Today is Esperanto Day, the anniversary of Zamenhof’s 1887 CE publication of ‘La Unua Libro’, the “first book”, setting out the principles of the Esperanto language. Now I’ve mentioned Esperanto rather a lot on here so I won’t be going into it in the same way as I have before, except to note that it has external history, and to a limited extent internal history too, in common with other international Jewish languages. And I use that phrase “Jewish languages” positively, as the invention of Esperanto represents the internationalism, altruism and desire for peace which is such a central part of Jewish faith and culture.
It’s been said many times that Esperanto has a Western Indo-European bias, that it’s sexist and that it’s poorly designed. One of the problems with it is that it ignores sandhi. Sandhi is the way pronunciation changes due to sounds next to each other, either inside a word (internal sandhi) or between them (external sandhi). Sandhi is originally a concept made up by Sanskrit-using linguists in South Asia, and the well-known ‘Teach Yourself Sanskrit’ book I bought back when I was twelve or so out of fascination with the apparent exoticism and complexity of the language has a fold-out table listing all of the combinations which change the sound. Esperanto is at the opposite end of the spectrum regarding grammatical complexity in many ways, making it easier to learn, but it has led to ignorance of sandhi, which makes it either difficult to pronounce or easy to pronounce but harder to understand the spoken language. For instance, the word “kvankam” – “although” – would probably be pronounced “kfangkam” by people whose first language has those sandhi rules, such as devoicing a fricative after a voiceless stop and making a nasal velar before a velar consonant, /kfaŋkam/, but the rules in other languages may be different and it could be pronounced “gvantam” for example, or a vowel could be inserted between K and V if someone isn’t used to pronouncing consonants together. Zamenhof doesn’t seem to have been aware of this issue. However, the probable consequence of this would be that people speak it with slightly different accents.
Another significant issue with Esperanto for many is that it uses no fewer than six participles. Compare this with English, which uses two – present active and past passive. I suspect that this is the result of Zamenhof being fluent in the highly inflected Polish, which divides them into adverbial and adjectival, perfective and imperfective and active and passive, which to my naïve non-Slavic speaking brain seems to multiply up to eight, that is, two by two by two categories. This is not the kind of thing you generally see in KENTUM languages such as German, Italian or Welsh. However, Zamenhof did not incorporate the perfective/imperfective aspects common to Slavic, where the imperfective sets the scene and the perfective is more like a past continuous tense, though neither are actually tenses, presumably because he knew how confusing they would be to many Western Europeans.
Zamenhof’s focus was substantially on Europe at the time. Current affairs in the region would certainly seem to concentrate the mind on the potential for achieving peace among what might be looked at as our various warring tribes whose languages differ and that this incomprehension and struggle to communicate probably would make things worse. Douglas Adams, of course, had a go at this with the Babel Fish, whose use causes terrible wars because people actually understand what aliens are saying about them. This is along the lines of Monty in ‘Withnail & I’ listening to Withnail and Marwood:
“Perhaps it is just that the eavesdropper should leave as his trade dictates, in secrecy and in the dead of night. I do sincerely hope that you will find the happiness that has sadly always been denied me. Yours faithfully, Montague H. Withnail.”
If people are speaking secure in the belief that they will not be overheard and understood by others they don’t wish to include, there’s an argument that if they are understood, it won’t make those who understand them happy. Speaking Esperanto, ironically, is a good way of ensuring that nobody will understand what you’re saying because you can pretty much guarantee that no-one else will have learnt it, so perhaps it does actually work quite well as a way of avoiding conflict.
