A Universal Travel Tongue ; Is There Life Yet for the Esperanto Language, Asks CALLUM WATKINSON

By Watkinson, Callum | The Independent (London, England), August 31, 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Universal Travel Tongue ; Is There Life Yet for the Esperanto Language, Asks CALLUM WATKINSON


Watkinson, Callum, The Independent (London, England)


Just imagine: you are on a business trip in South Korea, alone, and your Korean is non-existent. Perhaps you are feeling lonely. You hit the nearest bar to cheer yourself up, and within seconds you have struck up a fluent conversation with one of the locals. He has never set foot outside Seoul and speaks not a word of English, but the pair of you are talking like lifelong friends in a language that you are both completely comfortable speaking.

The dream of a world without linguistic barriers was what prompted L L Zamenhof, a Polish doctor, to invent an entire language from scratch in 1887. It was designed to be as easy to learn as possible. There are no genders nor irregular verbs to memorise. Indeed, some maintain that learning Esperanto will help you to understand linguistic rules, and aid study of other foreign languages and that it can even improve your English.

Zamenhof published it under the name of Dr Esperanto, meaning "one who hopes", and this was the name that was eventually given to his creation. The idea was not to weaken national identities, but to provide a second language that everyone in the world could use to communicate with each other.

The universal language is alive and well, and its supporters are about to move into luxurious premises in Stoke-on-Trent: the Esperanto Association of Britain is gearing up for the celebrando por la inauguro de Esperanto- Domo ("celebration of the opening of the new Esperanto headquarters"). The new centre, complete with a 30,000-volume Esperanto library, is a rebuff to those who maintain that it is a crackpot scheme that will never catch on.

How useful is Esperanto to today's traveller - surely English is rapidly becoming the universal language, rendering any alternative futile? In fact, there has been rapid population growth in non- English-speaking countries. In 1900, English was spoken by about 10 per cent of the world's population; by 1950 it had crept up to 11 per cent, but now it has fallen to 8.5-9 per cent. Esperantists maintain that English is far from ideal as an international language because it is so difficult to learn.

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