Thursday, September 27, 2012

Esperanto Studied Here

One of my esteemed colleagues quite a number of years ago gave me a little book entitled Esperanto. It is by J. Cresswell and J. Hartley and issued by Teach Yourself Books. It’s not the kind of book you read, but one that produces delight at intervals. For that reason it occupies a “busy” shelf I tend to look at two, three times a week.

Perhaps the most wonderful creations in life are those that requires enormous, complex, and transcending efforts that—viewed from an ordinary, main-street, realistic view—are entirely unlikely to reach their goal. Esperanto was the creation of a Polish eye-doctor, Dr. L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917). He felt that before humanity was ready to tackle the grave problems that confront it, the “language problem” had to be overcome—and so he set to work. Ah, the psychic airs of the nineteenth century West. Zamenhof was “one who hopes”—the name of his language in English. Now, of course, this creative tour de force didn’t entirely vanish. Books have been written in it. It is the native language of 1,000 people; 10,000 speak it fluently; and I am one of 10 million who have studied it “to some extent at some time.” These are the sorts of minorities to which I tend to belong—never more than, at best, 10 million. Zamenhof died as World War I was raging. The first grammar of the language had been published in 1887—not time enough, evidently, to conquer the globe. Ho ve! Meaning “Alas!” in Esperanto. The roots of that? Probably the Yiddish Oy vey. Word-roots in Esperanto derive from Western languages. Asia did not as yet throw the sort of shadow over the world that it does today.

A man much better known as a creator of so-called constructed languages is J.R.R. Tolkien. He created more than  twenty Elvish languages; the full list is still being counted as his unpublished papers are studied. With Tolkien we’re yet another step upward, as it were, in the transcending direction, because his linguistic creations served art. And such efforts also have their parallels in other fields. In the realm of architecture, the monuments I admire most are the Watts Towers constructed by Sabato Rodia. The image I show is from Wikipedia (link).

Sometimes when I pass that shelf and see my copy of Esperanto, I’ve just been reading the news or, as happened yesterday, anticipated a medical day that came today—one of the less pleasant kind. Then my mind tends to produce the word Desperanto—the language I ought to learn instead. Original with me, that word—but I discovered today that others have used it too. There is even a song by that title, written by Marianne Faithful. It’s opening lines:

Desperanto spoken here, today I hear it everywhere
It is the language of despair, it's in your nails and it's in your hair
It's in your mouth instead of air, it's in your house, it's in your heart
It's in your mind, it's everywhere, it's in your heart, it's in your heart.

And then there are days that begin in Desperanto but, after the bad thing is over, my mind has switched to Esperanto again—and I am filled with energy enough to start my own Watts Towers.


  1. Esperanto definitely is a lovely creation; I've always wanted to pick it up, but time has never allowed. I've also thought Volapuk interesting; Volapuk was the Esperanto before Esperanto, so to speak. But they are very different languages -- Esperanto is at heart an elegant Romance language, Volapuk has a Germannic soul. The motivations for it are also interesting: Zamenhof developed Esperanto to be a language of peace; Schleyer began to construct Volapuk because he had a spiritual vision.

    I don't know it for myself, but I'm told that 'volapukajo' became one of the Esperanto words for 'nonsense'.

  2. A Germanic Esperanto? Intriguing. If volapukajo is used for "nonsense," it's in the humorous higher stories of Esperanto linquistics only, not the parts that reach the humble student in dictionaries. The following are the five words given for nonsense: babilajxo, fabelajxo, galimatio, sensencajxo, and sensenco. But one dictionary has the word volapuka. It stands for...Volapuk.

    Right on, I say. Constructed languages should observe a certain respectful decorum -- unless it's an an Esperanto-only-party, and after about the third round...

  3. That's interesting; you might be right that it was more of an Esperanto joke than anything serious.

  4. I've waited for someone to argue the case for Esperanto, but no one has, so ...

    Esperanto works! I've used it in speech and writing in about fifteen countries over recent years. I recommend it to any traveller, as a way of making friendly local contacts.

    Take a look at

  5. Thank you, Bill. Though I must say you should have left something in Esperanto to give us additional incentives for study...