Tour of Babble

Ho! En mia koro, firme kredas mi, ke fine glore venkos ni!oooooooooooooooooooo o zo!

For a long moment the notes of a recorder and an electric piano echo through the room. The audience has just finished singing "Venkos Ni En Gloro." The lyrics translate as "we will finally triumph in glory"; the tune is borrowed from "We Shall Overcome." The classic song of protest has been rewritten as an optimistic ode to the destiny of Esperanto, a "universal language" that almost nobody in America speaks.

The pianist rises, unplugs his instrument, and tells the audience, in Esperanto, that the sing-along is over. People are free to help themselves to tea and cookies. Cultural Evening will resume in a few minutes.

I am here in the Sitting Bull Lodge at Vermont's Okemo ski area, attending the Sixth International Esperanto Weekend. Behind me sits Phil Brewer, a computer programmer from Amherst. Pinned to his collar is a bright green star -- the international symbol for Esperanto. The pockets of his safari vest contain, among other things, an Esperanto-English phrase book and a waterproof walkie-talkie. The other walkie-talkie belongs to Phil's brother Steve, also from Amherst. After the break Steve will deliver a recital of several "hajko" -- Esperanto haiku -- on the themes of autumn, pets, and erotic love.

Despite the optimistic tenor of the anthem we just sang, there are only about 30 people at the Sixth International Esperanto Weekend. They sing with the energy of twice that number, and perhaps their enthusiasm helps explain why, a century after the creation of the world's most popular "synthetic language" and many years after it became clear that Esperanto was not going to sweep the world, people are still proud to pin hopeful green stars to their lapels.

Although I'm not here as a bona fide Esperantist, neither am I here purely as a reporter. About a year ago my interest in this long-lived artificial language overcame any misgivings I might have had, and I enrolled in an Internet correspondence course. Everything went well -- I can now read and write Esperanto passably -- but I had yet to meet an actual Esperanto speaker. So when I got word of the Okemo convention, I all but jumped at the opportunity. At last I'd have the chance to find out who these people were. I was also curious to assess the progress of Esperanto here in the US, where the universal world language is widely presumed to be English.

My invitation came courtesy of Normando Fleury, presidento of the Quebec Esperanto Association, who organized the weekend with help from the Esperanto Society of New England (ESNE). The librarian of a Montreal botanical society, Normando began learning Esperanto in 1979. He was studying in France at the time, and wanted to travel around Europe without having to learn multiple languages.

Right now Normando is standing by the coffee machine, chatting with his family about logistics for the next day's potluck luncheon. As I float by, Normando beckons me over, smiling. He wants to make sure I understood the joke about the pope and the accountant: "Komprendis vi? Jes? Bone, bone."

Like a lot of Esperantists, Normando sees the language as a way to make friends. When asked to describe what he values most about Esperanto, Normando replies (in Esperanto): "It makes it that much easier to befriend people from all over the world."

Certainly the rest of the world is a bit friendlier to Esperanto than New England is. In the weekend's opening talk, speakers recount the stories of their trips to Esperanto congresses in Berlin, the Czech Republic, and St. Louis. Those who had never attended these conventions seem pleasantly surprised to hear the attendance figures, which crept up into four digits.

As the weekend goes on, with all business and all socializing conducted in Esperanto, I find myself fighting off a steadily growing sense of disorientation. Spoken Esperanto sounds eerily familiar, yet just out of reach. The vast majority of words ultimately derive from Latin, and are thus easily recognizable: man is homo, happy kontento, and saliva salivo. Certain properties of Esperanto -- precisely those that make it so easy to learn -- guarantee that it sounds somewhat goofy when spoken. Every word is accented on the second-to-last syllable. This lends an unnaturally regular quality to the rhythm of speech, almost as if people were timing themselves by metronome.

