How two linguists got Esperanto completely wrong.

This is a response to the podcast lingthusiasm - episode 1. This podcast is hosted by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. Links can be found at the bottom of this article.

Esperanto as an international language

Early in the podcast, they ask the question:
"Wouldn’t it be great if everyone just spoke one language?"

Later they say:
"one of the best-known endeavours to get everyone to speak a common language and lead to peace on Earth is Esperanto"

Let's be clear here. Esperanto is not supposed to be the only language everyone speaks. It is intended as a second language for everybody. This distinction is never mentioned during the podcast and they do not seem to be aware of it. This is not a trivial distinction. If everyone right now would speak the same language, it would fracture and evolve separately along political and cultural borders. In a couple of generations they would all have changed into local dialects or even entirely different languages. This is more or less what happened to Latin. It turned into French, Italian and Spanish (and more) once the central authority of Rome fell. Those languages are no longer mutually intelligible by their speakers even though there are obvious similarities. Something similar happened to Dutch and Afrikaans. A Dutch speaker can mostly make sense of Afrikaans but it takes some effort. In order for Esperanto to be successful and remain coherent as a universal language, it is important that people can express their cultural differences in their own language and use Esperanto for more formal or international communication.

Towards the end of the podcast they say:

"It’s just that I think a pluralistic way of 'wouldn’t be great everyone spoke multiple languages’ is maybe more likely to get us there."

Clearly they haven't understood the point of Esperanto as this is exactly what it is trying to do. It is trying to get everybody to speak multiple languages, namely Esperanto and their own national language.

Is Esperanto really neutral?

At about the 3:46 time mark, they claim Esperanto is not completely neutral. That's based on the argument that Esperanto is inspired by Romance languages and thus is only easy if you speak one of these languages.

What would a totally neutral language look like in their view? There are over 6,000 languages in the world. Should a totally neutral language borrow an equal amount from every single language? That would not only be very unpractical but it is completely unclear that this would truly silence a lot of the critics.

Another approach would be the design of the Klingon language. It is a language spoken by aliens in the Star Trek universe. The language was designed so as to not resemble any existing language. I doubt that a language which is hard for everyone would be more successful.

Zamenhof was born in Białystok, which is today in Poland but at the time was part of the Russian empire. In his city, there were tensions between different ethnicities speaking Russian, Yiddish, Polish and German. Zamenhof would study all these languages as well as French, Latin and Ancient Greek. The languages he knew and which shaped Esperanto are thus more the result of an accident of history rather than a conscious, political choice.

The indo-european language family is the largest family of languages and spoken by over 40% of the world's population. It makes perfect sense to have an international language based on that.

The declaration of Boulogne, written by Zamenhof, clearly states that Esperanto should be a neutral language:

Esperantism is a movement that supports the introduction of an international auxiliary language (IAL). No further meaning can be attached to it. It is politically, religiously, and morally neutral, and it does not seek to replace any existing languages, only to supplement them.

Practical experience tells us that the origin of the words does not matter. Esperanto is very popular in countries like India, China and Japan. Hard data for the number of Esperanto speakers is difficult to come by. The wikipedia page for Esperanto has a map of speakers around the world. It is based on the membership of UEA (Universala Esperanto-Asocio). This represents a small sample size and is not very scientific but it is one of the few pieces of data that we have. You can clearly tell that the green countries in their different shades are well spread throughout the world.


Esperantujo.directory is a website where people can make themselves known as Esperantists. You can hover over the map with your mouse pointer and find out how many speakers there are in each country. This is again a small sample size but you will notice that the distribution of speakers vaguely matches the map above.

Is Esperanto sexist?

According to their twitter profile, both hosts are linguists. They get something badly wrong in the beginning of the podcast in claiming that feminine forms are "diminutives" of the male forms. Why did they call it that? A diminutive is used to refer to smaller versions of the meaning of a word. Calling it a diminutive is implying that the suffix -in has a negative connotation. I have looked for a different definition of diminutive in case I missed something. Found nothing.

