Esperanto, Welsh and the language wars
Could Esperanto save the world? When I was a kid I did learn a few words of this proto-global language, invented (as a gesture to intra-planetary understanding) in the 1880s by the doctor-cum-linguist, Polish-cum-Lithuanian, Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof. He had, it was said, toyed with idea of bringing back Latin as the world’s second language (that actually would have been easier for me). But instead he decide to construct his own, making it nicely simple, with no pronunciation traps and easy, consistent rules.
It ended up as an odd hybrid of Latin and German, with a smattering of French and Italian (not to mention a bit of ancient Greek “kaj” is “and” in Esperanto, after “kai” in Greek). So “plena” is “full”, and “plenplena” is “very full” (Greek reduplication, I suppose). And “mal” is the negative: “ami’ means “to love”, “malami”, “to hate”. Get it?
It was through my Dad that I ventured into Esperanto a little. He, in the spirit of his times, saw Esperanto as a weapon in Moral Rearmament – as well as a blow to Welsh (which, as we lived in Shrewsbury, crept incomprehensibly through our letterbox on the phone and electric bills).
I didn’t meet Esperanto again till the 1990s.
That was when a friend of mine was writing a wonderful biography of J. E. B. Mayor, Cambridge Professor of Latin (and, as it happens, educated in Shrewsbury, as most of them were). It turned out that one of Mayor’s numerous obsessions (he was amongst other things a born again vegetarian) was Esperanto. And, I learned, he gave the address to the Esperanto Society Congress in 1907.
I didn’t think about this again until I picked up the Cambridge evening paper, where there was a marvellous piece of local history on this Congress, by Cambridge chronicler Mike Petty. I hadn’t realised quite what a big deal this conference was: it had involved a sermon in Esperanto in the University Church and in the Catholic equivalent; Oscar Browning had starred in a version of the Pickwick Papers in Esperanto; and the Evening News had carried a cartoon of the police being taught Esperanto to deal with the trouble-makers. There was also a photo of an Esperanto agitprop stall in just the same place in the Market square where you’ll now find the animal rights activists.
Esperanto now seems (sorry Esperantists) faintly silly. And having a nice little European-style language as a lingua franca seems hopelessly out of touch. That said, there is something rather cheering about the unbatterable optimism of those who think that they can right the world’s wrongs by inventing languages. It’s rather like George Bernard Shaw’s new English phonetic alphabet.
Or, come to think of it, it’s like the new phonetic letters introduced by the enterprising Roman emperor Claudius to make Latin itself more transparent. His letters were actually used for a while – and they’ve even got recently recognised to the extent of having their own form as characters on the Unicode computer text.
Wouldn't he be pleased.