Zsofia Korody is a teacher at one of the most prestigious full grammar schools in Hungary. Vanildo Siller, a tourism expert from Brazil, is currently enjoying cycling through London and earning some money at a hotel to fund his coming studies in Paris. Jean Codjo is from Benin. When he is not doing any research, he paints colourful traditional scenes from Benin onto black cloth.
Jarek Miklasz, from Bydgoszcz, Poland, works as a civil engineer. Saeed Ahmad is a Pakistani journalist and writer. Anders Grop, a bass player from Sweden, is now looking for a band to join in Berlin. The Swedish-born Professor Bengt-Arne Wickstroem teaches economics at Berlin’s Humboldt-University . His son, David-Emil, is studying musicology and Scandinavian studies. Gavan Fantom from England is just finishing his informatics studies. Renato Corsetti works as a psycholinguist at the "La Sapienza"-University in Rome.
What do all these people have in common? Ili parolas Esperanton. (They speak Esperanto.)
"Does Esperanto still exist?", is one of the questions an Esperantist is most likely to hear when he reveals his seemingly strange passion. Followed by: "Does it make any sense?" Both questions have a slightly pitying undertone. Is Esperanto a failed project?
Picture by Birgit Wudtke, HamburgThe so-called "planned language" Esperanto was created in 1887 by the Jewish eye specialist Ludwig Lejser Zamenhof from Polish Bialystok. It was not the first artificially constructed language. The history of planned language projects dates back to Leibniz and Descartes. There have been almost a thousand registered experiments; more than twenty new ones appeared between 1990 and 1994 alone. However, most of them got stuck in the draft stage. Only a very few were used as a practical means of international communication: as well as Esperanto, these were Volapük, Latino sine flexione, Occidental, Basic English, Glosa, Interlingua and Ido. Of the latter, only Ido (created 1907) and Interlingua (1951) could in any way be described as widespread today, with circa 200-300 active followers each.
The common aim of most of the planned languages was to design a functional, politically neutral, helper language, a lingua franca, for international communication. Esperanto was conceived with a humanistic and utopian idea: to enable peaceful international understanding through its use parallel to mother tongues. This is clearly not the idea it is often accused of having: to supersede ethnic languages by the all-embracing use of an artificial language, as the interlinguist Detlev Blanke PhD claims.
The roots of the Esperanto vocabulary are 70 % Romance (e.g. granda – big, libro – book, voki – to call), 20 % Germanic (e.g. trinki – to drink, nur – only), and 10 % from other language-groups (e.g. kaj – and [Greek], kolbaso – sausage [Russian]). The alphabet is Latin, extended by some diacritic signs. The accusation that Esperanto is too oriented towards European languages, which would mean a limit to the claimed internationality of the language, is absolutely true – regarding the vocabulary. However, the morphological structure shares common grounds with non-Indogermanic and Asiatic languages.
The rules of Esperanto-morphology are very catchy and highly productive. Words are built up by a combination of unchanging elements, comparable to a unit construction system. Characteristic grammatical endings mark the categories and forms of the words. An "o" at the end always stands for a noun, an "a" always for an adjective or an "i" always for the infinitive of a verb etc. There is only one case for the nouns, the accusative, and no conjugation of the verbs. Instead of conjugation, it suffices to use the personal pronouns: mi parolas, vi parolas, li parolas … (I speak, you speak, he speaks).
Picture by Birgit Wudtke, Hamburg
Nevertheless, it would be nonsense to claim that Esperanto is equally easy to learn for everybody. As with the learning of other languages, the learnability of Esperanto, in itself relatively easy, depends on the individual and his social and educational backgrounds. It was much easier to learn Esperanto for Vanildo from Portuguese-speaking Brazil, who is also fluent in English, Spanish and French and is learning German, than for Eran from Tel Aviv or Kwang Mi from Korea, who do not even use Latin letters in their mother tongues.
"Esperanto is not a dead language simply because it was created artificially", emphasises Detlev Blanke. There is not only an increasing number of people who grew up with Esperanto as one of their mother tongues – like Gavan or the two sons of Renato Corsetti – who help make the language a living one. The language is also developing independently.
Apart from the various styles, such as everyday, slang, media, official or specialised, a specifically Esperanto culture does exist, with all the bits and pieces you would expect. There are not only numerous translations of literary works from all over the world; there is also original Esperanto literature from authors writing first in Esperanto. So, a wide range of works are available: from Goethe and Dostoyevsky through Capek and Szczipiorski to Lu Xun or Sartre; "Max and Moritz" as well as "Asterix and Obelix" can be read in Esperanto; poetry has been translated from more than fifty countries; Andersen’s fairy-tales came to Mongolia via the Esperanto language bridge, Sinkiewicz’s "Quo vadis" to Vietnam the same way; and some works originally in Esperanto have been translated into ethnic languages.
Since 1993 the "Esperanta PEN-Centro" has been a member of the international PEN club. An Esperanto writer already has been nominated for the Nobel Prize. And literature is not the only part of Esperanto culture. Esperanto music ranges from dusty traditional songs for the older and more fanatical enthusiasts through classics and the music of bards to jazz, rock and punk. At congresses and meetings of various kinds all over the world, Esperanto culture is brought to life with readings, plays and concerts. For example, Anders Grop, from Stockholm and now living in Berlin, is the bass-player in one of Esperanto’s cult rock bands "Persone" (personally), who have been bringing venues to boiling point with their gigs for several years.
Picture by Birgit Wudtke, Hamburg
Since the 1970s, Esperanto has been increasingly taught at public schools as an optional foreign language, especially in Bulgaria, Estonia, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Hungary and Poland. At the ELTE-University in Budapest one can get a state-certified diploma to teach Esperanto, as Zsofia Korody did. Since 1988 she has been teaching Esperanto to pupils at the Nemeth high school to a level equivalent to A-levels.
Esperanto played a special role in Eastern Europe during the era of communist regimes as "a door to the external world", as Jarek Miklasz from Bydgoszcz remembers. Not only during National Socialism but also under communist rule, Esperantists were victims of persecution and repression just because of being Esperantists. Although Esperanto lost its role as silent opposition and mental doorway to another world after the break-up of Eastern Europe, it has not become unpolitical. The underlying humanistic idea is still important for most of its speakers, as can be seen from the subjects discussed at national or international meetings, which range from globalisation to alternative energy sources.
The question of whether Esperanto is a failed project, mostly raised by people with little knowledge about the language, is a sharp provocation for many Esperantists. They point out not only the objective linguistic success of the experiment, as a working and self-developing language, but also that it has become a crucial part of their lives. Mikhail Bronstejn, one of best-known Esperanto poets from Russia, points out: "For more than twelve years, Esperanto has been the medium of my life, i.e. I have been working in the language, relaxing, creating and falling in love. Thousands of other people have done the same – does anybody have the right to call Esperanto a failed project?"
Statistics show an increasing number of people learning Esperanto, especially among teenagers. However, it remains impossible to say how many people all over the world know or ever learnt the language. That is because not everybody is registered in an organisation. Estimates use the number of 3 million speakers worldwide. Nevertheless there are also critical voices about the speakers’ community. Sometimes Esperantism seems to the civil engineer Miklasz to be like "a lake, where the fishes swimming in an out of it are always the same ones". The 20 year old Rolf Fantom thinks the reason for this is that people have too little knowledge about Esperanto and its community of speakers. For him, his brother Gavan and his sister Petra, it is a normal part of life – since birth. Gavan adds, winking: "It’s a good excuse to get to know people". They are far from calling Esperanto a failed project.