Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Making up language - Bialystok, Poland

I've gone off the rails and stopped overnight at the Branicki hotel in Bialystok, northeast Poland. Its a little gem of a hotel, off the beaten track but only a few minutes walk from the town centre that's surprisingly buzzing with street cafes and bars.

The Branicki was almost next door to the birth place of Bialystok's most famous son - Ludwig Zamenhof. Zamenhof is the creator of Esperanto, the universal language. You don't hear much about Esperanto amongst linguistically lazy English speakers, mainly because it is possible to get by with English in most parts of the world.

But Esperanto is a big deal with speakers of minority languages, as Bialystok resident and Esperanto speaker Conrad Amdrzejuk told me at the Zamenhof Cultural Centre and Esperanto public library. Conrad taught himself the basics of Esperanto many years ago during a two week sickness absence from school.

Esperanto is popular in eastern Europe, Brazil, Japan and in China 12 universities teach it. Interestingly Esperanto speakers find learning new languages exceptionally easy and Conrad also speaks Polish, Russian, German, French and English.

Zamenhof was born into the small but very multicultural Bialystok of 1859. He describes working in the town market as a Tower of Babel and how many disputes arose from language misunderstandings. So he set about creating a politically and culturally neutral artificial languge that would help to foster peace and international harmony.

To me Esperanto sounds like a polyglot European language but there are only 16 rules of Esperanto grammar, all of which can be explained on one side of A4 - compare that with an English language textbook! Sensibly there are 26 letters and 26 sounds whereas English has 26 letters and more than 40 sounds - very confusing.

Its not the only artificial language but it is the best developed with between 10-15 million speakers worldwide. So why, after 100 years and endless international disharmony, isnt it more widespread? It would seem to have been the most obvious suggestion when the League of Nations and later the UN was formed and what about the EU?

The main opponents were the French who still harboured delusions of French becoming the universal language and of course the British/American politicians who maybe saw that English was taking that niche. As usual politics and power override common sense and the common good.

Esperanto speakers are a bit cliquely, but that's understandable, and a bit ernest, which is commendable but I think I'm going to give it a go.

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