Rather surprisingly, the Western bias of Esperanto doesn’t seem to be perceived as a problem by native speakers of non-Indo-European languages. For instance, it’s relatively popular in the Far East. This brings up the question of evaluation of different cultural practices by outsiders. A few years ago, there was controversy online about a White American woman who wore a Chinese-style dress to a prom, as some Chinese people saw this as cultural appropriation, but others saw it as complimentary, as she had adopted part of their own culture which she admired. On my YT video about Carvaka, I’m accused of cultural appropriation for mentioning Carvaka and Samkhya, both distinctively South Asian ontologies, but I don’t see how intellectual discourse can operate if such things can’t be discussed openly. That said, it does seem inappropriate to me for a White person to have dreadlocks induced in a hair salon even though dreadlocks are part of White Western European culture and arguably sanctioned by the Tanakh. Likewise, I sometimes wonder if the idea of cultural appropriation is itself Western, and cultural imperialism conversely could be as well to some extent. I feel uncomfortable saying this, and in fact the truth is probably more nuanced, but it’s at least interesting that Westerners often seem more concerned about the idea of Esperanto’s Western bias than other groups of people are. This is not entirely true, however. Baha’i prophets in the Middle East have praised the idea of Esperanto while saying that it would still be better for a constructed international auxiliary language to have less of a KENTUM, and in fact there is a fruitful source in Arabic for such a language, since it has had such a strong influence on languages such as Indonesian, Urdu, Spanish, Swahili, Farsi and Turkish. Attempts have in fact been made to construct such a language, known as Dunia, from the Arabic word for “world”. Ironically, such a language would probably be more comprehensible to first-language Hebrew speakers than the Jewish invention of Esperanto. I actually had a go at a constructed language based on Arabic which I called Dunijaluga, without being aware that it was tried, possibly later on, by someone else, and I mention it in ‘Replicas’.
I used to think of Esperanto as a Romance language. Certainly the majority of its roots are from Romance, and it has a kind of Italian sound to it although without the double consonants and with only five vowels rather than seven. However, a quarter of its root vocabulary is Greek, which actually works quite well due to the tendency for international terms in technical vocabulary to be taken from that language along with Latin. The quality of Esperanto in design terms is kind of intermediate. Some aspects are well thought through, others are linguistically naïve and there are biasses which can be perceived more easily from today than when it was first invented, and it’s been suggested that this intermediate nature is an important element in its failure to be adopted more widely. J R R Tolkien also famously invented a culture to go around his constructed languages, and Klingon also has this advantage. Esperanto, however, isn’t entirely lacking in this respect although most of that culture is firmly in the inter-war years and was subject to persecution by the Nazis. It had a hard task being adopted in such an extremely nationalistic Europe.
The language is said to be learnt on average four times faster than other languages, although this is of course somewhat spurious because the languages already known by the learner would strongly influence that. A first-language Greek or Italian speaker would probably pick it up very quickly, but if your mother tongue was Malay or Mandarin Chinese, I would expect you to take far longer.
There are a number of associations with Esperanto which developed from its invention into the 1930s. These included two global currencies, the speso and the stelo, the Baha’i faith, pacifism, vegetarianism and the philosophy of Homaranismo. None of these are inevitable, and it’s possible that these associations reduced its appeal by making it seem less neutral, although many of these things are in a way manifestations of neutrality.
The Speso is a thousandth of a spesmilo, a currency invented in 1907 by René de Saussure which was actually accepted by some banks before the First World War. The spesmilo is the practical unit. It used the gold standard and its value is fixed at 733 milligrammes of pure gold, which at the time was around two shillings sterling, or four dozen US cents. The speso itself was deliberately made very small to avoid the use of fractional denominations like the ha’penny and farthing. It has its own symbol: ₷, which can be seen on the right of the shield on the above coin. Today the face value of a spesmilo is just under £31 or €36.14. The adoption of the speso in any form was prevented by the onset of the First World War.
In 1946, a second attempt was made with the stelo, whose price was fixed at one standard loaf of bread. This is quite difficult to comprehend today due to the diversity of consumer products nowadays, but this seems to be roughly a pound if by “standard” one means unsliced white loaf bought from a supermarket. The motivation for the issuing of the stelo was similar to that of Esperanto: to demonstrate that separate currencies caused international conflict and economic pressure. As can be seen in the flag above, the pentagram is a symbol of Esperanto. The International Esperanto League also used coupons valued in steloj for its internal activity until the 1980s. The one stelo coin on the left here was bronze, the five stelo on the right was brass and there was also a cupronickel 10 stelo coin. In 1965 a twenty-five stelo silver coin was introduced. In 1974, the connection with the price of bread was ended and it was instead pegged to the Dutch guilder at a value of two steloj to one guilder. This changed again in 1977 to a percentage of the average monthly purchases of a family, in order to avoid inflation, which was a major issue at the time. Incidentally it’s always struck me as very strange that this is not how exchange rates are defined, and I assumed for a long time that it was.
