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Umberto ECO: Esperanto is a masterpiece.


Disponibile anche in: Italian

Umberto ECO
The Search for the Perfect Language
Blackwell Publishers, 1995. Translated by James Fentress

Esperanto was first proposed in 1887 in a book, written in Russian and published in Warsaw at the Kelter Press, entitled The International Language. Preface and Complete Manual (for Russians). The author’s name was Dr Ledger Ludwik Zamenhof; yet he wrote the book under the pseudonym Dr Esperanto (Dr Hopeful), and this was soon adopted as the name of his language.
Zamenhof, born in 1859, had been fascinated with the idea of an international language since adolescence. When his uncle Josef asked him what was the non-Hebrew name he had, according to custom, chosen for his contacts with Gentiles, the seventeen-year-old Zamenhof replied that he had chosen Ludwik because he had found a reference to Lodwick (also spelled Lodowick) in a work by Comenius (letter of 31 March 1876; see Lamberti 1990: 49). Zamenhof’s origins and personality helped shape both his conception of the new language and its eventual success. Born of a Jewish family in Bialystok, an area of Polish Lithuania then part of the Tsarist empire, Zamenhof passed his childhood in a crucible of races and languages continually shaken by nationalistic ferment and lasting waves of anti Semitism. The experience of oppression, followed by the persecution of intellectuals, especially Jewish, at the hands of the Tsarist government, ensured that Zamenhof’s particular fascination with international languages would become mixed with a desire for peace between peoples. Besides, although Zamenhof felt solidarity towards his fellow Jews and forecast their return to Palestine, his form of secular religiosity prevented him from fully supporting Zionist ideas: instead of thinking of the end of the Diaspora as a return to Hebrew, Zamenhof hoped that all the Jews could be, one day, reunited in an entirely new language.
In the same years in which, starting in the Slavic-speaking lands, Esperanto began its spread throughout Europe – while philanthropists, linguists and learned societies followed its progress with interest, devoting international conferences to the phenomenon – Zamenhof had also pub­lished an anonymous pamphlet, which extolled a doctrine of international brotherhood, homaranism. Some of his followers successfully insisted on keeping the Esperanto movement independent of ideological commitments, arguing that if Esperanto were to succeed, it would do so only by attracting to its cause men and women of different religious, political and philosophical opinions. They even sought to avoid any public reference to Zamenhof’s own Jewish origins, given that – it must be remembered – just at that historical moment there was growing up the theory of a great ‘Jewish conspiracy’.
Even so, despite the movement’s insistence on its absolute neutrality, the philanthropic impulse and the non-confessional religious spirit that animated it could not fail to influence the followers of the new language – or samideani, that is, participating in the same ideal. In the years immediately following its emergence, moreover, the language and its supporters were almost banned by the Tsarist government, congenitally suspi­cious towards idealism of any sort, especially after Esperanto had had the fortune/misfortune to obtain the passionate support of Tolstoy, whose brand of humanist pacifism the government regarded as a dangerous form of revolutionary ideology. Even the Nazis followed suit, persecuting Esperanto speakers in the various lands under their occupation (cf. Lins 1988). Persecution, however, only reinforces an idea: the majority of international languages represented themselves as nothing more than instruments of practical utility; Esperanto, by contrast, came increasingly to gather in its folds those religious and pacifist tensions which had been characteristics of many quests for a perfect language, at least until the end of the seventeenth century.
Esperanto came to enjoy the support and sympathy of many illustrious figures – linguists such as Baudoin de Courtenay and Otto Jespersen, scientists such as Peano, or philosophers such as Russell. Rudolf Carnap’s comments are particularly revealing; in his Autobiography (in Schilpp 1963: 70) he described feeling moved by a sense of solidarity when he found himself able to converse with people of other countries in a common tongue. He noted the quality of this living language which managed to unify a surprising degree of flexibility in its means of expression with a great structural simplicity. Simplest perhaps was the lapidary formulation of Antoine Meillet: ‘Toute discussion theoretique est vaine: l’Esperanto fonctionne’ (Meillet 1918: 268).
