Sunday, 2 November 2008

Esperanto - a final sideswipe

Lest my blog turn into a gathering place for anorak-wearing saddoes, this shall be my final word on Esperanto.

After my previous post, I learnt two important things:
1) Being rude gets you more readers and more comments than being nice; and
2) I was correct in my predictions about how Esperantists would react.

Let me expand upon the second point for a moment: I had a sinking feeling that they would say "but it does have songs, literature, folklore etc". Which is true in the sense of 'stuff made up my Esperantists to amuse other Esperantists', but profoundly untrue in a deeper sense. No, there isn't a folklore; unless you start twisting definitions until they scream. Because there are no "folk".

Esperanto has dwindled, whatever its proponents claim, from merely obscure to wilfully bizarre. It has approximately one sixth the number of speakers as Albanian, and nowhere you can go to actually learn it for real, on the street, from native speakers. Esperantists may decry my shallowness for being able to flirt and eat in Bahasa (it says much about there own tragic geekiness that they regard good food and relationships as beneath them; 'beyond them' might be closer to the mark); but of course that isn't all I can do - in my 15 years of working as an occasional freelance translator/interpreter I have wrestled with TV subtitles, mobile phone menus, liferaft instructions, sauce-bottle labels and reports on coconut palm cultivation, to name but a few. In much of this I have been aided and abetted by my handy sleeping dictionary, Mrs Byard. We work as a bilingual team (and in the interests of political correctness I should point out that I am her sleeping dictionary in English). I wouldn't have been able to do the dull and worthy stuff half so well had I failed to get the important things - enough food to keep me alive while studying in Indonesia and a native-speaker partner - sorted first.

Secondly, I am reassured that I am not alone. This chap makes the pertinent point - something that occurred to me to, years ago, when first getting to grips with Bahasa - that Esperanto is simply too obscurely Eurocentric to make it as a genuine international language. If one were to decide on a medium of global communication, it wouldn't be Esperanto. Even regularising conjugations and declensions misses the point that neither are necessary to construct a perfectly adequate language. Zamenhof was unable to stand back from his Indo-European cultural context and imagine something simpler and easier; Esperanto is at root a failure of either imagination or knowledge of the world of languages beyond Europe.

Let me explain what I mean. In Bahasa, verbs don't change according to subject. I go - Aku pergi; he goes - dia pergi. Why should the verb change? Furthermore, the verb doesn't change according to tense or mood either; these are indicated by single words which are dropped into the sentence. Instead of learning a tense, you learn one word, which can then apply to any verb (in fact, any predicate regardless of part of speech) - sedang for the progressive, sudah for the present perfect, akan or hendak for the future.

Once you have liberated yourself from the tripwires of grammatical endings (ack), however regular, you begin to perceive them as a non-functional frippery; a sort of linguistic peacock's tail - magnificent if you like that sort of thing, but a total ****ing encumbrance in real life.

I'm not suggesting Bahasa would necessarily make the best global language (although it has around 300 times as many speakers as Esperanto - many of them strikingly pretty - and a genuine culture behind it including a fabulous cuisine); merely that a truly 'easy to learn' global language would not look like Esperanto.

Melayu sederhana sekali
Mudah bisa menulis pantun
Aku tak mau diikat tali
Tatabahasa Esperantun


scarlet-blue said...

Bravo Mr Gyppo!!!, But is it you that I have to thank for my mobile phone instructions?! Or those other dodgy instructions for the DVD? Not to worry, I worked it out in the end.

Ginger xxx

Gyppo Byard said...

Not unless you bought a Nokia phone in Jakarta in about 2002 and had instructions only in Indonesian, no.

Gingerosity can be a bind in Southeast Asia. Blondeness is highly attractive, but ginger is considered strange. I knew of a flame-haired young lady from Yorkshire who taught TEFL out there and was mistaken for a ghost after dark once, plunging an entire rural village into fear and self-imposed curfew. Imagine being black in Norfolk and you get the picture...

Remush said...

"final word on Esperanto."

Hopefully !
For replies to other uninformed comments about the grammar read Grammar of Esperanto

Gyppo Byard said...

Remush - what part of 'final' don't you understand?

And why only look at European languages and keep things that aren't even common to all of those (eg noun-adjective agreement)?

scarlet-blue said...

Oh blimey... think I'll slink away and do me roots....

Brian Barker said...

In answer to your question whether there are native Esperanto speakers, I can reply in the affirmative.

These include George Soros, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to Nato, Nobel Laureate Daniel Bouvet, and World Chess Champion Susan Polgar.

