Native Esperanto speakers
December 15, 2009 3:48 PM   Subscribe

Google's logo today commemorates the 150th birthday of Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, an artificial language designed as an international auxiliary communication mode. Perhaps surprisingly, approximately 1,000 people worldwide are native Esperanto speakers, the most famous of which is George Soros. Many of these are children born into households with parents who met at the Universala Kongreso de Esperanto. posted by Morrigan (47 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This water is sweet.
posted by mullingitover at 4:03 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, come on, Incubus is kind of amusing.

I took a summer Esperanto course in high school, and so I spent a couple months learning the Esperanto basics and attending Esperanto parties with people who'd come from all over to take the course. It was nerdy fun.

Looking at Esperanto now with a modicum of linguistics training and having studied more languages in the meantime, I have to say that a language with both /l/ and /r/ as phonemes would not be my pick for an inventory for something that's supposed to be a universal language. Plus, Slavic consonant clusters are not a good time. And they have one case ending... the accusative. Seriously, what are you gonna do with two cases? You can't shuffle all the words around like you could in a language with more cases, and so it pretty much only frees you up for the "man bites dog" type of sentences.

On the plus side, it's, um... a very morphologically-regular mostly-Romance-looking language. Which makes it sort of fun if you know a Romance language already, but isn't as comprehensible (with Romance-only knowledge) as something like Interlingua is.

But anyway. Felicxan naskigxtagon.
posted by sineala at 4:18 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

I loved seeing that Google doodle today.

My mother grew up in Tel Aviv, in an apartment at No. 19 Zamenhof Ave., up the block from the post office and Dizengoff Square, home to an Agam fountain.

Many of the most joyous memories of my childhood (and young adulthood, during my time off from college) are from in and around that apartment and on that street, where my grandmother lived until near the end of her life.
posted by yiftach at 4:25 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yesterday my 9 year-old daughter told me she was going to raise her kids to be native Latin speakers.

It's a mystery to me too.
posted by GuyZero at 4:32 PM on December 15, 2009 [5 favorites]

One of my best friends self-identifies as a fluent Esperantist (he can read and write in several languages, but insists that English and Esperanto are the only languages he really considers himself fluent in). He has an Esperanto pin which he never wears. I asked him why and he said something like, "To people who wear Esperanto pins, the pin represents more than your ability to speak it. It represents adherence to an idealistic philosophy and belief that a common language can solve all of the world's problems. I don't believe any of that; I just think it's a fun language."
posted by roll truck roll at 4:34 PM on December 15, 2009 [5 favorites]

If this topic appeals to you, you may also find the Wikipedia article on Constructed Languages interesting and worth reading.
posted by mosk at 4:39 PM on December 15, 2009

As someone who A) Lives with an Esperantist B) owns a few books in Esperanto and C) Can kinda make my way around the simple written forms, allow me to say that Esperanto is not a beautiful language. It sounds like gargling in a vibrating chair.
posted by The Whelk at 4:40 PM on December 15, 2009

Seems kinda cruel bringing up your kid as a native Esperanto speaker.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:42 PM on December 15, 2009

Yesterday my 9 year-old daughter told me she was going to raise her kids to be native Latin speakers.

ab incunabulis, et abnormis sapiens

I have no idea what I'm saying
posted by The Whelk at 4:44 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Did anyone else catch this bit of the Wikipedia link on Soros?

"He eventually secured an entry-level position with London merchant bank Singer & Friedlander. And later went on to ruin the world."
posted by alight at 4:45 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

also i think I just called your daughter an "it" This is the point when Ms. Edzdini would sigh and suggest and go to the dictionary again
posted by The Whelk at 4:46 PM on December 15, 2009

I have a suggestion for a universal auxiliary language -- English.

I'm not being chauvinistic, I don't think. Half the world speaks it already.
posted by empath at 4:50 PM on December 15, 2009

English is such a good Lingua Franca!


Trade and Port languages are fascinating however. You can end up with bits from all over the place.
posted by The Whelk at 4:55 PM on December 15, 2009

Was he trying to invent a language in which his name was not Ludovic Lazarus? If I was inventing a language, my first name would immediately become the word for awesome.
posted by epsilon at 4:59 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

For me, Esperanto's schematism and familiarity make it easier than most natural languages, which means I learned it more quickly and with less effort than I have spent on other languages, and had better results.