Another major connection exists between Esperanto and Baha’i. Baha’i is a religion founded in the nineteenth Christian century now based in Israel which teaches the unity of all people and the equal value of all faiths. It comes across today as being kind of nineteenth century liberal, a little like Jehovah’s Witnesses but more open. For instance, Baha’i teaches that women and men are like the two wings of a bird, without which she couldn’t fly, but this is not the same as sexual egalitarianism as most might understand it today. More problematic is its firm commitment to homophobia. The Universal House of Justice, which is their governing body, does not allow female members even though it says gender equality is fundamental to the unity of the human race. Abdu’l-Baha also bans women from military service as he saw the killing of other human beings as incompatible with the station of motherhood. For me, the surprising aspect of this is that Baha’i is not universally pacifist. Regarding homosexuality, Baha’i officially sees it as an aspect of the innate human inclination towards evil, believes sexual orientation can and should be changed and excludes practicing homosexuals from full membership of the faith on the grounds that they are not living in accordance with its principles, in a similar way to how they would exclude people who drink alcohol. Another issue is that it doesn’t impose vegetarianism on principle, although of course this isn’t unusual. What this probably illustrates is the kind of approach which the Old Left had from the century following 1850 CE or so, where it continued to be just as sexist and homophobic, and in some cases even racist, as we now expect the Hard Right to be.
Lidia Zamenhof, Ludwik’s youngest child, was born in 1904, and died in Treblinka Concentration Camp in 1942. She took over the rôle her father and mother had before of spreading Esperanto, and the secularisation of the family led her to become increasingly isolated from both the Jewish community and of course Gentiles. She lost her belief in God in 1925. Soon after, however, she became Baha’i and mixed the two. She didn’t feel like she’d given up her Jewishness either as she saw that as ethnicity and heritage. She met Shoghi Effendi, the then leader of the faith, and said in one of her talks:
“The international language is part of the Divine Plan which is given effect in the era of Bahá’u’lláh. And the creation and spread of Esperanto are proofs of the creative power of Bahá’u’lláh’s words.”
In November 1939, Lidia was arrested by the Nazis on the grounds of travelling to the United States to spread anti-Nazi propaganda and she was sent to live in the Ghetto on Ogrodowa Street. Shoghi Effendi and others attempted to get her out of Poland but failed, and in June 1942 she was sent to Treblinka and murdered.
It’s important to bear in mind that although Baha’i has major conservative and intolerant elements, Baha’is are also persecuted, and have been persecuted since the start. Lidia’s optimism about the divine plan seemed to have been refuted by the Holocaust, and even today they are oppressed in Iran, where they are the largest religious minority. There have been government land-grabs, they are seen as a political group, and the stated aim of the government is “To gain control over the misguided movement of the perverse Baha’i sect”, according to a leaked document. The homes of Baha’is have been destroyed and many of them have had to flee the country. Baha’i cemetaries are steamrollered as well. To take another example, like many other non-Christian religions, Baha’is haven’t been permitted to have religious assemblies in Romania since 2007.
The oldest continuously active vegetarian organisation in the world is the Tutmonda Esperantista Vegetarana Asocio, founded in 1908 and articles about vegetarianism were being published in Esperanto before the language was a decade old. Lev Tolstoj was honorary president of the TEVA. Their website is here.
I’ve tried to be brief here, but I would like to finish by outlining what seemed to be a common Esperantist vision of the world. Everyone would speak Esperanto as a second language, there would be no more nation states but a single world government, world peace would prevail, most people would be vegetarian and there would be a universal currency proof against inflation. All faiths would be recognised as one. Modern Esperantists are likely to add more to this, but it should also be recognised that Esperanto peaked at a time when women were seen as slaves to biology and therefore restricted in ways men weren’t, and homosexuality was at best understood to be a mental illness. However, the thing about all of these movements taken together is that they are all in a sense moderate. Esperanto is an international language, but not an ideal one and still quite Westernised. Baha’i is somewhat more liberal than most conservative religion but maintains sexism and homophobia. Vegetarianism is not veganism. The international currencies were actual currencies rather than LETS or post-scarcity working for the common good having superceded money. Nonetheless, taken together, even the inter-war consensus of these movements combined is better than what we have had at any point since the War in the world on the whole. Maybe we shouldn’t let the best be the enemy of the good.