Esperanto supporters now have official representation at the United Nations. See

Remush said...

"And why only..."
Because you weren't there when it was decided to do so. Now it's too late to complain. And it's not that bad anyway: most languages I know do that.
English is even worse: the house is big - the houses ARE big. Why not: the houses IS big.
Eo: La domo ESTAS granda - la domoj ESTAS grandaj.
In Esperanto the choice was not to have the verb vary.
FINALLY, nobody forces you to like that, but if you ever decide to speak Esperanto, that's the rule you'll have to obey.
So the right questions this generation should ask about Esperanto do not start with "why not?" but with "how to...".
For a description of the grammar, go to PMEG

No Good Boyo said...

George Soros - hereditary Esperanter. Doesn't seem to bother much with it now.

Ulrich Brandenberg - a German.

Daniel Bo[u]vet - mispelled, dead.

World Chess Champion Susan Polgar [and her sisters] - chess champion.

All spods.

Bill Chapman said...

I hope you'll allow me a brief response. By the way, I don't have an anorak, and I'm reasonably sociable - I sing in a male voice choir and I'm active in other aspects of community life where I live.

Yes, there ids a "folk" - an "esperanta popolo" which has grown up over the past century. Maybe that should not be the case, but it is. Indeed, an extremist end of the Esperanto people have banded themselves together in a sort of miniature ethnic group the "Esperanta Civito" - no doubt they have a web site somewhere. Esperanto speakers have their own heroes (Zamenhof) and villains (de Beaufront, boooh!) There is a common cultural heritage too. To my delight I found that while dining with a dozen Esperanto-speakers in Trieste, we had a large number of songs in common.

You refer to the your desire to "flirt and eat in Bahasa". I'm a happily married man, but the same things go on in the Esperanto community, of course. There's even an Esperanto saying or joke "Esperanto - Edzperanto", the second word meaning provider of husband or wife. I've met plenty of international couples who met through Esperanto. In the past couple of yeares I've dined with Esperanto speakers in Milan, Berlin, Sofia, Brittany ...

You call Esperanto "Eurocentric". That is the case based on the vocabulary, but not true based on the structure. It is possible to create entirely new words using prefixes and suffixes, not in an Indo-European way at all.

"In Bahasa, verbs don't change according to subject. I go - Aku pergi; he goes - dia pergi. Why should the verb change?" The same is true of Esperanto: Mi iras, li iras. Why indeed should the verb change?

I promise not to bother you again on this topic. I wish you well in your private and working life.

Gyppo Byard said...

Mr Chapman - I wish you well in your life and singing as well (I'm a tenor, personally. I have sung in many languages; were anyone to present me with a work in Esperanto I would gamely give it a try; though nobody has yet made the attempt).

Should you ever meet a delightful Indonesian/Malaysian lady, you can try the following on her: "Salam hangat. Kamu pasti cantik sekali, tapi saya sudah punya isteri."

'G's are hard but 'c's are like th English 'ch' sound. 'H's are lightly aspirated. Everything else is like Italian

Samapi jumpa lagi,

Gadjo Dilo said...

I just about to add "hey, why don't we all, and I mean ALL, Esperantists, non-Esperantists, ployglots and monoglots, get together, under one roof, and then go out and beat up the people who use sign language", but it seems that sort of reconcilaiation has been reached. Well done!

(And you're selling Indonesia to me more and more, Gyppo - I'd forgotten how great the cuisine is, and the language now sounds like a tasty mouthful as well.)

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

Gyppo, you are a regular Anthony Burgess.

Gyppo Byard said...

Burgess, pah!
Heard the blighter say on the radio once that he had started translating TS Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi' into Malay and had abandoned the attempt "because Malay has no word for snow".

Yes it does - salju.

This is what comes of learning a language through inadequate books rather than native speakers (a problem Esperanto has avoided by doing away with native speakers and just keeping the inadequate books).

Though I suspect you meant it as a compliment, so thanks. I blush at being thought a regular AB. Perhaps "a territorial Anthony Burgess" would do...

Remush said...

"were anyone to present me with a work in Esperanto I would gamely give it a try; "

Go to katalogo and choose "kantoj" in "Elektu kategorion de pretaj listoj: ".
Don't make promises you can't keep.

Gyppo Byard said...

Referring me to a website doesn't count; any more than downloading a certificate saying you are now 'The Revd' whatever counts as ordination.

Turn up at choir practice having become conductor of the choir and then present the work of your choice.