Esperanto is still getting tongues wagging

It was a Littlewoods Direct ad that nudged Esperanto back into the spotlight.

Steven Russell

It was a Littlewoods Direct ad that nudged Esperanto back into the spotlight. A desert island queen intoned 'Mi superfantazia eltravo alporti plu vesoiji' - Behold my fantastic invention to bring us more beautiful clothes, apparently. Decades ago, 'experts' insisted we'd all soon be talking Esperanto. But they were mistaken. So, is the language thriving or on its last legs? Steven Russell reports

THE journey ends at a farm with 300 baa-ing sheep, but once you spot the bridge with its wooden alligator (or it might be a crocodile) you know sat-nav hasn't led you down a blind alley. Above the reptile is a sign that says Esperanto-Ponto. You've reached the right place: the home, and workplace, of Esperantist Roy Threadgold.

The man wearing overalls and a ready smile is the perfect choice to ask about a language invented a little over a century ago but which seems to have faded from view. Once, linguists predicted it was a second tongue that could unite the world by circumventing geopolitical barriers and cultural differences. It hasn't quite panned out that way. But Roy says Esperanto is far from moribund.


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He has, for instance, exchanged emails with a fellow Esperantist in China looking to buy 30 tonnes of crude lanoline - a fat extracted from sheep's wool. “I did quite a lot of research and found I could send any amount of refined lanoline but nobody would sell him crude lanoline. In the end I admitted defeat, but he wrote back and thanked me very much for trying. Apparently he was a scientist and developed a treatment for apple canker, and the carrier was lanoline. He said 'We may not have got the lanoline, but at least we proved Esperanto works!'”

Roy, who has been speaking the language for about 20 years, has had similar links with folk in other countries, including Mongolia, France, Brazil, Poland and Holland. “I know, when I'm talking to a Frenchman, that I'm the one murdering his language. If we're talking Esperanto, it doesn't matter. It's our language - we can murder it equally!'” he quips.

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He also remembers an occasion when he was asked to go to Stansted Airport to meet a Russian woman and 12 youngsters, help them get their rail tickets and ensure they boarded the right train for London.

Breaking down the barriers created by language, geography and culture was one of the main aims of the man who created Esperanto.

Born towards the end of 1859, Lazar Zamenhof was an eye doctor who grew up in Byalistok - then part of the Russian empire and now within Poland.

It was a multi-ethnic city and Zamenhof often witnessed tension between ethnic groups. Language, he thought, was an obstacle to harmony and understanding, so he developed a neutral alternative with none of the political and cultural history of existing tongues.

Zamenhof was about 27 when he unveiled his work in a book called Lingvo Internacia - the international language - in 1887. He presented it under a pseudonym: Dr Esperanto meant “doctor who hopes”, and gave its name to the language as it was taken up by people who saw something in it.

Estimating the number of current speakers around the world is a devil of a job. Roy's best guess is about 1,000 native speakers, whose parents talk in Esperanto at home; another 10,000 who speak it as if were their native tongue; 100,000 at a good conversationalist standard (which is where he'd put himself); a million who could manage a simple conversation, and then perhaps 10 million who might know a few words. “So it's the equivalent of a small nation.”

Esperanto is strong in most of the former Iron Curtain countries, and in places such as the Netherlands, China and Brazil. The UK is a different kettle of fish. “We struggle in this country, to be quite honest, because there are so many people who think everybody can understand English if you shout it loud enough, 'and we won't bother to learn anything else'.”

Roy reckons he must have been in his early teens when Esperanto first crossed his field of view. “My grandmother gave me an English dictionary, and one of the appendices was entitled 'The 16 rules of Esperanto grammar.' This quite fascinated me: that somebody could have sat down and designed a language. I'm not a brilliant linguist, but I was fascinated by English grammar - how the different parts of a sentence work together. I suppose at school I was a bit of a sucker for that.

“I must say that from those days the only rule I could remember was that all nouns end in O and the only word I could remember was piano!

“I never met it again until . . . well, it must be getting on for 20 years ago now. I've got a severely disabled daughter and she used to have people come in to help with her exercises. One lady just happened to be talking to my wife one day, while they were doing this, and mentioned her husband had an Esperanto class to teach that night. My wife Cherry, knowing I do like messing about with languages, said 'Oh, Roy would like that. He'll be there!' And I was. I've never looked back, really.”

Roy took to it from the start and today is part of a Braintree-based group of Esperantists meeting regularly to converse, exchange things they've written, and read passages from books. He's also a tutor for an introductory postal course in Esperanto.

No language is a doddle, he accepts, but he rates Esperanto as five or 10 times easier to learn than French. It doesn't have the frustrating exceptions to the rules of a language like English. Words have roots, with endings to show if they're verbs, nouns, adjectives or so on. The word order is much freer than a language such as German.

“English is not God's chosen language, is it?” laughs Roy. “With Esperanto, you've got to think about unlearning the English. Esperanto is so totally regular. You can learn very fast, if you put your mind to it.”

Because of the logical framework, Esperantists can even make up new words that fellow speakers will understand - because they're familiar with the building blocks.

“One of my favourites is maljunulineto, which is a little old lady. The root word is jun - young. The mal just means opposite - so, unyoung, or old. Ul: a person. In: a female. So we have a feminine old person. Et is a diminutive. So we have a little old lady.”

