Esperanto: the language that never was

Witten for Prospect Magazine:


The Komedia Kvizo had started. Perhaps this would be instructive. I had hoped to get to the heart of the matter straight away. I had hoped to re-examine the biggest question of our times—the European Union referendum—but to come at it from deep within the pan-European hinterlands of Remainia. But instead, the question we were all facing was: “Kiom ofte mi uzas drogojn?”

Welcome, friends, to the British Esperanto Conference 2016, “emanating” this year from Merseyside. Truth be told, things had not looked promising in the beginning. Sky like a sodden ashtray. Potato juice rain beading on all the windows of the buses going by. People hunched and harried on the pavement hurrying home. None of them going my way. No other writers. No journalists. No news crews. (It can be lonely at the top.) I had been directed to the single most anonymous and forlorn conference centre in the UK. There I had found a forgotten glass door on which was thinly gummed a single blue A4 poster: “Esperanto—Asocio de Britio”; the “o” of the word “Esperanto” having been replaced with a globe.

Once inside though… Once inside, everything turned colour and warm and iridescent. And what a welcome. No doubt about it: these were la belaj homoj. Seventy or so of the most sexy katoj you are ever going to meet in your life. I felt like I’d walked into a shiny multi-coloured electric Kool-Aid dream of an impossible future from long ago. Like it was Buck Rogers’s birthday all over again. (The word “Esperanto” means “a person who hopes”… in Esperanto). Like I’d left behind some terrible 1950s black-and-white nightmare of a purse-lipped Michael Gove-led rump-Britannia and instead entered a joyful Elysian of Enlightenment. Were Boris Johnson ever to re-spawn here, I thought to myself, it would be back in his rightful place—as a chubby eunuch-mute charged with the sole task of silently serving champagne by way of penance for his previous lifetime of deepest disingenuousness.

This was going to be my world. For three days. All good. All more than good. Except, I have to confess, for one thing: I was totally unable to understand a word that anybody said. Or any of the events. Or pretty much anything at all that was happening.

I remember I sat through Kalle Kniivilä (no relation to Evel Knievel—I checked) talking about “Putin—pri la naturo de la rusia re^gimo, la kialoj de ^gia subteno inter rusianoj, kaj la ^san^goj okazintaj lige kun la anekso de Krimeo.” And there was a guy called Guilherme Fians speaking on the subject of “Brazilo: pri la lando kaj ^gia nuntempa Esperanto-movado.” I might have missed Mudie: la pinta pioniro. And the Beatles amika konkursado pri Beatles-kanzonoj. Or I might not have missed it—or them, or something.

But I was back for the Komedia Kvizo because this was something I had a chance of almost understanding. Yes, crucially, the comedy quiz questions were being written up on the projector and, like Gulliver on his travels, I thought I might therefore mobilise an unholy concoction of Latin, Greek and French in the hope of gleaning something of what I was reading. I say “almost” understand because I didn’t have Belarusian, Yiddish, Polish or Slavic. Although, of course, the whole point of Esperanto is that you don’t need any of these languages to learn it or, according to the fundamentalists, any of these languages at all.

The host of the comedy quiz was a genial 35-year-old man by the (actual) name of Rolf Fantom. (Did I mention that this was a totally surreal weekend?) Fantom was famous for being that rarest of human incarnations: a second-generation native Esperanto speaker; that is to say, his mother’s parents met through Esperanto and this was their common language; they thus bequeathed Esperanto to their daughter who, in turn, brought up young Rolf to speak it as his denaska lingvo. Fantom’s immediate job, though, was to see which of the Komedia Kvizo contestants could talk for just a minute without ripetado, hezito a˘u devio on a subject of his choice. So he repeated the question: “Kiom ofte mi uzas drogojn?”

“What does it mean?” I whispered to the guy sitting beside me. His name was Matt, he was 36 years old and the closest I came all weekend to an interpreter. He was elliptically insane, of course, but maybe a little less so than everyone else and I will forever be grateful to him since he was later to invite me to the curry to end all curries. “Why is everyone laughing?” I asked.

“He’s just asked them…” Matt whispered back, trying not to laugh himself. “He has just asked them how often he uses drugs.”
Wait—what? How often does the Esperanto community use drugs? No wonder, I was thinking, no wonder. I see it all now.
“Right.” I whispered back. “Is the ‘j’ pronounced like an ‘i’?”

But Matt could say no more. Not in English. There’s a phrase in Esperanto “ne krokodilo” meaning “no crocodiling.” To crocodile is when two people, who have learnt Esperanto, speak to one another in another language. This was an offence punishable by banishment—a kind of community-enforced personal Brexit. And I didn’t want to be responsible for ruining lives. So I returned to my shiny happy confusion. I would have to pick them off one by one in the corridors, on the stairwells.

The night before, as yet unfamiliar with the protocols and proprieties, I had gone up to the front of the gathering and blithely unleashed the Brexit beast of my own. In stoutly unintellectual English I had asked for a show of hands as to who wanted to leave the EU and who wanted to stay in. There was laughter of the sort you might get at a Star Trek conference when making a distasteful joke in Klingon (another constructed language) but—surprise—five hands out of roughly 70 went up for “Leave.” So glister the dire snakes even in Paradise.

Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, inventor of the language Esperanto ©Forum/Bridgeman Images
Esperanto was invented by LL Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist, who published his first book detailing Esperanto, Unua Libro, in 1887. He was born in Białystok—once a Prussian city, then Russian, now Polish—the epitome of the European hinterland indeed. Esperanto probably had its apogee in the period immediately following the First World War when the League of Nations almost voted to accept it as their working language. (The proposal was blocked by a single French veto; on such pique can history turn.) Thereafter the language suffered badly under the totalitarian regimes of the middle 20th century, for being internationalist and in the case of Nazi Germany on account of Zamenhof being Jewish. One of the delegates at the conference, Elizabeth from Stow-on-the-Wold, put it thus: “Languages follow the biggest armies and there’s never been an Esperanto army.” (Or, interestingly, as Fantom told me: “language is possession.”) The 1960s and 1970s saw Esperanto enter a cultish phase—never widespread or mainstream but an offbeat and peripheral part of a more optimistic forward-looking cultural idealism wherein the dream of a universal global second language still seemed plausible. (It is surprising and touching how many of the more senior delegitoj met their life partners through Esperanto; Terry and Anica, for example, who found each other on a platform at Amsterdam Station after a Kongreso in Rotterdam.) In the 1990s, things looked grim for Esperanto—but then came the internet, saviour and haven of all things niche and suddenly the language was being taken seriously enough to put in an appearance on Google Translate. There are now estimated to be around 2,000 speakers in the UK. Worldwide, the society claims two million users. Personally, though, I’d be surprised if the number were that high because…

…Because, of course, the massive, trumpeting, stamping, ear-flapping, blanka elefanto in the room is… English; English; English; the English language; the widespread global adoption thereof. I felt terrible bringing this up. Like telling Buck Rogers that it wasn’t the 25th century after all.

“Well,” said Matt, “if the EU were to say we want a standard language, then everybody would revolt. And rightly so.” But neither are the other countries going to accept English as a standard, he contended. So why not instead make the case for Esperanto being the universal second language people learn?

Geoffrey weighed in. He was 74. “Why is my rate bill in about six different languages?” he demanded. “Yes, some people speak English but a lot of people don’t.” I conceded the point. Wistfully, he added: “It would have been great if David Cameron had come back with a plan for Esperanto as everyone’s second language.”

Kelly had brought Maggie, the only child at the conference (“I love it,” said Maggie) and Kelly echoed Geoffrey. “Definitely,” she said: “Europe needs to get on with it and Esperanto could be a second language for everyone.”

Elizabeth (speaking outside and away from accusations of crocodiling) was even more effusive: “Yes, Yes, Yes,” she said. “The EU is about discussing rather than fighting. It’s hard for the UK to understand what the point is sometimes. But, for example, imagine you want to agree that the Danube should not be polluted. Well, that involves at least seven countries and you suddenly know why you need the EU. On a practical point, Esperanto would be incredibly useful: instead of having to archive everything in 23 languages… just think.”

“The massive, trumpeting blanka elefanto in the room is… English. The widespread global adoption thereof”
At its simplest, Matt’s case—Esperanto’s case—is this. First, that it is very easy to learn, simpler and more logical than non-constructed languages. (They say you can learn it five times as fast.) Second, that Esperanto is a great politically-neutral equaliser; two people from anywhere can meet and, if they both have Esperanto as their second language, then neither is at a cultural disadvantage, nether feels inferior or apologetic. Third and related, that it could bring the world together in a genuinely internationalist exchange of ideas and information—travel in, say, Japan or Iran or Vietnam need no longer be a farrago of wrong turns and shouting. Fourth, that Esperanto is an extremely useful basic grounding in the learning of languages per se without the necessity of everyone going on to become professional speakers, as with say learning the recorder vis-à-vis music in schools. By way of demonstrating this last point, Matt had invited me out for that curry.

Which was off-the-scale strange. Past surreal.
And stunningly successful and convincing as a validation.

There are few times in your life that you can be certain that you are doing what nobody else in the world is doing—or has ever done—or will likely do again. This was one of them. I was sitting at a table of six, with a Catalan, a Brazilian, a Belgian, a Londoner and a Slovakian, while they munched and guzzled their way through their kareos and had what I can only describe as the most kinetic, exciting and involving conversation in Esperanto that Spice City (of Stanley Street, Liverpool) is ever going to witness. The animation. The jokes. The asides. The soliloquys. The antanaclasis. Oh, if only I had known what they were talking about I could have… I could have told you. But I was converted. The whole idea and application of Esperanto was so obviously amazing, so demonstrably persuasive, so self-evidently practical that I forget all over again about English; English; English.

Two things I did learn, though, that evening. One, that none other than Neil Kinnock was in charge of the EU committee tasked with getting Esperanto up the agenda and more widely used. (Another failure.) And two, that there was among the Esperanto hardliners a mysterious and potent idea called… La Fina Venko. This is the concept of the “Final Victory” and denotes the moment when Esperanto will be used as the main second language throughout the world. A Finavenkist is therefore someone who hopes for and works towards this “Final Victory” of Esperanto. I am not sure but I have a suspicion that the Catalonian at our table was just such a one. Think Opus Dei. Think KGB. The Bilderberg Group.

But back to the conference and back to the Brexit question. I had found the ideological heart of Remania, no doubt, but I had one more task. To track down the snakes therein. The Outers did not want to give their names, preferring to go under elaborate pseudonyms, and to bunch and chunter in curmudgeonly myopic knots like Brexiteers up and down the land. I found them lurking in the corridor outside the resplendent buffet. (Oh, the metaphors.) How, I asked, how on Earth could they possibly be Esperantists and want out of Europe?

Came one reply: the problem with the EU is that, from the people’s perspective, it’s not European enough.