Esperanto has a diminutive. It is the suffix -et and it is placed right after the root. Thus we can have domo ( house) and dometo ( small house, cottage).

To make a word feminine, we use a suffix; not a diminutive. Thus we have viro (man) and virino (woman). Strangely in their podcast they use the "homo" to mean man and homino to mean woman. This is not correct since homo means "human" however I suppose it would still be understood.

It is difficult to address this topic in depth without talking about politics and this is always something tricky to go into. I will try.

The Victorian era lasted from 1837 to 1901; the reign of queen Victoria. Zamenhof was born in 1859. In the beginning of this era, women typically did not work and typically did not own any property; especially those belonging to the middle and upper class. They also did not vote. Thus woman were completely dependant upon men to survive. They depended upon their father before they got married and upon their husband once married. Thus getting married was the most important event in their life and women were addressed as 'Miss' or 'Madam' depending on whether they were married or not. As the Industrial Revolution unfolded, women started to enter to workplace more and more.
Then there was the first wave of feminism and this was about giving women the right to vote. This lasted roughly from 1850 to 1940. Then there was the second wave of feminism. This was about giving women more equality in general. I am of course oversimplifying and I am not qualified to discuss this in detail. This is however enough context for the purpose of this article.

Many languages are very sexist and clearly reflect those bygone days. Look at German. German has gendered nouns. They can be masculine, feminine and neuter. The German for 'woman' (die Frau) is feminine. No surprise there. The German for 'unmarried girl' (das Fraulein) is neuter. Why? Because unmarried women were not considered important and only gained importance once married. (https://angelikasgerman.co.uk/why-is-das-madchen-neuter/).

Then there is French. The third person plural is 'ils' if you refer to a group of men and 'elles' if you refer to a group of women. What if you refer to a mixed group? Then you need to use 'ils' even if you are talking about one hundred women and a single man.

As stated earlier, Zamenhof knew both French and German. Esperanto does not have the same gender issues than the languages it draws from and thus can be said to be very progressive for its day.

The first publication of Esperanto was in 1887, during the Victorian Era. This was a society during which gender roles were a much bigger part of society. Men worked and women stayed at home. To be clear, I am not condoning this but merely stating that this was a fact of life at the time. The way that Esperanto treats gender is more a reflection of a society with strict gender roles rather than a statement of inferiority.

Zamenhof gave a speech during the first international gathering of Esperanto (Universala Kongreso). This speech was recorded and you may today listen to it on youtube. I shall embed the video below.

Here is my translation of parts of the speech:

I salute you, dear fellow esperantists; brothers and sisters of the great, world-wide, human family, who have come from countries far and near; from the most diverse realms of the world, to brotherly hold hands.

Our gathering is modest; the outside world is not very aware of this and our words do not fly over the telegraph to all the cities of the world. But through the air of our room fly mysterious sounds. Very quiet sounds;
not audible to the ear, but can be felt by all feeling souls. The sounds of something great, that is now being born.

...

And for the first time in the history of humanity, we - members of the most diverse populations, stand next to each other, not like enemies, not like rivals, but like brothers, who take each other's hands; sincerely, human to human.

We are aware of the importance of the present day, because today inside the hospitable walls of Boulogne-sur-Mer, we have come together, not like French people with English people, not like Russians with Polish people, but humans with humans.

Are these the words of a sexist man? Note how early in the speech he mentions "brothers and sisters" (fratoj kaj fratinoj) and the second half of the speech "not like enemies, not like rivals, but like brothers" ( ne kiel fremduloj, ne kiel konkurantoj, sed kiel fratoj). There are now two ways to understand this speech. One way is to believe that he welcomed both brothers and sisters; the brothers should stand together like friends and the sisters should be enemies. Another way to read the speech is to understand that Zamenhof was already using the word "frato" in a way that, depending on the context, could be gender-neutral.

This is exactly the same use as "man" in English. Mostly it is used to refer to male humans, but sometimes (as in "freedom for all men") it is understood to also include women.

