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Esperanto in Holland MI, USA

Esperanto? Really? Of course you must ask, “What’s in it for me?” How about free lodging all over the world? Disbelieve? Well, check out this link from The Wall Street Journal:  html . That should do it, I think. Note, if you please, that one Dr. Steven Brewer who is prominently mentioned therein is a personal friend of mine for quite some years.

One-Person Club: This page is in English for the purpose of introducing my favorite hobby, Esperanto, to any who may find it of interest. So far as I know, I am the language’s single proponent for more than an hour’s drive in any direction except to the West (and then only during the heart of a very, very hard winter). Once in Kalamazoo long ago we enjoyed a quite active club of four local members (inclusive of the then Mr. Steven Brewer mentioned above) with two or three others driving in from Battle Creek. But college students tend to graduate and move away taking their diplomas and the hobby with them. Another has since died and I myself, due to job changes, also ended up leaving town. But it’s really nice where I am now. And there being no fellow Esperantists anywhere near is my single complaint. So here’s hoping you might enjoy to remedy that single lack. I’ll be pleased to help you study. Esperanto really is not all that hard...at least compared to any other language you might care to study.

It being a not-to-be-questioned American truth that language learning (except for English) is difficult to impossible, let me approach it from that light. Taking that stand, I will lay down all the negative cards, saving you the trouble to do so. Let me play the curmudgeon in this, as it is likely the only way you’ll ever meet one in the whole of Esperantujo. Read on to find out why.

Failed Polyglot: I had at various times attempted to learn each of these: German, two semesters in junior high; Mandarin, self-study while in high school; Japanese, while in the Navy and stationed for eighteen months on Okinawa; Italian, free-to-employees for two semesters while working in the Physics Department at Kalamazoo College; Turkish, because a co-worker was of that country and volunteered as my tutor; and finally Russian, because a fellow Esperantist expressed deep interest and desired a co-study partner. In all those efforts I failed. I failed not for lack of assiduous effort but more for an inability to remember all the varied special cases and grammatical exceptions.

The nature of those obstacles was different for each: nouns with gender and often very bizarre declentions, highly irregular verbs, and so forth. In Japanese, men and women speak differently, very much so...such that an American learning the tongue from listening to a girlfriend ends up speaking effeminately to her very quiet chagrin. And being polite, no Japanese will intrude so as to correct him. Turkish has an internal precision almost mathematical in its regularity due to its having (like Esperanto) a table of interchangeable affixes to alter the grammatical role of any root word. Which should have made Turkish easy...except for the issue of vowel harmony in which the eight vowels are divided into four sets of two in such away that each single affix really came as a set of four with vowels toggling this way and that depending upon which vowel the root word chiefly contained. And don’t even get me started on Russian, much less Chinese. And so in each of those cases I failed. Mostly the problem was my own poor memory. But as stated, there were also some issues with them. All that baggage of needless complexity handed down through history. I could have managed to learn each in time, but only if immersed in that culture. Whatever the mixture of reasons, in each case I failed. And oh, how I do hate to fail.

Logical Alternative: I did succeed in picking up Esperanto however all by myself. I managed that in between trying and failing to learn Japanese and then Turkish. I taught it to myself mainly from books, that and a two-cassette correspondence course offered by a group called SAT headquartered in France. You can get the basic rules of grammar down in a couple of weeks. From there on it’s just a matter of vocabulary building and practice. That still makes for a whole lot to learn. No getting around that, the names of objects and actions being so many. But here’s the crux...you will need learn those names only once. Nouns have no gender. Further, they all decline and pluralize in the same exact way. Likewise for the tenses and participles of verbs. You just swap out suffixes from a table of mutually interchangeable co-relatives (like Turkish except the vowels all stay true). And so it was that the same degree of steadfast effort overcame my limited talent for a complete success in learning Esperanto. This where I failed at all the rest, both before and after. Why? Simply because the language adheres to its own internal logic. And so, it just works. More importantly, anyone can learn how to work it.

Alternate Logic: And just how was it, that I came to make such an odd choice? Was I persuaded by its concise construction and symmetry of grammar? Was I instead led to it out of a longing for world peace, hoping to stay the world from further strife through the medium of better communication? Neither of those. Instead I stumbled upon it quite by accident. The name Esperanto kept popping up in science fiction novels. Particularly so in the Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison. Honestly, I thought it was just something fake. Like Lingua Terra, Terran or Galactic Standard. Something like that. Except that Harry Harrison embedded whole dialogues of Esperanto into his novels. One character would say something in Esperanto to another and it looked like real speech. In fact, I could even follow the discourse. Enough, anyhow, to catch the gist. I thought it very ingenious of the author to go to so much effort, making up his own real-seeming language like that. Then at the end of one of his books, The Stainless Steel Rat for President, I found the announcement. Oh, by the way...Esperanto is real. It gave an address to write and find out more. And so I did. And here I am.

