Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Constructed Languages - The Key to Unity?

Over the past couple of days, I've been putting together some info and further thoughts on Esperanto and here they are:

Artificial languages, or ‘constructed languages’ as they are officially entitled, are a great deal more plentiful than one might expect. There have been over 900 created, from the ones you may have actually heard of, such as Esperanto and its offshoots, and Interlingua, to fictional tongues such as Klingon and Vulcan as seen on Star Trek. Some people have actually taken time to build languages that these non-existent aliens speak and, even more stunningly, some others have learned them! About 600 universal languages, some no doubt natural ones, have been proposed in the past in order to improve communication between different cultures and races, and to provide a platform for achieving world peace. Given the increasing world instability, it’s easy to understand why one recent author describes the history of invented languages as ‘the history of failure’. (Okrent, Arika; 2009)

About the best known, most successful and enduring constructed language is Esperanto, creation of which was started around 1878 by L L Zamenhof and instructional material first published in 1887. A total of 10 million people are estimated to have studied the language at some point in its history and the language was recognised by UNESCO in 1954. Numbers of current speakers are not accurately known, but estimates for fluent speakers vary between 30,000 and 300,000 with casual speaker estimates ranging from 100,000 to 2 million. At best, some Esperanto is known by only 0.03% of the current global population. When contrasted with English, which is spoken as a mother or official tongue by an estimated 7-8% of the world’s population and as a foreign language by countless millions more and is still the most in demand foreign language worldwide, it is easy to understand why hopes that Esperanto will take over as the world’s number one language for global communication seem ill founded. Of course, all things are possible, but the likelihood is very low indeed. I was accused of ‘arrogance’ by a passionate supporter of Esperanto as a global lingua franca a few days ago, but practicality and realism, as opposed to arrogance, have led me to these low expectations of the newcomer language.

One of the reasons for the creation of the Esperanto language was to have a lingua franca that was not related to conquest and domination – the way that languages normally take over as the most common medium for communication in any age. This is an understandable desire, but is it really practical? Would it work? The statistics in the last paragraph give reason for doubt. Whilst the reality of language spreading mostly through aggression is undeniable, it has nonetheless happened and it would not be wise to invest much time and effort in challenging it, as the challenger is likely to find himself in an ineffective minority – whether or not he chooses to acknowledge this. English has increased in popularity far beyond the age of British colonial conquest and has now become the world’s first language for business and much popular culture. The chances of any language, let alone a constructed one that everyone would have to actively learn, proving any real competition for English in the foreseeable future are slim to say the very least! Other languages may have linguistic and historical aspects that may make them more palatable to the tastes of some, but the everyday practicalities leave them out of the real life equation.

Keen Esperantists have taught their children the language which has led to a surprising 200 – 2000 estimated native speakers. However, it is highly unlikely that any sole mother tongue Esperanto speakers exist and this would be highly impractical given that no territories have adopted Esperanto as an indigenous or official language. Whilst Esperanto pages appear in plenty on the Internet, a Google portal and search even being available, and the popular encyclopaedia Wikipedia has a substantial Esperanto section, it is not used as an official working language in international organizations such as the United Nations, European Union or, to my knowledge, anywhere else. I rather suspect that the webpages in Esperanto have been created, not to meet any real linguistic need, but by passionate supporters and promoters of the language. One university in San Marino (one of Europe’s tiny countries ‘in’ Italy) is said to use Esperanto as the language of instruction and provide grants into the research and development of the language. Given that university students here in Taiwan have to have a good reading knowledge of English as many textbooks have not been translated into such a major language as Chinese, I rather doubt that even this San Marino university is able to give an education purely in Esperanto! Nor is it likely to have a great impact on the world scene. Should Esperanto departments be set up in really influential institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and so on, then there may be a glimmer of light at the end of a very long tunnel, but, even in those circumstances, it would be a mere glimmer. Another fact I found interesting is that Hodder and Staughton, who publish the highly popular ‘Teach Yourself’ series, including many languages, did not revise and republish their Esperanto title, the last edition appearing to have been 1992 and now out of print. The language does not appear at all in the ‘Colloquial’ series, which frequently has titles covering the languages no-one else does.

