To hear Esperanto spoken is to remember a song whose words you can't quite place but the tune you can hum.
Your ear will detect the lilt and sensuality of Spanish and French, the percussiveness of Russian and German. And yet a newcomer can understand little of it. Esperanto sounds familiar and foreign at the same time.
"The challenge is perhaps not the language but the fact that people think we are crazy," laughs José Antonio Vergara, a doctor from Chile. He is teaching an advanced class—a Supera Kurso—during the North American Esperanto Course in Raleigh this week. "They ask, 'Why are you wasting time with this dead language?' They don't know what they're missing. The experience of Esperanto is so deeply human."
More than 50 of Esperanto's most ardent practitioners from at least 15 countries are convening at William Peace University for the annual U.S. Esperanto Congress July 5–8. At least 2 million people worldwide speak Esperanto, although that's an estimate, as its popularity has increased as a result of the Internet.
"It's like asking how many people know shorthand," says Chuck Mays of Raleigh, who co-organized the congress.
The speakers' embrace of Esperanto supersedes a love of language; they also share a common ideal articulated by Ludwik Zamenhof, a Jewish doctor who invented Esperanto in 1887. In a story from Genesis, God created different languages to foil the construction of the Tower of Babel. By creating an international language, Zamenhof set out to achieve the opposite. He envisioned a common language that promoted peace, one that would break down barriers between people and nations.
Yet language is more than vocabulary and grammar. As a transmitter of memory, culture and identity, it can be used to exclude, to dominate and to gauge assimilation. In Quebec, rivalries between French and English as the official language escalated to the Canadian Supreme Court. In the U.S., the English-only movement marginalizes not only Spanish as a language but also Latinos as a people.
"When you speak English, there is someone with the rights to that language," Vergara explains. "Esperanto belongs to everyone. It is more democratic."
On a recent rainy morning, Margo Cohen, a doctor from Washington, D.C., sits in the intermediate Esperanto class, even though she's been studying the language for only four months. Like most Esperantists, she's a polyglot, speaking German, French, Spanish and Hebrew.
Esperanto, however, had a special appeal. "I fell in love with the idea it's an international language that can serve as a second language and can be a passport for the whole world," she says. "It's a fun language to learn. The structure of it is logical. It's so well-designed."
Esperanto contains 28 letters. All words are phonetic, without the silent letters common in English, and are generally short. Many of the words are rooted in European languages—"bona," which means "good," is similar to "buena" in Spanish and "buona" in Italian. "Konferenco" translates to "conference."
The grammar, similar to Chinese and other Asian languages, is governed by 16 rules.
For example, nouns end in "o," adjectives in "a" and adverbs in "e." Words can be combined to form compounds. New words can be imported—computers hadn't been invented in Zamenhof's time—so kompitilo comes from "komput" and "ilo," a tool for doing something.
Down the hall, Vergara, an enthusiastic instructor who waves his arms and paces in front of the classroom, teaches his advanced students about Edmond Privat, an Esperantist historian, professor, writer and peace activist. The class includes several Americans, a Cuban professor, a Brazilian journalist and a South Korean student, Young Lang.
Lang, a college student in Boston, also speaks English, a premium in his country. "In Korea so many people are too obsessive with learning English. When I speak English, I have to learn American culture—football, TV series," he says. "In Esperanto, there is no dominant culture; the openness to diversity is the most important part."
The egalitarian spirit of Esperanto is its greatest threat to nationalism. Adolf Hitler sent German Esperantists to concentration camps; many of the movement's leaders died there, according to David Richardson's Esperanto: Learning and Using the International Language.
The Soviet Union banned Esperanto until 1956 and controlled dissemination of its books and magazines until the late 1980s.
In the McCarthy era of the 1950s, U.S. Esperantists with, as Richardson wrote, "internationalist orientation and contacts in Iron Curtain countries became suspect."
Less repressive methods have also been used to dampen Esperanto's influence. French was once the globe's dominant language, and France fought the Esperantists' efforts at the League of Nations in order to maintain that edge. In the 1920s, viewing Esperanto as a threat to French dominance, its delegate to the league opposed a proposal for the group to accept the international idiom as its working language. Without a common language, Esperantists argue, translation fees for the United Nations and other international bodies are astronomical.
Now English is the dominant language and, by extension, America the dominant culture, exported globally via movies and music. (English could go the way of French and eventually be supplanted by Chinese.) Linguistically isolated compared to European countries, only 18 percent of Americans report speaking a second language, according to Forbes, while more than half of Europeans do.
For those who speak less popular languages, Esperanto puts its speakers on equal footing, with no judgment. "My English is acceptable, but my Esperanto is better," Vergara says. "When I meet English-speaking people I always feel a little uncomfortable because I'm not a native speaker. I'm afraid of making mistakes. Egalitarian communication is so appealing."
Cohen agrees that Esperanto offers an "alternative for people to interact with others without feeling inferior" if they don't speak a dominant language like English or Chinese.
That said, Esperantists have their squabbles, too. They argue about new words and linguistic philosophy, similar to lexicographers who, when the Oxford English Dictionary adds phrases such as "have a cow"—have one.
And there are plenty of Esperanto skeptics who view the language as folly and Zamenhof as naive. Yet he was not, telling an audience in 1906 in Geneva:
"We do not believe that a neutral basis of communication will turn men into angels ... but we believe that exchange of ideas and familiarization on a neutral basis will at least remove that great group of atrocities and crimes which are cause ... simply through lack of knowledge and unavoidable encroachment."
More than 30,000 original Esperanto texts have been published and thousands of books have been translated into the language, ranging from Winnie the Pooh (Winnie la Pu) to King Lear (Regô Lear) to The Hobbit (La Hobito). Last year, Google added Esperanto to its list of language options. The album sleeve for Radiohead's OK Computer contained several Esperanto words: "Injektilo" (syringe), "Simbolo" (symbol) and "Dangera Najbar-Ajo'" (dangerous neighborhood). A pre-Star Trek William Shatner starred in the first Esperanto movie, Incubus, although his pronunciation, according to Esperantists, is appallingly bad. Even George Soros' father, Tivaro, was an Esperantist who changed the family name from Schwartz to Soros, which in Esperanto means "to soar."
The Esperanto community also provides hosting services for travelers (Esperantists have worldwide housing networks) pen pals and Meetup groups, including several in the Triangle.
"We share this joy in meeting people from different cultures," Vergara says. "That's our main value, that as humans, we can change our reality. We needed a common language. We're learning it and making it real."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A universal voice."