In online language learning communities, if you decide to learn a new language, you’re bound to get support and praise. However, there is one exception to this. If you declare you want to learn German, Russian or Uzbek etc you will receive encouragement and if someone doesn’t like those languages, they’ll keep their opinion to themselves. However, this rule doesn’t apply to Esperanto. If someone doesn’t like Esperanto, they’ll definitely let you know, in fact they’ll even tell you that Esperantists are such rude people that they brought the hostility on themselves.
I’ve never seen a Reddit comment section about Esperanto that didn’t involve Esperantists having to defend themselves and justify their actions. I’ve never had to justify any other hobby of mine, no one demands to know what the practical use of learning chess is or declares that because you can’t stop someone on the street to play cards, it’s useless. I have no interest in football, but if I met someone who did, I would never give them a long list of all its flaws and explain why it’s a waste of time.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with disliking Esperanto and you’re not under any obligation to like it (I respond to other criticism here). If you look at it and it doesn’t suit you, that’s fine. But I don’t want people to make judgements based on misconceptions and myths. It’s unbelievable how often people claim Esperanto isn’t worth learning because there’s no native speakers or it has absolutely no use. I’ve seen some very odd claims like someone who claimed all objects in Esperanto have a gender (he eventually realised he was thinking of a completely different language) or that it’s not possible to have a conversation in Esperanto because it has only 900 words or Esperanto is like Klingon (people usually mean it’s a joke language or something fake and ugly when they say this, some people even think there are more speakers of Klingon) or some sort of Jewish Communist scheme.
So, why do I bother talking about it at all? For me, Esperanto is like summer camp. The first day you don’t know anyone, you’re nervous and having second thoughts. But gradually bit by bit, you start to settle in and make friends. By the end of the week, you’ve become best friends and made great memories. Isn’t it understandable if you’d want to tell everyone so they could also enjoy it? So, imagine my disappointment when people respond by saying it’s a waste of time and only for sad losers.
Myth #1: You can only use Esperanto to talk about Esperanto
I don’t know where this myth came from, but certainly wasn’t anyone who spoke Esperanto. I have personally used Esperanto for two separate jobs, a common language with my flatmates, to make friends, play sport, debate politics, read a book, flirt, play cards, get drunk, sing along at a concert, argue with my boss, write a blog and learn more about the world around me. I even know several people who have met at an Esperanto event, fallen in love, gotten married and had children. I’m pretty sure they talk about things other than Esperanto in their marriage.
Just this week alone I have seen articles and videos about the Fukushima disaster, scientific illiteracy, a soccer match, German students learning Chinese, erotic fiction, electrification in Africa, space exploration to Mars, book reviews, the epic of Gilgamesh, a student strike in Benin as well as music and jokes. That’s just content that was created this week. Nor are Esperanto events 1984-style gatherings where we bow before a statue of Zamenhof while ominous figures in cloaks chant praise. Reading the program from the last event I went to, I see dance classes, a poetry workshop, discussions about minority languages, talks on polyamory, planets outside our solar system, a visit to Chernobyl and LGBT rights. The only program about Esperanto was a lesson for beginners and you could maybe count the poetry workshop because it discussed expressing yourself in Esperanto.
Myth #2: Esperantists believe Esperanto is perfect and never criticise it
Anytime I hear this criticism, I know straight away that the person has no experience of the Esperanto community, because believe me, there’s plenty of criticism (just ask someone what they think of the food at an Esperanto event). One of the most popular blogs is literally called Stela ĉiam nur kritikas (Stela always only criticises) which focuses mainly on criticism of Esperanto events and the movement. The main online Esperanto news site Libera Folio is famous for criticising and holding to account the main Esperanto organisation UEA, especially in regard to financial problems (of which there are many). There are many critics of the main Esperanto organisations UEA and TEJO, they certainly don’t receive blind adoration.
In fact, if someone doesn’t want to talk about the flaws of Esperanto it’s probably because they’re tired of the debate, not because they are brainwashed into thinking it’s perfect. There are endless debates and reform proposals but most people just aren’t that interested. I once had a discussion with someone who demanded I admit that Esperanto’s morphological phonemical lexicon (I don’t remember what exactly he said, but it might as well have been gibberish) was flawed and when I didn’t, he thought I was brainwashed into thinking Esperanto was perfect. He couldn’t believe that I just didn’t care about linguistic technicalities. Most people treat Esperanto like a car, they don’t care about the technicalities of the engine, they just want to know if it works.
If we were to recreate Esperanto again from scratch, most Esperantists would have suggestions for improvements, like in relation to land names and gender. However, most people realise that there’s no such thing as a perfect language and what you think is an improvement, someone else would view as a mistake.