Added to this is the fact that, in a language with an intentionally limited number of word endings (all nouns end in o, all adjectives in a; most Esperantists add an o to their names, and give their home cities as "Amhersto" or "Bostono"), a lot of the words rhyme. Even the most mundane sentences can come out sounding like couplets. The Okemo employees who wander in by accident look very, very confused.

Yet despite its oddness, spoken Esperanto sounds very rational and direct. It's hard to be sarcastic in a language that has no slang, save what one Esperantist described as the "F-verbo." Since few people inflect Esperanto with any kind of accent, it is always comprehensible, if somewhat robotic. Speakers at Okemo pronounce their words carefully, even cautiously: unambiguous communication is clearly their top priority. I end up feeling as if I were attending a church social that had been filmed and overdubbed by a race of unusually sensible aliens.

According to the textbook Esperanto: The World Interlanguage, the need for an international auxiliary language is as old as the Bible.

The story of the Tower of Babel is the paradigm for how the proliferation of languages prevents different peoples from recognizing their common aims. This vexing and persistent difference is commonly termed "the language problem."

The obvious solution -- a universal language -- has occupied the attention of various thinkers throughout the ages, most notably the philosophers Descartes and Leibniz. But none would be successful until the advent of Monsignor Johann Martin Schleyer in 1880. Schleyer, a German priest, composed the language Volapük -- "world speech" -- from roots of English, German, and Latin words. Volapük quickly claimed more than 100,000 converts, only to be undone within a decade by its own complexity -- a single verb potentially could take 505,440 forms. Not even Schleyer, it is said, was able to speak it fluently.

Onto this stage in 1887 strode Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, an oculist and amateur language student from Bialystok, Poland. Writing under the pen name of Doktor Esperanto -- "one who hopes" -- Zamenhof proposed a simpler solution: a language based on Latin and Romance roots, stripped of all but the most essential forms. By relying heavily on affixes, Esperanto could use a smaller core vocabulary: instead of "big" and "small" it used the terms granda and malgranda.

Groups such as the American Philosophical Society and the World Language Club lent their support. By the time of the Paris World's Fair in 1900, more than 300 Esperanto clubs had formed.

When the League of Nations published its "Report on Esperanto" in 1922, it estimated that four million people worldwide had picked up the language. In 1932, more than 2300 Esperanto programs were broadcast via radio. The International Red Cross Conference asked its organizations to encourage Esperanto study as "one of the most powerful means of attaining mutual understanding and cooperation." Attendance at the yearly Universal Congresses averaged more than 5000 delegates in the years before World War II. Esperanto appeared poised to become the global presence its creator had envisioned.

So what happened? Understandably, this is not a topic that Esperantists enjoy talking about. The language does retain a substantial following -- the consensus at Okemo was an estimated two million speakers worldwide, most of them in Europe and China. But it continues to have trouble gaining a foothold in the US.

When questioned, some attendees pointed to America's relative cultural insularity. Others blame the rise of English as a de facto international language in the business world, on the Internet, and in the European Union. Either way, Esperanto lacks the momentum and promise it enjoyed at its peak.

Hoping to learn more about Esperanto in the present tense, I wander over to the book fair. Its four tables display selections from a literature that claims some 10,000 titles. The selection is eclectic: a survey of Esperanto stamps sits next to a volume of love sonnets bearing an illustration from the Kama Sutra. Many of the titles were published in China -- a nation that, as it turns out, has a disproportionately large share of the world's Esperantists. One self-help manual touts its 100 percent success rate in using the language to cure stuttering.

Few of the books seem to have been printed in the United States, or after about 1970. The only recent publications I can find are copies of Green Light, ESNE's thrice-yearly bulletin. In the latest issue, editor Allan Boschen complains about low voter turnout in the society's last election. The office of corresponding secretary is vacant. The current president and vice-president are "provisory," since no one has been willing to accept these roles in a more permanent capacity.

