Don Harlow* responds to questions:

Subj:         Esperanto? The EU? (Very, very long)
Date:         Sun, 12 Feb 1995 02:32:39 GMT
From:         Don HARLOW <donh /c`e/ NETCOM.COM>
Organization: Esperanto League for North America, Inc.

In the last 3-4 days I've archived a hundred or so posts on the language question in the EU in general and Esperanto in particular. Much of this has been interesting. Some of it has been of such a nature that, if I believed in the magical Law of Similarity (the map is the territory), I would print it out in two hundred copies, shred it, mulch it, and bed my rose tree in it, expecting this year's crop of blooms to be bigger, stronger, and more colorful than ever. Should I decide to do this, and if it works, my special thanks to Mr. Chau, Mr. Gerdemann, and Mr. Livesey for their metaphorical contributions to the fertility of my garden.

I've decided to try to answer some of the questions that have been raised that bear, directly or indirectly, on Esperanto. Since there seem to be about sixty-nine newsgroups involved in this, I've decided to cut that number down and post only to those that appeared in a large number of headers. I find six --, alt.politics.europe.misc, sci.lang, soc.culture.europe, soc.culture.french, soc.culture.german.  I've also added soc.culture.esperanto, which somehow seems to have been left out of most of this discussion. No follow-ups set -- trim your own headers, if you want to do so when and if you reply.

Any opinions expressed herein are my own, and binding upon no other individual on the face of this planet. Naturally, wise and intelligent people will automatically agree with me. ;-)

This is almost 400 lines long. Quit here if you want.


People use Esperanto to talk to each other, make love, argue politics, write poetry (both good and bad), write novels (allegories, thrillers, science-fiction...), write scientific papers, do their jobs, etc., etc., etc -- in short, to communicate with other people under all possible circumstances. To me, this means that it's a real language. You may exclude it from this category, if you wish, by redefining the term "real language", but this is a trivial way of getting rid of it, and would be an indication more of meanness of spirit than of any problem with the language.


If you don't count going from a vocabulary of 800 roots (1887) to one of 9000 official roots and at least 9000 unofficial ones (size of Zhang Honfan's Esperanto-Chinese Dictionary) as evolution, then maybe it hasn't. If you don't count the gradual spread of the use of the -N ending (Zamenhof would have said "pas^o post pas^o" for "step by step"; most people today would say "pas^on post pas^o"), then maybe it hasn't.  If you don't count the gradual disappearance of -CIO object roots in favor of truncated action roots ('abolicio' -> 'aboli', 'navigacio' -> 'navigi', 'administracio' -> 'administri', 'federacio' -> 'federi'), then maybe it hasn't. If you don't count the gradual conversion of country names in -UJO to country names in -IO, then maybe it hasn't. If you don't count the growing treatment of 'anstatau^' and 'krom' as coordinating conjunctions rather than prepositions (with consequent further use of -N for desambiguation), then maybe it hasn't. If you don't count the increase in the number of the body of official affixes by about eight percent, then maybe it hasn't. If you don't count the appearance of a number of unofficial affixes, then maybe it hasn't. If you don't count the appearance of short prepositional phrases concatenated into adverbs, then maybe it hasn't. If you don't count the development of dozens of different writing styles, then maybe it hasn't.

Of course, you can always fall back on the argument that Esperanto's basic structure and grammar have not 'evolved' in the past 100 years.  But then neither have those of English. What do you want? They work just fine as they are.


Most Esperantists today go easy on such claims, fearing (rightly) that they will be laughed at by those who know nothing about Esperanto. When Count Leo Tolstoy claimed that he learned Esperanto "in three or four hours" we must assume -- and probably correctly -- that this meant that the polyglot Tolstoy learned, in 3-4 hours, to read Esperanto texts with the help of a dictionary.

On the other hand, I've run into far too many cases of people who, in a very, very short period of self-study (usually months, sometimes weeks, rarely -- but not never -- days) have taught themselves to read and write Esperanto better than any language that they learned in school for a period of years, and who -- this latter is an experience I shared --
found that the first time they were actually exposed to spoken Esperanto they had no trouble in understanding it, nor in participating in conversation. Why do you think so many people who speak Esperanto are so enthusiastic about it? Because they think it's going to save the world?  See below.