Some claim that, as most instruction in modern foreign languages is largely a failure, Esperanto is needed to fill in the gap. Let’s look at this claim realistically. Success in any subject or venture is largely reliant on interest and effort. The truth of the matter is that most learners of languages, especially in schools the world over, are not interested in the majority of their studies and the foreign languages they are required to study are no exception. Frankly, most kids would rather be out playing football or something in that line than learning French verbs! However, when an element of personal commitment and purpose is introduced, then a different story emerges. Certain nations, for example the Nordic lands in Europe, have a reputation for producing excellent English speakers, not because it’s an official language in any of those countries, but because their own languages are so infrequently learned that English, and other languages, are stressed as most important fields of study. The results are impressive! The same could be achieved with native English speakers learning other languages if only enough interest could be generated among the student population as a whole. As soon as a person develops a real interest in a language and has a use for it, the results change from failure to success. A friend of mine studied French as something he had to during school years, but really wasn’t interested in and consequently wasn’t much good at it. Given that, it came as quite a surprise to him and his parents to find that he was able to learn to speak and read quite good Chinese - an allegedly much harder language! This occurred simply as he has a deep interest in the people and in communicating effectively with them and he also really applied himself to learning and practising Chinese.

As the above experience bears out, an interest in people and in the subject makes the best basis for foreign language learning, however this is arrived at. I’ve heard one or two experiences of people who’ve got ‘into’ language learning through the contacts made via a shared interest in Esperanto, or found their interest there enriched their stay in other countries. Well, yes, of course! You meet people, you get interested in them and their culture, and you often want to know their language. Whether it’s a mutual interest group that brings your together, travel to their country or whatever, the general means and the result are the same. Also, when living in a new community, joining in a shared interest with locals and other ex-pats is naturally going to improve the quality of one’s time there! This is by no means unique to Esperantists and is no reason to assume any sort of superiority for that language or those who are interested in it. Plenty of people get the same results from religious, cultural, creative and sporting associations.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York is currently quite probably the organization using the highest number of languages and currently publishes in over 500 - not including Esperanto or any other constructed language. One booklet was translated into Esperanto in 1922 and printed in time to encourage interest in the Bible’s message amongst members of an Esperantist conference, who, being generally interested in achieving world peace, took Bible literature and attended talks given in 12 European cities in Esperanto directing attention to the Bible and God’s Kingdom as the source of peace. Interestingly, at one location, the talk was back-translated into the local language!

The following was published in the international, multi-lingual journal ‘The Watchtower’ in April 1979, regarding the actual beginnings of Esperanto (so somewhat before the first materials were released in 1887):

"Hope for Esperanto Dims

"The “international language” of Esperanto passed its first 100 years of existence last December with very little note. London’s “Daily Telegraph” reports that “there was no celebration, no birthday cards, not even a telephone call from any of the 1,500 members of the British Esperanto Association.” Esperanto’s inventor devised it as a universal language in the hope that it could help to end all war. (The word literally means: “He who hopes.”) The general secretary of the Association admits: “We now accept that he was wrong.”

Certainly a language spoken by all could be a real benefit. However, the hatreds and warfare that exist even among those who speak the same language make it obvious that ideas of well-intentioned humans cannot bring an end to wars. Only our Creator, the One who “is making wars to cease to the extremity of the earth” has the power to do what is necessary. This he has promised to do, not by means of any social programs, but, rather, by the judgment and “destruction of the ungodly men” who foment divisions among their fellows.—Ps. 46:9; 2 Pet. 3:7."

