Coffee, grammar and a made up language spoken by real people

Irish Green Party founder Christopher Fettes, one of Ireland’s prominent Esperantists, won’t try to convert you, although he’s always open to a friendly chat, Conor O’Donovan and Maurice Casey find.

indepthBANNERAs soon as we take our seats opposite him, Christopher Fettes is sliding two copies of the best English-language Esperanto guide he’s found to date across the table. Though he distinguishes himself from the movement’s more evangelical contingent, as a linguist Mr. Fettes never shies away from the company of Esperantists, or even potential Esperantists. That being said, he is quite happy not to “suffer fools” who don’t see its obvious appeal.

Both Maurice and I have come to the café at the Chester Beatty library with different expectations. Having an academic linguist for a parent and having studied French at third level, I was sceptical. I’d been led to believe that Esperanto was rigid and overly codified. By contrast Maurice had a long standing interest in the language’s success, compared to other invented languages. When Fettes admitted that he too had been hostile to the idea of Esperanto while studying French at Trinity, I wondered if we were about to be enlightened.

There is, at least, a precedent for any potential conversion as the historical links between Ireland and Esperanto are plentiful. According to one piece of Esperanto mythology, green was chosen as the colour of the Esperanto flag because Ludwig Zamenhof, the creator of the language, saw Ireland as a ‘hopeful’ country. Indeed, one of the earliest Esperanto-English texts was penned by the eccentric Irish linguist Richard Henry Geoghegan. Born to Irish parents in Liverpool, Geoghegan spent much of his childhood on the lower Rathmines road before eventually studying philology in Oxford. He discovered Esperanto during his studies and remained an advocate of the language throughout his life, becoming particularly vocal when a group known as the Idoists attempted to reform the language.

In his later years, Geoghegan crafted dictionaries of Inuit languages as one of the early Alaskan pioneers. In addition to constructing the first dictionary of the Aleut tongue, he also developed a particular penchant for local “ladies of the line”. His colourful life as an impassioned proponent of Esperanto and one of the most renowned philologists in the Western world ended in the company of these female companions in an Alaskan log cabin.

Fettes begins by encouraging us to study a short passage in Esperanto as he reads it aloud. He enthusiastically points out its phonetic nature. To my ear, the placement of the stresses has an Italian resonance. Dr Fettes points out that Italian is a language of clear phonemes. Esperanto is a much clearer language still as there are no “faux amies” as there are in French. It is also much easier to ask about the words you don’t in Esperanto. Fettes finishes our impromptu grammar session by teaching the universal verb endings for the past, present and future in “about 20 seconds.”

Irish proponents

Maurice is not quite as dazzled as I am. The final line, which affirms that Esperanto merits serious consideration, catches his attention. A parallel is drawn between Esperanto and the Irish language. Though Irish appears an active language by the amount of literature produced in it, Maurice notes that much of this literature is oddly defensive and discusses the dangers the language faces. Fettes argues that Irish will survive as, much like the case of Esperanto, there are people who care passionately about it. It is the role of schools to find those who “wish to be enamoured by their native language.” Teaching everyone Irish is a waste of time.

On the subject of Irish fervour, James Connolly and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, two individuals ingrained in the Irish psyche partly through their untimely deaths amidst the events of 1916, are also claimed by Esperantists as early proponents of the “internacia lingvon”. Indeed, Sheehy-Skeffington, as a young pacifist growing up in Co. Cavan, wrote to a local newspaper noting ‘gaelic is irretrievably dead’ and argued the nation would be much better served in taking up Esperanto.

Esperanto grants the poet more freedom to rearrange words to achieve different rhythmic effects than in English, where meaning is bound up in the order of words.

Following the creation of the Irish Free State, a group of Trinity professors would court controversy in a similar vein, contending that the nascent state should adopt compulsory teaching of a “practical, universal” language rather than Irish. As Ireland regressed into the 1930s, Esperanto dropped from its already marginal place on the public agenda. In January 1928, Irish newspapers recorded the appearance of Esperanto on the curriculum of Blackrock Technical School. However, this unprecedented event was counterbalanced by an Irish Independent article published a month later bearing the headline “Esperanto – A Red Danger”.

Struggle for official recognition

Beyond Ireland, Esperanto continually struggled to receive official recognition. In the same year that Trinity professors provoked the Irish speaking community, a League of Nations report recommending the mandatory teaching of Esperanto in member states was defeated. The chief opposition emanated from France, a nation often perceived as being overzealously protective of their own language.

