They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

La revo kiu neniam povis realig’i

La revo kiu neniam povis realig'i

(A dream that never came true)

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

Esperanto. It means "the hopeful". Even if I prefer an alternative translation:

"In the hope of..."

This is the idea after which the artificial language was named. It came to birth with the aim of becoming a universal code that allowed human beings to communicate with each other beyond political barriers, mother tongues, and the different races and religions that exist in the world.

Such a kind fate –and the dream that formed the basis for it– never happened, though.

I learnt Esperanto many years ago, when I was in my teens. It had been a proposal considered by Spanish and Italian anarchists along the track of their comings and goings, and maybe that was the reason for my interest. However, it might also have had something to do with my liking for languages since I was a child. I remember that I got a small Sopena [1] dictionary –which I still have, threadbare but proud, in my library– and in one morning I learnt the grammar. No, it is not a tale of any heroic deed: what happens is that Esperanto was designed –like any other good artificial language– with a very simple structure, which can be summarized in 16 basic rules. Once you know the grammar rules, the only thing to be done is to start learning the vocabulary. That is the most complex part of the language, but it is not worse than in any other one.

The simplicity of Esperanto can be exemplified by writing down a few grammar points. For example, all the names end in "o", the adjectives in "a", the verbs in "i" and the adverbs in "e". This fact, which seems too simple, endows Esperanto with an amazing richness. Knowing the root of any word, let's say "hom-" for example, we can create "homo" (human being), "homa" (human), "home" (humanly) and even "homi" that has not a translation in English but would express the idea of "being human". Thanks to this feature, a lot of terms can be created that do not exist in any Indo-European language, and, in a very simple way, can also be explained concepts that would imply many words and very complex constructions in our languages.

On the other way, the vocabulary is clear and concise: the best dictionaries do not have more than 10.000 roots, and from each root, as it was mentioned above, different type of words can be created. In addition, the creator of Esperanto added 40 prefixes and suffixes –whose number is always increasing, even though some of them are not officially accepted– that allows you to compose new words by deriving them from the root. In that way, from the root "bibliotek-" I can obtain "biblioteko" (library), "bibliotekisto" (librarian), "bibliotekistestro" (chief of librarians – male) and "bibliotekistestrino" (chief of librarians – female). And from this last term I can also build the adverb "bibliotekistestrine" (in the chief of librarians (female) manner) and even a verb and an adjective, though they might not have any sense in our language. As anyone can notice after reading the examples given in the previous lines, from each root a minimum number of 20 or 30 words can be derived...

Pronunciation is quite simple as well: it has sounds that do not exist in English but they can be found in others Indo-European languages (e.g. French), what should make it not very difficult for us to try them. The good news is that any letter has only a sound, which stays always the same and does not change under any circumstance, a feature that is not easily found in many natural languages.

Once I had learnt the language, I read a lot in it because I was lucky to study it when the world enjoyed a sort of Esperanto "revival". At that time I had access to many texts and books, and much later the Internet allowed me to find even more. I found absolutely beautiful words, explaining ideas that were impossible to say in Spanish without building a very long and too complex sentence. Esperanto is an intense, expressive and wonderful language, and to use it properly demands a kind of endowment, a sort of artistic ability which refers to creativity and a strong desire to communicate with others...

Esperanto was invented by Dr. Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof (1859-1917), of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, who was an ophthalmologist and philologist born in the present Polish territory under the Russian dominion. He concluded his work in 1878, but only was able to publish it in 1887, in Warsaw, with the title "International Language" under a pseudonym: "Doktoro Esperanto" (hopeful Doctor), after which the language was named in the end.

Zamenhof invented Esperanto combining roots and grammars from different Latin languages (Spanish, French, Italian...), Saxon (German, English, Scandinavian languages...) and Slavic (Polish, Russian...). He also used terms from Greek and Latin. Esperanto is, therefore, a mosaic. It is a language that has a very detailed vocabulary, which avoids homonymous as far as possible: so dream (a series of images, events and feelings that happen in our mind when we are asleep) is said "song'o", but dream (a wish to have or be) is said "revo". And the same happens with the many different verbs, with animals, with the diverse tones of colors, with flowers...

