Chuck Smith is an American Esperantisto speaker. Having learned Esperanto and joined the Esperanto movement in February 2001, Smith founded the Esperanto version of Wikipedia in November of that same year. He was a board member of the American Esperanto youth organization — known as USEJ from its official name Usona Esperantista Junularo — and of the international youth non-profit organization called "Education@Internet" (E@I).
The dream of a universal second language--a tongue common to all the world's citizens--has finally been realized. But there are some things emojis can't communicate, like directions, and the ramifications of free trade agreements, and until they can, the desire for a shared language will always exist.
Esperanto, conceived in 1887, is by a wide margin the most successful of the countless verbal patchworks assembled since Babel-era Bible-times. Today, it's spoken by close to two million people, and that number may soon be set to expand exponentially, according to Chuck Smith, a Berlin-based Esperantist. Smith introduced Esperanto for the Duolingo app this past May, and since then over 130,000 people have signed up for it.
Hopes&Fears talked to Smith about Esperanto's utopian origins, the inadequacy of English as a universal language, and Esperanto music, among other things.
Hopes & Fears: I was hoping you could give me a simplified, brief history of Esperanto.
Chuck Smith: Over a hundred and twenty-five years ago, a man named L.L. Zamenhof looked around his city--what is now Bialystock, Poland--and saw people speaking many different languages. German, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian. He saw there were many conflicts because of language, and he wanted to make a language that would unite them. So he made Esperanto, which is an easy-to-learn language.
HF: What makes it easier to learn?
CS: The easiest way to show it is with the verb tenses. Amas is 'love,' amis is 'loved,' and amos is 'will love.' It doesn't matter who's doing the loving.
HF: How did the language spread, initially? How did Zamenhof get it out there?
CS: His first book was released in 1887 in Russia, and then he started translating it into other languages--German, English. From there it just evolved naturally.
HF: How many people--rough estimate--speak it today?
CS: I'd say around one to two million people.
HF: How did the language survive into the 21st-century?
CS: A lot of this came with the ideology of world peace, and uniting people across borders. Some people even died for that: In World War II, Hitler and Stalin were actively seeking out Esperanto speakers to persecute them. Hitler called it the language to unite the Jewish diaspora because Zamenhof was a Jew, and Stalin called it the language of spies. Despite that, at that point Germany and Russia were the countries where Esperanto was most-spoken. And despite that active seeking-out and murdering of Esperanto speakers, it still managed to survive and thrive.
HF: Were you surprised that 100,000 people, 120 years after Esperanto's inception, would be signing up for this Esperanto Duolingo app?
CS: There was a lot of demand for Esperanto, but all these other language schools were saying, 'how many Esperanto speakers are there?' They weren't really seeing the demand, and nobody was producing the materials. And then suddenly when the Duolingo course came out, everyone said 'well finally, we have a good resource to learn Esperanto with.'
HF: What is your role within the app?
CS: Right now, we have a team of eight people working on it. The course works sort of like a game, you could say. You start with things like 'I am man' --very simple sentences-- and then you work yourself up to 'the government of Russia says ... some very complicated sentence.'
HF: Would it be offensive of me to ask you to say a sentence in Esperanto?
CS: No! Esperanto estas tre bela internacia lingvo.
HF: Ha, so that sounded to me like Italian. Is there a connection between the two languages?
CS: Well, 60% of the vocabulary comes from Romance languages, 30% from Germanic, 10% from Slavic.
HF: So wait, what did you just say?
CS: I said 'Esperanto is a very beautiful international language.'
How are you?
I’ve got a headache.
Mi havas kapdoloron.
Is there a bar nearby?
Ĉu troviĝas drinkejo proksime?
A variety of conflicting
and profound emotions...
Vario de konfliktaj kaj profundaj emocioj...
Cool clock, Ahmed. Want
to bring it to the White House?
Mojosa horloĝo, Ahmed. Ĉu vi ŝatus kunporti ĝin al la Blanka Domo?
Is this bagel gluten-free?
Ĉu ĉi tiu bagelo estas senglutena?
When is the Pope coming to town?
Kiam la Papo venos al nia urbo?
I can't feel my face
when I'm with you.
Mi ne povas senti mian vizaĝon kiam mi estas kun vi.
HF: What is it about the language that you think has kept it alive for this long? What need does it fulfill in the 21st-century?
CS: There are a lot of ways you could go with this. For one thing, if you take it back to the 19th-century, people were crossing borders, and people started to see the need for an international language. Today, a lot of people say, 'well, English fulfilled that role.' But if you travel around the world, you'll find that's not really true. The thought is, why should everyone be spending years of their lives learning English when they could be spending those years learning their profession? Also, if you think about international conferences, people often send the representative who speaks English better, rather than the representative who actually knows their stuff better. It's kind of unfortunate that English plays that role.
HF: What are some of the topics discussed at your average 2015 Esperanto conference?
CS: It goes all the way across the board. You have everything from people teaching folk-dance from their country to people talking about the rights of sexual minorities. People can choose whatever topics they want to present on. They want to present on something dear to them, and then they can just talk about it, and have a very diverse audience listening. It's a rare chance to have a completely international public.
HF: I'm kind of vaguely aware that there are other international auxiliary languages like this out there. Are there rivalries between them?
CS: I guess there's kind of a rivalry between Esperanto and Ido, because Ido actually was forked off from Esperanto, but that was back in, say, 1915--so it was quite a long time ago. In terms of the community, the biggest Esperanto Congress meets every year and has about 2,000 to 4,000 people. The Ido one meets every two years and has around 80 people. Magnitudes of difference. And of course, that's not including all those other Esperanto events all over the world.
HF: Tell me about this Esperanto congress.
CS: The Universala Kongreso de Esperanto started in 1905 in Boulogne-sur-Mer in France. That was when people met for the first time together, and they found that by the end of the week they had developed a mutual accent. I have a Scottish friend, and when we speak in Esperanto we can go full-speed, it's no problem at all--but when we switch to English, which is both of our native languages, we have to slow down, because I find his accent so thick that I can't follow him.
HF: Do you think Esperanto has a real, substantial future, going forward, internationally?
CS: I'd say it already has a present! Everyone talks about the 'goal' of Esperanto as being the second language for everyone, but most people find that a bit too utopian nowadays.
HF: Do you find it too utopian?
CS: I did until the DL course launched. Now I wonder. Do you hit a point when you say, 'okay we have a critical mass,' and then things just start snowballing? Like, nobody saw the Berlin wall falling. You never know, really, where things are going.
HF: Is there anything else that you would want to make known to the wider world?
CS: I think a lot of people have this idea of Esperanto sort of being this dead or nerdy language. They don't think about people actually singing in it and how diverse the music is--everything from hip-hop to folk music to rap. There's already a large body of culture--about 20,000 books, and quite a lot of music.