Poignantly, the history of the movement began to mirror the many tragedies of the period. Zamenhof died in 1917 as the world seemed interminably consumed by the very conflict he envisioned his language would prevent. Of Jewish ethnicity, the remnants of the his family would perish in the concentration camps of the Second World War. Remarkably, Esperantists were singled out by both Nazis and Communist regimes. Stalin termed Esperanto “the language of spies”.

As Europe moved through the twentieth century, languages across the continent struggled to keep up the pace as new terms were required for the latest manifestations of ethno-nationalist barbarism. Did these cataclysmic events serve to resign Esperanto to the dustbin of history, rendering it another Utopian dream demoralised in the face of human irrationality? Fettes’ presence in front of us would suggest not.

That said, his previously mentioned views on the learning of one’s native language are similar to his views on learning Esperanto.  He is not going to force it in people’s faces, even if the benefits for those who are interested are considerable. To better illustrate these benefits in our own minds, we are asked to consider how many speakers of French there are. Outside of adding populations of native speakers, the point at which someone approaching French as a second language becomes a speaker is unclear. In Esperanto, this is not so much the case. Fettes relates how he once encountered a young Esperantist who had only started learning the language two weeks previously. While this is an extraordinary case, it is a language that can be picked up quickly.

A more extreme acquaintance of his had a habit of shoving Esperantist literature into the slots through which vendors would give him his train tickets.

Fettes recently found himself in Nitra, Slovakia, where he came across 300 people our age “seriously engaged” in learning Esperanto. Despite the earnestness of these young Esperantists, Fettes is pragmatic about the willingness of the majority to learn second languages. He also accepts that most learn languages to utilise them practically, such as his Russian friend who learned English to “make money”. Though many no doubt extend the same pragmatism to Esperanto, this particular Russian friend learned it to “make friends.” Fellow speakers automatically wanting to talk to you is not a trait common to all languages.

Though most of them “recognise it’s a good idea”,  at least in theory, Fettes mostly discusses other topics with his friends, such as the Green Party (which he founded in Ireland), in English or French. He is quick to assure us that he will not bombard our email inboxes with further literature. A more extreme acquaintance of his had a habit of shoving Esperantist literature into the slots through which vendors would give him his train tickets. These days, however, Fettes relates that most of those he knows in the movement are realistic in their appraisal of the language, contrary to the zealousness usually associated with the language. This dates back he says, to the language’s association with pacifist movement at the beginning of the 20th century. He does not eulogise on the need to travel to Slovakia to immerse ourselves in the language. We can pick it up ourselves online using sites such as Lernu.

As for it the perception of Esperanto as a “boring language”, Fettes points to the extensive body of literature written in Esperanto. Zamenhof, “a man with working knowledge of half a dozen languages”, translated many works into his new language, including The Old Testament and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (which he translated from German). The trend of translation has continued, with artists as diverse as Tolkien, Tolstoi and Baudelaire getting the Esperanto treatment.

Fluid semantics

It is the fluid semantics of the language, though, that is its appeal. Esperanto grants the poet more freedom to rearrange words to achieve different rhythmic effects than in English, where meaning is bound up in the order of words. Outside of the rarefied sphere of poetry, Esperanto has given birth to everything from clandestine Cold War communications to 1920s Erotica. However, cinematic works in the language have proved less commendable. Incubus, the universally reviled William Shatner film shot entirely in Esperanto is mentioned. Fettes leaves out a laugh, “What an awful film!”

I found the notion that Esperanto could be used in a nuanced, literary way bizarre. My understanding of the language as a creation intended to facilitate international communication had fostered a sense of sterile artificiality. In Fettes’ mind a student doesn’t pick up the nuances which make French a stimulating language to read until they are a teenager or even a young adult. Compared to their understanding of English which was formed in infancy, my understanding of French as a second language is equally artificial.

More striking than this revelation about my own linguistic identity was Fettes’ own admission that if he met a French Esperantist his first instinct would be to communicate in Esperanto. He recalls reading a book in Esperanto at the age of thirty-two and finding that it “just made sense.” Rather than accepting French as the answer to the world language problem he “began to feel French was part of it.” Native fluency in a second language is rare, but less so in Esperanto, Fettes maintains.

Though I found his advocacy of the language sincere, I was not completely convinced. As we left the Chester Beatty, it became clear that our perceptions of the language were largely unchanged. I’m still sceptical of what I’ve been told is a made up language, whereas Maurice is still interested in the language’s Internationalist past.

For Fettes, however, it truly is the only language in which two non-native speakers can communicate with complete equality, and forget what language they are speaking. However, despite the constant possibility of bantering with strangers, Fettes’ affinity with the language is poignantly personal: “If some strange disease wiped out everyone else who spoke the language, I would not be sorry to have learnt it” he says. “I would go on reading.”

This piece was written by Conor O’Donovan together with Maurice Casey.