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Esperanto: The Language of Friendship

(Transcript of a radio talk on All India Radio, Hyderabad, recorded 14 December 2007)

A Giridhar RAO

(agiridhar.rao@gmail.com & agrao99@yahoo.com)
Flat 703 Alpine Heights, 6-3-1085/1 Raj Bhavan Road, Somajiguda, Hyderabad 500 082. Tel +91-40-23316270

Last changed: 2007.12.14

Saluton, amiko!

That's “Hello, friend!” in the language Esperanto. Esperanto? Yes, here's some more Esperanto:

Mia nomo estas Giridhar Rao. Mi loĝas en Hajderabado. Hajderabado estas la ĉefurbo de Andhrapradeŝo.

I'm sure you understood all that without a problem. And you must've noticed that many of the words seemed to end in the letter -o: amiko, nomo, Hajderabado, ĉefurbo, Andhrapradeŝo. That's right, all nouns in Esperanto end in the letter -oElefanto, Kato, Hundo, Ĉevalo. And that's not all – all adjectives – again without exception – end in the letter -a. So, hunda is canine and kata is feline, bela is beautiful and blua is blue. Apart from these word-endings, -o and -a, which tell you what grammatical category the word belongs to, Esperanto has a whole bunch of prefixes and suffixes – together called affixes. Take, Ĉevalo, the word for horse. Now, hang on, we're going on a short grammatical gallop!

Ĉevalo is a horse or a stallion. To get the female form, Esperanto adds the affix -in-, so Ĉevalino is a female-horse, a mare; the affix -id- indicates 'offspring of', so, Ĉevalido gives us foal or colt; now let's combine the two affixes -id- and -in-: we get Ĉevalidino, that is, a female-offspring of horse, called a filly in English. Another affix -ej- means 'the place of', so Ĉevalejo is where a horse lives, a stable; and, finally in this series, the adjective as we already know, has to be ĉevala, since all adjectives in this consistent language end in -a.

Notice how economical the word-formation is. With just one root, Ĉeval- we have produced six words: ĉevalo, ĉevalino, ĉevalido, ĉevalidino, ĉevalejo and ĉevala. In contrast, in English, if you claim that you know the word Horse, you also have to know the whole word-family of horse: Horse, Stallion, Mare, Foal, Colt, Filly, Stable, and Equine – 8 words with eight different spellings and etymologies. Enough to drive anyone crazy! But English is not the only culprit. Telugu, Hindi, French, Japanese – in fact, all ethnic languages, as Esperantists call them – all languages demand a huge investment of time and effort in memorizing words. The Esperanto word-making strategy, in contrast, cuts down your learning time to a fraction of the time you need for any other language!

So what do you do with all this time that's suddenly on your hands? Well, go make friends! Amiko – friend – is a key-word in Esperantoland. That's why the language was created! So that people – ordinary people, not just aristocrats, professors and polyglots – ordinary people can communicate with each other easily, without investing 10 years or more trying to learn each others' languages.

And who created this work of genius? A man called Dr Zamenhof – z a m e n h o f – an opthalmologist in a small town in Poland called Bialystok. In 1887, when he was 28 years old, Zamenhof published the basic textbook called Unua Libro (that is, First Book). The year 2007 is the 120th anniversary of that book's publication. Zamenhof himself was born on the 15th of December. So it is particularly appropriate that we pay homage to him today. Another reason that this talk is timely is that the United Nations has declared the year 2008, the International Year of Languages. More and more, the world is focussing on language as a crucial factor in connecting people in this fast-globalizing world. In an international scientific conference only those who speak good English end up speaking and participating. Similarly, when fisher-folk from Brazil, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, the Philippines, and Japan all gather together at the World Social Forum because they have similar problems, most of them are not able to participate in the discussions. The language challenge is a very real one.

Esperanto promises a very short learning time – see it for yourself. Log on to the website www.lernu.net – l e r n u – and do the first couple of lessons from one of the free courses there. It shouldn't take you more than 2 or 3 hours in all. Then, once you are in Lesson 5 or so, enter the chat-room on that site – www.lernu.net – and you'll find Brazilians, Mexicans, North Americans, Brits, Germans, Finns, Slovenians, Czechs, Chinese, Nepalese... you name it, all chatting away merrily! And quite possibly, me too – I am often in that chat-room.

