Esperanto : A Language Looking for a U.S. Voice

Times Staff Writer

This is typical. A press conference has been arranged to honor The Movement's centennial--perhaps the most important day for The Movement in this country since "La Maestro" himself came to town from Poland in 1910.

The town is crawling with reporters, but only one shows up. And he is from Voice of America, a government network not even heard in the United States.

At least the press briefing was a bigger hit than the open house two nights earlier. Nobody came at all.

It is not easy being an Esperantist in America.

That was more than apparent when about three dozen delegates from the 700-member Esperanto League for North America gathered in a Georgetown University dormitory lounge for their annual convention last month.

Unusual Attention

This should be the best of times for Esperanto, the international language. It's getting an unusual amount of attention on this, the centennial of its invention by a soft-spoken, soft-hearted Polish oculist, Ludovic L. Zamenhof, who is known reverently to some as "La Maestro," or the teacher.

And, indeed, "The Movement," as Esperantists refer to efforts to champion their language around the world, does enjoy a measure of success overseas. The expressive mix of mostly Latinate word roots and a consistent, logical grammar is popular in China, for example, and occasionally pops up in Swiss tourist brochures, instructions in Dutch telephone booths and Norwegian railway timetables.

But in the United States, Esperanto is about as useful as the metric system. And Esperantists still find that when they are not being ignored entirely, they are often dismissed as quixotic--or crackpots.

Their own headquarters, a spartan, one-man office in a warehouse district of the tiny Oakland suburb of Emeryville, is located in a state that recently passed a law officially sanctioning the primacy of English, that other, more successful competitor in the lingua franca footrace.

Cheery, Undaunted

Nonetheless, league members were cheery and undaunted as they met for their 35th annual convention. They earnestly discussed a new Esperanto text due this fall--the first published domestically in 30 years--and debated how to seek more publicity, as well as how to build up and spruce up their headquarters.

This may appear to be something less than a beehive of activity, but many Esperantists see it as a significant turn away from their traditional fear of self-promotion and toward a higher public profile. They speak openly and often of corners being turned and snowballs set in motion.

"There is a novo etoso --a new atmosphere," said William Harmon, vice president of a large American-flag shipping company and chief U.S. delegate at the International Esperanto Congress that drew 6,000 delegates from 60 nations to Warsaw last week. "There's a new acceptance on the part of lots of people to see this as more than an ephemeral idea that died 40 or more years ago."

Progress still is measured in small steps--radio stations in China and eight European nations broadcast regularly scheduled programs in Esperanto, there is an Esperanto commune in Brazil and the European Communities is experimenting with Esperanto as a "bridge language" among its members.

More progress will come, promised league President Duncan Charters, professor of Spanish at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., as his organization builds up its endowment. Only a few thousand dollars are in the fund now, he said, but it is going to mushroom once the league sells a Palo Alto house it recently inherited from a late Esperanto devotee.

Even the most irreverent Esperantists reject suggestions that the language is anything less than successful just because its use ranks somewhere between Icelandic and Albanian.

Importance of a Language

Numbers alone are not an especially accurate way to gauge the importance of a language, said David Jordan, a UC San Diego anthropology professor and part-time Esperanto teacher. For example, Chinese is spoken by twice as many people around the world as is English, yet Chinese is not nearly as valuable in international speech.

"Esperanto may rank in numbers with Icelandic," he said, "but it is more important in the same way English is more important than Chinese--(Esperanto) speakers are spread in different parts of the world, in different cultures and in different economic strata. It's more universal."

Indeed, the league's latest newsletter mentions a variety of Esperantists, from an Algerian electrician to Gambian teen-agers. The 40,000-member Universal Esperanto Assn. sponsors more than 60 Esperanto-based clubs for everybody from communists to evangelists and Rotarians to nudists.

Linguists Unimpressed

Still, professional linguists are unimpressed.

"On any practical grounds, it's Utopian; it is not going to happen," said George Bedell, an associate professor of linguistics at UCLA. "It's true that in some parts of the world--some Eastern European countries like Bulgaria and Romania--Esperanto has been fairly successful. . . . (But) my feeling is that Esperanto has shot its wad. The big push was in the '20s and '30s, and it's no longer the wave of the future."

Nor is it an especially good subject for serious academic work, he added, at least at UCLA. One student tried recently, he said, but found "it was hard to get relevant material; there aren't enough users."

Worldwide, the international association estimates the number of Esperanto speakers at hundreds of thousands and possibly millions. Of those, perhaps a few thousand are scattered across the United States.

"What more could you ask for at this point?" Jordan asked. "It began with one guy sitting down, writing a language and giving it to the world. And here, a century later, people are still speaking it. So how is that not success?"

Viewed as Eccentric Solution

The real problem, Jordan and others insist, is that Americans tend to think the rest of the world already speaks some English--or should. Americans, they contend, see Esperanto as an eccentric solution in search of a problem.

Esperantists note that scores of universal languages have been written--from simplified versions of Latin and English to languages based on ideographs, numbers and even musical notes--but Esperanto is the only one able to gain and hold wide (if not deep) acceptance.