Myth #3: Evangelical Esperantists
There is a myth that Esperantists are trying to achieve world domination and therefore will shove the language down the throats of everyone. Apparently, there are groups of “Green Popes” who are constantly propagandising for the language. I’ve rarely come across them, but I have seen plenty of people with an irrational hatred of the language who show up in every discussion about the language. If there are any over-enthusiastic proponents, they are usually outnumbered about five to one by the equally enthusiastic critics.
I think theses people would be very surprised if they went to any of the Esperanto Youth events. There’s no flag waving or anthem singing, no speeches about the movement or propaganda techniques, people hardly even mention Zamenhof. It’s just young people from many different countries getting to know each other and having fun. When I hear about evangelical Esperantists trying to convert the world, it doesn’t fit at all with the Esperantists I know.
Myth #4: Esperanto has no culture
This is a very popular myth, but not true at all. There are thousands of books, songs, videos in Esperanto and wandering through the libroservo shows the staggering quantity of material produced in the language. I’m currently reading a book originally written in Esperanto, by the father of George Soros, about how he survived the Nazi occupation as a Jew in Hungary. To give you just an idea of the richness of the culture, I’ve personally read books originally written in Esperanto such as a diary kept during the Yugoslav civil war, a biography of Gandhi, the beautiful poetry of Julio Baghy, non-fiction about why Russians support Putin, how the people of Crimea feel about the Russian occupation and the persecution of Esperantists (mainly by Stalin and Hitler). Those are just the ones I’ve read, there’s more on my shelf I haven’t got to yet. The Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto is a mammoth book with 740 pages (and that’s the concise version). There is also the 750-page Historio de la Esperanta Literaturo which also covers original literature, so it’s not as if there’s a shortage of material. I haven’t read either book but I have read Star in a Night Sky, which is a really interesting bilingual sampling of a wide range of stories, novels, poems, plays, non-fiction in Esperanto.
There are many symbols and markers of culture such as various traditions, the flag, the anthem, insider references and words that don’t translate well. Words like kabei, krokodili, la bambo, gufujo, la fina benko only have meaning in an Esperanto context. Of course, culture isn’t just the physical objects, although those are easier to show to outsiders. There is a special feeling I have when using Esperanto that I don’t feel with any other language. There is a special etoso or atmosphere at Esperanto events that you don’t find anywhere else. Post-renkontiĝa sindromo (the sadness after an event) is a real feeling even if it’s hard to express.
Myth #5: Esperanto is only easy if you speak a Western European language
While it is certainly true that most of the vocabulary comes from Western European languages, some people misunderstand this point to think that it is only easy for Western Europeans to learn. Even if you leave aside the fact that Western European languages are dominant on 5 out of 6 continents in the world, there is surprisingly little correlation between the popularity of Esperanto and the native language of the country. The largest Esperanto movements in Europe are in France, Germany and Poland, despite the fact that these countries have languages from three separate language families. In fact, I would estimate that Hungary has proportionality the largest Esperanto movement in the world and their language isn’t even Indo-European!
China and Japan have some of the largest national associations in the world and Esperanto is more active in East Asia than in Spanish-speaking South America. Last year’s World Congress in South Korea was double the size of the 2014 Congress in Argentina. Interestingly, the only countries that offer official support to Esperanto are non-Indo-European language speaking countries – Hungary (which allows Esperanto as a subject for final year exams) and China (which subsidises an Esperanto newspaper and radio).
While vocabulary is an important part of a language, it isn’t the only part. After all, English is considered a Germanic language even though most of its vocabulary comes from Latin languages. It has been argued that in terms of grammar, Esperanto is very similar to Asian languages. It is designed to be flexible and accommodate a wide range of writing styles through its free word order for example. Esperanto has several features which make it easy to learn regardless of your native language. No matter where you’re from the phonetic nature of Esperanto where every letter has only one sound and each sound has only one letter is easy. Even if you know nothing of Latin languages, you will find Esperanto verbs simple and easy because they are completely regular without any exceptions.
While I’m on the subject of myths and misconceptions, there are two small points I want to correct. They’re not very important, but seeing as I’m correcting myths, I might as well include them.
Zamenhof was Polish – Every single article I’ve read that describes the history of Esperanto, describes its creator as being Polish. This is probably because he was born in modern day Poland, but what people don’t realise is that at the time, Jews and Poles were seen as two separate ethnicities. Although Zamenhof could speak Polish, Russian was the language his family used at home. So, while he disliked the concept of nationalities in general, he said that if it must be described, he should be called a “Russian Jew.” Source
George Soros is native Esperanto speaker – This is a common internet myth but there is no original source for the claim. His father Tivadar was an active Esperantist who wrote two books in Esperanto and helped run an Esperanto literature review, so George was certainly exposed to it from a young age. He did learn it and even used an Esperanto congress abroad as the chance to escape from Communist Hungary. However, there is no evidence that he spoke it natively or that he has used it in decades. Likewise, although his surname does mean “will soar” in Esperanto, there’s no proof this is why it was chosen.