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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Reviewers have, in turn, somewhat overstated some of the book’s observations on Esperanto (and other languages) – quite excusably, but still.
- 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.)
- 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.