It is true that many major religions have expressed some interest in and support for the aims of the Esperantist movement, but those are also the same religious groups that devote a great deal more time, money and effort to war-mongering, greedy business deals, acts of terrorism, ethnic cleansing, child-abuse and homosexuality scandals and a deplorable watering down of long-accepted scriptural moral standards. It is not without just cause that it is often said that religion is behind more trouble than anything else! Any movement interested in genuine peace and human unity would be wise not to rely on the backing of organisations that, by their very record, prove themselves actually opposed to peace! World peace will not be achieved through the promotion of a constructed language anymore than it will be by a raw food diet and it’s not wise to spend too much time with ‘If everyone would just do …., then it would be ….’, because everyone won’t 'just do…'

Whilst the aims of those creating such languages as Esperanto have been laudable, one wonders if the modern passion some have for speaking and promoting this tongue are as much to do with the promulgation of world peace and understanding as they are to do with promoting the medium. I mean that in the same way as whether a vitamin salesman is as genuinely interested in promoting clients’ health as he is in selling his products. Each individual Esperantist, or any other linguist, linguistician or reformer, must examine their own motives and motivations. Are we promoting something worthwhile via the medium of a common language? Or are we just promoting the language? When one says something like ‘Esperanto can take over the world’ (a claim which in itself could be interpreted as aggressive and therefore contrary to Esperanto’s purpose), are we genuinely looking for linguistic unity and global peace, or are we interested in self-justification, the vindication of our ideals or some form of domination? By this I mean that, in the highly unlikely event that Esperanto were to be adopted as the world’s premier language of politics, commerce and so on, who would be in line for the most influential and lucrative positions if not fluent Esperantists?? Is this why some individuals are taking such a determined stand for the language? Is labelling those who take a more realistic view of the world’s linguistic situation as ‘arrogant’ truly demonstrating a loving and peaceful attitude? Are we as individuals and groups being practical and realistic? Or are we being blindly passionate and idealistic? What constitutes the best use of our precious time, chasing a practically impossible dream, or working for realities?

This blog will now revert to language use and study in the real world!=) Anyone who wants to leave a comment on the content of this posting will be answered in the comments section as I'm very unlikely to post any further on this topic.

Note to all potential commenters. Please note that discussion on this post is now closed. Thanks!

13 comments:

Bill Chapman said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I hope you'll allow me a couple of comments about Esperanto.

You're certainly right that Esperanto has its roots in idealism and hopes for a better world. However, there are plenty of people, particularly young people, who learn the language for purely practical reasons. There is a good an populart service called Pasporta Servo which offers free accommodation and local contacts in 90 countries.

Just a brief comment on that newspaper article from 1874. It reports that Esperanto's "passed its first 100 years of existence last December with very little note. That's not surprising. Esperanto's cenenary year was not celebrated until 1987!

I wish you well.

neil.nachum said...

Thank you Elizabeth, for your notable efforts in reviewing my comments and other information on Esperanto in you newest blog.

As a volunteer at the UN for two year, I have heard over and over that half of all languages on the Earth are about to disappear this century (based on UNESCO statistics). Some are the indigenous languages of the United States and South America. You have covered this subject (indirectly) quite well.
What I have a harder time dealing with is, after meeting half the ambassadors of Africa at the UN, few, if any African languages (some with millions of speakers) are deemed worth of advancing in elementary schools: colonial languages reign. These same ambassadors then cry of the sad illiteracy of the majority of their peoples. Colonialism has been a terrible failure. Esperanto, not only came out of idealism (and some religiosity) but is five times easier than English or French, and could only be a blessing to Africa. FRIENDSHIP is our biggiest message since 1887. Esperantists would have made a bigger effort for Africans to have been multilingual, instead of a small elite running the show. (Esperanto is spreading in Africa.) Sometimes called neo-colonialism Africa is in a regular state of ethnic war. Your fears that Esperantists are somehow power hungry is still just a fear.(The only thing we hunger foris that smaller nations: Hungarians, Lithuanians and Catalonians will be full participants in the European Union). We are of democratic purpose. Our official principals are the expressed in the Prague Manifesto, available in many languages (www.lingvo.org--if my memory serves me).

neil.nachum said...

