Archive for Aŭgusto, 2006

Conspectus rerum Latinus

Aŭgusto 31, 2006

About a month ago, I discovered that the current holders of the rotating EU presidency, the Finns, were intending to issue a weekly newsletter in Latin. An interesting choice, one might say; a bloody annoying choice, according to the Germans, who have tabled a question to the Council on how much this service is costing the European tax payer.

It struck me though that it would be of marginally more practical value to publish the news in Esperanto — there are at least some people in every EU country who use it on a regular basis — while still making the same symbolic statement, i.e. that the language issue in Europe is far from solved, and that some kind of neutral, over-arching second language might be an idea worth consideration.

So I set about doing it. And to cut a long story short, the translation team is about 10 strong, the Esperanto-Asocio de Finnlando are on board, our website‘s set up, we’ve got permission from the presidency people to translate and re-publish their stuff, and they’ve even given us a plug in their latest newsletter.

We’re now trying to get journalists who wrote about the appearance of the Latin news interested in the Esperanto version. We’ll see what results we get.

Conspectus rerum Latinus

Aŭgusto 31, 2006

Il y a à peu près un mois, j’ai découvert que la présidence actuelle de l’UE (les finlandais) allait publier un newsletter hébdomadaire en latin. Un choix intéressant, certe ; agaçant aussi, au moins pour les allemands, qui ont posé une question officielle au Conseil pour demander combien ça coûtera et qui payera.

J’ai eu l’idée que ce serait au moins légèrement plus pratique de publier les infos en espéranto, puisqu’il y a au moins quelques personnes dans tous les pays de l’Union qui l’utilisent de manière courante, mais que cela aurait toujours le même symbolisme, c-à-d déclarer que la question des langues en Europe est loin d’être résolue, et qu’une langue pont neutre serait peut-être quelque chose à rechercher d’un peu plus proche.

Donc je me suis lancé dans l’affaire. Et pour résumer, l’équipe de traduction a une dizaine de membres, l’Association Espéranto de Finlande nous soutient, notre site web est établi, nous avons la permission de la présidence pour traduire et republier leurs documents, et ils ont même annoncé notre projet dans leur dernier bulletin.

Maintenant, on essai d’attirer l’attention des journalistes qui ont publier des articles à propos des newsletters en latin, pour faire apparaître des articles qui parlent de la version espéranto. On verra pour les résultats…

Further response to Nicole Martinelli

Aŭgusto 17, 2006

Nicole Martinelli has just posted a further piece about Esperanto, responding to some of the points raised in my previous post. Here are a few words in response.

Firstly, I’d like to say how pleased I am to take part in discuussing Esperanto with someone who comes to the subject with an open mind, rather than with a mass of received ‘wisdom’ that’s impossible to shake, even in the face of clear information to the contrary. For that, I’d like to thank Nicole very much.

I’m still going to dispute a few points though. 🙂 Well, it wouldn’t be a debate if we all agreed, would it?

Nicole says:

A few considerations: I was taken to task (albeit politely) for calling Esperanto an “artificial” language. The definition comes from Wikipedia: “a language designed for human communication which was created by the work of one or more persons, rather than having naturally evolved as part of a culture.”

My point wasn’t that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not the way people usually learn languages. Is it a better way? Easier way?

Well, the definition you cite comes from the part of Wikipedia clearly marked “nostalgia”, i.e. way out of date. Looking for the same page in the current Wikipedia gives a much more detailed and accurate article. However, quibbles over terminology aside, I’m not sure that I understand the connection between Esperanto’s artificiality and people learning the language. Nobody’s asking learners to invent (or re-invent) the language themselves; it’s there to be learnt, just like English or Italian or Chinese… it’s just that because it’s based on a planned structure rather than a thousand years of organic evolution, most people find it easier to learn.

Here’s an analogy that’s just popped into my head: imagine a tourist visiting central London for the first time, and another in Manhattan. You could live for years in London and still not be aware of street names even a couple of miles from home. As for giving directions, if you haven’t got a map, it’s difficult to direct anyone who hasn’t already memorised hundreds of place names and street names. In Manhattan, where the street layout and naming convention was planned rather than grown organically, pretty much anyone only needs two minutes to see how it works, and can then take themselves to “the corner of 5th Avenue and 32nd Street” or “10400 18th Street” or whatever. Nobody’s expecting visitors to Manhattan to be qualified in town planning, but the fact that the town is planned makes it much easier to navigate, for beginners and experts alike.

Nicole also says:

Part of the problem will be gaining enough critical mass, including the English-language press, to get the point about Esperanto across.

[..] the study I cited […] was actually about how much money the UK makes with the dominance of English. It was by a French governmental agency and there’s no trace of it in English […] And, If you look at Google news, the Esperanto congress in Florence never happened. As some of the posters on Morley’s site conceded, Esperanto has always had a PR problem.