Today the existence of the Universala Esperanto-Asocio in all of the principal cities of the world still testifies to the success of Zamenhof’s invention. Over one hundred periodicals are currently published in Esperanto, there is an original production of poetry and narrative, and most of world literature has been translated into this language, from the Bible to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen.
Like Volapuk, however, especially in the first decades, the Esperanto movement was nearly torn apart by battles raging over proposed lexical and grammatical reforms. In 1907, Couturat, as the founder and secretary of the Delegation pour 1’adoption d’une langue auxiliaire internationale, attempted what Zamenhof considered a coup de main: he judged Esperanto to be the best IAL, but only in its approved version, that is, only in the version that had been reformed by the French Esperanto enthusiast, Louis De Beaufront, and renamed Ido. The majority of the movement resisted the proposed modifications, according to a principle stated by Zamenhof: Esperanto might accept en­richments and lexical improvements, but it must always remain firmly attached to what we might call the ‘hard core’ as set down by its founder in Fundamento de Esperanto (1905).

An Optimized Grammar
The twenty-eight letters of the Esperanto alphabet are based on a simple principle: for each letter one sound, and for each sound one letter. The tonic accent always falls on the penultimate syllable. There is only one article, la, invariable for words of all genders – thus la homo, la libroj, la abelo. Proper names do not take an article. There is no indefinite article.
Concerning the lexicon, the young Zamenhof had al­ready noted that in many European languages there was a logic of suffixes that produced both feminine and many derivative forms (Buch/Biicherei, pharmakon/phar- makeia, childlchildish, rex/regina, host/hostess, gallo/galli- na, hero/heroine, Tsar/Tsarina), while the formation of contraries was governed by prefixes (heureux/malheureux, happytunhappy, legal/illegal, fermo/malfermo, rostom/malo- rostom – the Russian for ‘high’ and ‘low’). In a letter of 24 September 1876, Zamenhof described himself as ransacking the dictionaries of the various European languages trying to identify terms with a common root – lingwe, lingua, langue, lengua, language; rosa, rose, roza, etc. This was already the seminal idea of an a posteriori language.
Wherever Zamenhof was unable to discover a common root, he coined his own terms, privileging Romance lan­guages, followed by the Germanic and Slavic ones. As a result, any speaker of a European language who examined an Esperanto word list would discover: (1) many terms that were easily recognizable as being similar or identical to his or her own; (2) terms which, though deriving from a foreign language, were still easily recognizable; (3) terms which, though strange at first sight, once their meaning had been learned, turned out to be easily recognizable; and, finally, (4) a reasonably limited number of terms to be learned ex novo. Here are some examples: abelo (ape), apud (next to), akto (act), alumeto (match), birdo (bird), cigaredo (cigarette), domo (home), fali (to fall), frosto (frost), fumo (smoke), hundo (dog), kato (cat), krajono (pencil), kvar (quarter).
Esperanto also includes a comparatively large number of compound words. They are not inspired by the a priori projects, where composition is the norm, since the terms work like a chemical formula; Zamenhof could find compound words in natural languages (think of man-eater, tire-boucbon, schiaccianoci, to say nothing of German). Compound words, moreover, permitted the exploitation of a limited number of radicals to the maximum. The rule governing the formation of compounds was that the principal word appeared at the end: thus – as in English – a ‘writing-table’ becomes skribotablo. The agglutinative principle which governs the formation of compound words allows for the creation of easily recognizable neologisms (cf. Zinna 1993).
From the radical stem, the neutral form is given by the suffix -o. This is not, as might appear, for example, to Italian or Spanish speakers, the suffix for the masculine gender, but merely serves as a mark for singular. The feminine gender is ‘marked’ by inserting an -in- between the stem and the singular ending -o. Thus ‘father/mother’ = patr-o/patr-in-o, ‘king/queen’ = reg-o/reg-in-o, male/female = vir-o/vir-in-o.
Plurals are formed by adding -j to the singular: thus ‘fathers/mothers’ = patr-o-j/patr-in-o-j.
In natural languages many terms belonging to the same conceptual fields are frequently expressed by radically different lexical items. For instance, in Italian, given the conceptual field of parenthood, one must learn the meaning of padre, madre, suocero, genitori (father, mother, father-in law and parents) before acknowledging that these terms belong to the same notional family. In Esperanto, knowing the meaning of the radicalJ)atr, it is immediately possible to guess the meaning of patro, patrino, bopatro and gepatroj.