Where else would you be able to have meaningful conversations with such a wide variety of people? And such fair conversations too – I'm not speaking someone else's language; I do not make mistakes in pronunciation, that make someone else laugh; it does not matter whether I speak a language that only a few thousand people speak, or whether I am a speaker of a big language, all the others too have spent the same time as I have in learning this neutral language. In short, we are all meeting each other democratically, as equal speakers; all of us extending our hand to say, Saluton, amiko!

Many, many people have realized how easy and fair Esperanto is! A couple of years ago, I started a database of people I chat with in Esperanto on the Net. That database now has nearly 2000 people from 94 countries! That's quite a spread, both in numbers and in diversity!

So, exactly how many people speak Esperanto? Where? Is it taught in schools anywhere? How about colleges and universities? And what about culture? Are there many books or magazines? What about music? Movies?

Let's take these questions in turn. How many speak it? Difficult to say, since no worldwide census exists, but one hundred thousand fluent speakers – one lakh fluent speakers – is a good estimate, according to experts. Of course, there are many more Esperantists, if you include people who know only a bit of Esperanto. Language censuses are notoriously difficult – it's a bit like asking how many people know chess in Hyderabad? Depends on what you mean by “knowing chess”, right? Still, in the context of the one lakh number, it is worth emphasizing that 80% of the world’s languages have less than one lakh speakers.

Next, where do you find this strange species called the Esperantist? Well, the most important association, the Universala Esperanto-Asocio, the World Esperanto Association, with its headquarters in Rotterdam in The Netherlands, has a total of 18,000 members in 111 countries. Incidentally, the current President of this world association is an Indian, Professor Probal Dasgupta, now in Kolkata. For 17 years, he was at the Central University in Hyderabad, which is where I got to know him – he is my guru. In Esperanto: guruo! He is an eminent linguist, essayist and translator in Esperanto, English and Bangla.

The World Esperanto Association has more members in Europe, but the language is also sufficiently widespread in China, Japan, Iran, Brazil and Cuba. Moreover, across the world, there are about 200 families in which Esperanto is routinely used as one of the home languages. In India, we have as yet only a handful of active Esperantists, but hopefully that will change after we hold the 5th Asian Esperanto Congress in Bengaluru in February 2008.

And how about schools? Well, Esperanto is taught in about 600 primary and high schools, and about 150 universities and colleges across the world. As for culture, more than 200 books, both translations and originals are published every year in Esperanto – a rather respectable number for so small a community. In all, more than 30,000 books have so far been published, more than half of which are translations. And translations from many, many languages – Esperantists love diversity! Between 1991 and 2003, over a thousand translations were published in Esperanto, but only 30% of these were from English, French, German and Russian – the Big Four languages that corner the general market. More than 250 periodicals exist: the Esperanto monthly news magazine Monato has been appearing steadily for the last 27 years from Antwerp in Belgium, and has readers in 65 countries – again, a very respectable achievement!

There are videos, music CDs, regular radio broadcasts in Esperanto, and now, on the internet, podcasts too. Indeed, it is used every day, especially, on the internet, where there are thousands of websites and several hundred thousand web pages in Esperanto – the Esperanto Wikipedia is surprisingly big: it has 92,000-plus articles! There's an Esperanto version of Google as well. Besides, there are, of course, chat-rooms and emails in Esperanto, and the language is used every day in meetings and Congresses. For instance, for the Asian Esperanto Congress in Bengaluru, 134 participants have already registered from 21 countries. More are expected. Meanwhile, between 1000 and 4000 people come to the annual World Congresses which are held in a different city each year: the 92nd World Congress, earlier this year in Yokohama, Japan, attracted more than 1900 people from 57 countries.

So where does one learn this remarkable language of friendship? Well, if you want to learn it right now, the best place to learn the language is the internet. The free courses at lernu.net – www.lernu.net – are highly recommended. In India, summer courses are also conducted in Bengaluru, Tirupati, Pune and Kolkata. And there might well be one in Hyderabad next summer – watch this space!

For more information send an email to agiridhar.rao@gmail.com. Or call 2331 6270.

Thank you, or as we say in Esperanto: Dankon!

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