Popular usage can also change vocabulary. Strictly speaking, “football” is piedpilko, but futbalo is now almost universally favoured.

Englishmen might be a bit slow off the blocks when it comes to learning new languages, but encouraging signs can be found. Four primary schools, including two in Cambridgeshire, are teaching Esperanto under a pilot scheme called Springboard, organised by the Esperanto Association of Britain.

It's believed that learning some at a young age - sidestepping those difficulties with word-genders and irregular verbs - gives children a firm grounding for when they move to secondary school and focus on French, German, Spanish and so on.

So what does the public think about Esperantists? Do people consider them a bit flaky, or are many curious to find out more when they encounter the language?

“A bit of each, really,” admits Roy. “A lot of people have got rather pre-conceived ideas. The usual thing is 'It will never catch on . . .' Sorry: it has!

“A lot of people are very interested - though not quite fascinated enough to want to take it further. They think 'It's a good idea, but . . . when everybody else learns it, I'll learn it.'”

Some time ago, Scottish Esperantist David Kelso identified characteristics he felt were common traits among speakers of the language. Many reflected principles there at the birth of Esperanto.

Devotees tended, he said, to be idealistic, have poetic souls, were probably vegetarian, pacifists and politically left of centre. There was also a higher-than-average number of Quakers (though Esperanto has no link to any religion).

“That is true to a certain extent,” says Roy. “All those are there. Not surprising, really. The ideals of Esperanto are very much lined up with Quakerism. In fact, we frequently meet in Quaker meeting houses. We've got our fair share of vegetarians, too, but I'm an unashamed carnivore, personally!

“People come to it for all sorts of reasons, and they're not all idealistic ones. I didn't come that way, but I can certainly appreciate where they're coming from, and it would make an enormous difference to the world if it were more widely spoken.”

One of his daughters was quite interested in her younger days - before her life was taken over by another passion: music. She studied the postal course and got a little group going at her secondary school. It even included her German teacher.

“She got the German teacher to send in the second lesson and my daughter said 'Can I mark it?' 'Feel free . . .' She marked it and then, at the bottom, wrote 'See Me!'”

Sheep - easier to milk than cows

ROY Threadgold's an Essex man who can trace his roots to Foulness Island. In the 1930s his father's family mes ahead for blacksmithing and so bought a farm at Great Wakering. Roy was born there slap-bang in the middle of the war.

He went to Writtle College, near Chelmsford, and then came to this farm outside Braintree - spending six years in partnership with the man who owned it, before buying him out. It was a small dairy farm at the time - cows, with a little bit of wheat and barley, too.

“I carried on in much that same vein until about 1987, when it was getting very, very tight with a small farm and a growing family, and I could see that if we carried on we were going to be bust. We did a lot of research and came up with the idea of milking sheep, which had just begun to take off in those days. And we thought people might come and see it. We've been open to the public ever since,” says Roy, who laughingly describes himself as semi-retired.

There are about 300 milking sheep now, and some goats, on a site of about 100 acres. All things being equal, visitors to Boydells Dairy Farm, at Wethersfield, can enjoy a guided tour, try milking a cow, feed hens and ride in a donkey cart.

About 60,000-70,000 litres of sheep's milk are produced each year and most is used for cheese-making. The farm supplies three producers in Sussex and, from this year, one in Malta.

How does milk get there? “Much easier than getting to Sussex! With Sussex, we have to take it down there, which means an early start and a long journey. To get it to Malta, we take it to Braintree, to a freezer store, and that's it. It gets picked up from there, with transport organised from the Malta end.”

There are probably only about 30 sheep-milking operations in the UK, says Roy. “When we were milking cows, we were the tiniest drop in a massive ocean. We're now, I think, the seventh-biggest sheep-milker in the country. We've got a bit of clout in the market now!”

Is it easy to milk sheep?

“Very easy. They don't kick as hard as cows!”

n For more details about the farm, go to www.boydellsdairy.co.uk or call 01371 850481.

Esperanto miscellanea

There are active groups of Esperantists in Felixstowe and Southend

Esperanto speakers were persecuted in Nazi Germany, where Hitler viewed the language with suspicion

William Shatner (Captain Kirk in Star Trek) spoke Esperanto in a film called Incubus

The language earned frequent mentions in the BBC space-comedy show Red Dwarf

Esperanto Association of Britain: www.esperanto-gb.org

Roy thinks that Littlewoods slogan is suspect and would instead plump for “Mia superfantazia eltrovo alporti pli belajn vesta?ojn” as a better alternative!

Try these . . .

Hello - Saluton

I don't understand you - Mi ne komprenas vin

Yes - Jes

No - Ne

Thank you - Dankon

Please - Bonvolu

I love you - Mi amas vin

Goodbye - ?is revido

The A12 is blocked by an accident at Colchester - La A12 (A dek du) bloki?as pro akcidento apud Kol?estro

Why are Ipswich Town so inconsistent this season? - Kiel Ipsvi?-Urbo tiel malkonstanti?as ?i-sezone?

It looks as if the recession is going to end soon - ?ajnas ke la ekonomia malvigli?o balda? fini?os.

Happy Christmas - Feli?an Kristnaskon!

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