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E S P E R A N T O:


by Claude Piron

True Respect to a Foreigner Entails Linguistic Respect

Twentieth-century society has yet to experience a great awakening in regard to language. It speaks much of intercultural communication, international cooperation, technical assistance and so forth, but so far it has not realized that all of this requires a means of mutual understanding. How are you to help someone, at least at a sufficiently meaningful level, without being able to make yourself clear? And how can you make anything clear if a common language is not at your disposal?

Isn't there something arrogantly disrespectful in the attitude of the person who from the beginning, while claiming to help somebody else, forces his own language on the other, with the mental structures it embodies and all of his own cultural background? To force on a Burmese, a Thai, a Polynesian, a Bantu tribesman -- none of whom are familiar with conjugations in the Western sense of the word -- a language such as English or French, in which dealing with things in the past requires subtle distinctions among, say, he went, he would go, he was gone, he had gone, he had been going, he used to go, and so forth, is to force the person with whom one is speaking to adapt to a form of mental gymnastics that is not justifiable from the point of view either of communication or culture. Esperanto, like the majority of languages, has only one past tense, and the nuances expressed in Western languages through an extremely complex conjugation are translated by other linguistic means, as in the languages of the peoples referred to above.

To impose English or French is, moreover, to make use of a language with a multifaceted historical and political background that for many is a symbol of humiliation.These languages are associated everywhere in the world with memories of economic and cultural oppression, or of colonial administration, and these memories cause mixed feelings: beneath the respect shown to the stronger party, and the desire to learn his language well, quite often lurk envy, jealousy, and hatred.

Many Americans who see themselves as sincere, well-intentioned altruists find themselves bewildered at the extent to which people elsewhere in the world hate them in spite of their good-heartedness. They are not aware of the humiliating and traumatic effect brought about by the constant imposition of their language on others. Our language is an important element of our identity; it is our way of thinking and feeling; it is our very self. When we abandon it in deference to another's language, because his superior strength forces this upon us -- a constant occurrence nowadays with English in cross-cultural contacts -- we feel resentment, perhaps even a desire for revenge, against the one who forces us to adapt and who acts as if this were normal and to be expected, unaware of the sacrifice we are making for him.


Esperanto, on the other hand, evokes no idea of domination. To tell the truth, it has traditionally been regarded as worthless by the rich and powerful. Long disdained by intellectuals, ignored by linguists, looked down on by snobs, and persecuted by dictatorial regimes, its diffusion has come about owing only to its own intellectual and moral qualities. It has never been supported by the force of money or weapons, nor even by the recommendation of a powerful government. In this respect, also, it corresponds to a humanist ideal. One of the bases of humanism is a sense of human dignity, in conjunction with the will never to attempt to solve problems by means of violence. Humanism always prefers intelligence to force. If we possess the sincere humanistic desire to relate to human beings in general and not merely to those of our own class and geographic area, then we want to know what they experience, think and feel, and to communicate to them what we experience, think, and feel.

What contribution is offered to this by irregular verbs, wandering accents, exceptions in the plural, and a system of derivation that often borders on the totally incoherent? All of these arbitrary elements -- however lovable from a national, historic and cultural viewpoint for the concerned people -- inhibit the spontaneous expression of thought by the foreigner, the more strongly as the structure of his or her native language varies from the Western norm. None of them add anything whatever to communication. Human respect demands that persons who wish to relate to each other across language barriers choose a language as free as possible from arbitrary elements that lack informational value. To require a Japanese or Turk to learn a series of separate forms such as tooth, teeth, dental, dentist, while in his own language it is enough to know the basic word and himself derive the others (just as in Esperanto: dento, dentoj, denta, dentisto) is to impose a hardship upon him that nothing can justify. Furthermore, in this example, English creates a specific discomfort because of the /th/ sound, which three fourths of humankind do not learn as children. Because it is not logically justifiable, the inconsistency of such forms is sensed as an arbitrary whim, as the caprice of a ruler who takes advantage of his superior power to force his subordinates to perform gymnastics that are totally unnatural to them. Only the adoption of a language free of arbitrary and senseless elements makes it possible for persons with differing native languages to communicate among themselves, while respecting at the same time the integrity of each party's cultural background.


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