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  • Canadian language police prepare for unrest as 200 attend Esperanto Congress in Montreal

    Since the passage of Loi 101 over 30 years ago, all advertising in the province of Québec must be in French, all signs must have French lettering that is bigger and more prominent than any other language, and anyone can insist on being served or spoken to in French. 

    While tourism flourishes in Montréal, and English and French generally co-exist peacefully in the city most of the time, violators of the law protecting French are routinely brought to justice. Esperanto speakers might well fear running afoul of the official language law, because over the years they have been persecuted for subversive activities in a number of countries.

    But while the goal of Esperanto is to achieve peace and understanding through an artificial language, not a natural one like French, Montréal is actually rolling out the red carpet for the Esperanto conference-goers, an indication that French Canadians will support any language that’s challenging the position of English as a global language. 

    French firefighters douse a flaming car 

    Québec’s language police will be watching conference-goers closely, to make sure they don’t commit subversive acts, like torching a deux-chevaux, j-walking, or PDE, public displays of Esperanto.

    Montréalers must have sensed that they are in no danger from Esperanto. While it claims to be culturally neutral, favoring no language over any other, 80% of Esperanto’s vocabulary is drawn from the romance languages, so Canadians can safely treat Esperanto like just any other variety of French, like Cajun, Creole, or even Québecois itself.

    Even so, things aren’t rosy for Esperanto. The official color of Esperanto is green, as we see in the t-shirt below. The theme of the Pan-American Esperanto Congress is green as well – conference sessions will focus on sustainability, both for the environment and for Esperanto. And, while both need all the help they can get, the language may actually be in more danger than the planet.. 

    Green Esperanto t-shirt

    The earth, which is about 4.55 billion years old (+/- 5 million years), is being threatened by global warming, pollution, nuclear weapons, religious fanatics, and the subprime mortgage crisis. But the language whose goal is to save the planet is likely to disappear long before the planet it’s designed to protect.

    It’s not Québec’s language law that threatens Esperanto. The impact of official language legislation pales in comparison to the threat of indifference that Esperanto faces not just from Canadians but from most of the world’s population.

    The language has anywhere from a few hundred thousand to a million or more speakers world-wide, but only 200 of them made the journey to Montréal. More people are likely to show up at Star Trek convention, or a sale at Best Buy.

    Those disappointing numbers suggest that Esperantists are just hobbyists who have glommed onto a particularly obscure hobby, like collecting Edsels or solving Rubik’s cube. Despite the occasional claim that a family is raising its children to speak Esperanto from birth, Esperanto’s no one’s native language: each generation of Esperanto speakers has to learn the language from teachers and books, just like they learn any second language.

    And as with any language learned in school, students have to be convinced that Esperanto will be useful before they’ll make the effort to master it. Since almost everybody in the world goes through their day without encountering any Esperanto at all, it’s difficult to convince students that the language can serve any practical purpose for them.

    As for the claim that Esperanto can lead to world peace, well, natural languages haven’t done much to foster peace, so what’s to say that a constructed language like Esperanto can do any better? And why not one of the other artificial languages, like Ido, Volapük, Novial, or Europanto? And sure, someone could decide to hold a peace conference in Esperanto. But what if nobody came?

    Plus, it turns out that the language which is supposed to bring about world peace is itself not entirely free of conflict. Esperantists have spread the rumor that, unlike natural languages, they have no dialects, proof that they are able to agree on something as basic as the rules of language. But Esperanto factions have arisen. Conservatives, seeking to keep their language pure and undefiled, measure Esperanto correctness in terms of the rules laid out by the language’s creator over 120 years ago. In contrast, modernists embrace linguistic change, pushing Esperanto in a more international direction to make it more accessible to non-Europeans.

    What’s worse, though, is that even if Esperanto could make good on the promise of peace, that’s probably not enough to get the world to adopt it. World peace is certainly desirable, but having to learn a new language to achieve it, well that’s just something most people are not going to be willing to do.

    William Shatner in  

    William Shatner and Ann Atmar speak only Esperanto in the 1965 sci-fi cult classic “Incubus.” In the film, Esperanto has absolutely nothing to do with either universal communication or world peace. It’s just there to make the actors sound like aliens. The movie is subtitled, but that’s not the only reason why it flopped. If someone had managed to invent the Star Trek Universal Translator for the film, Shatner wouldn’t have to appear today in all those priceline commercials.