Why should Esperanto be easier to learn? First, because the grammar has been cleansed of irregularities. The student of English, for instance, is faced with at least two totally irregular verbs and around three hundred "strong" or "radical-changing" verbs, each of which has three components that have to be learned separately; the student of Esperanto has to learn one simple paradigm, six endings, applicable to all verbs.  The student of English has to learn the irregular plural endings of a large number of nouns (and, consequently, has to pay attention to every noun so that he will know whether or not it uses one of these unusual endings); the student of Esperanto has to learn one plural ending for all nouns. Etc.

Second, because Esperanto has a productive system of word-formation. Once you have memorized a relatively small vocabulary (eleven grammatical endings, nine pronouns, a dozen numerals, a correlative system consisting of fourteen parts, about forty affixes, a hundred or so particles, and maybe three hundred word roots) you can leverage this yourself into all the vocabulary you need to carry on a conversation in the language, or read most of the material written in the language with about 90% comprehension. The rest you can pick up as you need it.

Third, Esperanto doesn't force you to learn contexts as well as words.  When do you use the root 'profund''? Anytime you're talking about depth, whether physical or metaphorical. When do you use 'deep' in English, and when 'profound'? Hint: you'd never use the latter in discussing a physical situation; but in metaphorical situations, the two may be used (mostly) interchangeably. In Esperanto, a root has a meaning, and may be used metaphorically as well; but nowhere is there any rule to say, "You may not use this particular root here, because you have to use this other root with the same meaning under these conditions."

I cite my best friend: She studied English for nine years (high school and university) in her home country. She studied Esperanto for one semester in her last year of university. At the end of that semester she felt more competent and confident reading and writing in Esperanto than she did in English. (My friend's native language, for the record, is Shanghainese, not one of the European tongues; and she did not learn Esperanto out of a hobbyist's interest, or to save the world, but because the authorities in her university ordered her to do so, against her own wishes. Not that she regrets it!)


Personally, I've found it more useful than I would have originally suspected, thirty-odd years ago. I have used it to travel in Europe and China, and seen what sort of traveling I would have been doing had I been using only English; to put it as politely as possible, where I've been I've seen that Esperanto-speakers want to talk, and English-speakers want to take. (The exception, of course, is Great Britain; but even there, pace those who insist that there is no significant difference between British and American English, the question of language and accent sometimes intervenes, as I have posted elsewhere. By the way, in response to the suggestion that British TV programs and movies are widely viewed on American television, I would point out that British programs and movies are almost 100% restricted to public television channels, which in terms of number of viewers fall somewhere short of the religious channels and the Home Shopping Channel; and that almost all that are shown at all were originally made in Britain with the American market in mind -- the two exceptions that I can think of off hand being the old Monty Python and Dr. Who.)

I read books from all over the world in Esperanto, subscribe to magazines from all over the world in Esperanto (and get some that I never subscribed to -- my public thanks to the Yokohama Esperanto-Rondo for their excellent window on Japanese life, Novaj^oj Tamtamas), have friends all over the world through Esperanto, and have a much better idea of what goes on in the world than I would ever learn through my English-language newspapers, magazines, or news services. You may not consider this very useful. If not, then I can't argue the point, because your definition of 'useful' differs too much from my own.

One other indication of the usefulness or uselessness of Esperanto can be given by the experience of Radio Polonia, whose Esperanto broadcasts for three decades brought in a level of listener response exceeded only by that of their German-language broadcasts -- and higher than that of English. This is why, when Radio Polonia had to cut services back for financial reasons after the fall of Communism, they merely reduced those for Esperanto, while those for some "languages of wider dissemination" -- Spanish comes immediately to mind -- were terminated completely.


If they had, Esperantists would be less than happy -- but, far from rejecting Esperanto, since the League of Nations accepted (over the violent protests of the French government) Assistant Secretary-General NITOBE Inazo's enthusiastic report about the language, no international organization -- particularly those currently extant -- has even looked at Esperanto, even though, in the case of the UN, they have had its existence forcefully pointed out to them (with the two largest international petitions ever collected on private initiative, one in 1948 and one in 1966 -- in the first case, they eventually referred it to UNESCO, and in the second case they simply lost it). Internal UN reviews of the language problem have concentrated on traditional means of solving the problem (add more languages, hire more interpreters and translators, ensure that all employees are multilingual), without devoting so much as a paragraph to the study -- and possibly rejection -- of the idea of adopting a neutral auxiliary language.

