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Despite a bad rainstorm, 25 members of the Chicago Esperanto Society have gathered at the Public Library Cultural Center to dedicate a new book, a translation into Esperanto of a college-level chemisty text. As the members dry themselves off, Kent Jones, president of the society, calls for introductions. Most people introduce themselves in English–a courtesy to the non-Esperantists who may be present–but they make it clear that they consider Esperanto the real international language. A few individuals, including a young man who has just arrived from Poland, make brief remarks in Esperanto.

The program is about to start when suddenly a man from Ecuador stands and says, “Wait! What about the young man from Poland? Does he understand English well enough to follow the program?”

Everyone turns to stare at the Polish man. Jones asks him if he understands English. The man gestures ambiguously and answers in Esperanto. He doesn’t want to be too much trouble. But no, really, he doesn’t understand English very well.

What luck! An Esperanto-speaking individual who can’t follow English? The audience would be less happy to see Jesus himself. Obviously, someone will have to translate this program into Esperanto. “I would certainly be happy to translate for him, if he would like to change seats,” says the Ecuadoran man with a flourish. Twenty-five people beam as the young Polish man moves across the room to join his translator. Does anyone need further proof that Esperanto is the answer to the international language problem?

Chicago’s Esperantists have seen The Story of English on PBS, but they are not impressed. They don’t share Robert MacNeil’s enthusiasm for the spread of English around the world. Esperantists believe that language is power: a country that can force its language on the rest of the world has everyone else at a disadvantage. Esperantists want the world to adopt an invented international language like theirs, which is not the native language of any country.

Besides, Jones says, English may be the world’s favorite second language now, but that doesn’t mean it always will be. Latin used to be considered the international language. French was once used extensively as the international language of diplomacy, and German, to a certain extent, was the international language of science. All have been replaced by English, which continues to dominate international commerce as well.

“Foreign languages are learned on a fad basis,” says Jones. “Look at Iran. For years, the Iranians studied French and English. Now it’s dangerous to speak English or French because of the Iranian revolution. That’s how the chemistry-book project got started. An Iranian Esperantist stood up at one of our universal congresses and said, ‘Iranians need science books in Esperanto.'”

“Americans don’t realize that people who live in countries that are pawns of the superpowers go through this all the time,” adds Janet Bixby, a member of the Chicago society’s board of directors.

Thus the chemistry book that has provided the occasion for this meeting–it’s called Generala Organika kaj Biologia Kemio or “General Organic and Biochemistry”–is being dedicated to the countries of the third world. Bixby tells the audience that third world people are at a tremendous disadvantage because they have to spend years learning English before they can study science. “English is not an easy language to learn,” she says. “And scientific English is definitely not easy.”

Because Esperanto has a simplified grammatical structure and follows regular rules of pronunciation and spelling, Esperantists say it can be learned in much less time than it takes to learn English. “We believe the time will come when people of the third world can learn Esperanto in one-sixth the time and then learn science through Esperanto,” Bixby says.

But as the chemistry-book project demonstrates, translating scientific material into Esperanto takes a lot of time and hard work. Fifteen people from nine different countries worked on the translation. The project took six years to complete.

One of the problems was that much of the scientific terminology needed for the text didn’t exist in Esperanto before the project started. Scientists had to devise it as they translated the book.

“People said the book couldn’t be done because Esperantists hadn’t worked out the chemical and scientific terminology,” says Bixby. “But the way you create a language is by needing it, by using it, by working with it every day. We now have made a host of scientific terminology clear.”

For example, Esperanto had no word for what English-speaking scientists call “tracers,” the radioactive chemicals used in nuclear medicine. The editors of the textbook had to combine the Esperanto verb traci, “to trace,” with the affix enzo, derived from the Esperanto esenco, “substance.” The result was tracenzo, “substance that traces.”

Another term that had to be invented for the book was la granda eksplodo: “the big bang.”