Likewise, in English (as well as in other languages) there are different endings for terms which all express a job or an occupation, like actor, driver, dent/sf, president, surgeon.
In Esperanto the words for all occupations are marked by the suffix -istOy so that anyone who knows that dento is ‘tooth’ will automatically know that a dentisto is a professional who deals with teeth.
The rule for the formation of adjectives is also simple and intuitively clear: adjectives are formed by adding the suffix -a to the root stem: ‘paternal’ = patr-a; and they agree with nouns in number: ‘good parents’ = bonaj patroj. The six verbal forms are not conjugated, and are always marked by six suffixes. For instance, for the verb ‘to see’ we have vid-i (infinitive), vid-as (present), vid-is (past), vidos (future), vid-us (conditional) and vidu! (imperative).
Zinna has observed (1993) that, while the a priori languages and ‘laconic’ grammars tried, at all cost, to apply a principle of economy, Esperanto follows a principle of optimization. Following the principle of economy, Esperanto abolishes case endings, yet it makes an exception of the accusative – which is formed by adding an -n to the noun: ‘la patro amas la filon, la patro amas la filojn.’ The motivation for this exception was that in non-flexional languages the accusative is the only case which is not introduced by a preposition, therefore it had to be marked in some way. Besides, the languages that, like English, had lost the accusative for nouns retain it for pronouns (I/me). The accusative also permits one to invert the syntactic order of the sentence, and yet to identify both the subject and the object of the action.
The accusative serves to avoid other ambiguities produced by non-flexional languages. As in Latin, it serves to indicate motion towards, so that in Esperanto one can distinguish between ‘la birdo flugas en la gardeno’ (in which the bird is flying about within the garden) from ‘la birdo flugas en la gardenon’ (in which the bird is flying into the garden). In Italian Tuccello vola nel giardino’ remains ambiguous. In English, ‘I can hear him better than you’ is ambiguous, for it can mean either ‘I can hear him better than you can hear him’ or ‘I can hear him better than I can hear you’ (the same happens in French with ‘je l’ecoute mieux que vous’, or in Italian with ‘lo sento meglio di te’). The Esperanto accusative renders this distinction very simply: the first case is ‘mi auskultas lin pli bone ol vi’, while the second is ‘mi auskultas lin pli bone ol vin.

Theoretical Objections and Counter-objections
A fundamental objection that can be applied to any of the a posteriori projects generically is that they can make no claim to having identified and artificially reorganized a content-system. They simply provide an expression-system which aims at being easy and flexible enough to express the contents normally expressed in a natural language. Such a practical advantage is also a theoretical limit. If the a priori languages were too philosophical, their a posteriori successors are not philosophical enough.
The supporters of an IAL have neither paid attention to the problem of linguistic relativism, nor ever been worried by the fact that different languages present the world in different ways, sometimes mutually incommensurable. They have usually taken it for granted that synonymous expressions exist from language to language, and the vast collection of books that have been translated into Esperanto from various of the world’s languages is taken as proof of the complete ‘effability’ of this language (this point has been discussed, from opposite points of view, by two authors who are both traditionally considered as rela­tivist, that is, Sapir and Whorf- cf. Pellerey 1993: 7).
‘To accept the idea that there is a content-system which is the same for all languages means, fatally, to take surreptitiously for granted that such a model is the western one. Even if it tries to distance itself in certain aspects from the Indo-European model, Esperanto, both in its lexicon and in its syntax, remains basically an Indo-European tongue. As Martinet observed, ‘the situation would have been different if the language had been invented by a Japanese’ (1991: 681).
One is free to regard all these objections as irrelevant. A theoretical weak point may even turn out to be a practical advantage. One can hold that linguistic unification must, in practice, accept the use of the Indo-European languages as the linguistic model (cf. Carnap in Schlipp 1963: 71). It is a view that seems to be confirmed by actual events; for the moment (at least) the economic and technological growth of Japan is based on Japanese acceptance of an Indo-European language (English) as a common vehicle.