Big Machine: Think of any language as a vehicle you have to drive. Already you know how to drive the car you are familiar with. You don’t have to think about that at all. You just get in and go. Other cars ought, you think, to be just the same. Except that they’re not. You set yourself down behind the controls of another and there’s all these extra levers, pedals and knobs...while some of the ones you are used to are no longer there. Some are like tractors with special controls that you have no clue what they do. But still you could learn them in time. What complicates the learning process is when after turning a corner, for no reason that you can fathom, on entering this new street you can’t use the same controls that worked fine on the street you just turned off from. Instead you have to employ one of the mystery levers. But only on this street, not any others. Or maybe while going West instead of East a certain pedal does something entirely different. And so on and so forth, with each separate neighborhood or direction requiring the use of its own special only-just-here set of levers, pedals and knobs.

Small Foreign Car: Esperanto does have a couple strange little knobs of its own which you must learn when to pull. But they work exactly the same on any street you care to drive. While odd to English speakers at first, you get used to them in time. You have to because they’re there all the time. But they are there in exactly the same way all the time. Other than those, all the controls will be as you already know. The first (to English speakers) seemingly useless extra widget is something called the accusative case. That’s where you add an n-sound to the end of any noun which is acted upon by a verb: Hammer hits nail-n. Man bites dog-n. Children eat cake-n. But here’s the thing... Take any of those three-word sentences, jumble the word order however you like, and they still mean the same thing. English is a right-branching language, so we always speak in this order: subject-noun (actor), verb, (action), object-noun (thing-done-unto). But some other languages do it the other way (backwards to us). In Turkish you would say, The store to went I. Having a little sound-flag to mark the object of the verb serves the purpose of nailing down meaning very precisely. Hard to get used to at first, but at least its always the same.

The other oddity in Esperanto (from an English-speaking perspective) is something called adjective-noun agreement. Which is to say, when you pluralize a noun (done by adding a suffix...the same suffix to every noun), you must also pluralize all the adjectives which describe it: The little green man. Many littles greens mans. To show where it’s useful I’d have to construct a complex example. In English it would be just a confusing jumble for lack of any sound-tags to mark which adjective goes with which noun, and which are subjects rather than objects of their particular verb. In Esperanto though, it would still make perfect scene. Not that any Esperantists I know of complicate their speech to so great a degree. Often when reading a novel, though, that helps to make things quite clear. And were you a computer programmer slaving to write a translation algorithm, then you’d fall down upon your knees and weep for joy at all the many if-then-else statements which you would not have to write. So it does serve a purpose even though we English speakers seem to do just fine without it. But some of those instances would be our special cases and exceptions which pose difficulties for many others.

So there do exist these two little oddities you will have to get used to if you are to learn Esperanto. Even after a month of study they’ll still annoy you a little. But count them, I say. There’s only two. Just two little very odd things to have to get used to. Compare this against the list of irregular verbs in French. Compare it against having to keep track of whether a noun is either a boy-noun or girl-noun in Italian or Spanish. Compare it, for that matter, against English where we have twelve vowel sounds but only five letters to write them. And, oh yes, I forgot to mention...in Esperanto every word sounds exactly like how it’s spelled. There’s only five vowel sounds, one for each letter: a, e, i, o, u. And accent is always on the next-to-last syllable. Esperanto sounds very much just like Italian, except for a couple of Germanic consonants added into the mix. One of those you might not much like. The French surely don’t. It’s like in the Scottish word loch, like a k-sound but with the tongue just short of touching the pallet. Just like a K but without the click because you stop just short of closure, letting a tiny bit of air slide over the top. First few times you’ll get it wrong by putting your tongue not in the middle like for a K, but instead too far back, and make a gargle noise instead. The French, just say the k-sound instead. You can too, if it’s an issue. No one will ever mistake your meaning.

So, two odd rules of grammar and one hard-not-to-gargle consonant. I guess that makes three things to have to get used to. Or you could try and learn Russian. Did I mention I once studied Russian? Don’t even get me started on Russian. On the other hand, likely they say the same about English. Anyhow those are the three things which as an English speaker you won’t very much like about Esperanto. But there are only the three. Three’s not so bad. You can learn to put up with three in return for what you get back...friends all over the world.

So, by contrast, how is it that Esperanto makes some things easy? Think way back to English in high school. Remember sentence diagramming? And how very well you enjoyed it? No? Well, a one-point refresher. An issue that cannot be avoided in any language which I know of is verb transitivity. That is to say, whether an action word is the doing kind or the being-done-unto kind. For example: murder or be murdered; to sell or be sold; to eat or be eaten. Those are all instances of transitive verbs that need be either modified or exchanged so as to become non-transitive. To change from doers to doees. In Esperanto, that same change is made by adding a suffix: murdimurdiĝi; manĝimanĝiĝi; vendivendiĝi. (Note the hatted g which sounds like George. Also in that list you will note that Esperanto favors French for the root of eat while is very close to English for murder, and that you can think of vendor as your mnemonic for sell.) So that's going one way. What about going the other. These verbs are of the other sort, that is to say non-transitive, verbs which effect no change upon any second noun, verbs that show the action of a single noun all by itself: to be, to live, to die. Their Esperanto equivalents are: esti, vivi, morti. Yet sometimes you need to make change the idea of those verbs and make them transitive, to make those verbs show an action upon something else. In English, to be would morph into make be or establish. And likewise you would have make live or vivify, and make dead or kill whose Esperanto equivalents would be accomplished by just adding a suffix estigi, vivigi, mortigi. (Note the regular g lacking a hat, which sounds like Golf.) Clearly then, the means of reversing transitivity in a verb is much more simply accomplished in Esperanto than in English...but you still must keep track of which way a given verb leans in its heart of hearts: transitive or non. Just thought I'd mention that. It being so much simpler to do in Esperanto than in English, I won't count it an obstacle to rapid acquisition of the language.

