THE CULTURE OF ESPERANTORonald J. Glossop, ILEI conference, Kaunas, Lituania,
4 August 2005 (revised and somewhat enlarged for
INTERNACIA PEDAGOGIA REVUO, where it appeared
in number 05/4 [annual collection 35], pages 3-6)
Does Esperanto have a culture? If so, what is its character? What are its elements?
Some people, especially those who oppose Esperanto, insist that Esperanto does not have a culture. Thus it is not a true language as the national languages. Apparently those people do not understand that one is able to have a culture which is not a national culture. They are right that Esperanto does not have a national culture, but that does not mean that Esperanto lacks any kind of culture. Esperanto indeed has a culture, but it is an international or whole-world culture.
One has to realize that in the case of Esperanto the relation between the language and the community is contrary to the usual situation. Ordinarily the members of a community live together in one place and at first their language is used only in a spoken form. The written language begins to exist only much later, and in some cases never. On the contrary, Esperanto is a written language, and it is used in various places which may not be very close to one another. In the case of Esperanto the written language gives birth to the spoken language. Little by little, those who use Esperanto form a community not confined to one place and also begin to build a new kind of non-national culture.
What are the essential characteristics of the culture of Esperanto? As already noted, it is not a national culture, but Esperanto has an international or global culture. Consequently, it will have to promote international understanding and tolerance for a variety of life-styles. Esperantists have to respect the customs and languages of all groups throughout the whole world.
The various national cultures will have to be preserved also in time as a new whole-world open-minded culture is built with new special global feelings and at the same time without a limitation on approaches and ways of perceiving things.
Unlike the situation in the case of many national cultures, the adherents of Esperanto have neither a different kind of garments with which they clothe themselves which only Esperantists wear nor a unique kind of cuisine which is known as food typical of Esperantists. On the contrary, in the case of Esperanto an important part of the culture is the existence of many diverse kinds of clothing and many diverse kinds of food from various parts of the world.
Another different aspect of the culture of Esperanto is the tendency to look toward the future more than toward the past. Of course, each culture has to pay attention to its history, but in the case of the Esperanto community as opposed to the usual situation for national communities, the hopes for the future are much more important than the memories of past events.
Our respected Zamenhof, the founder of Esperanto, indeed gave himself the pseudonym Doctor Hoper (that is, Doctor Esperanto), and also his followers are Hopers (that is, Esperantists).
Still another aspect of the culture of Esperanto is its readiness to use new technologies for traveling and communicating. Because the relevant community is not just in one place but scattered throughout the whole planet, members of such a community have to use the most modern ways of traveling and of sending information from one to the others.
Because the Esperanto community is international and planetary, its members want to collaborate also with international organizations such as UNESCO and with various international non-governmental organizations, including international religious organizations. Of course, communities of a single nationality or in just one country often also might want to do that, but not always. In the case of the Esperanto community such collaboration is a main aim, not just a secondary or accidental matter.
Similar to the national cultures, Esperanto has its literature. There exist not only many translations of important works from various national cultures but also original works of various kinds. Some of the better known authors are L. L. Zamenhof of Poland (the initiator of the language), Kálmán Kalocsay and Julio Baghy of Hungary, William Auld and Marjorie Boulton of Britain, Gaston Waringhien and Raymond Schwartz of France, Baldur Ragnarsson of Iceland, Ueyama Masao of Japan, and S.J. Zee of China. (Pardon me that I didn't mention others, but one has to stop somewhere.)
Actually, because Esperanto depends so much on its written form, the quantity of written material in Esperanto often is a great surprise to non-Esperantists. Fortunately, we have our special libraries which collect those materials and our booksellers who are ready to sell the new literature. One is able to become acquainted with the culture of Esperanto not only in books and a lot of magazines but also in songs and plays and by means of the internet, videotapes, compact disks, and broadcasts from radio and television stations in may lands such as Polland, China, Austria, Italy, Brazil, and Korea.
