Luxuries & Necessities: Best forgotten language of the future
Esperanto Society of Sacramento
Like a lot of parents, Doug Leonard’s folks sometimes spoke in a secret language when then wanted to communicate privately.
But his mom and dad didn’t spell out words or lapse into pig Latin to confound the kids. They used Esperanto—an invented language crafted 120 years ago, in the hopes of fostering world peace.
Leonard’s father was an enthusiastic Esperantist, as was his father before him. And, eventually, Leonard came to love it, too. “For me, it’s about my heritage,” the now-retired federal auditor says in explaining why he still speaks and promotes the language.
He’s one of a small group of Sacramentans who speak the often misunderstood tongue, invented in 1887 by a Polish eye doctor named Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof. In its early form, Esperanto had only 900 root words, borrowed from the several languages of Europe, but recombined according to a simple set of grammatical rules. Zamenhof hoped his new language would be easy enough, and flexible enough, to bridge language barriers among nations and foster peace and understanding. The word Esperanto itself is Esperanto for “one who hopes.”
But from the beginning Esperanto had some pretty nasty and powerful enemies. Stalin called it the “language of spies” and banned it. Hitler declared that it was a language of Jewish domination, and banned it. Saddam Hussein banned it and had Esperanto teachers deported.
Today, most estimates put the worldwide number of active Esperantists at around 100,000, while occasional students may add up to around 2 million. Leonard says he uses Esperanto every day, mostly in correspondence with other Esperantists. He once conversed long into the night, entirely in Esperanto, with a WWII Japanese fighter pilot about Asian military history. And years ago, while his tour bus was lost in Czechoslovakia, he used Esperanto to help the Italian-speaking bus driver and German-speaking tour guide to find their way.
Not bad for someone who always had trouble with foreign languages. “I had a little French in high school, but the teacher kicked me out because he thought I had no linguistic ability.”
Esperanto is different, Leonard says. “You can learn Esperanto in one-eighth of the time it takes to learn a natural language,” Leonard explains.
Where “natural languages” like English and French are riddled with irregularities and inconsistencies, gendered nouns, and arbitrary spellings, Esperanto boasts only 16 rules of grammar. It’s modular, like building Ikea furniture or making a tinker-toy. “It’s like a puzzle. You have all the puzzle pieces and they all fit together,” explained Amanda Higley Schmidt, another Sacramento Esperantist.
In college, Schmidt was interested in all sorts of languages, even dabbling in Swahili. But her enthusiasm for Esperanto is more than academic.
“For me, it’s not a hypothetical language. There is a flourishing community of people who are using it right now,” Schmidt explained.
She was won over by that community in her early 20s, when she traveled across Europe and stayed with other Esperanto speakers. “The international Esperanto youth movement is really fun. It’s a really cool group of people that is accepting and knows how to have fun. The friends I made in Europe, they are lifelong friends.”
Now a stay-at-home mom in her early 30s, she’s not sure when she’ll get to travel around Europe again. But as with Leonard, Esperanto is now becoming something of a family tradition in her home.
“I speak to my daughter in Esperanto 100 percent of the time,” she explained. While her daughter speaks English in the home, the 5-year old is already nearly bilingual, able to understand spoken Esperanto and beginning to speak it, as well.
Even at the height of its popularity in the 1970s, Esperanto never gained the traction in the United States that it did in Europe and Canada. That is, unless you count the American science-fiction-film industry, where Esperanto is almost a second language. The films Gattaca and Blade: Trinity both featured some Esperanto, mostly in the background. And the 1965 horror b-movie Incubus put Esperanto center stage. Filmed in and around Big Sur, and starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner, Incubus is a tale of sexy demons who roam the land in search of sexy souls to steal. The filmmakers shot all of the dialogue in Esperanto with English subtitles. Shatner’s considerable acting talents aside, many Esperantists have faulted his pronunciation. “I have a copy. It’s really awful,” Leonard said.