LEARNING HOW LANGUAGE WORKS BY MARA ROCKLIFF
When my daughter was eleven, she decided to learn Esperanto. We had watched a video about it called The Universal Language, and in twenty minutes, she was hooked. A cool secret language spoken all around the world by a special few—and yet, easy to learn? Sign her up!
I was intrigued by the fact that Esperanto was invented by one person, Dr. L. L. Zamenhof, back in 1887, with the goal of bringing peace and understanding through a universal second language, and that it was still in use today. Also…easy to learn? I said I’d try it too.
As Goethe wrote, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” Studying Esperanto with my daughter, I soon realized that she wasn’t just learning a language; she was learning how a language works.
At first, she tried to translate every sentence word for word. In English, we say that it is raining. But what’s raining? Really, there is no “it.” So in Esperanto, “It is raining” becomes, simply, Pluvas.
“What a phenomenal linguistic revelation!” my daughter exclaimed.
At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what she meant. What she actually said was, “Weird.”
Because Esperanto is so simple and consistent, abstract grammatical concepts become concrete. Nouns are the words that end in o. Adjectives end in a. A British teacher friend of mine, Tim Morley, says: “I’ve seen nine-year-old kids, when faced with the task ‘Circle the adjective in this sentence,’ the first thing they do is to translate the sentence into Esperanto in their head, because adjectives are much easier to spot in Esperanto.”
What’s an antonym? In Esperanto, it’s easy to see. The prefix mal turns a word into its opposite: amiko/malamiko (friend/enemy), rapide/malrapide (quickly/slowly), seka/malseka (dry/wet).
Because Esperanto words come mainly from the Romance and Germanic tongues, my daughter and I found we had accidentally picked up vocabulary from many languages. We deciphered a Latin inscription on the TV series Doctor Who, and on a trip to Paris, we immediately understood the signs that said FERMÉ.
“Look!” I pointed out excitedly. “Just like fermi in Esperanto!”
“Weird,” my daughter said.
Now, when she asked what a word meant in English, I had a new tool. Arboreal? Arbo is the Esperanto word for tree. Culpable? Think about kulpo (guilt). Pugnacious? Somebody who is pugnacious might use his pugno (fist)—not to be confused with pugo, which means “butt.”
As I read more about the history of Esperanto, I discovered that Dr. Zamenhof, its creator, had experienced his own linguistic revelations.
When he started inventing his language, he wasn’t a doctor, but a fourteen-year-old schoolboy. He had already learned a number of languages, both ancient (Hebrew at the synagogue, Latin and Greek at school) and modern (Russian, Yiddish, English, German, French). Looking at the massive dictionaries full of words, young Zamenhof wondered how he could possibly create a simple, easy language anyone could learn.
In a letter written to a fellow Esperanto speaker in 1895, Zamenhof described how one day, as a student in Warsaw (then part of Russia), he happened to notice two signs. One said, in Russian, shveytsarskaya—porter’s lodge, or that which has to do with the porter. The other said konditorskaya—sweet shop, or that which has to do with the confectioner. He explained:
This “skaya” caught my interest and showed me that a suffix allows one to use one word to make other words which don’t need to be separately learned. This thought took hold of me completely, and I suddenly felt solid ground beneath my feet. A ray of light fell on those huge, terrifying dictionaries, and they quickly began to shrink before my eyes.
When I write about history for kids, I want them to realize that it wasn’t history while it was happening. It was new, it was exciting, and nobody had any clue how it was going to turn out. Whether it’s two daring suffragists setting off on a huge adventure, or Ben Franklin cooking up a clever test to separate science from hocus-pocus, or a young woman named Alice seeing the very first movie camera and thinking I could use that to tell stories, I want readers to share the thrill of discovery.
So when I wrote Doctor Esperanto and the Language of Hope, I wanted not only to tell the story of a boy who dreamed up his own brand-new language, but also to give readers a taste of that eureka! moment when you suddenly catch on to how a language works.
Try it yourself. Check out the two pages below, illustrated by the amazing Zosia Dzierżawska. What do you think et means when added to a word in Esperanto? How about eg?
On another page, readers can see how Zamenhof took a common word—tailleur in French, tailor in English—and turned it into tajloro. (See? All nouns really do end in o.) And, to show how he chose kato as a word that speakers of many different languages would understand, Zosia drew a cat, a gato, a chat, a Katze, and several other adorable multilingual cats.
Warning: a little learning about language can be a dangerous thing. You end up wanting to know more and more. My daughter and I found ourselves reading not just books in Esperanto, but also books about the origins of English words. We binge-watched fun, cartoony YouTube videos by linguists Arika Okrent and Tom Scott. And on that same trip to Paris, we spent the whole day at a small, hands-on language museum called Mundolingua, breaking only for lunch at a café and a macaron run.
As Esperanto did for us, I hope that Doctor Esperanto and the Language of Hope will get readers excited to learn more about languages—including their own.
Mara Rockliff is the author of many lively historical books for children, including Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles and Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France, winner of the Cook Prize and an Orbis Pictus Honor Book. An enthusiastic Esperanto speaker since 2014, she uses the language to keep in touch with friends around the world. Visit her online at http://www.mararockliff.com.
DOCTOR ESPERANTO AND THE LANGUAGE OF HOPE. Text copyright © 2019 by Mara Rockliff. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Zofia Dzierzawska. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
I am interested in purchasing or viewing this book on an online format.
May you tell me how to do it. I live in Toronto, Canada and I love languages.
Hi! I don’t believe there is an e-book at this point, but the Toronto Public Library does have a bunch of copies: https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDM3763364&R=3763364. Good luck!
I am editor of the magazine of he Flemish Esperantist League. Can I freely publicize your text in a Dutch translation? Or what compensation do you require?
Saluton Piet! Ĉu vi celas la tekston de ĉi tiu blogero, aŭ la tekston de la libro mem? Se la blogero, absolute, bonvenon. (Mi supozas, ke estus bone inklui ligilon al la originala blogo.) Se la libro, tio estus pli komplika, ĉar la eldonejo regas la rajtojn, do bv. kontakti min per mia retejo.
I can’t wait to read this book. I studied languages, so I can appreciate the work that went into coming up wih Esperanto. Love the story behind it. Thanks for sharing this.
So nice to see Mara here! I minored in French so maybe I should give Esperanto a try.
Try it! It’s lots of fun, there are tons of free resources online, and you will be amazed how quickly you can become conversational, compared to a “regular” language like French. I’ve heard of people learning to speak Esperanto in a week; that definitely wasn’t us, but we were having conversations in three months, and after six months we were able to speak only Esperanto for a week at an immersion course with no trouble at all.
Weird! 🙂 No, reallly. It sounds like a fabulous book.
I’m thrilled to learn about your book! My father was an aficionado of Esperanto and many other languages from around the world. He passed away in 1995, but I have held onto a handful of his instructional books on Esperanto, as treasured evidences of his bright and curious mind.
Thank you all for the nice comments! And sorry for the delayed replies!