Esperanto was invented in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof, a Polish Jew who grew up with language problems all around him. He lived in Bialystok, a part of Poland that Russia had annexed and to which the Russian czar had sent thousands of Jews. The place was rife with different language groups–including Russians, Poles, Germans, Yiddish-speaking Jews, Estonians, and Latvians–and conflicts abounded over language, culture, and religion. Zamenhof was the son of a language professor and in school studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and English. Before he was out of his teens he had decided the world needed one simple language.

Over the past century the language he invented has managed to attract a slow but steady trickle of enthusiasts, people willing to learn Birdo konstruas neston (“A bird builds a nest”) and Mi deziras danci (“I wish to dance”) and Mi kuris en la parko (“I ran in the park”) and to cobble such observations together into a semblance of everyday conversation. They’ve been called dreamers, idealists, Don Quixotes. Many of them believe the whole world will someday communicate in Esperanto. They also believe in tolerance, world peace, and friendship across national boundaries.

“When we’re all Esperantists we’ll all intermarry,” says Bixby. “Then there won’t be any wars because no one will be able to fight their kin.”

No one knows for sure how many people in the world speak Esperanto. The Universal Esperanto Association, which has headquarters in Rotterdam, claims members in more than 90 countries. Jones says he accepts the World Almanac figure of one million, with the largest numbers living in Europe. The Chicago Esperanto Society has about 50 members, including some who haven’t yet learned the language.

The comparatively small number of local people interested in Esperanto doesn’t discourage Jones. He compares Esperanto enthusiasts in America to a pilot flame waiting to light up the stove. “We’re small, but we can grow big very quickly,” he says.

Theoretically, he’s right. With the communications technology we have today, Esperanto could reach lots of people through public television, videocassettes, computer courses, and radio. But what would motivate people to make it all happen? Again, there are theoretical possibilities, and that’s what keeps the Esperantists dreaming. Suppose worldwide religions take up the cause and ask their followers to learn Esperanto? One, the Baha’i faith, has already endorsed Esperanto as a tool for international understanding. Because of the Baha’i support for the idea, Bixby, who has written a correspondence course in Esperanto, was able to place its first lesson in the American Baha’i newspaper. So far, 85 people have responded by registering for the course.

There’s also the possibility of spreading Esperanto through school systems. This summer, for instance, foreign-language teachers in the Chicago Public Schools will be able to take a one-credit course in Esperanto for professional improvement.

If some Esperantists sound naively hopeful about their language and the world, there is also a sense in which they tend to be more sophisticated and pragmatic than the general American public: they understand how difficult it is to learn foreign languages. Not surprisingly, many Esperantists are people who have had to learn too many languages in their lifetimes, and are more or less fed up with the whole problem. They see Esperanto as a defense against a world that constantly demands they acquire new languages and changes those demands on a whim.

At the book dedication a Chicago Esperantist named Fahim Qureshi told the audience about his early years in India, where more than 200 languages and dialects are spoken, 15 of which have been designated official.

“I had to study five languages when I was growing up,” he said. “It was very frustrating. I ended up just concentrating on my mother language [Urdu] and English.”

Other languages he was supposed to learn were Hindi (the national language of India), Telugu (the official language of his state), and Arabic (the religious language of his family).

Qureshi thinks English is a frustrating language for foreign speakers because it is spoken differently in different parts of the world. “With Esperanto, you can learn it easily, and once you’ve got it, it is spoken the same way everywhere.”

Another local Esperantist, Chaesun Jones, studied English for ten years in her native Korea before coming to the United States. She could read and write well, but because she hadn’t mastered English’s highly irregular pronunciation, she couldn’t make herself understood when she talked. Eventually she took to carrying a notepad and pen, writing down everything she needed to say.

“People would look at the notepad and say, ‘But you write perfectly, why don’t you speak?’ And I would say, ‘I do speak, but you don’t understand me.'”

Qureshi said he often feels uncomfortable in the United States because he thinks Americans look down on people who speak English with an accent. “Once people get to know me I have their respect. But before that I can sense their scorn.”

Americans traveling abroad also appreciate the idea of a universal tongue. “The prospect of being able to talk to people of different cultures in one language was very attractive to me because I travel,” said Bill Gram, a lawyer who recently attended an Esperanto dinner meeting at Ann Sather’s. “I’d like to be able to go to China or Bulgaria and talk to people one-on-one in a common language.”