This is not that much of a problem as Esperantists today will generally understand, based on the context, whether amiko (friend) is supposed to refer to a male friend specifically or could be either male or female.
If you want to be explicit, you could say viramiko (male friend), amikino (female friend) or geamiko (gender-neutral friend).

While I do agree that this could have been done better, this makes Esperanto no better or worse than other languages. I would have preferred a suffix to make things male, a suffix to make things female and the default being gender-neutral. Esperanto, in this instance, is a child of its time.

Gretchen McCulloch said about gender in Esperanto:

"Because this is genuinely a semantic distinction that’s useful to be able to make and Esperanto just can’t do it."
That's clearly not true.

Will Esperanto lead to world peace?

Another point they make towards the end of the podcast is that there are fights in families or that countries fight civil wars and thus a single language is not a guarantee for peace. I don't think any Esperantist is so deluded to think that Esperanto will solve every problem on earth. I guess that there are always a few people in any community who think like that but by and large the community is much more grounded than that. However, I would argue that the whole world understanding a single language can only be a good thing overall.

I am trying to keep discussion of politics to a minimum but the idea of peace is inherently political. It might not hurt to talk a small bit about history here.

Towards the end of WWII, in 1944, the Nazis had been driven out of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. They created the Benelux in September of that year. The Benelux was essentially a free trade area for coal and steel to rebuild these countries. This was also the embryonic beginning of the European Union.

In September 1946 Winston Churchill gave a speech in Zurich, Switzerland. Germany had been severely punished after WWI and that clearly hadn't worked. So what to do next? During the speech he said: "We must build a kind of United States of Europe". The idea being that if different countries of Europe became economically dependant upon one another, war would be less likely. So far, this has worked out.

War and business are tightly linked. War is bad for business (except for the weapons trade and some other things) and business does make war less likely (at least that's the theory, is there any scientific research about this anywhere?). Wide use of Esperanto would make trade more easy and thus, indirectly, make war less likely.

What happened?

How did two linguist get just about every fact about Esperanto wrong? Some of this could be said to be opinion but they got simple things wrong which could easily be verified. Gretchen McCulloch stated that the word for 'and' is kai. She even spells it out explicitly. She misspells it, the right word is kaj. Probably because she was thinking about the Greek word from which it is derived.
She said that the word for man is 'homo' and 'homino' is woman. The correct words are 'viro' and 'virino' respectively. Homo means human.
Lauren Gawne said her only word in Esperanto is 'hotdogo' which is supposed to mean 'hot dog'. While that might be a permissible way of saying it in Esperanto, the more widely accepted way is 'kolbasobulko' or possibly 'kolbasbulko'.

Did they have a bad day? Did they simply not do any research? I haven't listened to any other of their podcasts and thus I can't say whether they just slipped up once or they are always like that.

Thanks

Thank you for reading this article. If you enjoyed it, I encourage you to share the link to this article on social media (http://greggink.com/cgi-bin/lingthusiasm/ling). For those who hope the language succeeds, this can only happen if we challenge misconceptions and spread the word.

For those who have comments or objections, I invite you to comment on the following reddit page: https://www.reddit.com/r/Esperanto/comments/iihu6h/how_two_linguists_got_esperanto_completely_wrong/.

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Links

Lingthusiasm episode 1: https://lingthusiasm.com/post/154520059101/lingthusiasm-episode-1-speaking-a-single-language
Lingthusiasm epidode 1 transcript: https://lingthusiasm.com/post/155357756341/transcript-lingthusiasm-episode-1-speaking-a
Gretchen McCulloch's twitter: @GretchenAMcC
Lauren Gawne's twitter: @superlinguo

If reading this has made you interested in learning some Esperanto, I wrote a short story for beginners with explainations in English:
https://www.reddit.com/r/Esperanto/comments/ibksgk/short_story_for_beginners_mallonga_fabelo_por/

My Esperanto dictionary: retvortaro.greggink.com

© 2020 Gregg Ink