TT: A Language of Hope

JANE: Last week, when we were talking about created languages (conlangs), we were doing so in the context of SF/F.  That got me thinking about a conlang I encountered first through SF/F, assumed was created for the purposes of fiction, and only later learned was a “real” language.

A Fascinating History

This language was Esperanto.

ALAN: Esperanto was created by L. L. Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist from Poland. He wanted to devise a language that was easy to learn and which had a regular grammar so that there would be no exceptions to the rules that the students were taught. He hoped that it would be universally adopted and that it would break down the language barriers that separated people from each other.

JANE: What I find most fascinating about Esperanto is that it was created with the idealistic hope that, if we all spoke one language, not only would the time spent in translation no longer be necessary, but misunderstanding would be eliminated.

Lovely idea, but Jim and I manage to misunderstand each other all the time, despite the fact that the only language either of us speak well is American English.  Sometimes I think that – to slightly alter a proverbial phrase – “To misunderstand is human.”

ALAN: I actually studied Esperanto for a few years. I think I first came across it in Harry Harrison’s novels (the Stainless Steel Rat and Deathworld novels use the language a lot). It sounded interesting, so I dug a bit deeper…

JANE: And was Esperanto as easy to learn as its creator hoped?

ALAN: Well, yes and no. My first wife, Rosemary, and I studied it together. She found it much harder to learn than I did because she had never studied grammar in any formal sense. So she didn’t know what the infinitive of a verb was, and she didn’t know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. Also, she had no idea how to identify the parts of speech that make up a sentence. I already knew these things – I’d studied grammatical constructions in both English and Latin lessons at school so I found Esperanto quite easy. But Rosemary struggled a bit with the grammar. And it didn’t help that, on top of that, Esperanto is an inflected language.

JANE: I think that Rosemary would be in good company, at least these days.  Many of my students had never diagrammed a sentence.  Anything more complicated than the difference between a noun and a verb confused them – not because they were stupid, but because they hadn’t been taught the terms.

Heck, these days I’d need to go look up the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb, and I’ve completely forgotten what is meant by an inflected language – if I ever knew.

ALAN: Well, let me remind you what it means…

In an inflected language words have different endings to indicate their function in the sentence. So in Latin, for example, a noun can have six different forms depending on exactly what job it is doing.

JANE: Oh!  So that’s called an inflected language?  Interesting.  I had three or four years of Latin in high school, and I don’t think either of my teachers ever used the term.  I did learn the case endings, though, and to this day I remember “orum” is something like the “genitive of possession.”

Does Esperanto have as many endings?

ALAN: No, Esperanto isn’t that bad – it only has two inflections, nominative and accusative which define whether the word is the subject or object of the sentence. So, for example:

Esperanto estas lingvo – Esperanto is a language. The word Esperanto is the subject of the sentence and is therefore in the nominative case.

Mi parolas esperanton – I speak Esperanto. Here Esperanto is the object of the sentence and so it appears in the accusative case.

JANE: The term “accusative” never made sense to me.  I always thought that it indicated an adversarial relationship.  Really, grammar doesn’t help itself by using words so oddly.

ALAN: Quite right. I never really understood the ablative case in Latin. What does a grammatical construct have to do with material that wears away in order to protect the underlying surface? The ablative tiles on the space shuttle come to mind, and there’s nothing grammatical about those! Grammar is its own worst enemy.

Anyway, Rosemary had never met these grammatical ideas before and consequently she struggled a bit. English, the only language she spoke, is almost completely uninflected. About the only trace of it that remains is who (referring to the subject) and whom (referring to the object). As an aside, the almost complete lack of inflection in English is probably the reason why so many people find the use of who and whom confusing…

JANE: I’m sure you’re right.  English is full of relics of other languages that linger to delight linguists and philologists and drive the rest of us crazy.

ALAN: My own personal experience suggests that native English speakers often find inflected languages hard to learn. Certainly I struggled a lot with the complexities of Latin grammar and I failed most of my Latin exams. Fortunately Esperanto is much easier than Latin. But I definitely found that my Latin (and English grammar) lessons were a huge help in understanding just how Esperanto was put together. Rosemary didn’t have that background knowledge, and so she had a much harder time of it than I did.

JANE: I’m not sure that inflection is the only problem with English speakers learning languages, but that’s neither here nor there.

Did you ever use your Esperanto?

ALAN: Yes I did. Harry Harrison was a guest at one of our New Zealand conventions, many years ago. Since I knew that he spoke Esperanto like a native (to quote his own joke), I wrote the invitation to him in Esperanto. I’ve no idea whether or not that influenced his decision to come, but he did come and he had a great time. He was a wonderful guest.

JANE: I bet he was completely tickled by your invitation!

ALAN: We’ve strayed a little from created languages in fiction.  As a writer, the question of whether to conlang or not to conlang must be one you’ve encountered.  Can I ask you about it next time?

JANE: Please do!

8 Responses to “TT: A Language of Hope”

  1. Paul Says:

    SF writer Mack Reynolds had nations in some of his books using a common Esperanto-based language. The stories were still told in English, however.

  2. James M. Six Says:

    One neat trick I saw in a novel was in “The Architect of Sleep” by Steven R. Boyett. The conlang of that book was a sign language developed by sentient bipedal raccoons. Since the novel was narrated by the American human who got stuck in that alternate reality, all he had to do was describe it and translate it, since there were no “words” to put into the text … just odd turns of phrase representing something about the raccoon society (like the title).

  3. Roger Ritter Says:

    Sorry, one pedantive, techno-geek nitpick – the shuttle tiles weren’t ablative, they were just very, very good insulators. The heat shields on the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury capsules were ablative.

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