Since you have quoted Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages, I'll note that she has been a keynote speaker at several Esperanto conferences, but has not to my knowledge participated in the major conferences held in Europe, Asia and South America. She like you has been fairly generous with her time on Esperanto. One of my blogs collects the best of reviews and radio interviews with her. www.inthelandofinventedlanguages.blogspot.com

neil.nachum said...

Why the Nordic people succeed (at languages and just about everything)is a major interest of mine. I may differ a bit with your comments. I have a seperate blog, under development, on this (utopia-vs-reality@blogspot.com). In short the answer is free time: 18 months maternity/paternity leave (distributed over several years if requested-ex. with a 3 day work week for 2 years), one month vacation for everybody who is employed , 80 paid sick days to care for children-to age 8, free health care, quality free pre-k, quality free universities and much more. Sweden is most noteworthy. Most countries (especially super-powers) have unlimited funds only for war, while Scandinavia has unlimited will to print money for social progress. This may also have something to do with the powerful position of women--mostly in Scandinavia (and some other European countries) for decades. Long live Scandinavia even if they are the minority who speak English as a second language well--I admire them immensly.

penivos said...

I learned Esperanto because my school wanted me to teach it 14 years ago.
It was a great success. Disaffected teenagers were staying hours after school to talk to Swiss kids in Esperanto within 6 months. Naturally, I've been doing it ever since and the results have been outstanding in terms of confidence, enjoyment, application and success in subsequent languages.
My own family have enjoyed language immersion travel using Esperanto in 8 European countries, Japan , South Korea and West Africa.
The benefits that have come from less than 100 hours of learning are remarkable.
Any elementary school teacher can share this experience using "Talking to the Whole Wide World", a learning-while-teaching resource newly available from www.mondeto.com

John D'Amico said...

For the record, the May 1, 1991 issue of The Watchtower states:

"At least 600 universal languages have been proposed over the years. Of these, Esperanto has had the most impact because about 10,000,000 people have learned it since its creation in the year 1887."

This confirms the concluding comments from Bill Chapman on the date of its inception.

John D'Amico said...

The date of the quotation from The Watchtower as provided in the blog is incorrect. It should read April 15, 1979.

The comments are with regard to Proto-Esperanto, an early version of the language that L. L. Zamenhof demonstrated on December 17, 1878. He called it Lingwe Uniwersala.

According to Wikipedia, the only extant grammar from the 1878 version of the language are these lines from a song:

Malamikete de las nacjes,
Kadó, kadó, jam temp' está;
La tot' homoze in familje
Konunigare so debá.

And so that explains how a language ultimately created in 1887 could celebrate 100 years in 1978.

Elizabeth Braun said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Bill, Esperantists are not alone in offering this kind of service, but folk learning the language *purely* in order to take advantage of kind hospitality that was actually meant for genuinely like minded individuals etc makes me a little nervous... A clear interest in personal gain seems evident.=(

Neil, it's a shame that so many African languages are endangered. However, my interest are not, and never have been, political. The whys and wherefores of this tragedy just show the consitent utter failure of all man's efforts to deal with all issues!

I don't fear that many Esperantists are power crazed! I actually said that 'some individuals' may have an eye to personal agrandisement later on, and they almost certainly will exist as they do in all groups.

Unless I'm mistaken, Miss Okrent is a linguistician, not an Esperantist. I too am interested in all things language and the idea of constructed languages of any types *is* a fascinating study. I just don't feel the need to learn or promote one.

John, thanks for the further info on dates ,and for the correction of the WT date - with so much info buzzing around, I saw the 4 for April and it got stuck in the wrong place! Anyway, post amended accordingly. The 1991 WT quote that you mentioned was not intending to give any authoritative data on Esperanto, but just to show how all human efforts at creating world peace and unity are doomed to failure and that even those with marginal success, like this one, have not really made an substantial impact. They will have got the 1887 from the commonly available data.