As far as Esperanto as a lingua franca? Enh, it works for the people who want it to work and have put the time in, which is a not insignificant number. I'm more Raumist these days, enjoying written works and music (particularly Persone) without focusing on the "fina venko" when everybody speaks Esperanto. Not that I think it's a bad idea, but I prefer focusing on the stuff Esperanto gets you access to today, which is where it beats the pants off of Interlingua.
posted by graymouser at 5:03 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Did anyone else catch this bit of the Wikipedia link on Soros?

[citetation needed]
posted by filthy light thief at 5:04 PM on December 15, 2009

There may a little snark whenever someone mentions Esperanto, but I have a soft spot in my heart for dear old LL Zamenhof.

When I wander through Eastern Europe today, few things strike me as haunting as the many signs of vibrant, multi-cultural cities that today no longer exist. An incredibly giant, but decrepit synagogue sits ignored in the city of Subotica, Serbia - and how the two large remaining populations, the Hungarians and Serbs, dress differently and won't frequent each others shops. All of the signs of a hardworking Armenian population in Gherla, Romania, which is now entirely gone. Thousands of beautiful Saxon buildings throughout Transylvania, with only a handful of German-speakers left. The dying Tatar villages in Poland. And on and on.

If one looks even *only* at the amazing cultural activities of Yiddish speakers in Eastern Europe, prior to WWI and a little thereafter (and these were, more often than not, very poor people with limited resources), it's really mind-blowing what great works they achieved. It's a cultural heritage that's been wrested from the region by invading Germans, occupying Russians, the prejudices of nationalistic majority populations, by simple neglect and forgetfulness . . .

(in the Ethnographic Museum in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, there is a display case - just one little one - which memorializes the many Jews who used to live in the city and contributed greatly to its culture. But all the few mementos are simply souvenirs someone brought back - recently - from a trip to Israel. Is that all that's left? No trace of the city's Jews?)

. . . and sometimes even those you wouldn't expect did some of the plundering . . .

(Bruno Schulz was a Polish artist and writer - possibly Poland's greatest writer - and was an ethnic Jew, though he saw himself as Polish. He wrote in Polish and German; he didn't speak Yiddish, and his life ended prematurely when he was killed in the street by a Nazi, during WWII. Only recently was his greatest work of art uncovered in his hometown (which is now in Ukraine), and - quite unbelievably - stolen and smuggled out of the country by Yad VaShem (Israel's "Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority"), against pretty much every international law regarding a nation's cultural heritage.

But long before all this happened, Zamenhof recognized the tensions that would later result in inter-war pogroms, ethnic cleansing, as well as the mistrust and xenophobia which still mark the region. His solution seems quaint and naive now, but personally, I find naive optimism rather charming. I wonder what sort of great cultures and literature and art and music and humanity we lost because so few people heeded the sorts of warnings that Zamenhof addressed. Although Esperanto's not much these days, it's a fine thing that someone remembered to remember him today.

I remember reading that, years after his death, all of his children perished in the Holocaust.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:05 PM on December 15, 2009 [20 favorites]

ab incunabulis, et abnormis sapiens

ubi, o ubi sunt mei sub-ubi?
posted by bitteroldman at 5:08 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

(where, oh where is my underwear?)
posted by bitteroldman at 5:08 PM on December 15, 2009

empath, English is indeed the mandated international language of aviation.
posted by Morrigan at 5:10 PM on December 15, 2009

Seems kinda cruel bringing up your kid as a native Esperanto speaker.

Not as cruel as this.

Really, I had just dropped into this thread to sing, as I always do in my head when I hear the word:
Why don't you come to your senses . . .

But Dee's comment gave me pause for thought. There was a dream, once.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:10 PM on December 15, 2009

At some point, my father and I decided to learn Esperanto together. I have a Teach Yourself Esperanto book, and I actually got one for my dad for Christmas this year; it shipped today.

Yes, the whole thing is kind of ridiculous, but there's an earnestness to Esperantists of which I find myself envious. I don't really believe that strongly in most things, and I sort of which I did.

I wish I were better about practicing and going through the activities in the book, although it's a challenge since I can't find anyone to learn with me (my dad lives pretty far away). Admittedly it has very little practical value, but I find the futility of the exercise sort of relaxing.

If anyone does want to form a, like, Esperanto Metafilter, let me know. I totally have copies of Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit in Esperanto, too, although I can't yet read them. Yeah, I'm kind of a nerd.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:18 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't hear "Esperanto" without thinking of Harry Harrison, and then wondering if those Stainless Steel Rat books would be as awesome to the 37 year-old Erika as they were to the 14 year-old Erika.
posted by ErikaB at 5:26 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Seems kinda cruel bringing up your kid as a native Esperanto speaker.

You know, they can speak other languages too.