Both natural tongues and some ‘vehicular’ languages have succeeded in becoming dominant in a given country or in a larger area mainly for extra-linguistic reasons. As far as the linguistic reasons are concerned (easiness, economy, rationality and so on), there are so many variables that there are no ‘scientific’ criteria whereby we might confute the claim of Goropius Becanus that sixteenth-century Flemish was the easiest, most natural, sweetest and most expressive language in the entire universe. The predominant position currently enjoyed by English is a historical contingency arising from the mercantile and colonial expansion of the British Empire, which was followed by American economic and technological hegemony. Of course, it may also be maintained that English has succeeded because it is rich in monosyllables, capable of absorbing foreign words and flexible in forming neologisms, etc.; yet had Hitler won World War II and had the USA been reduced to a confeder­ation of banana republics, we would probably today use German as a universal vehicular language, and Japanese electronics firms would advertise their products in Hong Kong airport duty-free shops (Zollfreie Waren) in German. Besides, on the arguable rationality of English, and of any other vehicular language, see the criticism of Sapir (1931).
There is no reason why an artificial language like Esperanto might not function as an international language, just as certain natural languages (such as Greek, Latin, French, English, Swahili) have in different historical periods.
We have already encountered in Destutt de Tracy an extremely powerful objection: a universal language, like perpetual motion, is impossible for a very ‘peremptory’ reason: ‘Even were everybody on earth to agree to speak the same language from today onwards, they would rapidly discover that, under the influence of their own use, the single language had begun to change, to modify itself in thousands of different ways in each different country, until it produced in each a different dialect which gradually grew away from all the others’ (Elements d’ideologie, II, 6, 569).
It is true that, just for the above reasons, the Portuguese of Brazil today differs from the Portuguese spoken in Portugal so much that Brazilian and Portuguese publishers publish two different translations of the same foreign book, and it is a common occurrence for foreigners who have learned their Portuguese in Rio to have difficulty understanding what they hear on the streets of Lisbon. Against this, however, one can point out the Brazilians and Portuguese still manage to understand each other well enough in practical, everyday matters. In part, this is because the mass media help the speakers of each variety to follow the transformations taking place on the other shore.
Supporters of Esperanto like Martinet (1991: 685) argue that it would be, to say the least, naive to suppose that, as an IAL diffused into new areas, it would be exempt from the process through which languages evolve and split up into varieties of dialects. Yet in so far as an IAL remained an auxiliary language, rather than the primary language of everyday exchange, the risks of such a parallel evolution would be diminished. The action of the media, which might reflect the decisions of a sort of international supervisory association, could also contribute to the establishment and maintenance of standards, or, at least, to keeping evolution under control.

The ‘Political’ Possibilities of an IAL
Up to now, vehicular languages have been imposed by tradition (Latin as the language of politics, learning and the church in the Middle Ages), by political and economical hegemony (English after World War II), or by other imponderable reasons (Swahili, a natural language spoken on the coast of east Africa, gradually and spontaneously penetrated the interior and, in the wake of commercial and, later, colonial contacts, was simplified and standardized, becoming the common language for a vast African area).
Would it be possible for some international body (the UN or the European Parliament) to impose a particular IAL as a lingua franca (or, perhaps, sanction the actual diffusion of one)? It would be a totally unprecedented historical event.
No one could deny, however, that today many things have changed: that continuous and curious exchanges among different peoples – not just at the higher social levels, but at the level of mass tourism – are phenomena that did not exist in previous eras. The mass media have proved to be capable of spreading comparatively homogeneous patterns of behaviour throughout the entire globe – and in fact, in the international acceptance of English as a common language, the mass media have played no small part. Thus, were a political decision to be accompanied by a media campaign, the chances of success for an IAL would be greatly improved.
Today, Albanians and Tunisians have learned Italian only because they can receive Italian TV. All the more reason, it seems, to get people acquainted with an IAL, provided it would be regularly used by many television programmes, by international assemblies, by the pope for his addresses, by the instruction booklets for electronic gadgets, by the control towers in the airports.