Having said that, I would have thought it was pretty clear that Esperanto wasn't invented in the same year that instructional materials for it were published! I mean, constructing a whole language, making revisions and refinements, then writing, editing and publishing teaching materials, is a HUGE undertaking that would have taken all of the 9 or 10 years suggested by these dates. I was assuming that folk would have seen this and realised why there was a discrepancy between the commonly found 1887 date and the earlier date of the language's actual conception. It was ultimately releassed to the public in 1887, not created.

pistike65 said...

There would be much to comment on, but I only have time for one point. On Wikipedia etc. in Esperanto you say
"I rather suspect that the webpages in Esperanto have been created, not to meet any real linguistic need, but by passionate supporters and promoters of the language."
The last clause is certainly true, but as to the first, what is a "real linguistic need"? Esperanto happens to be my second best language after my native Hungarian, so whatever information in Esperanto comes up in Wikipedia or otherwise is the easiest of access for me. And I guess the same goes for the overwhelming majority of Esperanto speakers. So, what is happening here is simply a community creating something quite useful for its own use, meeting a real need.
Best
István Ertl, translator

Elizabeth Braun said...

That's interesting Istvan, thanks! If your English is anything to go by, I would say you could manage those pages with ease as well as anything you feel you understand better.=)

neil.nachum said...

In regards to Isvan's fine English: Numerous Esperanto speakers prefer Esperanto but also speak, French, German, Russian and a variety of major languages. I'll make it very clear:when I first met Istvan (a Hungarian with a degree in French) 20 years ago-and occasionally since, we spoke only in Esperanto--it makes us feel uniquely equal-English does not-
E-o facilitates friendship.
Neil, New York

Elizabeth Braun said...

Thanks to the commenter who said "A good pragmatic article on constructed languages!" I gratfeully accept the compliment, but have felt it necessary to delete the rest of the comment post and the links and they promote things I believe seriously flawed and, if I were to leave them here, I would feel I was contributing to spreading things I cannot support with a good conscience.

If this seems at all censorious, I can only point out that it's perfectly possible for people to find all the info about Esperanto they could wish for from their own websearches and, of course, this is my blog and I decide on content.=)

It also seems that a link to this posting has been sent out via e-mail to a group of Esperantists, thus occasioning the volume of visitors and comments. Of course, everyone has every right to do refer to whatever they wish to in the public domain, but please be reminded that my interest in any constructed language is from a linguistic point of view ONLY! Whilst I truly appreciate the ideals and aims of the movement, it has a distinctly political element, which I cannot approve, and is trying to achieve world peace and unity by methods which totally exclude the only hope for that.

I belong to a much larger organisation which is 100% united and peaceful, depsite having over 7 million members in 235 countries and territories, as we are all of one mind when it comes to belief and prinsiple. This unity for transcends anything that linguistic unity has to offer and the message behind it has changed some of the most unpleasant and dangerous of people into peaceful and useful members of society. Whether or not we can communicate with spoken or written language, we are all one as to purpose and know that each one can be trusted completely.

Thank you Neil, I get your point, no need to define it any further.

My personal opinion is that communication in any mutually intelligible language alongside the sensing of genuine personal interest will lead to warmth and friendship. The language itself is irrelevant, at least that's what my experience of 20 years or so has been.

I cannot share your passion for something I believe doomed to ultimate failure, but I admire your tenacity. You seem like a really nice guy and it seems such a shame that you're not involved with something certain of success!! Naturally the material spread by passionate adherents of any cause is going to be convincing! What's the point in publishing it if not? Only one thing though has any chance of being true....

I'm not offended, but I am finding this going a bit too far. This blog is NOT a forum for promotion of anyone's ideals (beyond the owners, and even she has only mentioned them in response to others' prodding, so to speak), and I would greatly appreciate if this could be dropped now. Thanks in advance for everyone's co-operation.

neil.nachum said...

Again, this was an excellent dialogue. I may be a spiritual person of sorts, and respect you for your beliefs.