I don't see what's so bad about being bilingual with your community's language and Esperanto.
posted by dfan at 5:42 PM on December 15, 2009

I'm pretty sure I was the only kid in my school who was yelled at in Esperanto (Stultulo!) or had a picture of Ludovic Zamenhof hanging in the living room.

My father, an engineer who was bored by his career, picked up all kinds of odd hobbies, one of which was teaching himself Esperanto. On long family car trips he'd try to teach us the language or would recite Esperanto poetry, and he occasionally went to Esperanto conventions. The Esperanto calendars he ordered from China were always opened when they arrived, obviously by the CIA he would say.

It was of practical use just once, when he was doing research on his father's hometown in Yugoslavia. He found out through the international Esperanto directory that the postmaster in the town was an Esperantist and thus the two were able to correspond.

My sister inherited my dad's books and now I'd venture to say she has the largest Esperanto library in her town.
posted by stargell at 5:51 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

This was one of the poems. Despite the number of times I heard it, mi no estas esperantisto.
posted by stargell at 5:55 PM on December 15, 2009

I have met a woman brought up as a native Esperanto speaker, in a settlement in South American somewhere. She has a perfectly acceptable* English accent now.

*by which I mean more or less like educated New Zealand English, which I find acceptable anyway.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:57 PM on December 15, 2009

I'd learn Esperanto. But then I could converse with people who learnt Esperanto.
posted by Talez at 6:14 PM on December 15, 2009

Seems kinda cruel bringing up your kid as a native Esperanto speaker.

Well, look at the math. Wealth is only one factor relating to human happiness, but:

There are roughly 400 billionaires who speak English as their native language. There are about 400 million native English speakers on Earth. So, you're chances of being a billionaire are about 1 in 4 million, if you're a native English speaker.

There is 1 billionaire who speaks Esperanto as his native language. There are about 1000 native Esperanto speakers on Earth. So, your chances of being a billionaire are about 1 in 1000, if you're a native Esperanto speaker.

Your chances of being a billionaire are four thousand times greater if you were brought up speaking Esperanto as your native language, than if your native language was English.


If one counts *only* the net worth of George Soros, the average net wealth of a native Esperanto-speaker is about $13,000,000. But of course, it's much higher than that, since we didn't add the wealth of the other 999 native speakers.

It's harder to calculate the same thing for native Engish speakers, but we'll use the average net worth of an American, which I took from here (the figure for families), and divided by 2.6, which is the size of the average American family. It's $165,391.

Doing the math on that, the average Esperanto native speaker is 78 times richer than the average native English speaker. (Sure, I'm representing all Americans as native Englsh speakers, even though many aren't, and thus I'm neglecting all sorts of other native English speakers . . . but I reckon it averages out, more or less.)

Learn Esperanto!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:17 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have one word for this post, which I am certain someone later will elaborate on:


I'm glad you asked.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:19 PM on December 15, 2009

Ido is superior to Esperanto. For one thing, you don't need non-Latin characters to write it.

Your favorite conlang sucks.
posted by marble at 6:25 PM on December 15, 2009

ubi, o ubi sunt mei sub-ubi?

In my Latin class, it was "Semper ubi sub ubi."

But I grew up in North Orange County, which *is* conservative.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 6:42 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ido is superior to Esperanto. For one thing, you don't need non-Latin characters to write it.

Enh, maybe from a pure auxiliary language perspective. But Ido literature is thin and the movement barely exists, while Esperanto has several orders of magnitude more of both. Ido didn't fly because people were already putting together an Esperanto subculture and didn't feel like being told they were doing it wrong.
posted by graymouser at 7:13 PM on December 15, 2009

There was a brief Esperanto trend in my high school (which I started) and as a result I can read some basic Esperanto because I did a correspondence course.

I kind of wish it ever came in handy, but it really, really hasn't. That being said, I loved learning it. It made sense in ways that no other language has ever made sense to me. I actually think I mentioned it in some of my essays when I applied to college.
posted by crinklebat at 7:27 PM on December 15, 2009

What, no link to Learn Not to Speak Esperanto?
posted by No-sword at 8:31 PM on December 15, 2009

You all would do yourselves well to learn Esperanto, especially if you plan on joining the Space Corps.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:10 PM on December 15, 2009

Also previously: 500 constructed languages, which led me to the enjoyable book In the Land of Invented Languages.
posted by hattifattener at 9:14 PM on December 15, 2009

I can't believe I missed that last post! Glad to see my all-time favorite Tepa made the list. (Meanwhile, Kebreni is sadly underrated, if you can call anything "underrated" when its potential audience is so small already.)

