Its invention was inspired by a bid to bring about world peace. But more than a century on, is the mysterious language of Esperanto on its last legs? Grant Woodward reports.
Listening to him is just a teensy bit like those toe-curlingly embarrassing moments on holidays abroad as a kid.
You know the ones. Your family somehow got lost on the way to the beach/hotel/restaurant and your dad took it upon himself to try to converse with the locals simply by adding random vowels to the end of words, accompanied by increasingly frenzied hand gestures.
Think of a strange-sounding jumble of Spanish, Italian and pidgin English and you won’t be too far wide of the mark.
And perhaps that’s why some stick their noses up at Esperanto, feeling that a language that’s so simple to learn is somehow lacking in sophistication.
But imagine travelling anywhere in the world and being able to speak to the people who live there and understand what they’re saying back to you. That would be pretty great, wouldn’t it?
It’s an idea that certainly appealed to a 19-year-old Geoffrey when he started teaching himself the language nearly half a century ago.
Since then, he says, it has led to “fun and friendships” that span the globe.
“I read in the newspaper about a new book called Teach Yourself Esperanto,” recalls the retired civil servant, who latterly worked as an usher at Leeds Crown Court.
“I’d heard of it vaguely before then but didn’t know anything about it, so the next time I went into town I bought it and started learning. It’s just one of those foolish things you do when you’re young.
“I was amazed when I found out there were meetings regularly held in this country and abroad, radio stations broadcasting in the language, postage stamps, lots of books, poetry. It opened a whole new world to me.”
Geoffrey, now 68 and living in Wakefield, attends the annual British Esperanto Congress as well as its international equivalent.
As an Esperantist – of which worldwide estimates range anywhere from 10,000 to two million – he is also in touch with fellow speakers around the world who are happy to extend an invitation for him to visit their country, show him round and even offer him a place to stay.
Geoffrey himself has hosted visitors from South Korea, Venezuela, Portugal, Poland, Belgium, Sweden and Germany.
People who learn Esperanto tend to be idealistic. There are a large number of poets and plenty of vegetarians within its ranks, as well as a high ratio of pacifists and Quakers.
They share the belief that while Esperanto should never replace existing languages, it should be utilised as a neutral dialect to enable better
communication with other nationalities.
“Even though I’ve been speaking Esperanto for over 40 years I never cease to be amazed when I’m with a group of Esperantists who might be from half a dozen different countries and we’re able to converse together with complete fluency, understanding the same jokes,” says Geoffrey.
“It’s difficult to explain to a non-Esperantist but they don’t seem to be foreigners. You know that he’s German, she’s French, he’s Japanese, but you have the common language so you don’t think of them as being any different.
“When people find out you speak Esperanto they no longer regard you as an eccentric or a dangerous fanatic, which they used to. What people generally say is that they think it’s a good idea but no one speaks it.
“Actually it’s often used in the European Commission as a bridge language. The beauty of it is its simplicity.
“You’ve still got to invest time in learning it, it doesn’t come effortlessly, but you can make progress up to 10 times quicker than you can with another foreign language.”
Even without learning any Esperanto you can still manage to understand a few words here and there thanks to them being rooted in English and other European languages such as French, German, Spanish and Italian.
All nouns in Esperanto end in ‘o’, adjectives in ‘a’ and adverbs in ‘e’.
So ‘domo’ means house, ‘granda’ is big and ‘rapide’ means fast.
To make a plural you just add ‘j’ to the end.
Esperanto also has several dozen different prefixes and suffixes that can be put in front of or at the end of words to make new ones.
Place ‘mal’ in front of a word, for instance, and the meaning becomes the opposite, so ‘malrapide’, for example, means slowly.
This building block way of constructing words and phrases makes Esperanto a relatively easy language to grasp. The fact that words are spelt out phonetically means pronunciation isn’t too much of an issue either.
The result is something fans of erstwhile BBC comedy The Fast Show may consider spookily similar to the sketches in which foreign weather presenter Poula Fisch would exclaim ‘Scorchio!’ as she reported temperatures of 45°C for all locations.
But the goal of creating a language that was easy to learn and to speak was precisely what motivated Leyzer Zamenhof, a Polish doctor, to invent Esperanto (which means ‘one who is hoping’) in the late 19th century.
He believed that language barriers fostered conflict and so set about promoting a neutral second language that had no political baggage.
Initially it met with huge success, there were heads of state learning it alongside royal families.
In the 1920s there were even attempts at the League of Nations to make it the language of international relations, but the French were among those to resist.
The First and Second World Wars set the movement back and when Stalin surged to power in the Soviet Union, where Esperanto was blooming, he denounced the language as an agent of Western imperialism and sent 10,000 of its speakers to concentration camps.
Esperantists were also persecuted in Nazi Germany, where Hitler viewed the language with deep suspicion.
Since then, Star Trek actor William Shatner has helped to raise its profile by starring in an Esperanto-speaking film called Incubus in 1966. And one of the lead characters in sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf, the hapless Arnold Rimmer, tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to learn it.
Today it is enjoying something of a revival, especially in the Far East, with the advent of the internet making it easier for people to teach themselves.
But it has also made the community less visible - the number of active Esperanto clubs in the UK has dwindled in recent years.
However, there is hope for the future of the language in the form of a handful of primary schools around the UK where youngsters are learning Esperanto as a route to more traditional modern languages.
Malcolm Jones, a former schoolteacher who along with Geoffrey belongs to the Yorkshire and Humberside Esperanto Federation, says it’s essential that the movement continues to attract new blood.
“It’s the young people who are going to take charge of the world so it makes sense for them to start communicating with foreigners in a neutral language.”
“They can see that ordinary folk around the world are working towards the same goal. We’ve all got the same hopes, fears and aspirations.”
Malcolm, who lives in Skipton and tutors Esperantists across the country through correspondence courses, rejects the idea that Esperanto is a dying language.
“No, definitely not. There is a website – lernu.net – which offers online tuition and it is hugely popular right around the world.
“New people are learning it all the time.”
Whether Leyzer Zamenhof’s vision of his invention being adopted as the planet’s second language will now be realised is open to question.
But for its legions of dedicated speakers, at least, Esperanto has certainly helped to make the world just that little bit smaller.
* For more information about learning Esperanto contact the Yorkshire and Humberside Esperanto Federation on 01274 639888 or log on to en.lernu.net.
A few handy phrases
Kie estas la necesejo?
Good morning Bonan matenon
How are you? Kiel vi fartas?
Do you speak Esperanto? Chu vi parolas Esperanton?
Where is the loo? Kie estas la necesejo?
Goodbye! Ghis la revido!
I am lost Mi estas perdita
How much is this? Kiom tio kostas?
Two beers, please Du bierojn, mi petas
The weather is hot today La vetero estas varma hodiau
Esperanto is a beautiful language that’s easy to learn Esperanto estas bela lingvo, kiu estas facile lernebla
I don’t understand a word you’re saying Mi tute ne komprenas kion vi diras