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Lingvo: English (en)
5. The psychology of Esperanto
You can approach the world's language problem by various routes, including politics, linguistics, finance, economics, and so on. Here it's tackled from a psychological angle by psychologist Claude Piron, who also worked as a UN translator for many years.
Esperantists often complain that the world doesn't understand them, that it isn't interested in their point of view, or that Esperanto isn't making fast enough progress. The idea that the language isn't making enough progress is widespread among Esperanto speakers, and it stems from one of the most important features of the human psyche: desire. People want to see Esperanto making progress, and they react to this desire like small children. They don't want to see the size of the hurdles and obstacles that stand in the way of fulfilling their desire.
So they feel frustrated. When they feel frustrated, they don't face up to the fact that they were being unrealistic all along, and that the mistake therefore lay with them. Instead, they look for someone else to blame – they blame the rest of the world, which failed to pay them any attention. It's childish, but I'm not being critical when I say that: I'm merely describing part of the normal behaviour of the human psyche. When we have a strong desire, we tend to react childishly.
5.1. Language is a very complicated phenomenon
I touched on another psychological aspect of the situation when I said that the world doesn't understand Esperantists. Why doesn't the world understand Esperantists? Because society doesn't really understand the general language situation. Why? There are many reasons. One is that language is a very complicated phenomenon, and complicated things are hard to understand. When something is very complicated, the natural approach is to simplify it. As a result, society in general has a very simplistic picture of the world's language situation. It's more of a sketch than a picture.
There's another psychological reason why society doesn't really understand the language problem, and that's fear. This may surprise you. Indeed, if you go up to a politician, or a linguist, or even a random person in the street, and tell them that fear is one of the reasons the world hasn't solved the language problem, they'll look at you as if you're crazy. For one thing, for them, the language problem simply doesn't exist. "It's already been solved by English, or translators." Furthermore, even if the problem does exist, it has nothing to do with fear. "Nobody's afraid of language," they'll say. "You're talking nonsense." However, many fears are unconscious. We're not aware of them, and that's a good thing, because we wouldn't be able to lead happy lives if we were. But the fact remains that these fears cause many errors and distortions in our understanding of reality.
Why does language evoke fear? Again, there are many reasons. Language is linked to our identity, for instance. At some point in our childhood, we realize that the people around us are speaking this language as opposed to that one, and this defines us in relation to the rest of the world. I belong to a group of people defined by the language it speaks. Deep in my mind, then, my language is me. The extensive use of the Swiss dialects of German is a way of saying: "This is who we are – we're not Germans." Or look at how Flemish and Catalan people react: "Anyone who persecutes my language or criticizes it, is persecuting or criticizing me."
Many people have a disparaging attitude to Esperanto because it strikes them as a language that doesn't define a group of people, a language that lacks human identity, and therefore either not a language at all, or at best a language that's artificial rather than natural – one whose similarity to real languages is like that of a robot to a person. And this scares them. They're afraid that this robot, which is said to have worldwide ambitions, will trample all other languages, all ethnic groups, everything that's alive and individual, crushing them out of existence. This may sound like a flight of fancy. But it's the truth.
There's a psychological technique known as "clinical conversation". It explores how ideas and images are associated with one another, by asking people to say what passes through their minds in response to a certain word. With the word "Esperanto", the technique reveals the presence of this unconscious fear in the minds of a large number of people.
In fact, the whole area of language-based communication between nations and ethnic groups is subject to a taboo. If you study the documents that get produced in that field, you'll find that about 99% of them present the facts as if Esperanto didn't exist – as if nobody had ever had any experience of any sort of international communication other than through the usual methods of translation, interpretation, or using a prestigious national language like English. Esperanto is taboo. What proves it's a taboo is the refusal to compare.
When scientists want to know the value of something, they always compare it with a reference point. Before deciding on a new medicine, you see how effective it is in comparison with more familiar substances. And when a firm launches some sort of major project, such as building a new stadium, what's the first step? They issue a request for bids. Various companies are asked to submit proposals, and the project's organizers compare the bids and accept the one that's best in terms of cost and all the other relevant criteria. That's the normal procedure.
As it happens, there's a whole branch of science devoted to the art of choosing the best way to achieve a specific goal. It's known as "operations research" or "quantitative management". If you apply the rules of operations research to the language problem, you find that, out of all the methods that are currently in practical use, Esperanto is the optimal way to achieve the goal.
But to establish this fact, you have to do a comparison between the various methods. You need an objective practical view (from on the ground, as it were) of how Esperanto compares with sign language, or with broken use of a poorly spoken language, or with use of English, or with use of Latin, or with translation of documents and with simultaneous or consecutive interpretation of speech. Such comparisons are the only way to decide what the best system is.