ESNE's primary goal at present is to make Esperanto a language option for schoolchildren across New England. Citing the example of Croatia, where Esperanto is a required subject in many classrooms, Green Light describes this objective as "a major step toward a more peaceable world." To this end, the society's members have established a course at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. A recent agreement with the state's department of education guarantees that enrolling teachers will receive Professional Development Points.

But despite such aspirations, most of those present at Okemo appear relatively uninterested in the politics of synthetic language, or even in the business of politics in general. Mention of the activities of Esperantist communists -- "watermelons," they're called -- is greeted with polite amusement. One attendee recounts her trip to a convention in Cuba without once mentioning the words "embargo" or "Castro."

This apolitical tendency reflects a more general trend in the recent history of Esperanto. Earlier this year a faction of Esperantists moved to have their language adopted as the official language of the European Union. Curiously, though, a majority remained opposed, on the grounds that such a move would have brought the language under the authority of the EU. (Esperanto is currently governed by an elected academy.) According to Phil Brewer, most speakers oppose any sort of external intervention, even if it would guarantee a greater role for the language.

If an insular universal language seems like a paradox, it should. After all, nothing seems further from the internationalist spirit that characterized the early Esperanto movement. But as the weekend progresses, it becomes clearer to me that people didn't go to Okemo to work toward global understanding. They went for the same reason people go to any convention: to be among others who share their interest.

Phil Brewer explains it to me this way: "Some Esperantists are people with an interest in language who've had a hard time learning French or German. But a lot of us are people who like to meet other people but aren't especially good at it. It's sort of like a chess club, or Mensa."

Several attendees speak of having pen pals in exotic places, and one mentions "The Esperanto Passport," a listing of Esperanto-friendly homes in more than 100 nations. One of the more popular book-fair items is a memoir written by a couple who had successfully backpacked around the world speaking only Esperanto.

But on a broad scale, Esperanto has long since stopped being a means to an end. Esperanto is now an end in itself, a leisure pursuit, a hobby. In this respect, Esperantists are not that different from the people who attend Star Trek conventions and speak only Klingon.

If the events of the past century are any indication, there never was much chance that common language alone would be enough to make people get along. After all, Irish Catholics and Protestants both speak English. Normando's wife, Anya, who grew up in Croatia, made this point emphatically when the topic of the former Yugoslavia arose: "The problem there has nothing to do with language."

But in the more limited context of one long weekend, the Esperantists' trademark optimism seems less quixotic. Their prevailing assumption has always been that, underneath all their different beliefs, practices, and languages, people just want to get along. Given the chance, they'll cooperate.

This was noticeably the case at Okemo, where the mood was consistently cheerful and warm. Fluent speakers were respectful of beginners, patiently helping them when they stumbled. Although misunderstandings sometimes did occur, they invariably seemed to end in laughter.

And there's no denying that Esperanto does bring people together. Normando and Anya met at the International Congress of 1979, neither knowing a word of the other's language. As Normando recounted to me the story of their courtship, I started to think that the merits of Esperanto are perhaps better judged locally than globally.

I found my way back to my seat just before the Cultural Evening resumed. Looking around the room once more, I noticed a pair of young lovers and couldn't help but think that Esperanto had brought them together as well. Perhaps in another 20 years they'd be leading a new generation of Esperantists in song. As it turns out, they took the stage to teach us two new dance steps: "rumbo" and "jive-o." The dances were identical to rumba and swing, except for the music -- ABBA's "Waterloo."

The night's last act was also its most moving. Allan Boschen, originally from Montana, took the stage alone to sing his translation of the famous cowboy poem "Beautiful Strawberry Roan." One person joined in quietly, then another, and before long the whole room was awash in the Esperanto version of lyrics such as: "He says git your saddle/I'll give you a chance/On his buckboard we hops/And he drives to the ranch." A spirited group yodel closed out the number. I couldn't tell if we were yodeling in English, French, or Esperanto, but it didn't seem to matter at all.

Andrew Weiner is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. He can be reached at

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