SamuelRiv@gmail.com Aug 6, 2008 8:39 pm

I learned Esperanto a bit in high school, or should I butcher-wise say, mi lernis iom esperanton je lernejo duala. I also studied a little lojban, which was originally designed to be machine-tractable due to lack of grammatical ambiguities (based on Russel grammar).

While international auxiliary languages (IALs) are probably past their fad time in the early 20th century, there are some notable historical successes for auxiliary languages and artificial languages, such as Lingua Franca in the Middle Ages, Swahili, and the Hangul alphabet in Korea.

But I think a language like lojban has promise for recovery. Machine parsing of natural language has not really gotten into true pragmatics at this point, and it may be uncertain how grammatical ambiguity might affect it in the future (maybe we can make probabilistic networks that will be quite successful), so once we get to the stage where we are really able to handle pragmatic interpretation of natural language, I'd take another look at the IALs, specifically lojban and it's predecessor, loglan.

silent.walker@hotmail.com Sep 27, 2008 5:20 am

I have only just begun to investigate esperanto but I feel, on reading your blog, that you have not. Yes, only 200 at a conference is not very large but I understand that this conference was only for the americas where esperanto is not that well known. Most esperantists in this hemisphere are located in South America - they may find a trip to Canada a bit expensive. And, I don't thing that number included those in the video-confrencing. In the more global conferences that take place outside of North America, the attendance numbers average over 2500 people. I think that is quite impressive for a made up language that is marketed and publisized by word of mouth. (unlike Star Trek that has had huge amounts money poured into its local, national, and global marketing for decades!)

I find it interesting that the place that has the least esperantists is the place that speaks the so-called global language. Obviously, the world is not very please about being forced to learn English. How will we feel when another country's language becomes the norm? When Rome was in power their language was used as the main language of politics and commerce throughout europe and into the middle east and africa for centuries, The church gained huge amounts of power and continued with Latin, then French rose as the appropriate language. Now it is English because of America, the superpower. Well, America is on the edge of an economic breakdown. Russian is on it's way back up and China's dragon is starting to unroll itself to show the world it's true size. If another country becomes the dominant player in the world, why would it continue to force it's people to learn the language of an 'lesser' country? I already know a number of people learning Mandarin in expectation of a change in the language of business.

How long would it take for you to become fluent in another language? 4-5 years? - a year if you go and immerse yourself in it? How much would it cost for those lessons or language exchanges? - a total of hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars? (I took years of French and can't read a children's book!) Esperanto is a curiosity to me, a hobby, so I only spend a total of an hour or so each week on it. My personal study can be measured only in months and I'm already beginning to read novels and to instant-message with others around the world. And, the entire thing has been free of charge!

I think it would be interesting to see if the language of the world could be chosen by us rather than  forced upon us.

Interesting blog, by the way. I'm glad you've provided a platform for discussion.

Thank you.


silent.walker@hotmail.com Sep 27, 2008 5:45 am

Perhaps a language cannot bring about world peace but it can help and foster it. I was not at the conference but was told that one of the video conferences was from an indiginous tribe in South America. They are hoping that Esperanto will become a global language, and soon, in order to save their language and culture. They have had english forced upon them, Portuguese, and Spanish. If there was a global language they could keep their language and only learn one easy economic language.

Language and culture (and often patriotism) is wrapped up together. When you learn a new language you learn more about their culture. When you send up rallying cries they are in your own language or the language of your forfathers. We often believe that intelligence is wrapped up in a language's proper usage - How often do we mistake immigrants as uneducated or unintelligent just because they speak English poorly? The Quebequois fight english because they don't want their culture to be overtaken. What about the Irish? the Latvians? the Tibetans? Haven't they all at one time or another been told to get rid of their language and only speak the language of their oppressors? A universal language cannot stop one country from invading but it can keep a culture alive. It can foster understanding. It can call more effectively for help. And, an easily learned language, can help us to see beyond the words to the intelligence and the people behind them.


By the way, think of the money it would save! All those translators, translations, transcribing, movie captioning,...


Sorry, I'm running on. Thanks again.

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