Thousands and thousands of pages have been written about the language situation, sometimes in the UN, sometimes in the EU, and sometimes in university linguistics departments. Even so, very few documents base their discussion of the issues on a comparison that includes Esperanto – you can count them on the fingers of your hands. Comparing all the possible solutions to a problem is such a common activity in other fields; its absence in the field of international language-based communication shows that there's a taboo at work.
5.3. Where does the taboo come from?
Why are language issues subject to a taboo? Once again, there are many reasons. Some of them are political. A number of governments disapprove of the idea of "ordinary people" communicating with one another, free from barriers. Some of the reasons are social. That same idea can be unsettling for the privileged social classes, too. People who have mastered English (or another important language) have many advantages over those who only speak local languages – and many of them don't want to lose their advantages. This is particularly true in the Third World.
But I think the main causes of the taboo are psychological. The heart of the matter is the emotional charge in the concept of "language": its weightiness, the mood it evokes, and the fact that it strikes such a deep chord in our souls. We think in concepts and words. And these words and concepts aren't just intellectual – they tug at our emotions, they elicit certain feelings: not all words, but many of them. If I say "war" or "money" or "mother" or "sex" or "nuclear power", something stirs deep inside you, although you're generally unaware of it. In other words, we're not indifferent in the face of many of our concepts, especially those that are somehow connected to our desires, our needs, our aspirations, our pleasure, our suffering, our influence, etc.
Language is one of those concepts that tends to provoke strong emotional reactions. Why? Because language implies the ability to make yourself understood, and this ability is one of the most basic desires of every human being. If I'm plagued by worries or upset in some other way, then I feel I've been helped if I can talk about it to someone who listens to what I say and reacts with understanding. By sharing my worries or problems with someone else, I no longer feel alone, and I'm better able to cope.
When a baby is upset and crying – often because it doesn't understand what's happening – the adults present sometimes don't react correctly. In fact their only reaction may be to pull a helpless face. But when the child has acquired a language, and can say "My ear hurts", the reactions of the adults are quite different. True communication takes place, and this changes the child's life. Since communication occurs most often and most effectively with the mother, the child's emotions towards the idea of "language" include its feelings towards her. That's why most languages talk of a "mother tongue", even though it's really a "parent tongue" or "location tongue".
Look how emotional people become when they react to the idea of changing the spelling of their language. Observe the arguments closely, and you'll see there's nothing truly rational about them. It's all to do with emotions – the emotions aroused by the word "language".
5.4. Both "father" and "mother"
Esperanto sounds like Frankenstein's monster when people say it was put together by one man. It sounds like it had a "father" but no "mother": the hideous offspring of a twisted loner. This image has been bolstered by definitions of Esperanto in many dictionaries, encyclopedias, language books, and even Esperanto's own publicity materials, which state that "Esperanto was created by Zamenhof in 1887". In fact, Esperanto wasn't created in 1887. What was published in 1887 was the seed of a language that had already spent many years growing and maturing in Zamenhof's head and in his notebooks.
That process took a long time, and it was like the gradual development of a seed within a plant; the project's publication was like the sowing of the seed. But seeds only come alive if they're planted in fertile soil. And that soil was Esperanto's "mother": the community of idealists who first accepted the seed and gave it an environment where it could grow and evolve and flourish into something that was viable enough to survive on its own, independent of any one person.
Esperanto's present form isn't the work of Zamenhof; rather, it's a language that took Zamenhof's project as a basis, and was then evolved over a century of constant use by a wide variety of people. It's a language that has developed quite naturally as a result of everyday usage, literature, and competing innovations, usually unconscious ones. It's certainly not a monstrosity cobbled together by a single person. OK, so it has a "father" – a wonderful father, and one who managed to imbue it with the amazing potential for life that it needed. But it also had a "mother" who lovingly nursed it, and who breathed far more life into it than its "father" alone could have done.
5.5. In the long run
As you can see, the psychological aspects of Esperanto – and of the world's language problems – are far more complex than you might initially suspect. Most people's psychological makeup offers strong resistance to the mere idea of an international language that isn't also a national language. That resistance means there's almost no one in the political, social, and intellectual elite who's willing to research the topic calmly.
The resistance will carry on, and it will certainly be harsh, if only because people only appreciate things when they're ready to appreciate them. At the moment, many people simply fail to hear what we say about Esperanto: their minds aren't ready, so what we say goes in one ear and out the other. Yes, there will be strong resistance. But in the long run, in all likelihood, it won't win out over the facts.
(Abridged from a talk given by Claude Piron in 1998.)