Some Comments on Ignorance About Esperanto by Claude PIRON

Publié le samedi 1er janvier 2005 par admin_sat , mis a jour le lundi 10 janvier 2005

[Doing field research on various aspects of intercultural communication, including Esperanto, Claude PIRON discovered certain misunderstandings among linguistics professionals regarding the language. I’ve taken the liberty of putting together a web page in which he answers some of these misunderstandings. — Don HARLOW]

Linguists don’t bother with artificial languages.

This is a rather offhand generalization. The field of linguistics is extremely vast and there are quite a few linguists who are also interested in that part of it.

The very idea of such a thing as a functioning artificial language is hopelessly naive.

Not if you observe it in its practical use. In countries like Poland, Hungary, Finnland, Latvia, Russia, Japan, China, Uzbekistan and many others, Esperanto proves to be quite useful, especially in small towns, where English is not of much use. I know of Americans who had a similar experience in France. I’ve had access through Esperanto to a segment of the local populations with which most foreigners have no contact, and a possibility of discussing in depth various topics with much more ease and comfort than in any other language. Esperanto is no more naive than E-mail. It’s a method of communicating which has many advantages over others and which doesn’t need to be available in every household to be worth the small investment in time and effort. In my experience, it is much more cost effective than English.

The successful examples (viz. Esperanto) are an excellent reflection of Western imperialism.

Sorry, but perusal of Esperanto publications and contacts with members of the Esperanto community reveal this to be a prejudice. A majority of people in this community learned the language precisely to have at their disposal a language free of political, economic and other power connotations. Esperanto was not born in the West, is not especially widespread there and is so different from Western languages in most of its linguistic traits that you would be very hard put to defend your opinion on the basis of factual analysis. Only the word roots (but not their semantic scope, which results from a century of global interaction) are to a large extent Western, but no serious scholar can base a judgment on such a superficial feature. The lexical part of most Caribbean Creoles is more Western in origin than Esperanto’s. If such a Creole language is used as a means of intercultural communication, do you see it as a reflection of Western imperialism ?

Languages such as Esperanto reveal considerable ignorance of the structures of other languages.

What other languages ? As I have established in my article "Esperanto : A European or Asiatic Language ?" (Esperanto Documents No 22, Rotterdam : UEA, 1981), Esperanto is more an isolating language than an agglutinating or flexional one. Derivation of ’my’ from ’I’ or of ’first’ from ’one’ (mi > mia ; unu > unua) is something you find in Chinese and in Esperanto, but not in Turkish, Hungarian or any Indo-European language. In no Western language do you have infinite series like the Esperanto samlandano, samrasano, samlingvano, etc, corresponding to the Chinese tongguo, tongzu, tongyu, you have to use other words like fellow-citizen, person of the same race, speaker of the same language. In Chinese, you don’t have to learn a special word to express the idea ’coreligionist’, you use the ready-made pattern : tongjiao, just as in Esperanto : samreligiano. Structurally speaking, Esperanto has very little in common with Western languages.

Languages such as Esperanto are no easier for non-Europeans to learn than French or English.

When I observed communication in Esperanto in Eastern Asia, especially among Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Koreans, I made it a point to ask people how much time they had devoted to acquiring the language. Since I was comparing communication in international settings according to whether they used English only, simultaneous interpretation, consecutive interpretation or Esperanto, I asked the same question of people using a language other than their mother tongue. Most of these Asians with a rather crippled English had devoted some 2000 hours to learning it ; those who used Esperanto had studied it for less than 200 hours. Yet, their level was much superior whatever the criterion (fluency, lack of misunderstandings, spontaneity, nuances, humor, etc.). Obviously, your conclusion is based on erroneous data. (See my research report "Esperanto : l’image et la realite’", Cours et �tudes de Linguistique contrastive et appliqu�e No 66, Paris : Institut de Linguistique appliqu�e et de didactique des langues, University of Paris-8, 1987, and my book Le defi des langues, Paris : L’Harmattan, 1994, e.g. pp. 243-254 ; a review of this book can be found in Language in Society, 26 (1), 143-147, 1997).

Proponents of languages such as Esperanto buy into the "language is/can be logical" myth.

No, sir. A linguist knows that a language should not be confused with what its speakers say of it. Esperanto is based on an all-encompassing law of trait generalization, which is something quite different, and which is the reason why it is so much more pleasant to use than any European language. In Western languages, you cannot generalize patterns. The student who has noticed the pattern in farm > farmer, report > reporter cannot generalize it to fish > fisher (fisherman) or teeth > teether (dentist). In Esperanto he can : farm’ > farmisto, raport’ > raportisto, fish’ > fishisto, dent’ > dentisto

Whenever I have to speak English I regret that it lacks a similar structure. The last time I had to improvise a speech in your language, I stumbled on the past tense of cost and said costed, I said ununderstandable instead of incomprehensible, I pronounced indict as rhyming with derelict, convict and could not remember which syllable to stress in alternative. So I always feel handicapped in English, never in Esperanto, where none of such problems may arise.

Proponents of languages such as Esperanto pretend that languages don’t change or can somehow be regulated

This is not true. I challenge you to quote a document emanating from the Esperanto community with such an absurd pretension. Most users of Esperanto are well aware that their language developed naturally, through usage in a kind of diaspora, on the basis of Zamenhof’s project, with which it should not be confused. A fellow linguist, Jouko Lindstedt, Head of the Department of Slavic and Baltic Languages at the University of Helsinki, Finnland, is the moderator of an Internet list, "Denask-L", whose participants are mostly members of binational families having Esperanto as their family language and the children’s mother tongue. Simply reading their exchanges and comparing their language with similar texts from before WW2 and with texts from the 19th century proves beyond doubt that the language has never ceased to change, not under any agency, but spontaneously, as any other tongue. On that subject, see my article "A few notes on the evolution of Esperanto" in Klaus Schubert, ed., Interlinguistics No 42 of the series Trends in Linguistics - Studies and Monographs (Berlin, New York : Mouton de Gruyter, 1989), pp. 129-142.

I believe that a scientific, scholarly approach is as warranted in linguistics as in other fields. Many linguists seem to be unaware that before spreading opinions on Esperanto, it is worth taking one’s tape recorder, attending encounters of speakers of the language, visiting families where it is in daily use, analyzing the tapes and all kinds of published or written documents (handwritten correspondence is linguistically quite interesting) and, well, just behave as a proper linguistic scholar does for any Bantu or Filipino language.

The amount of untruths to be found in linguistic publications on Esperanto (as on Chinese) is appalling. All the more so since they’re formulated in good faith. Isn’t it an interesting socio-psychological phenomenon ?