…and it still has. 😦 You’re right that the study has yet to be translated into English, although I believe the Italian Radical Party is offering a bounty to any volunteer translator who’s willing to have a go.

But to answer your final qustion:

Hmmm. Anyone know of an Esperanto group in Milan?

Well, yes I do. 🙂 Well, I don’t actually know anybody there, but according to the World Esperanto Association’s Yearbook 2006, the Milana Esperanto-Klubo meets on Fridays (except August and national holidays) from 9.30pm at Via De Predis 9, 20155 Milano. The entrance is next to Via Bramantino. The Itala Esperanto-Federacio is also based in Milan, and can be contacted at

Response to Nicole Martinelli

Aŭgusto 4, 2006

Below is the response I sent to Italian journalist Nicole Martinelli, following the request at the end of her blog post.

Dear Ms Martinelli,

In the above article, you said you’d like to hear from an Esperantist why they took up the language and how they plan to bring it forward. Well, here goes.

Potted life history to start with: born 1973; British; university educated; have lived in the UK, France and Thailand; worked in language teaching and in computational linguistics; started Esperanto course in 2001, and now using it on a daily basis.

Why did I take it up? Originally for two reasons, both basically selfish — first, it struck me as an interesting idea (the fact that a language existed that was neutral, i.e. didn’t belong to any country, and that the process of learning it was promised to be much smoother, quicker and less painful when compared to other languages) and I wanted to try it just for the hell of it, whether it was ultimately any use or not; and second, because somebody showed me the “Pasporta Servo” (Passport Service), i.e. a list of names, addresses and contact details of Esperanto speakers worldwide who would put me up for a few nights, for the price of speaking Esperanto to them while I was there. Now, I do enjoy travelling, and the thing I enjoy most about it isn’t taking photos of “attractions”, but meeting local people and being able to talk, laugh, be entertained, flirt, etc. over a few beers until the small hours of the morning. And obviously, in most countries of the world, I don’t speak the local language, so all of this is rather difficult.

Enter Esperanto. Now, I don’t pretend that I can just walk into a bar in Warsaw, Havana, Lomé or Taipei and ask, “Excuse me, which table are the Esperanto speakers at tonight?” However, in all of those places and hundreds more, I can phone ahead and arrange to meet up with people, and, as I mentioned, get free accommodation into the bargain. (For a visual illustration of this, you can use this Google Earth file. You’ll need to install Google Earth first.)

Thus, in the last couple of years, on visits to Poland, Italy, Lithuania and France, I’ve had both free accommodation and interesting people to talk to.

So that was the second of my entirely selfish reasons for wanting to learn it. The first — exercising my brain, or mental masturbation if you prefer — was also more than fulfilled.


What are my plans for advancing Esperanto? Well, I’m only one person, and I’m not personally involved in every project that I’m about to mention, but this gives a flavour of what’s going on at the moment.

In no particular order then:
— Margarita Handzlik, a Polish member of the European Parliament, is a fluent Esperanto speaker, as is her husband, and they both actively promote the language in Strasbourg and Brussels (a “top down” part of the movement)
— this time last year, the fifth[1] Nitobe Symposium met in the building of the Lithuanian Parliament, and brought together about 70 linguists, academics, intellectuals and policy makers, to discuss language policy in Europe and how it could or should move forward. Translation and simultaneous interpretation was provided in English, French, Lithuanian and Esperanto, and the conclusions can be found online by searching for “nitobe symposium”. (More “top down” action).
— on a more local level, there are thousands of local courses in hundreds of cities, towns and villages, certainly in every country in Europe and in many other countries across the world. Even if there isn’t one in your immediate vicinity, you’re welcome to try learning by yourself, either with cassettes/CDs (the Assimil method is popular) or online, with or* (“Bottom up” in action).
— Esperanto is also appearing in primary schools, thanks to the Springboard2Languages project, among others. (More “bottom up”).
— lastly, a movement whose annual “pow-wow” as you put it attracts more than 2000 people from 60+ countries is not a movement that’s in its death throes, whatever you might think of its goals.

*I mentioned earlier the claim that was made to me before I started learning — that I could expect to pick up the language significantly more quickly than I had with other languages I had studied. I have to admit to being a little skeptical about the claims, and some certainly were exaggerated; however, I did find that in only a few months, I had a power of expression over a range of subjects that had taken me much longer to acquire in French, German, Russian and Thai. After 18 months of study and practice, I was told that the emails I wrote in Esperanto were better than those that I wrote in French (fewer mistakes, fewer problems in comprehension, more nuanced expressions, jokes that actually worked, etc.), despite speaking French for 20 years and living in France at the time.


I’d like to offer corrections to a few misconceptions and factual errors in your article too, as well as an answer to a few of the open questions you ask.

