Esperanto whispers


Esperanto flag flying in Sweden

When a book gets media attention, however favourable, its author is bound to draw flak from some quarters. I’ve been lucky in that all the explosives and expletives slung at Lingo and me so far have come from the same direction: that of disgruntled Esperantists.

I don’t blame them. While Esperanto comes off easily compared to English, French, Italian and some other languages, I do poke a certain amount of fun at it. This irreverent attitude clashes with the idealism and missionary zeal of the activists among the Esperanto speakers. They feel that anyone questioning their language is an enemy of a noble cause. Against all odds, they keep alive the hope that Esperanto will one day become an auxiliary world language. I would have loved that to come true, I really would, but it hasn’t, and there are many political, economic and sociolinguistic reasons why it is extremely unlikely ever to happen.

What I had not foreseen, for lack of personal experience with international mass media attention, is how the chapter on Esperanto would be subjected to a game of Chinese whispers. I’ve tried to analyse what has happened. It seems there have been six actors or groups of actors along the line; in other words, between the sources about Esperanto that I’ve read and the angry words that some Esperantists have written online, there have been six potential sources of misinterpretation.

  1. I have written my chapter on the basis of several books and articles about Esperanto. Being human, I may have slipped up in places, but I haven’t found any gaffes so far.
  2. The copy editor has made changes throughout the book, and though he has done an excellent job, certain subtleties and nuances have fallen by the wayside.
  3. The publisher has selected certain passages for the dust jacket. One happens to be about Esperanto, and it is worded perhaps a tad more strongly than I should have accepted.
  4. Reviewers have, in turn, somewhat overstated some of the book’s observations on Esperanto (and other languages) – quite excusably, but still.
  5. Esperantists reading these reviews have taken umbrage and complained about my book online and in emails to the author. (In fairness, a few actually seem to have read at least the chapter. Ian Carter definitely has; his response is rich in detail, fury and misinterpretation.)
  6. Other Esperantists, upon reading these online complaints, have been quick to spot my deeper motives. “There always appear enemies who try to hinder our progress, but this sort of people is like ‘energy vampires’,” a Romanian Esperantist wrote. He went on, “They do evil and expect the other to react (…). For such is their whole life.”

In other words, by step six we have left the world of efforts to communicate on the basis of reliable information and entered the realm of anger based on hearsay and suspicion. This is an everyday occurrence, of course, a banal fact of life, digital and otherwise. What makes it exceptional for me is my position in this particular instance. There is no denying that I sometimes participate in the last stage, casually condemning this or that public figure on the basis of flimsy evidence. This time, I’m the one who has triggered the whole rigmarole, and therefore I’m at the receiving end of the slings and arrows. Quite a difference!

In their hearts of hearts, the incensed stage-six Esperantists probably, or hopefully, know that their judgment is somewhat rash. As for me, it would be disingenuous to plead entirely innocent. After all, I wanted my book to tease and taunt and tickle the readers a bit; just enough occasionally to make them smile or shake their heads in friendly disagreement. To provoke a small reaction, in other words. For indeed, as the Romanian commenter wrote, such is a writer’s whole life. He was right on that count: it’s what we do.


Update: in January, an Australian Esperantist, Jonathan Cooper, wrote me a thoughtful and interesting open letter, which he put up on his blog (see his comment here below). Unfortunately, a technical problem prevented me from posting a reply there. Jonathan has now kindly added my text to his own post. Our discussion goes into some detail about how to design an easy-to-learn language, but if the Lingo chapter on Esperanto gripped you, you may find this back-and-forth worth your while.

3 thoughts on “Esperanto whispers

  1. (I’ve moved this comment from a different section of this blog; this is a better place for it.)
    Comment submitted by ‘kanguruo’, 1 Dec 2014
    “We learn why Esperanto could never catch on”. Your arguments are ridiculous, for example the fact that adjectives take “j” might not be the easiest thing for English speakers, but it is still very easy for them. I regret to inform you that Esperanto was not created so that it is as easy as possible for English speakers. English for French speakers is much, much more difficult than Esperanto for English speakers. And you make comments like a real beginner. La is not feminine in Esperanto. Once you are past the first few lessons it becomes totally natural to say La viro. I have never heard an Esperanto speaker say that it is a problem to have just one article in Esperanto and I have spoken Esperanto now for nearly 50 years nearly every day of my life with hundreds and hundreds of people from Europe and Asia mainly. Esperanto is not yet spoken everywhere not because of the language itself but because of economic and political reasons. Think of how much English speaking countries benefit from the use of English as an international language. Still things will change one day. People will refuse to spend 10 years learning English and still not be fluent. Esperanto speakers see that their language works extremely well and are very hopeful for a better future with less linguistic injustice.

    My response, posted on 1 December 2014:
    In Lingo, I also explain that English is indeed in some respects very difficult to learn – I agree with you. And you are perfectly right that Esperanto has never caught on for reasons that are largely economic and political (rather than its grammar – the statement on the jacket that you quote is not one I’m comfortable with). The trouble is, these reasons are not likely to go away.
    You are also right in observing that I make comments like a beginner; not as a beginning linguist, I should hope (e.g. I do not claim that ‘la’ is feminine), but as a beginning Esperantist. I think that this is an excellent vantage point, because everybody has to go through that difficult early stage. An auxiliary language that puts off beginners has a problem. I congratulate you on having made it past the initial hurdles and having enjoyed the language for such a long time.
    Finally, are you sure that you *regret* to inform me? Given the number of times I have received unsolicited (but welcome, of course) communications from Esperantists over the years, I rather think that, as a group, you love to inform me.

    Kanguruo again, still on 1 December 2014:
    Most people are totally amazed at how easy Esperanto is when they start. If they are put off by the fact that Esperanto has only one article, they would never learn any language. Most languages have many traits that are much more offputting for beginners. I’ve seen many beginners and have not yet heard complaints about “La” but just sighs of relief that it is not like German or French where you have to remember the articles. Why is girl not feminine in German? That does put learners off. But in my experience people accept extremely easily to use “la” once they know that there is just one article in Esperanto.


  2. I’m happy to add that since writing this blogpost, I have received emails from Esperantists from several countries who do not feel offended by my observations and who agree that their language is very unlikely now to become an auxiliary world language.


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