In addition to the various available written materials, there are some aspects of the language itself which contribute to the culture of Esperanto. For example, the use of the affixes permit the creation of new words, even by children. The prefix "mal" indicates the opposite of the subsequent root, and the word "trinkas" means that one takes liquid into the body. Therefore, one is able to use the totally new word "maltrinki" instead of using the more sophisticated word "urinas" for "urinate." Actually, that new word is more often used now, especially by children.
Through the use of affixes anyone is able to create new words which other Esperantists can immediately understand. Once one of my students, during an examination, was not able to remember the word for "hard" in connection with the verb "snows." He cleverly created the new expression "It snowed maldolche (the opposite of "sweet or gentle"). That is an instantly understandable expression, and even a bit poetic, is it not? Are beginners similarly able to create new good words in other languages? I doubt that. Another example of the use of affixes which one does not often find in other languages is the possibility of creating words out of acronyms as "ILEI-anoj" (that is, members of the International League of Esperanto Instructors) and "SAT-anoj" (that is, members of Sennacia Asocio Tutmonda, the Without-nationality Association of the Whole World).
The culture of Esperanto contains special symbols, decorations, and actions such as the green star, the green flag with the star, the Passport Service, the anthem "La Espero" ("The Hope"), the annual Universal Congresses, as well as many other international meetings throughout the whole world where everyone has a chance to use Esperanto. Another part of the culture of Esperanto is the existence of some words whose significance is a complete mystery to non-Esperantists, verbs such as "crocodiles" and "kabeis" (from "Kabe," the pseudonym of Kazimierz Bein), which one is not able to translate simply into other languages. In my opinion, these traits together with the literature and other intellectual and artistic materials prove that Esperanto indeed has a culture even if it is not a national culture.
Little by little the Esperanto community is beginning to develop even special gestures! For example, there is now beginning to exist a gesture which one uses to indicate "Good-by." It began some years ago in San Francisco at the end of the North American Summer Program (a group of courses for Esperantists). Some students who came to the United States from other countries were already in the bus ready to go off to the airport. As they were about to go they put their hands over their heads in order to form a hat similar to the hat over the letter "g" in the expression "ĝis la revido." Those who were watching them through the windows of the bus immediately captured the significance of that gesture and did the same. It seems that in that manner maybe a new farewell gesture completely unique to the culture of Esperanto has come into existence.
In September 1992 Claude Piron composed a six-page letter in English in which he responded to the comment in the book EUROPE FOR EVERYBODY that Esperanto lacks cultural roots. Piron argues that although the language certainly lacked a culture at the beginning when Zamenhof initiated it, that no longer is the situation. The present-day Esperanto, because of it flexible character, was able without difficulty to absorb influences from various national cultures, even from non-European countries such as Japan and China. Piron comments, "If Esperanto still exists, that is mainly because of its cultural roots. People who remain in the community of Esperanto do that because of feelings related to the culture, not because of the rationality of the language. They experience an inter-cultural atmosphere which one is not able to find in another place."
Piron then mentions that the culture of Esperanto has even developed two original kinds of poetic form which simply do not exist in other cultures. One unique form used by Johano Valano (that is, by Claude Piron) in the book IN OPPOSITION TO MALICIOUSNESS [published by the Literature Marketplace, Kuopio and Pisa, 1977] the American professor Pierre Ullman [in an English-language article "Schizoschematic Rhyme in Esperanto" in Papers on Language and Literature, 1980] calls "schizoschematic rhyme." In that form the rhymes are not between the last words in various lines, but only between the last roots in the various lines, roots which are followed by different endings. Such a poetic form simply can't exist in other languages because it depends on the unique system of roots and suffixes in Esperanto. How can anyone say that Esperanto does not have a culture when it even has its own poetic forms? In that excellent letter written in 1992 Piron concludes that those "linguistic experts" who believe that Esperanto does not have a culture simply don't know the facts.
en Esperanto en Español
Updated by Enrique, August 24, 2006