Language has been on my mind a lot. I’ve recently taken to a website to try to finally buckle down and learn Irish Gaelic. While I have a good foundation on the language, it is only a foundation and I want to move up with that. Gaelic, to me, represents some small connection to a past long before I was alive. The Celtic languages are of particular interest to me. They seem so foreign and yet so familiar to me as a speaker of other Indo-European languages. I love what I know about them so I push on.
But this isn’t a post about Gaelic. It is a post ostensibly about another language close to my heart. It is about a strange connection I made at my first job out of college. And then I’ll wrap up with some more stuff about my book.
Let me set the stage.
We all knew we were going to get let go. It wasn’t a question of if, but when. The office was getting tense. The big-wigs got their raises and bonuses but many of the supervising engineers did not and everyone knew something wasn’t right. Every week we had a meeting that could be summed up as: “You aren’t getting laid off, everything is fine. Promise.”
Our company had fucked up big in another division and the whole place was hurting. Apparently someone really burned a bridge with a major client – a client my job security rested on. I only found this out later.
One day, when avoiding my desk for fear of my idle web surfing attracting attention (there was literally zero work), I headed into the kitchenette to make some tea and perhaps steal a few more cookies or something before we got the boot. Walking in I found an older co-worker sitting down and quietly contemplating life after work.
He was very well accredited. A PhD level programmer and aeronautical engineer. But he was much older than most (my guess in his 60s) and his English wasn’t great. He spoke with a very thick Russian accent and stuttered as he tried to translate everything from the language he thought in to the language we all spoke.
I asked, expecting a simple answer like “Moscow” or “Leningrad,” where in Russia he had been born. He said he had been born and raised on the Kamchatka Peninsula, far from anything most westerners would deem “civilization.” I chuckled and said as much. He agreed, and rambled something I only half-understood and now is lost to me.
He asked, perhaps realizing the trouble I was having, if I spoke anything besides English. I told him, in my awful half-Swabian dialect that I spoke German and as a joke I added:
Mi parolas Esperanton.
Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton? was his surprising retort.
Ne, me havas tason de teo.
Esperanto was always a curiosity for me. Simple, effective; it embodied many of the beliefs of a young man. It was a language for everyone and yet I had never met another Esperantist before. I had and still have met many detractors of Esperanto. Some, like my wife, see it merely as a simplistic conlang, lacking anything that makes a language natural or interesting. Others, like a co-worker I spoke to a week or two ago, it represented some over-arching communist or “academic” attempt to dismember western civilization.
Yet, for a brief moment a few days before we were all let go, I and a co-worker held a brief conversation in Esperanto (likely one of a few outside of Esperanto conventions and meetings). For a few minutes we were once again Esperantistoj – those who hope.
See, every language has an endonym . And every endonym has a meaning, though it might be buried deep in the history of a language.
The English are the Angelcynn – Kin of the Narrows
Esperanto in Esperanto means “one who hopes.” It comes from esperi – to hope. To many Esperantists it is more than a language – it is a hope of a more united and understanding world.
Maybe that day we were hoping that a week from then we’d still be in the office. We’d still be able to having little conversations in our shared love of a dreamed-up language.
It was not to come to pass. We were let go and dispersed to the winds. It was August of 2013. During the free time I had I started writing what will become my first novel (hopefully in only a few short months). Language plays a roll, sort of in the background, between the characters. They live in a world where language matters. A language defines what a person can or cannot do, and who they can or cannot be.
Though all dialogue is written through the veil of English (as I have neither the time nor the effort to devise several conlangs for each to feature briefly or uselessly), I do try to make sure it is in languages that suit the character’s station and place. Languages either build bridges or barriers.
They can mark someone as part of the tribe, or outside it. And using one other than your mother tongue can imply servitude, defeat, education, or worldliness.
So when you have some time tomorrow think about that. What does the ability to speak English and have it spoken all around you mean both in a personal and historical context? Were you born into it? Did you adopt it for convenience or to get an education? Was it forced on you? Was the alternative to live in poverty? Does it empower you to chase your dreams?
Those shouldn’t be easy questions to answer, even for native speakers. Because once it was considered low to speak English. The educated spoke French or Latin. Are you okay with English’s status because you were lucky enough to speak it natively?
A tale of two co-workers: one who shared the dream of L L Zamenhof and one who thought that languages lived and died purely out of usefulness’ sake.
And if you are a writer brought here by my tenuous-at-best use of the #amwriting tags, what does the language or languages your characters speak say about them? If the whole world speaks one language, why? What killed the teeming thousands of languages once spoken? Market capitalism? Socialistic unity? Feudal oppression? Or did language simply resist the natural tendency to evolve?
Lastly, December 15th is Zamenhof Day. I ask that you consider, even for a brief moment, getting on Google and learning a few phrases in Esperanto. You never know when it might crop up. Old Clothes
Or what other hoping people you might run into. Ĝis revido!
“Ni konsciu bone la tutan gravecon de la hodiaŭa tago, ĉar hodiaŭ inter la gastamaj muroj de Bulonjo-sur-Maro kunvenis ne francoj kun angloj, ne rusoj kun poloj, sed homoj kun homoj.”
“We should be well aware of the full importance of this day, because today, within the welcoming walls of Boulogne-sur-Mer, there meet not Frenchmen with Englishmen, not Russians with Poles, but people with people.”
- Ludoviko Lazaro Zamenhof, 5th of August, 1905 to the First World Conference of Esperanto in France.