If no political initiative on this matter has emerged up till now, if, indeed, it seems difficult to bring about, this does not mean that a political initiative of this sort will never be made in the future. During the last four centuries we have witnessed in Europe a process of national state formation, which required (together with a customs policy, the constitution of regular armies, and the vigorous imposition of symbols of identity) the imposition of single national languages. Schools, academies and the press have been encouraged to standardize and spread knowledge of these languages. Speakers of marginal languages suffered neglect, or, in various political circumstances, even direct persecu­tion, in order to ensure national homogeneity.
Today, however, the trend has reversed itself: politically, customs barriers are coming down, national armies are giving way to international peace-keeping forces, and national borders have become ‘welcome to’ signs on the motorway. In the last decades, European policy towards minority languages has changed as well. Indeed, in the last few years, a much more dramatic change has taken place, of which the crumbling of the Soviet empire is the most potent manifestation: linguistic fragmentation is no longer felt as an unfortunate accident but rather as a sign of national identity and as a political right – at the cost even of civil wars. For two centuries, America was an international melting pot with one common language – WASP English: today, in states like California, Spanish has begun to claim an equal right; New York City is not far behind.
The process is probably by now unstoppable. If the growth in European unity now proceeds in step with linguistic fragmentation, the only possible solution lies in the full adoption of a vehicular language for Europe.
Among all the objections, one still remains valid: it was originally formulated by Fontenelle and echoed by d’Alembert in his introduction to the Encyclopedic: governments are naturally egotistical; they enact laws for their own benefit, but never for the benefit of all humanity. Even if we were all to agree on the necessity of an IAL, it is hard to imagine the international bodies, which are still striving to arrive at some agreement over the means to save our planet from an ecological catastFophe, being capable of imposing a painless remedy for the open wound of Babel.
Yet in this century we have become used to a constantly accelerating pace of events, and this should make would-be prophets pause. National pride is a two-edged sword; faced with the prospect that in a future European union the language of a single nation might prevail, those states with scant prospects of imposing their own language and which are afraid of the predominance of another one (and thus all states except one) might band together to support the adoption of an IAL.

Limits and Effability of an IAL
If one considers the efforts made by many IALs in order to translate all the masterpieces of world literature, one wonders whether, by using an IAL originally, it is possible to achieve artistic results.
One is tempted to cite a celebrated (if misunderstood) boutade attributed to Leo Longanesi: ‘you can’t be a great Bulgarian poet.’ The boutade is not a nasty comment about Bulgaria: Longanesi wanted to say that one cannot be a great poet if one writes in a language spoken only by a few million people in a country which (whatever else it is) has remained for centuries on the margins of history.
I do not think Longanesi meant that one cannot be a great poet if one writes in a language unknown to the rest of the world. This seems reductive, for poetic greatness is surely not dependent on diffusion. It seems more likely that Lon­ganesi wanted to say that a language is the sum and conse­quence of a variety of social factors which, over the course of history, have enriched and strengthened it. Many of these factors are extra-linguistic: these include provocative contacts with other cultures, new social needs to communi­cate new experiences, conflicts and renewals within the speaking community. If that community, however, were a people on the margins of history, a people whose customs and whose knowledge have remained unchanged for cen­turies; if it were a people whose language has remained unchanged as well, nothing more than the medium of worn-out memories and of rituals ossified over centuries; how could we ever expect it to be a vehicle for a great new poet?
But this is not an objection that one could make against an IAL. An IAL is not limited in space, it exists in symbiosis with other languages. The possible risk is rather that the institutional control from above (which seems an essential prerequisite for a successful IAL) will become too tight, and the auxiliary language will lose its capacity to express new everyday experiences. One could object that even medieval Latin, ossified though it was in the grammatical forms of which Dante spoke, was still capable of producing liturgi­cal poetry, such as the Stabat Mater or the Pange Lingua, not to mention poetry as joyful and irreverent as the Car- mina Burana. Nevertheless, it is still true that the Carmina Burana is not the Divine Comedy.
An IAL would certainly lack a historic tradition behind it, with all the intertextual richness that this implies. But when the poets of medieval Sicilian courts wrote in a vernacular, when the Slavic bards sang The Song of Prince Igor and the Anglo-Saxon scop improvised Beowulf, their languages were just as young – yet still, in their own way, capable of absorbing the entire history of the preceding languages.