Esperanto has not been rejected by the UN or the EU. It hasn't even been considered.

(The case of UNESCO is somewhat extraordinary. Despite formal protests from the US State Department, UNESCO considered a resolution favorable to Esperanto at its 1954 General Conference in Montevideo -- and firmly rejected it. But the method of rejection was so irregular [and, thanks to the local Esperantists in Uruguay, made so public] that the local press forced UNESCO to take a second look before the closing of the conference -- and this time the same resolution was adopted. A second favorable resolution was passed some 30 years later, at Sofia, Bulgaria -- by some weird coincidence, at the first General Conference after the United States and Great Britain [read: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher] picked up their marbles and went home.)


Zamenhof, who was later to invent Esperanto, decided when he still wrote his age with a single digit that the solution to the language problem that he saw every day around him was to convince everybody in the world to learn Latin or Classic Greek; and he vowed to devote his adult life to this cause.

Around puberty, Z entered high school (gymnasium) on the language track, where he had the privilege of studying both Latin and Classic Greek. I don't know how many weeks into the courses he was before he decided that inventing his own language would probably be more realistic.

I took three years of Latin in high school, and have good reason to suppose that few American contemporaries of mine were as adept at wrangling the language as I was. At the end of three years I could, with the aid of the Cassell's I won in a contest, plow my way through -- though not enjoy very much -- Vergil and Cicero. I can safely say that, had Selma Lagerlof's Gosta Berling's Saga and Ivan Vazov's Under the Yoke been translated into Latin rather than Esperanto, I would never have devoted hours to reading those two multi-hundred-page classics the year after I got out of high school. Let's face it -- the number of grown people who are going to learn Latin as an auxiliary language well enough to use it in free-flowing conversation, or even for light reading, is at least as miniscule as the number of grown people who are going to learn any other ethnic language to the same level.


If you're talking about the abortion created by Alexander Gode in the late forties, forget it. I mean, a constructed language that conserves three conjugations???

If you're referring to one of the names under which the "Latino Sine Flexione" of the Italian mathematician Peano was known -- this is a different kettle of fish. This is Latin as she should have been, shorn of all those complicated declensions, conjugations, and incomprehensible ablative constructions, but -- at least in terms of its vocabulary --
remaining essentially Latin! I don't know whether anybody, or how many, ever spoke this language, but, if you are interested, it would certainly be a better candidate for revival than Gode's Interlingua, Hogben's Interglossa (nowadays resurrected as Glosa), or any of a thousand other stillborn language projects. Some of you university types in Europe should be able to find examples -- I seem to remember reading that one volume in Peano's collected works was written entirely in the language.


If you put six Esperantists together in a room, the only thing you will get them to agree on is that Esperanto is good. If you put twelve together, chances are that you'll find one who won't even agree on that.

Very likely, though, you could get all Esperantists to agree that if everybody in the world learned Esperanto, everybody in the world would be able to speak Esperanto. But as to whether this was desirable or not -- you wouldn't find any agreement on that...


Did you expect that a group of people so fixated on language would somehow overlook technical vocabularies? Esperanto probably has one of the finest technical lexicons of any of the lesser-used languages -- and it may be that I don't even need to put in the qualification.

You can even find a few sample technical dictionaries available, for free, on the net. Check out Pilger's dictionaries of names of mammals and of insects (in Linnaean order), or any of at least three dictionaries of computer terminology, at -- of the latter, if you have TeX and a laser printer, I recommend the latest version of Pokrovskij's book (1700+ definitions, with English and other equivalents, illustrated).


It's a good starting point for people from lots of different cultures who don't have anything in common except the language. But it's certainly not the end. If half the postings on soc.culture.esperanto are about Esperanto, half of them aren't -- there have recently been, among other things, postings about the Chechen War (from Russia, among other places), about the earthquake in Japan (from Japan, among other places), about the floods in the Netherlands (from the Netherlands, among other places), etc. Some Esperanto magazines are devoted entirely to Esperanto, as well as being written in it; others (El Popola C^inio from China, Monato from Belgium, Novaj^oj Tamtamas from Japan, La Espero el Koreio from Korea, as examples) definitely are not. And most books in Esperanto have nothing to do with Esperanto, except for being written in it (in nine volumes of the science-fiction almanac Sferoj, for instance, I doubt that the word has been mentioned once, except on the copyright page).