You subscribe to the admittedly popular view that calling a language “artificial”, whatever that means, somehow dooms it to failure. Without getting into a debate about what the word means*, one only has to cite examples such as Modern Hebrew, Nynorsk or Bahasa Indonesian to show that a language whose grammar and basic vocabulary is the product of one person or a small working group has no problem at all in flourishing and becoming widely spoken in all human endeavours, without any noticeable handicap on the part of its speakers.

[*Many European languages are “artificial” to a greater or lesser extent. When the French, Spanish, German or Dutch language academies authorise a word, forbid another, modify spelling rules, change grammar rules, etc. is the result not at least partly artificial? And a century later, when daily use has cemented the “artificial” elements into the the “natural” language of the speech community, I have difficulty drawing a line between those modified languages and Esperanto, which today finds itself in the same situation. Certainly, the project as it was launched in 1887 was just that — a project, which may or may not one day grow into a fully fledged language — and undoubtedly artificial, albeit largely based on existing languages. A century and a bit later though, Esperanto is undoubtedly a language in its own right, and trying to come up with a definition of “a language” which would somehow exclude Esperanto usually also results in the mother tongues of millions of Israelis, Norwegians and Indonesians being excluded too.]

“There are said to be 1,000 ‘native’ speakers of Esperanto and you have to wonder what the parents were thinking.” Well, when my friend Arnaud made the decision to raise his three daughters as native Esperanto speakers, this is what he was thinking: “I’m French. My wife is French. Neither of us speak any other languages and we live in France. Is there any way that we can give our children the gift of bilingualism?” And having ruled out the possibility of moving abroad because of practical difficulties, the remaining option was to learn Esperanto and to pass that on to the children. Neither Arnaud nor his wife are particularly talented linguists; both have a good number of years of English tuition behind them, with the all-too-predictable mediocre results; and both used to work for a large German company where knowledge of German was encouraged, again with neither of them really having much of that language to show for it. However, with the Assimil cassette in the car every morning, they both reached a level where they felt confident enough to attend their first congress; after that they started using the language at home as much as possible; and now, Arnaud speaks nothing but Esperanto with his daughters, and both he and they are very happy with the results. He in no way feels restricted by the language, and has no problem in praising, scolding, discussing, reading stories, etc. with his daughters, just like any other parent; meanwhile they have a “secret” language that they can use between themselves at school if they want to!

“Italian news agency ANSA picked up just one small item about a study the Esperantists commissioned.” Factual error there (not sure whether your or ANSA’s — perhaps you might want to pass on the correction to them?) The study was not commissioned by “the Esperantists”. It was commissioned by the French governmental body for the evaluation of education in France (Le Haut Conseil de l’Evaluation de l’Ecole), and was carried out by Professor François Grin of the University of Geneva. There was no involvement by any organisation of the Esperanto movement, although it goes without saying that his conclusions certainly gave us something to talk about.

“The finding? English, the default lingua franca, costs the EU government €17 billion a year. That’s a lot of money lost in translation, to be sure. These costs could be cut out entirely, the study says, if there were a common European language.” That’s not exactly what it says. That €17 billion a year is what the UK gains from Europe by the use of English as the lingua franca. That particular anomaly would be removed if a neutral language were used instead of English, be it Esperanto, Latin or whatever. The report does not argue that translation between other EU languages should stop; that would be a whole separate debate.

“But how much time and money would it take to train everyone involved in the EU to communicate fluently in Esperanto?” Simple answer: far less than it would take them to speak any other language. In fact, I’d go even further than that: attaining a decent level of fluency in Esperanto is an achievable goal for the majority of Europeans. Achieving the same level in English is not. Decades of experience of language teaching in schools point to the conclusion that learning a national language is in fact an incredibly difficult thing to do, and one which most people fail at (certainly if the goal is to permit flowing conversation rather than just repeating memorised phrases), and I have a very hard time believing that yet another new teaching method is going to significantly change that. At the same time, decades of teaching and learning Esperanto, albeit on a much smaller scale, have repeatedly shown that people pick up the language and fly with it in a relatively short space of time.

“The bickering over official languages, with Globish as a common language, will no doubt continue.” Yep. You’re right there. 🙂


Anyway, if you’ve read this far through my incredibly long and perhaps occasionally rambling email, I hope you’ve enjoyed it and that it’s gone some way to answering your questions. If you’d like any further clarification (links, references, etc.) don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

[1] Erratum: it was the fourth, not the fifth Nitobe Symposium that occurred in Vilnius in 2005. I ought to add also that my description of the event is from my memory, not from any referenced information sources, so the number of participants and the list of working languages may not be exactly right. Mitigating, I would cite a lack of internet access at the time when I wrote the original message, m’lud.