For many people, the foreign contacts are as important as the language. Esperantists are hooked into a global network. They commonly stay in each other’s homes while traveling, and they maintain a published directory of members worldwide who will provide accommodations for others. Kent Jones’s wife and teenage daughter are planning to attend the World Congress of Esperanto in Warsaw this year; they want to visit Munich on the way and are now contacting Esperantists there to find someone to stay with.

Most of the vocabulary and structure of Esperanto come from the Indo-European language family. Zamenhof chose to use natural language elements, rather than making it all up, so that people could learn the language more easily. Consider the sentence La profesoro instruas en la universitato. For most Americans who have never studied Esperanto, this statement is probably 100 percent comprehensible. Not all Esperanto sentences are so transparent to English speakers, but since much of the vocabulary comes from Europe, the words an American would not recognize often would be familiar to speakers of other Western languages. Mi kredis, ke si amas min (“I believed that she loved me”) probably could be figured out by most speakers of Romance languages.

Of course this advantage is reserved for people who already speak a language from the Indo-European family. Critics of Esperanto say the language has no familiar elements for speakers of Asian and African languages and so would be difficult for non-Westerners to learn. But Esperantists from those language groups, like Qureshi and Chaesun Jones, counter that Esperanto has caused them a lot less trouble than English, which after all is the only other choice.

Unlike English, Esperanto follows regular rules of pronunciation. The alphabet has 28 letters, each representing only one sound. As soon as a student learns the sounds he can pronounce just about all the words in the language without making mistakes. That’s more than you can say for the language that includes “bough,” “cough,” “rough,” “though,” and “through.”

Esperanto grammar also follows simple rules. The past tense, for example, is always formed by adding is to the root word. And so the words “desired,” “forgot,” “sang,” “built,” and “stuck” all have the same ending in Esperanto: desiris, forgesis, kantis, konstruis, and gluis. The student doesn’t have to wonder why he can say “Margaret showed up” but not “Margaret runned home.”

Supposedly, Esperanto has a mere 16 grammatical rules, to which there are no exceptions. Although this claim is widespread in Esperanto literature, no one seems to take it altogether seriously. Most people who know Esperanto well agree that you need to learn more than these 16 rules to speak the language fluently. For one thing, Esperanto is an agglutinative language; its vocabulary builds on a core of root words, and new words are formed through the addition of prefixes or suffixes. For example, the word for “kitten,” katido, is formed by adding id to the word kato, “cat.” Once the student has learned this, she can guess that cevalo, “horse,” can become cevalido, “colt,” and that hundo, “dog,” can become hundido, “puppy.” But the more complicated formulations are much less obvious. It’s not quite so easy to figure out that malsanulejo, “hospital,” is built up from the root noun sano, “health”; nor is it immediately apparent how one gets from bon, “good,” to plibonigo, “improvement.” It takes a while to master the options.

(The prefix mal changes the meaning of a root word to its opposite, so malsano means “unhealth.” The suffix ul denotes “someone characterized by.” The additional suffix ejo denotes a place. Thus malsanulejo, “a place for persons characterized by unhealth.” The prefix pli means “more” and the suffix ig means “causing something to be.” A final o identifies a word as a noun. Add these to bon and you have plibonigo, “something that has been caused to be more good”–that is, an “improvement.”)

People who do make the effort to learn Esperanto find a surprising number of books to read in it. Some sources place the total number of titles as high as 50,000. In Britain the library of the Esperanto Association has 20,000 items in its collection.

The Chicago Public Library keeps most of its Esperanto books in the foreign-language collection at the Cultural Center. Books that can be checked out there include how-to-speak-Esperanto books, anthologies of original poetry, and translations of works like Don Quixote.

Books are also available from two major Esperanto outlets in the United States, one in California and the other located here in Oak Park. The Oak Park distributor, Bern Wheel Books, has hundreds of titles in stock. They carry translations such as Rego Lear, Tragedio de William Shakespeare; D-ro Jeckyll kaj S-ro Hyde; and, for those who do not yet have enough copies of The Little Prince in foreign languages, La Eta Princo.

