Quakers  and  Esperanto


In a word, Esperanto is a language. But it is not an ordinary language. It is not the language of any one people or country: it is an international language, designed for the whole world to use in common. It is an artificial language, invented in the late 19th century by a Polish-Jewish eye doctor called Ludwig Zamenhof. The impetus for Zamenhof to create his new language goes back to his childhood experiences in Byalistok, as he later described in a letter to a friend:

"In Białystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies  .  . .  .  I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews, and so on."

This is what makes Esperanto stand out from other invented languages: Zamenhof  referred to it as its ‘’interna ideo’’ - that is, its in-built sense of purpose. There was from the beginning this conscious social and political intention behind the project, to promote international friendship, peace and  brotherhood. Zamenhof thought that if people of different nationalities could talk to each other and get to know each other, they might see each other as friends rather than aliens. 

Just to be clear, it was never the intention that Esperanto should replace people’s national languages so that other languages would disappear. Not in the least. The idea was rather that everybody should have Esperanto as a second language in common, so that they would still communicate with their fellow citizens in their own language, but would also be able to communicate with anyone else in the world using Esperanto.



So why would Esperanto be of particular interest to Quakers? Because Esperanto is not just a language-game invented for entertainment like Klingon for example. It had that social and philosophical agenda behind it. There are two words at the heart of the Esperanto movement which will be very familiar – and very important – to Quakers as well, namely: peace, and equality. These are of course two of the most fundamental of the Quaker testimonies, but they are also ideals which permeate the whole of Esperanto culture. The potential for Esperanto to be a tool for peace-making and international understanding lies precisely in the fact that it is an “invented” language, not “owned” by any one nation. It is politically and culturally neutral: the ultimate practical expression of international equality, solidarity and friendship. 

If you insist on making people of different nationalities communicate in the national language of one of them - like English -  it gives a great advantage to the one using his natural mother tongue, while the other will always be at a disadvantage - and may well feel discriminated against. The Swiss Esperantist Claude Piron made the point well: 

“A Swede who speaks English with a Korean and a Brazilian feels that he is a Swede who is using English   . .  .  a Swede who speaks Esperanto with a Korean and a Brazilian feels that he is an Esperantist and that the other two are also Esperantists, and that the three of them belong to the same cultural group.”

And if you participate in the international gatherings and activities that go on in the Esperanto movement you will find yourself not only having a great time and visiting new and interesting places, you will be making friends with people from all over the world, all speaking the same language together. Then when the government or the gutter press tries to tell you that these people are your “enemies” you will know better: you will know these people. You will have met them and talked to them; you will be aware that they wish you no harm, and you will not want your government to bomb their homes or make war on them, especially not in your name. 

There is in fact a Quaker Esperanto Society, with members in half-a-dozen different countries. Being small in numbers and geographically scattered, we only seldom have the chance to meet face to face, but we keep in touch via email and an occasional newsletter. 



Very. Easier than any other language you will ever hear of. Zamenhof deliberately made it easy in order to encourage people to take it up. So the grammar is minimal and entirely regular, as is the spelling: unlike English (which is a nightmare in this respect) if you see a word spelled you know exactly how to pronounce it, and vice versa. The vocabulary itself has to be learned of course, but this is not “invented” from scratch but is all borrowed from other existing European languages - including English - so that much of it will already be familiar.



This is an objection frequently made against Esperanto, but it is a delusion that mainly afflicts English speakers! If your idea of foreign travel is lying on a beach or by a hotel pool with other English tourists, and your only interaction with local people is to order fish-and-chips from the waiter, then you may well come home with the impression that “everybody there speaks English”. But then, you haven’t really been abroad. However if you leave the holiday resorts behind you and go off and experience the country, then even in nearby places like France, Germany or Spain, you might find you have your work cut out when you go into a shop and ask about the local buses, or when you try to explain to a roadside mechanic exactly what the problem is with your car - and then struggle to understand what they tell you in reply! Then you may discover that not everybody speaks English after all.



So if you want to find out more about Esperanto, or even have a go at starting to learn it, send a message via the “contact” page of this website and we will get back to you.



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