For whatever reason I never got as excited about the auxlangs. They're just so... regular and... predictable. The history and sociology of Esperanto are fascinating, but the language itself?
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:33 PM on December 15, 2009

Seems kinda cruel bringing up your kid as a native Esperanto speaker.

Why? I have a friend whose father was bought up a native speaker, in a community that spoke it natively (there's at least one in Brazil). It's considerably less limiting than being bought up with any number of Melanesian or Polynesian languages (for example) if you're thinking in terms of "how many people speak..."; otherwise, if you can speak with your community, what's the limitation?

(Perhaps this is being skewed by the typically monoglot English-speaking worldview that says having more than one language is Too Hard...)
posted by rodgerd at 11:22 PM on December 15, 2009

Trade and Port languages are fascinating however. You can end up with bits from all over the place.

A friend of mine was a sailor for many years and had a confusing encounter in China once. A man wanted a special item brought to him from Europe. He described it as "Black box. Outside make a bang-bang, inside make a sing-song."

It baffled him. Stereo? Boom box? He eventually figured it out, and while it seems obvious when you see it, it's still surprisingly hard for native speakers of English to figure it out.
posted by Ljubljana at 1:15 AM on December 16, 2009

I also have a soft spot for ol' Zamenhof (and how, in this photo of him, it looks like even his beard is smiling, with all those hairs curling upwards). He had some great notions about language and how it can bring people together (well, ideally - I sympathize with the naive optimism that Dee Xtrovert mentions upthread) and this post reminds me that I'd like to read more about him and his ideas sometime. For example, the following tidbit from his Wikipedia page intrigued me, especially after reading Dee's comment:
In 1914, he politely declined an invitation to join a new organization of Jewish Esperantists, the TEHA. In his letter to the organizers, he said: "I am profoundly convinced that every nationalism offers humanity only the greatest unhappiness... It is true that the nationalism of oppressed peoples -- as a natural self-defensive reaction -- is much more excusable than the nationalism of peoples who oppress; but, if the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is imprudent; both give birth to and support each other..."
After running the original quote (from this article) through an online translator and looking up individual words, it seems the last few sentences (omitted from the above excerpt) mention something about an erroneous cycle of unhappiness out of which mankind can never escape if we don't try harder to stand on neutral ground with one another. [The neutral ground of a common language!] And how Zamenhof didn't want to link himself to a Hebrew nationalism because he wanted to focus on working for that absolute justice? fairness? between people. Unity rather than division. I figure an organization of Esperantists using their Jewish identity to distinguish themselves from other Esperantists didn't quite jibe with the spirit behind why he came up with the language in the first place.

Aw, Zamenhof. He just wanted everybody to get along.
posted by cobwebberies at 2:58 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

It wasn't until a few years ago that I realized what Esperanto was, which suddenly made the They Might Be Giants line, "And the TV is in Esperanto" make more sense. I always figured before that the "TV" broke so they had to send it to some place called Esperanto... someplace outside LA I presumed.
posted by yeti at 6:43 AM on December 16, 2009

The Latin club at my high school had semper ubi sub ubi on tshirts.
posted by Babblesort at 7:47 AM on December 16, 2009

Although, to be fair to Soros' parents, native Esperanto might have seemed kind compared to Hungarian!* (He's from Budapest). His father, the Esperanto-promotor, wrote an amazing autobiography called Masquerade. It is quite fascinating, I recommend it.

(* seriously...I speak German, I've taken French, Czech, Russian, Chinese, Latin...and Hungarian KICKS MY ASS EVERY TIME. Boyfriend speaks it natively, I can still only manage swear words, ordering beer, yogurt flavors and overly polite talking-to-the-in-law's-female-friends phrases).
posted by at 8:09 AM on December 16, 2009

Hungarian kicks ass because it kicks your ass, if that makes any sense! That's why I like it, anyhow. And now that I've forgotten some of the niceties of my native language (Serbo-Croatian) after 15 years, my goal is to speak Hungarian better than any other language, just to prove I can. Native Esperanto might have seemed kind compared to Hungarian - but Soros also mastered that later, so you've got to give the guy credit.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:08 AM on December 16, 2009

The Latin club at my high school had semper ubi sub ubi on tshirts.

Our Latin club had a fundraising "slave auction" (we had to wear togas on the steps of the auditorium), and I have to say that it was highly embarrassing in general, and extremely awkward in particular when the one black guy at our nearly lily-white school came up for auction.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:32 PM on December 16, 2009

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