Zamenhof's intention was to create a universal language (an aim also pursued by Volapuk and other artificial languages later on) as a means of international communication that contributed to peoples understanding of each other. His personal life and the dark times through which it went by were the frame and the basis that led him towards the invention of Esperanto. The scope of this project was such that in 1954, the UN, in response to 19 million signatures, recommended all member countries to teach and use the language. The library of the "Brita Esperantista Asocio" (British Esperanto Association) had, in the 60s, over 30.000 volumes, and a great deal of literary works, essays and journals were translated into Esperanto, as well as books of Science, Technique, Policy and Philosophy. Many clubs and regional and national associations were created, and a good number of conferences (around 700) were celebrated in order to exchange culture and experiences among people interested in the language and with a good knowledge of it. Millions of letters marked with a green star (the symbol of Esperanto) crossed the seas at that time and allowed many people to communicate in this gorgeous language with others far away.

To learn Esperanto did not consist only in knowing a new language. It meant, more than anything else, to be part of a dream, a philosophy, a hope. The speakers of that language were, all of us, "people in the hope of something". We believed in the possibility of a world of equals, where, as a first step, we would communicate with each other in a universal code, avoiding the dominion of one natural language over the others.

Nevertheless, the dream had one objection. Zamenhof did not have invented exactly a "universal" language: he had created a pan-European language, if it can be explained that way, a language that had quite an easy pronunciation and sounded familiar to European ears, but was extremely difficult for speakers from other parts of the world. For an Arabic, Chinese or Quechua speaker, to learn Esperanto was even more difficult than study English, and to put things worse, English was not only more useful, but it was widely spread and was more "important".

As time passed, Esperanto was slowly forgotten. It felt silent when the voices of their speakers faded into a whisper and the dream of its creator withered like a flower.

It may be spoken yet and continue to be a number of Esperanto speakers: national and international associations have not disappeared. However, this number is neither high nor enough.

Few libraries have books written in Esperanto, and there are even less librarians who know the language, its background, the philosophy behind... There are almost not libraries specialized in the language and the handful of them that I know are placed in Europe. There is still a number of people that keep on writing letters (or emails) and marking them with the well-known green star, which was (and continues to be, I suppose) synonymous with peace, solidarity, nearness... and hope: the sort of hope held by Zamenhof (when invented it) and his followers (when decided to use it) that would help us to create a new world, based on tolerance and mutual understanding.

The philologist developed a tool that would make it possible the world he wanted very much to get. However, the real world decided to walk in a different direction.

At the present, if we want to be understood by a foreigner, we end up speaking a language that has nothing to do with ourselves. We end up searching the web, whose 80 % of information is written in English. We end up spoiling our own languages with terms that are not connected with our cultures. When I see this, I feel full of sadness and cannot avoid thinking that perhaps the dream should not have died. I also think that a library in a language shared by everybody –in addition to the titles in our own one– rich and easy to learn, would have allowed us to know each other deeper and to learn more and better from each other.

If you have doubts about what has been said in the previous paragraph, you only have to consider the great number of books that we cannot read because they are written in dozens of empowered languages that we cannot dream of learning; you may also take into account all those colleagues and friends we cannot speak to for the same reason; you can even think in all the valuable information that remains out of our hands on the basis of such circumstance...

The person that is writing to you still reads, from time to time, the couple of Esperanto books that has in his library. He wants to believe that someday the dream will grow and mature again: maybe in a different way, perhaps with other words and new rules, but he awaits that it flourishes with the same intentions and hopes behind.

De la plene floranta urbo de Kordobo, mi sendas al vi miajn pli bonajn deziraj'ojn, kun tiuj vortoj kiu mi ankorau' rememoras, malgrau' la forgesaj'o kiu falis sur ili.

(From the heavily populated, with hundreds and hundreds of flowers, city of Córdoba, I send to you my best wishes through these words that I still manage to remember, in spite of the cloak of forgetfulness that has covered them).

[1] Spanish publisher