World Peace and the Verda Venko: Green is a color long associated with the language Esperanto, whose symbol is the green star. And so the term verda venko means green victory, a kind of pie-in-the-sky hope, the dream of a day, hopefully not too far off, where Esperanto becomes at last the world’s second language of choice, taught in schools and universities everywhere. I don’t believe in it much. Surely not in the next fifty years, after which time I’ll likely be gone. A noble idea, which I’m all for...but only out of mildly altruistic bent. I don’t strive for it. I’m too pragmatic, possibly even a pessimist in that regard. I trust, however, that Esperanto will continue to long endure. It will always be with us, however small. Within my conceivable lifetime, Esperanto will likely enjoy only very small addition to the million-at-most literate readers and hundred thousand or so conversationally fluent speakers that it most likely has now. That’s quite all right by me.

Because, you see...I like Esperanto principally because it’s so small. It’s a movement comprised almost entirely of die hard optimists. All who I’ve met are friendly, open, welcoming people. A bit too much so at times, since in any group so tolerant and accepting as, say...an Esperanto Society in your average large city...there will often be one very annoying person who all the others put up with simply because they can’t bear the notion of showing even one potential convert the door. Don’t expect me to take the welcoming bit so far as that. To me it’s a hobby, not a cause and so needs to stay fun. So let’s just have fun. Esperanto can indeed be a most enjoyable hobby if we can all just leave certain baggage behind. Know that I very dislike to argue. But if you insist to push disputational topics (politics, religion, etc) in my face, then argue with you I must. Then it will cease to be fun. So let’s agree not to do that.

My Hobby: My approach to the Esperanto movement is that of a serious hobby. I enjoy many an interesting hour in the effort to translate the works of my favorite author, Jack Vance. This much admired holder of the Hugo, Nebula, Word Fantasy and other awards  wiki  is the one topic on which you may count me perhaps something of a fanatic. Some of his more than 70 books I enjoy to read over and over. I own copies (some in plural) of everything Jack Vance has written, most of those in signed first editions. I once volunteered on a project to re-publish all of his works in a 44-volume hard-cover set...which, of course, I also own (twist my arm and I’ll show you my name in the credits). I was once privileged to meet the very man himself, as a weekend guest at his home. He even very generously sold me the privilege to translate his works into Esperanto for the meager sum of $500 a decade and more before his death in 2013, an arrangement still honored, most graciously, by the author’s estate. My first attempt was semi-commercial but that proved a bother. The costs of printing and shipping, not to mention having to deal with foreign banks sapped enjoyment out of the project. So I switched to the digital format, allowing free downloads, first as HTML and then later as eBooks. Currently I have seven such eBooks, every one of them DRM-free, all down-loadable from a wholly ad-free website. The parent URL, in fact, of this web page you are now reading:  html . If something like that sounds fun to you, I invite you may join in the effort, especially if you can draw.

Your Interest: But what if the above’s not for you? Then I’m sure you’ll find something else. For instance, should you be fortunate enough to afford to travel the world then Esperanto will assure that in most of the places you’d care to go, you will have very welcoming friends eager to greet you...and not just for the cash in your wallet. They’ll be eager for someone to talk to, a foreign co-hobbyist to be showing off to their friends. Chances are good you’ll be invited to dinner, possibly even to stay in their homes. Once while on a business trip to Paderborn Germany when the company I worked for at the time got around to assigning a fellow engineer to make me feel welcome my evening social calendar for that whole week was already full. Astonished, my German counterpart asked, “You are in Germany only two days and already you have so many friends?” That’s how it can be for you also. Contrariwise, you could have the world come to you. In my home at various times I have hosted Esperanto speaking visitors from France, the Netherlands, Hungary and Japan.

Contact Info: You may contact me by email or via either of these:  Facebook   Second Life . Once in contact, we can either form a club or just meet informally. This we can do at a coffee house, restaurant, or the public place of your choosing. I stipulate only that the drive be forty-five minutes or less. Or we can just do Skype, where my username is Aplonis. Might be best to email me first, though, so I don’t mistake and just ignore the pop-up thinking it’s about...er...something else. If those work out then I might even be open to holding regular meetings at either my home or yours.

Should you have interest in Esperanto but Holland MI is too far to travel, then check out the state and national organizations:

 html  La Esperanto Societo de Miŝigano
 html  La Esperanto Societo de Ĉikago
 html  Esperanto-USA

Thanks for reading,

Ĝan Ŭesli Starling
Port Sheldon, MI

2015-10-02