Linguists have found that Esperanto is most popular in countries that speak so-called "minority languages," such as the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and, increasingly, Eastern European nations.

Indeed, Zamenhof devised the language in the linguistic caldron of Europe, where dozens of languages are heard in an area about half the size of the United States. In his native Poland, historians say Zamenhof was particularly bothered by the antipathy among the ethnic groups that lived together but insisted on speaking only their native tongues--Polish, Russian, German, Lithuanian or Yiddish.

Universal Language

Building on the concept of French philosopher Rene Descartes and others who have labored since the 17th Century to dream up a universal language, Zamenhof developed one that would be familiar in most countries, but belong to none.

Its vocabulary came from Western Europe, with a special emphasis on romance languages, such as French, Italian and Spanish. Its syntax leans toward the Slavic languages of Eastern Europe, with some help from Chinese, Turkish, Swahili and Japanese.

The idea, Harmon and others say, was not to do away with any native tongue, but to offer everyone a common, politically neutral second language as one way to foster better international understanding.

The emphasis, always, was on simplicity.

For example, nouns always end in the letter o; adjectives with a. Verbs are standardized, so rather than memorize dozens of irregular verb endings--there are more than 700 in English--Esperantists need learn only a handful. Spelling and pronunciation are simplified, since each Esperanto letter always makes the same sound and every Esperanto word is stressed on the same syllable.

Vocabulary can be built--without having to memorize thousands of different words--by agglomerating word roots, or by adding different affixes. An equine domicile, for example, is not a stable but a horsehouse-- similar to a doghouse in English.

Urgent, Friendly Sound

In its written form, Esperanto looks Slavic. When spoken, it has an urgent, friendly sound--"Italian with a Serbo-Croatian accent," one speaker said.

Still, English remains the dominant international language.

Promoted by the British Empire and American industry, English dominates not only international commerce, but also science, technology and diplomacy. There are many linguists who see no problem with this. There are others who think it will take a force greater than Esperanto to change it.

Despite apparent success, Esperantists insist that English cannot work as a true international language because it is too difficult to learn and is politically suspect in many parts of the world.

"Broken English is the real international language today--not the English of Shakespeare," said Jordan, who teaches at San Francisco State University's Esperanto summer school program, which is monitored by Esperantists around the world. "It is broken English by which the Russians talk to the Japanese."

Although it claims supranationality, Esperanto has not escaped politics.

Politically Unacceptable in Iran

Esperanto was banned in Russia in 1895 as revolutionary and later denounced by Stalin as a "language of spies." The Nazis banned it in 1936, and American anti-communist zealots hounded Esperanto speakers in the 1950s. Even today, the language is politically unacceptable in Iran.

Still, most Esperantists continue to cling to the dream of Esperanto as the universal second language--though some cling more than others. At Georgetown, self-described pragmatists argued that the goal of world peace is unattainable and is giving the movement a flaky image. Others countered that world peace is an admirable goal, regardless of practicality or public opinion.

A few Esperantists denied the so-called "crank issue" even exists. But it is not hard to find others to talk about, say, a noted British Esperantist who practiced by speaking to his dog, or the American leader who took up Esperanto after reading about it in an old nudist magazine.

'Quasi-Religious Fervor'

Peter G. Forster, a sociologist at the University of Hull in England, noted that "a quasi-religious fervor is often associated with the language," and a "remarkable veneration" for Zamenhof is apparent. Indeed, Zamenhof's picture often is found wherever Esperantists gather--locations that Esperantists have given a special name: Esperantujo, or Esperantoland.

However, most Esperantists seem to be average, middle-class people, Forster concluded--a few more vegetarians than average, but nothing extreme.

"I am not a crackpot," said Lucille Harmon, an El Cerrito travel agent specializing in trips for Esperantists eager to meet other Esperantists. "Our world goal may not have come yet, but we're having one hell of a time in the meantime. . . . I'm proud to be an Esperantist."

A LETTER IN ESPERANTO Kara Tom,

Sluton! Al mi kaj la infanoj vi tre mankas. Precipe juna Tocjo neniam cesas demandi: "Cu Pacjo kaj mi povos fiskapti je la venonta semajnfino?"

Maria kelkfoje vizitis min vespere, kaj mi regardas multe pli ofte tevidon ol kian ni esta kunaj. Tamen hejmo sen la edzo--ec sen edzo tiel malordema kiel vi--estas tre soleca kiam enlitigis la infanoj.

Rapidu hejmen, karulo, car ni ciuj bezonas vin.

Via,

Anna

Dear Tom,

Hello! The children and I miss your very much. Young Tommy in particular never stops asking: "Can Daddy and I go fishing next weekend?"

Mary has come over sometines in the evening, and I am watching a lot more television than I do when we're together. Nevertheless, home without a husband--even a husband as untidy as you--is a lonely place when the children have gone to bed.

Hurry home, darling, because we all need you.

Your,

Anna

Source: Esperanto League for North America; A scriptographic Booklet, Channing L. Bete Co. Inc.

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