Other translations in Esperanto include the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Hamlet, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and works by Boethius, Aeschylus, and Camoes. For those who want to be cheered up in Esperanto, there is even a translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (Nauzo). Translations from English include works by Christopher Fry and William Saroyan. Over the past three years anthologies of Hungarian, German, Argentine, Chinese, Swedish, and Croatian literature have been published.

Esperanto’s capacity to grow and change in the face of new situations has made it much more successful than a host of other created languages, most of which have dropped into obscurity. It’s surprising, in fact, how many people in history have made up whole new languages and then spent the rest of their lives trying to convince others to speak them. Many of these dreamers were heavily influenced by Zamenhof’s book, Lingvo Internacia, which launched Esperanto. (The title means “international language,” and apparently Zamenhof thought that would suffice as the name for the language itself. But he published the book under the pseudonym “Dr. Esperanto,” meaning “one who hopes,” and the name stuck to the language.)

One of the other invented languages, Ido, developed from a major break in the Esperanto ranks. The word ido means “offspring” in Esperanto. (That’s how hundido, “puppy,” derives from hundo, “dog.”) The Ido faction felt that Esperanto was a bit too complicated to serve as an international language; they simplified its grammar somewhat, but they never managed to attract enough converts to compete with Esperanto. They spent too much time tinkering with language and not enough time whipping up the idealism and clannish enthusiasm that keep Esperanto going through one decade after another.

Other international languages flopped largely because they were too artificial. In practice, they couldn’t respond to communication needs with anything like the flexibility of natural languages. One of the most unlikely contenders was Basic English (not to be confused with the computer language BASIC). The inventor, C.K. Ogden, believed he could make a useful international language with just 850 words from English. Actually he allowed quite a few more words, including scientific terms and other words he considered international, such as “radio.” But Basic English was still terribly limited. Critics said people who could not speak English in the first place would never figure out how to combine the extremely basic terms to represent words that were not included among the 850. For example, Basic English doesn’t include the word “dog” or the word “trainer.” So in order to communicate “dog trainer,” the speaker has to come up with something like “man who teaches animal friend.” This language could be fun as a parlor game, but it’s not very useful for translating Don Quixote or studying “la granda eksplodo.” (I tried to translate “the big bang” into pure Basic English, that is, sticking to the 850 words, and I came up with “the first great violent reaction.” It’s not bad, but it would be hard to sell to newspaper editors.)

Volapuk, which was invented in Europe almost 40 years before Esperanto, was actually the first artificial language to attract a following. Most of the vocabulary was based on European languages, but the inventor, a German priest named Johann Martin Schleyer, changed the words quite a bit, and many of them became unrecognizable.

It now seems unlikely that Esperanto will go the way of Volapuk, Basic English, and the others. Its core of enthusiasts is probably large enough to ensure that it will survive at least as an avocation, and as long as it does there is always the possibility that someday a practical problem will arise for which Esperanto is the answer. Recently, for example, the European Economic Community proposed using Esperanto in its computer-assisted translations. Instead of writing programs to translate each EEC language into and out of every other (e.g. Spanish to Portuguese, Portuguese to Spanish, Spanish to Dutch, Dutch to Spanish, etc), translators could create only two programs for each language, such as Greek to Esperanto and Esperanto to Greek. Material from all languages would be translated first into Esperanto, and then the Esperanto would be translated into the target language. Of course it would be possible to gain this programming advantage by putting any one of the EEC languages into the middle, but using Esperanto would avoid political hassles over the selection of the language. And Esperanto, being a simpler language than any of the others, might make a simpler computer program.

Such arguments, in any event, are the stuff that Esperantists’ dreams are made of. They know they can’t argue away English’s claim to international status, but as a group they also know a lot about languages, and they understand that world language usage is volatile in nature. Which languages are taught, learned, spoken, declared official, banned, imported and exported–all of this changes over time. And Esperantists are used to taking the long view. Nineteen eighty-seven is their 100th anniversary.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph; illustrations/Slug Signorino.