Any language with a speaking population will develop the means, within the framework of rules that define it, to express all necessary concepts. You can express all necessary concepts in English, Chinese and Swahili today. You may not have been able to express all necessary concepts in Esperanto on July 26, 1887 (the date the first Esperanto textbook rolled off the presses), but by the end of that decade you obviously could. You may not be able to express all necessary concepts today in Interlingua, Loglan, Klingon or Quenya -- but when and if any or all of these develop significant speaking populations, believe me, you will be able to.


There are plenty of crappy translations in Esperanto -- every time I look at La Certosa's translation of Grazia Deledda's The Mother, I wince. (I suspect that Mr. La Certosa does, too, with a few more years under his belt.) There are also a lot of good ones. I've mentioned a few elsewhere and will not append a list of my favorites. Note one simple rule, applicable to all languages: one good translation suffices to show the quality of the language; one bad translation only suffices to show the quality of the translator.

(Example: In 1986 I got a copy of Albert Goodheir's Esperanto translation of Europides' The Trojan Women. After reading it I decided to do a review comparing it with an English translation. So I pulled Edward P. Coleridge's off my shelf and opened it. It was unreadable, and the review never got written. As far as I could tell, the major difference was not in the language of translation but in the fact that Goodheir was translating something about which he cared deeply, while Coleridge appeared to be doing a translation exercise. Goodheir's translation showed what Esperanto is capable of; as anybody experienced in English will agree, Coleridge's only showed what Coleridge was capable of.)

Fernando de Diego once sneered that fifty percent of Esperanto translations were lousy translations of useless works, twenty percent were lousy translations of good literature, twenty percent were good translations of useless literature, and only ten percent consisted of good translations of good literature. American science fiction readers will instantly recognize this as an independent rediscovery of Theodore Sturgeon's famous Law -- "Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then ninety percent of everything is crud!" -- from which Esperanto literature, like everything else, is not immune.

... and finally ...


Fortunately, I'm not a citizen (first-class or second-class) of the European Union, so I don't have to look at what would be most advantageous for the EU. I am an Esperantist, and tend to look at what would be most advantageous for Esperanto. And, as far as Esperanto becoming a tool of the EU gov't, I just don't see it.

(1) Esperanto doesn't belong to anybody -- and hence it belongs to everybody who wants to use it. Unless a couple of other heavyweights were to decide, at the same time as the EU, to make Esperanto their official language (and I don't see that happening!), the EU would, in effect, become the new owner of Esperanto; so, farewell, our vaunted cultural and political neutrality.

(2) And, once the EU had decided "in principle" to adopt Esperanto, who's to guarantee that a couple of Eurocrats, munching at a McDonald's in Brussels, would not decide to "repair" the language. A century of use has shown that "repairs" (they are commonly called "reforms") are generally the products of people who read through Teach Yourself Esperanto once, decide that because Zamenhof didn't do it in the same way the French do he was dead wrong, and set out to fix up the language.  In other words, most proposed reforms of Esperanto are definitely not for the better. Mostly they end up in the garbage can ("dustbin", if you prefer) of history. The EU would have the clout to ensure that, good or bad, this would not happen.

I think that the adoption of Esperanto by the EU would be a step toward resolving a multitude of problems that plague the organization -- including the serious one of making it more democratic. But I don't think that it would do Esperanto any good, and so I'm not terribly enthusiastic about the idea. And I know that there are other Esperantists -- including many in the EU itself -- who agree with me. **


* At the time of writing, Don Harlow was President of the Esperanto League for North America.
** For a different view of the possible benefits if th EU accepted Esperanto, go here.

Current address of the Esperanto League for North America:  (800) ESPERANTO / (800) 377-3726
See Don Harlow's excellent site:

^Gisdatigita je la 21a de aùgusto 2000 fare de Ken Caviness     --    Bonvolu averti min pri eraroj!