Esperantists convene to talk up the virtues of their international language

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More than 10 years ago, when Southern Illinois University­Edwardsville philosophy professor Ronald Glossop discovered Esperanto, he thought it was the remedy for which he'd been looking.

One of Glossop's main areas of interest is peace studies and globalism — he's the author of two textbooks, one called Confronting War — and he believed that a universal language shared by the world's nations would go a long way toward reducing the prospects for war.

"I was giving a talk on the subject in University City," Glossop recalls, "and someone came up to me afterward and asked me if I knew anything about Esperanto. They said it was the universal language I was describing hypothetically in my talk. Up until then, it was just an abstract idea I had, and when I learned about the language, it really excited me."

Glossop became so interested in Esperanto, in fact, that he not only learned the language but also started writing essays for academic and other journals, arguing for its adoption as a remedy for many world problems. In one 1988 paper, he wrote, "A neutral international language such as Esperanto ... offers a wonderful opportunity to unite the struggle against the continuation of domination by the colonial powers with the development of a global community." He also started teaching it, first in courses at SIU-Edwardsville and later to grade-school students in the St. Louis area.

More recently, he's been a point man for bringing the annual national convention of Esperantists (as they call themselves) to St. Louis, July 23-26.

Esperanto was created in 1887 by a Polish eye doctor named Ludwig Zamenhof. The son of a linguist, he thought that the best way to diffuse the distrust and hatred that was rampant among his people's political neighbors — Germany, Estonia, Russia and Latvia — was to get them all speaking the same language. Zamenhof, who named the language after his pseudonym, Dr. Esperanto (which means "one who hopes"), devised it to be easy to learn. He modified the Roman alphabet to include 28 letters rather than our 26 (dropping q, w, x and y but adding a half-dozen symbols for some of our diphthongs), and he simplified the grammar. Esperanto has only 16 rules of grammar; explaining them all takes up just one 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of paper, printed on both sides. Add a third page, consisting of a list of common roots, suffixes and prefixes, and you've got all it takes to develop a working vocabulary of more than 1,000 Esperanto words. Zamenhof also designed the language to be easy to speak; all vowels and consonants, for example, have only one pronunciation — "e" is always pronounced as in "set"; "a" is always pronounced as in "father"; "s" is always as in "see"; "g" is always hard, as in "go." In a word of more than one syllable, the accent is always on the next-to-last one.

Over the last 112 years, Esperanto has had its strong supporters as a candidate for the international language. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, for example, supported the language, and in 1945, when Ho Chi Minh marched into Hanoi and delivered a speech declaring Vietnam free of French rule, he instructed the radio broadcasters to transmit the address in five languages, among them Esperanto, a language Ho thought would become the mother tongue of international socialism. Ho may have embarrassed the U.S. when the Most Powerful Nation on Earth was forced to pull out of his country in the 1970s, but he was wrong about Esperanto, of course. (The irony here is that, if there is an international language, it's English — of the more than 12,000 international organizations listed in the Union of International Associations directory, 85 percent use English; 84 percent of all transactions over the World Wide Web are conducted in English, according to the Internet Society.)

It's not that Esperanto is dead — depending on whom you talk to, between 1 million and 8 million people in the world speak it, and two years ago a Scottish poet, Bill Auld, who writes exclusively in the language, was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. Even if the language itself has not been universally adopted, it has at least become a symbol of a universal language. Regularly, some writer, somewhere, will compare something to Esperanto, meaning that whatever is under discussion unites across all boundaries. Last month, for example, the London Times, in an article about the World Cup (no, not of women's soccer but of cricket), said that sports were like Esperanto. Not long before that, the New York Daily News said that hip-hop was the Esperanto of music; its more staid crosstown rival, the New York Times, declared that trance was the Esperanto of electronic dance music. On the other coast, the Los Angeles Times was reporting that U.S. film, with its quickly identifiable stereotypes, was an Esperanto of culture.

Even Esperantists no longer seem to promote it as a candidate for the One True Language. "The main motivation for people learning Esperanto is that it is more than a language," says Glossop. "It's like joining a lodge. Esperantists help other Esperantists. I've had people from all over the world at my house, and I can go anywhere in the world and have a connection. I've got a jarlibro, a yearbook, that has names and addresses and phone numbers of Esperantists that gives us a great reto — that is, a network. Once, when I was in San Francisco, for example, there were a number of Esperantists from China who needed to telephone their home. They could tell me what they wanted to do, in Esperanto, and then I could translate it into English for the operator here. Likewise, I know I can go anywhere and never be without assistance if I need something."

Glossop also argues that Esperanto provides a transitional second language for students to help them more easily learn other languages. "Students can learn it so much faster than they can learn Latin or Spanish," he says. "There are none of the exceptions to the rule that make those other languages, or English, so difficult, and so, when they study Esperanto, they don't get so easily discouraged from further study of languages."

Glossop will be joined at the convention by about 70 other enthusiasts for a weekend of talks, conversation, videos, films and other entertainment — almost all of it conducted in Esperanto. (The exception is a Saturday-morning informational session, at 10 a.m., which will be conducted in English and will include some basic instruction in Esperanto. The public is invited to attend.) If the organizers can resolve visa problems, the weekend will also include an appearance by Julian Hernandez Angulo, an internationally known (among Esperantists) Cuban folk singer who performs exclusively in the language and who's featured on the recording Pensi kaj ami esperante (To Think and Love in Esperanto).

St. Louis area Esperantists also meet twice a month at the Buder Branch of the St. Louis Library, on the first and third Tuesdays, at 7 p.m.; before the meeting, at 6 p.m., the local society conducts beginning classes in the language.

The Esperanto League for North America Convention is held July 23-26 at the Sheraton West Port Hotel Lakeside Chalet, West Port Plaza, I-270 and Page. For more information, call 869-2303.

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