Sunday, 13 November 2011

Esperanto – a common language for Europe?

Esperanto was created for the purpose of international communication. Throughout its history, it has been used by different social groups. However, political ideologies behind it may have hindered it to become a common European language.

At the end of the 19th century, Ludwig Zamenhof realized that language barriers were the origin of the fighting amongst his Polish, German, Yewish and Belarusian fellow citizens in his hometown Bialystok. In 1887, he therefore published the book "Unua Libro" describing basic grammatical rules and vocabulary of Esperanto: a language that should not mirror any ethnical or national belonging and thus enable a fair international communication.

And in fact, Esperanto has since then been spoken by many different kinds of social groups. In between the two World Wars, for example, Esperanto was a language widely spoken amongst French labourers. At approximately the same time, German and French Esperanto speaking members of the European Rotary Club – a beneficial club with a industrialist tradition– created a group to develop and practice the language. In 1922, Zamenhof – had he still been alive – would have cried with joy: the League of Nations considered introducing Esperanto as a worldwide official language that should be taught everywhere as a first foreign language. However, France opposed and the project failed. Considered as a minority and revolutionary language, Esperanto was soon after completely forbidden under both Hitler and Stalin. Zamenhof' s project became a distant dream again.

Today, Esperanto is spoken in approximately 115 countries of the world and estimates of users range from 100,000 to 2 million. Its largest speech communities within Europe can be found in Germany and France. Although linguistically it is a combination of Roman, Germanic and Slavik languages, it is not promoted by the European Union in language teaching programmes. It is not taught at European schools, neither is it officially accepted as a minority language.
But still nowadays there are people who believe that Esperanto is the best linguistic means to promote democracy in Europe. The fiercest defenders of this idea are members of the European-Democracy-Esperanto party, created in 2003. The party was presented in European elections in Germany and France in 2004 and 2009 and both times achieved around 30,000 votes.
Some of the people who actively promote the dissemination of Esperanto in Europe are meeting every Wednesday at the European Commission. Like the language group they represent, they are a colourful bunch of students.
At first sight, the Esperanto class seems like one of Magritte's paintings: something placed in a completely unfamiliar context. From the far end of a grey, neon-lit Commission Corridor you can hear them singing and chatting and a piano playing along. You enter their classroom and leave the Commission World: about 20 people dressed in anything else but black suits, a child shaking a rattle, a pensioner distributing song texts in Esperanto.

Michael Cwik is one of the students of this colourful bunch of people: The elderly German dressed in a blazer, neat shoes and a silk scarf – vaguely recalling the picture of a French intellectual – explains that he had worked at the Commission for over 30 years and is now retired. In his opinion, Esperanto as a working language at the EU could overcome career inequality due to language knowledge: "People who have English or French as their mother tongue, have more chances for their careers at the Commission." However, he criticizes that the Esperantists have no clear strategy as in how to promote the language on a political level.

Marek Blahus is the coordinator of the Esperanto group and trainee at DG SCIC. The graduate in computer linguistic seems to support a strategy of making Esperanto a European language by teaching – before in his home country, Czech Republic, and now here at the Commission.
To Stage Echo he spoke about what the language means to him, his motives of disseminating it and its future as a European language:

Stage Echoes: Why did you learn Esperanto and whom are you speaking it to?

Blahus: Since I was studying computer linguistics, I was looking for a language to learn in a summer course. I discovered Esperanto on the internet and started taking online classes in 2003. During the first year, I did not meet any people who spoke Esperanto, I only heard it on the radio, as there is a radio channel in Esperanto throughout Europe. I also wrote in Esperanto to pen-pals. By learning the language, I became part of the Esperanto community. I can now find friends everywhere. When I came to Brussels, for example, I immediately found people from the Esperanto community who helped me out. I also speak Esperanto to my girlfriend. You learn English to make money, you learn Esperanto to make friends.

Is the language also used for professional domains, such as in science and economics?

There are some science magazines in Esperanto, and it was even the main language of a university in France. Among the Esperantists, there are a lot of groups with special interests – for sciences or humanities, for example – who also use the language in this domain.

The German Hip-Hop Band Freundeskreis published an album called Esperanto in 1999. In one of their song lyrics they describe Esperanto as "the lingua franca of all leftists and immigrants". Would you say the language is generally connected to a socialist ideology?

At the time between the World Wars, Esperanto was to a large extent a language of the proletariat. However, it was the forbidden in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and only in 1969 the Communist Party allowed its use again. Today, it has a strong support in France and maybe this is due to the strong socialist tradition in France.
I think Esperanto is connected to a political idea, but that is not a communist one, but that of cosmopolitanism. Esperanto could make people from all over the world communicate with each other on a neutral basis. Also, the aim of the dissemination of Esperanto is to protect minority languages. It should not replace mother tongues, but become a second language for everyone to learn.

Will Esperanto once become the official European language?

Blahus: Realistically speaking, not in the near future. But it would be the perfect solution. It did not succeed until now because it has no economic power behind it and no governments to defend it. But then again, enforcing the language use through economic power would be against the idea of a democratic language. So, all in all, the Esperantist movement is a very idealistic one.

Thank you for the interview.

By Elena Fries-Tersch