ELNA Newsletter № 1989:2

Hard Questions

Dealing with Skeptics

Every Esperantist must answer questions about Esperanto. Some of them are not easy questions, and many are not even particularly friendly. It is common knowledge among us that the very mention of Esperanto can sometimes elicit quite hostile responses from otherwise mild-mannered people. It is difficult to account for this hostility. Why should people who know next to nothing about Esperanto be offended by it?

I don’t know the answer, but I do have a conjecture. Perhaps the hostility is a form of self-defense against a feared exposure of ignorance. That is, certain people may feel that if Esperanto is in any sense interesting or significant, they ought already to know something about it. Since they do not know much about it they are quick to conclude, by simple logic, that it cannot amount to anything. To find out that they are mistaken would be to find out that they are not as knowledgeable as they pretend to be. Thus, Esperanto may be a threat to the ego of some people.

In dealing with such people—and it is fortunate that not all people are inclined toward hostility—it is important to answer in a way that does not further stimulate this defensive posture. For example, when I meet one of these people who says something like, “Esperanto? Oh sure, that died out fifty years ago. Sort of a secret code language used by communists,” I try to be careful not to say what I am in fact thinking. Instead, I say, “Well, it’s refreshing to meet someone who knows about Esperanto. Maybe I can update your information a bit …” And so on.

At any rate, these are the very people who are also likely to try to use a series of what they take to be hard questions to “debunk” Esperanto. As I say, some of these really are hard questions. I think it’s important to think about the answers, and to consider whether the “standard” answers are adequate. For that reason, I’d like to share some of my own thinking about a few of these questions with the readers of the ELNA Newsletter.

1. Esperanto will never have as many speakers as English, so why should I learn it?

It seems to me that the worst thing to do here is to speculate about the future triumphs of Esperanto, or the decline of English as a world language, even though that decline may be a fact. Such speculation is likely to appear too fantastic to be taken seriously. Instead, I think it is better to point out that Esperanto’s “success” does not depend upon its displacing English. The search for an international language is not a contest. Esperanto is already a success, in that it serves its community in ways that are evidently satisfactory. A reason to learn Esperanto, therefore, is to participate in that success, and to help to extend it.

2. Esperanto is supposed to be “neutral,” but it’s really just another European language, embedded in European culture.

This one is perhaps the most common criticism of Esperanto. Nevertheless, I think it is worth thinking about some of the many possible answers. First of all, it is important to point out that it is political and not linguistic neutrality to which Esperanto lays claim. Esperanto is not the language of any national or ethnic entity. That is the standard answer, but the astute critic will reply that linguistic non-neutrality and political non-neutrality are not so simply separated. The very fact, he will say, that Esperanto is a European language is itself a political statement.

Again, I think it is important to tread carefully. There is some truth to this skeptic’s claim. I have read enthusiastic arguments that Esperanto is not really a European language, because it has certain features, such as agglutination, exhibited by certain non-European languages. These arguments are, I think, misguided. At most they show that Esperanto resembles some non-European languages in some respects. This coincidence does not alter the fact that European languages did indeed serve as a model for most details of Esperanto. Thus, in the sense that Esperanto is modeled upon European languages, it is one. The important thing is that this is not in itself a political statement. A statement must be somebody’s, and pan-Europeanism is not the statement that the Esperanto movement is making. Esperanto’s European character is a contingent fact that reflects the situation of its creator, and it must be understood in that context. Once the matter is framed in this way, it is clear (given some knowledge of Zamenhof’s life and thought) that Zamenhof did what it was in his power to do to create a neutral universal language. His project succeeded brilliantly as a language. That it is less than successful as a statement of universalism, by contemporary standards, cannot fairly be held against it.

Furthermore, as the language continues to be shaped by its speakers, Esperanto may acquire more and more non-European lexical material and forms of expression. One aspect of this process is already in evidence: there is mounting pressure from non-European sectors for Esperanto to move back in the direction of “skemismo,” and away from “naturalismo.” This is obviously because naturalism generally favors the speakers of European languages. The Asian Esperantists, for example, quite correctly recognize the European past of Esperanto, but they do not (also quite correctly, in my view) take this to determine a European future for the language. In short, Esperanto is what its speakers make of it; its statement is their statement.

3. If Esperanto is supposed to be so easy, why is it burdened with complexities, such as the accusative ending and agreement of adjectives, that many languages get along quite well without?

This question presupposes some familiarity with Esperanto grammar. In fact, I think we have all asked this one at some point in our study of Esperanto. The standard answer is that the language gains freedom of word order by such features as the accusative ending and agreement of adjectives. In my opinion, this is a weak answer. Why should we care so much about flexible word order, after all? How important is it that poetry should be translated into Esperanto without rearranging the words much? These considerations are likely to strike the critic as quaint, at best I think there is a better answer.

Because it is a second language, planned for international use, Esperanto faces difficulties not constantly faced by other languages. These other languages (some of them, anyway) can afford to be more streamlined than Esperanto because as first languages they are used by people with the same basic thinking and expectations about the way language works. In short, much more can be taken for granted, or culled from context. Esperanto, on the other hand, is designed to function across wide gaps in the expectations and habits of its speakers. Consequently, it is an advantage if it has a bit more redundancy built into it. The grammatical endings may serve to underline what may not be quite as obvious as it would be in a first-language context. For this reason, it is not appropriate to ask, “Why does Esperanto need property X when such-and-such languages does without it?” Instead, we should ask whether property X makes a significant contribution to Esperanto’s clarity and expressive power. In most cases the answer, I think, will be “yes.”

I shall stop here, not wanting to take up any more space. Perhaps the discussion of “hard questions” and good answers can be continued in future issues. I think it is important for every Esperantist to be thinking about these matters, since a thoughtful reply to a question may be what it takes to get a person interested in the language and willing to learn it.

Let me take advantage of Editor’s Privilege to remind the reader that, in any case, there is no reason to accept the premise that Esperanto’s accusative case and adjective agreement are any more complex or difficult than the systems used in other languages, such as English: why, for instance, should it be more difficult to learn that “the direct object is always shown by the ending -N” than “the direct object is shown, in most cases, by the placement of the object after the verb, as well as by special accusative pronoun forms (me, him, her, us, etc.)”?

In any case (no pun intended!) we should always be prepared to answer such hard questions as those Todd poses. To do this, we must have a basic knowledge not only of how to speak Esperanto, but of its background, its structure, its history, its literature, etc. I hope that some of you will be encouraged by this article to consider such questions and do the basic research that will allow you to answer them, if you can’t already. —Don Harlow