Article from INSIGHT , September 29, 1997

Advocates of Esperanto continue
to Lobby for Their Lingua Franca

By Leslie Alan Horvitz

More than a century after its invention, Esperanto still has its champions, who are coaxing the United Nations and European Union to adopt the universal language as a cost-saving measure

Even in the face of daunting odds, supporters of Esperanto, the century-old international language, are pushing for broader acceptance, concentrating their efforts on the United Nations and the European Union. The results so far have been mixed, but supporters of the language believe they are gaining gound.

Because Esperanto (which means "a person who is hoping") is free of the cultural baggage of any particular nation, ideology or ethnic group, it is considered a politically neutral tongue (see sidebar). As one delegate at an Esperanto conference recently told the New York Times, "You have a Korean, a Japanese, a Ukrainian and a Pole, and they are all going hammer and tongs in what is essentially an artificial language, but they are all speaking it with such fluency and elegance!"

About 2 million people worldwide are conversant in the language, developed between 1877 and 1885 by a Polish physician named L. L. Zamenhof; another 8 million have some familiarity with lt. Based on Romance languages, it is designed for clarity: Each letter has one sound, everything is pronounced as it is spelled and the grammar is simple and straightforward. While Esperanto has a vocabulary of 9,000 words, a person can carry on a relatively sophisticated conversation with only 500.

"We say it's four times easier to learn than any other language;' says Mike Sloper; director of the central office of the Esperanto League of North America, based in Emeryville, Calif. If, for example, it takes eight years to develop a fluent command of German, someone can achieve an equal mastery at Esperanto in two years, says Sloper; or acquire passive knowledge of the language - reading and comprehension - in as little as six months.

Esperanto isn't the only artificial language in the world. Astonishingly, there are as many as 1,000. The most popular is Bahasa Indonesia, developed by a Dutch linguist in the 1920s and spoken by 60 million to 100 million people in Indonesia. Other artificial languages owe their origins to fiction, including the Elvish tongues from The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (himself an admirer of Esperanto) and even more famously, Okrand's tlHingan (Klingon), used in the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

But in an effort to separate themselves from the pack, Esperanto speakers assert that their language will lead to cost savings as well as global harmony. "The main argument is no longer political," Sloper tells Insight. "lt's simple economics - money talks." With the United Nations under pressure - especially from Congress - to trim costs, Esperanto advocates believe that this is an opportune time to advance their cause.

The United Nations recognizes six official languages: English, French, Chinese, Russian, Spanish and Arabic (which was added during the oil crisis of ihe early seventies when, according to Sloper, the "Arabs wanted to flex their petro-muscles"). Every word uttered in any official U.N. meeting must be interpreted, transcribed and printed in all six languages. Sloper estimates that the practice costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Countries such as Germany, ltaly and Japan also might save money, since at present they hire their own interpreters and translators.

Lee Chong Yeong, president of the Universal Esperanto Association, is particularly interested in targeting countries such as Germany that are "powerful economically but weak linguistically." Esperanto's partisans also look for support from many smaller countries that resent linguistic domination by more powerful states. "Esperanto is popular in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states where people are aware of big important neighbors who haven't given them their rights," Sloper notes. They seek linguistic justice by adopting a neutral language.

Because the use of language often is seen as a form of cultural colonialism linguistic battles often break out during international discussions. The Chinese, for instance, refuse to use English in official media briefings, while both Russia and France have banned foreign languages in public offices. Quebec also imposes fines on any businesses using an English word on a store sign, even if all the customers speak English.

lf anything, linguistic confusion and costs are worse in the European Union, which already has 11 official languages, with more anticipated as new states join. "That means there are 110 combinations (for translating)," says Sloper. lt's monstrous and inexcusable and they know that Europeans are ahead of the UN in considering the passive use of Esperanto as a repository of records.

Attempts to get the United Nations to consider Esperanto as an official language haven't progressed far according to Rochelle Grossman, liaison officer for Esperanto at the United Nations. We still haven't gotten it on the agenda although we think a lot of countries would like to discuss it." UN language services agencies and UNESCO seem favorably disposed toward Esperanto and maintain a consultative relationship with the Universal Esperanto Association.

Nevertheless, the latest crusade by Esperanto speakers is reminiscent of an earlier one dating back to the League of Nations, the UN's precursor: "The French vetoed Esperanto because they thought that everyone was going to be using French," says Sloper. "These days it's the Americans who veto it when we try to put it on the agenda!"

Esperanto... an Oral History of a Neutral Tongue

Emma Bonino, commissioner of the European Union, counts herself a friend of Esperanto. But, she told Esperanto magazine, "The majority of Europeans unfortunately are not yet worried about the language problem, because they believe that use of the English language will easily solve it."

While she believes this view is mistaken, she doesn't minimize the difficulties in getting the Europeans to accept Esperanto. "The Esperantists' proposal is hindered by factors which relate not so much to the language itself as to the political-nationalistic interests," she has said, "and, especially, in the unbreakable wall of prejudice!"

Indeed, prejudice has shadowed Esperanto speakers almost since its inception. The artificial language often was viewed as a threat in nationalist aspirations, even as a potentially subversive influence. In 1938, Josef Stalin ordered all registered Esperanto speakers to be rounded up and shot or banished to Siberia. The language remained banned in the Soviet Union until 1956.

The Nazis, too, opposed the use of the language. As early as 1922, Hitler charged that Esperanto was a tool of Jewish world domination. Esperanto speakers fared little better in China during the Cultural Revolution, when they often were thrown in prison or worse. China later became more tolerant and even hosted an international Esperanto conference in 1987.

Esperanto has come under attack in the United States as well. The FBI investigated the American Esperanto Association in the early fifties, suspecting it was riddled with Communists. Many association members were carrying on active correspondence with fellow Esperanto speakers behind the Iron Curtain.

According to Mike Sloper, director of the central office of the Esperanto League of North America, an FBI plant eventually became president of the association and virtually destroyed it from within. Disenchanted Esperanto speakers broke away in 1953 to form the Esperanto League of North America. The preamble to its bylaws emphatically states that the organization is strictly neutral in respect to politics, socioeconomic theories and religion.

Esperanto, however, has been slow to catch on in the United States, although three universities - Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Hartford - offer graduate programs in the language. About 50 American elementary and high schools teach the language.

But Esperanto enjoys a certain popularity abroad, especially among young people in Europe. "Anyone in Europe can travel to an Esperanto meeting on any weekend," says Sloper. There's a fairly large body of literature in Esperanto, totaling nearly 30,000 books, as well as about 100 Esperanto magazines in circulation around the world.

For Esperanto speakers, who have never been short on optimism, the real hope of gaining broader acceptance may lie in cyberspace. There are nearly 1,300 Esperanto speakers with addresses on the Internet, up significantly from 310 just four years ago. Sloper expects the rapid growth rate to continue. - LAH

September 29, 1997   INSIGHT   page 43

(Helmut Lasarcyk homepage / December 1998)