eventually overtaking the control groups that didn’t study Esperanto. Only about one year max is needed for Esperanto fluency. But there are accounts of some people accomplishing it in days. There are monthly meetings of Esperantists in the Bay Area. I’m planning to attend the next one, and I already feel I won’t be embarrassed to open my mouth. By then I will probably be far better at it than at Chinese, which I’m studying for the fourth month now; a depressing thought, that.
This brings us to the second reason why Esperanto is awesome – it would make for an excellent global lingua franca. That was the original intention of Zamenhof, its late 19th century inventor, who growing up as a Jew in Russian Poland envisioned language uniting people. Knowing Polish, Russian, German, French, Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Latin, Ancient Greek and a few others, he was eminently qualified for the advancing his vision, and Esperanto today is by far the most popular “artificial” language. It is also the only one with a truly global culture, with strong communities throughout East-Central Europe, and in Russia, China, Japan, and California.
Third, the members of this community are almost invariably going to be more interesting than the average person (them having taken the trouble to study an artificial language for what are mostly intellectual or idealistic purposes). It has strong historical associations with movements for world peace, socialism, environmentalism, anti-imperialism, civil rights, and other progressive causes. And most of the maniacs of the 20th century like Hitler, Stalin, and imperial Japan hated it, which I guess is also a recommendation of sorts.
In today’s world, it would behove the Rest to adopt it to undermine the ideological hegemony of the West, which seeks to dictate its values to the rest of mankind. For instance, consider India, where English is kind of like French was in 18th century Russia. A way for the Indian comprador elites to rub in their social dominance by association with a “superior” foreign culture into the faces of the peasants and workers. The solution is people’s struggle and an end to linguistic imperialism, which can be achieved by making Hindi the sole official language, providing support for local languages, and teaching Esperanto as a medium for communication with the outside world.
* There are many criticisms of Esperanto. Many of them are unwarranted. For instance, some people say that its grammar is still too hard. I disagree. If you make it simpler, the language will begin to lose a lot of its current expressiveness and flexibility. It will make it even simpler for learners, thought it’s already extremely simple, but at what I perceive to be great linguistic expense.
I will focus on two valid criticisms. First, the number of speakers is very low. Of those who are truly fluent, there are no more than one million in the world; perhaps another ten million can speak it somewhat (whom I joined in the past week). There are several reasons for this. The biggest one is that nationalism has always fatally gotten in the way of its widespread adaptation.
Back in the 1920′s, the French vetoed a League of Nations initiative to make Esperanto the international language of diplomacy. Their logic was that French was a uniquely perfect language and good enough for everybody. Then it got displaced by English after 1945, and no doubt the French are now ruing their choice. Is anyone in any doubt whatsoever that the French would much rather now be speaking Esperanto than English?
But the Americans now have the same attitude of linguistic chauvinism. They assume they will be at the top forever, and so will their language. China will beg to differ. And if the gap between them gets big enough, Chinese will become the new lingua franca, despite its difficulty. And then it will be the Anglo-Saxons seething at the cosmic injustice of it all.
At least Esperanto is based on European languages, so it makes all the more sense for the West to promote its use.
The second reason for the low numbers of speakers constitutes a classic chicken and egg problem. You can’t have many people who want to learn it before you have a large number of speakers. The only way for this to be resolved is for the government of a large and important country to expend substantial resources on teaching Esperanto, but why bother when no-one else has? In this respect, it’s like global action on climate change – benefits are magnified only when everybody else does it. But just like cutting carbon emissions which leads to greater energy efficiency and less dependence on oil supplies, however, teaching Esperanto also provides net benefits – as mentioned above, it makes the acquisition of other languages easier, as students who master Esperanto feel more confident and linguistically aware. Once a critical mass of Esperanto speakers is reached, its spread should become self-perpetuating – for instance, if just two of the BRIC’s countries, like Brazil and India, were to implement it, many people elsewhere would learn it just for the business and travel opportunities. Recently, a plan to free schools to teach Esperanto was passed in the Brazilian parliament.
Third third reason is that there have been a number of “dissident” minorities from Esperanto who have pushed through their own reforms. One of them resulted in the language Ido, with a simplified grammar. But these movements are not sustainable, because they in turn will beget their own sectarians, resulting in numerous warring factions that negate the entire purpose of having a World Language in the first place. The lesson is that for international success, petty grievances and annoyances with the language as it currently exist must not be allowed to undermine the united front of the Esperanto movement. In other words, Esperantists who regard their language as something greater than just their personal intellectual plaything must act on the basis of democratic centralism – they can feel free to debate policy and direction, but they must respect the majority will. This isn’t my own ideological quirk. J.R.R. Tolkien, a conservative, recognized the same thing back in 1932.
* The second big problem as I see it is that the default gender of a noun is masculine, which although uncontroversial in Zamenhof’s days even among progressives, is becoming increasingly politically incorrect today. For instance, a “patro” is a father, unless specified to be a mother by making the word into “patrino”.
One stopgap solution is to just treat the current masculine gender as a neutral, and have the reader specify its sex from the context. But this is too awkward. One suggestion for reform, implemented in places but as yet unsupported by the central Esperanto authorities, is to reclassify all nouns ending in -o as neutral, while designating -oĉo as a masculine suffix in line with -ino as the feminine. There are several other possible solutions, but I prefer this one the most. My own addition would be to also add female-specific words for common terms like mother (“patrino” to “matro”) and sister (“fratrino” to “sororo”).
Implemented under democratic centralism, I do not see this becoming a divisive issue. All languages evolve in tandem with social progress, leaving behind “archaic” remanents. Why should Esperanto be any different?
* In Chinese, Esperanto is literally “World Language” (世界语).
* Books I use include Esperanto – Learning and Using the International Language, by David RICHARDSON, and I am soon getting Being Colloquial in Esperanto: A Reference Guide by David K. JORDON. Practice can be acquired through meetups with local Esperantists. This is a good dictionary.
* Because it is still a fairly marginal language, there are few original novels or films in Esperanto. It is up to Esperantists to maintain hope – that is, after all, what the very name of the language is derived from – and to work to change this state of affairs.