When Ralph Dumain took the Canadian Esperanto Association’s proficiency exam in 1976, the score was so high that judges practically had to create a new category for his certificate. This achievement parallels perfectly his affinity for the practice of autodidacticism, or self-education.
Since 1999, Dumain has been running the Autodidact Project, a large collection of resources for independent thinkers “dissatisfied with the knowledge industry and the bureaucratization of intellect”. The digital database includes biographies and bibliographies, guides, quotes, and hard-to-find materials on obscure and unusual topics. Dumain’s central aim remains to provide essential tools for people to understand and negotiate their relationship to the surrounding world.
An essayist primarily, Dumain has also written poetry in English and Esperanto, some of it serious and some that he affectionately refers to as “satirical, X-rated, or doggerel”. Here he speaks with NML Secretary Greg Nedved about the past, present, and future of Esperanto and other constructed languages.
How is Esperanto relevant in the 21st century?
First, we need to recapitulate the importance of Esperanto in the 20th century. Esperanto was a significant part of world history, important enough for its adherents to be infiltrated and spied upon, persecuted by fascists and Stalinists, exterminated by Hitler and Stalin. The subculture that was spawned enabled practical transnational organizing of Esperantists and utilization of the language, on the part of railway workers and other social and occupational groups, and political and religious groups, and isolated individuals, for education, mutual aid, travel and tourism.
There was an important separate working-class Esperanto movement that flourished between the two world wars. Esperanto provided an outlet and subculture for people constrained by repressive social and political environments—censorship, despotism, chauvinism, racism, anti-Semitism. Esperanto was especially significant as a linguistic counter-culture in Eastern Europe, Spain, China, Japan, and other areas. It has been important to those whose native languages don’t have the global impact of others—in Eastern Europe, Finland, Brazil, Korea, Vietnam, and many locales. Esperanto movements have flourished at many times and places. For example, there are growing Esperanto movements in various African nations, especially Francophone countries.
Will Esperanto serve as an important outlet for those suffering cultural, social, or political suffocation? If so, Esperanto will continue to perform this invaluable service.
Whatever inroads Esperanto will or will not make in securing positions in the world at large, it will continue to be relevant in several ways. First, it continues to be valuable as a vehicle for literary and cultural transmission, whether this be the original literary creations of Esperantists or of translations. While translations from various national languages are made to other national languages, the gaps are still enormous. This is true also of what is available in English. There are works by important authors—especially from “minor” languages—in Esperanto that one will not find in English, for example, works (and even authors) in Hungarian and Yiddish. Esperanto has been an important vehicle for learning about the literatures of such languages: though one could have learned about them via English, for instance, these literatures are front and center in the Esperanto world.
For those who have no practical need of Esperanto—American English speakers, most conspicuously—Esperanto still has an attraction for many who love to learn languages and poke into foreign cultures via communication or travel. Most of the young Americans I’ve met who become interested in Esperanto are already fluent in one or more foreign languages (some are immigrants), and Esperanto appeals to them on top of the other languages they know.
What role can a CONLANG play in politics and religion?
There are two fundamental roles a constructed language has been designed to play (and others which essentially fall under the second category): as (1) a language constructed for serious international or universal use; (2) a hobby language, or, related to that, in conjunction with fantasy or science fiction world-building. There is also a possible third role, a quasi-scientific or metaphysical one, such as Loglan/Lojban, or a feminist language like Láadan (which is linked to the author’s fictional universe).
The second and third types can of course be linked to political, religious, or philosophical purposes—probably rather specific ones given their basic function. The first type—most prominently Esperanto but also others historically—have played all sorts of roles, being universal media of communication, including as vehicles of political groups, religious and mystical or irreligious and atheist tendencies.
There is one additional role which is vital in understanding the historical role of Esperanto: the Esperantist subculture and its publishing vehicles as a refuge or outlet for those subject to national, ethnic, or political repression or censorship. Esperanto has appealed to people with causes in the English-speaking world, but it cannot claim to have played a decisive role. Eastern Europe was the birthplace and stronghold of Esperanto culture. Spain is also of special importance. Esperanto played an important historical role in Europe and East Asia. These are not the only areas, but the most striking that come to mind.
Which CONLANG is the greatest rival of Esperanto today?
No constructed language, Esperanto included, has any chance of being adopted as a universal auxiliary language for international communication. That said, Esperanto has no serious rivals. The last contender was Interlingua, which was finalized I think in the 1950s, and was designed to play a more limited role. It was based on a Latinate vocabulary, intended to be easily readable on sight especially in a scientific and technical capacity; I think it was even used a bit for abstracts of scientific articles. If there were any rivals, I guess this would be it. Interlingua still has advocates strewn about.
Government has at least one continuing role to play: instituting Esperanto as a foreign language option in educational systems and other venues. Governments have done this, have supported the publication of materials, radio programs, and courses in Esperanto. Such endeavors are still worth supporting.
Interview has been edited and condensed.