Ralph Dumain on Esperanto & conlangs:

Interview questionnaire: Responses for Greg Nedved, National Museum of Language

12 July 2016


What is the purpose of your Autodidact Project?

I created The Autodidact Project in 1999 to explore the philosophical dimension of autodidacticism. I pose the key questions on my home page, the most basic of which is: what is the relation of self to the universe of knowledge, regardless of the level of one’s formal education. I do not romanticize the autodidact: I seek to examine the strengths and weaknesses of being in such a position. And since no one can know or judge everything on a completely factual basis, how do we orient ourselves in the face of gaps in knowledge and understanding?

I began with an interest in surveying whatever relevant literature could be found on this subject, and documentation of various autodidacts and independent efforts at education and self-development. There is a whole working class tradition of autodidacticism and alternative institutions in several countries, which in the United States at least is long forgotten.

My efforts soon expanded to create a number of bibliographies and web guides on a variety of subjects of interest, some related to various projects of mine, some on fairly obscure or unusual topics. A central aim has been to provide essential tools for people to understand and negotiate their relationship to the surrounding world.

I also have compiled various quotations, some famous, some very obscure, most of which also provide tools for understanding. I have also digitized material from other authors much of which also serves this purpose, with an eye to obscure or hard-to-find material that most people might never discover elsewhere. I do not agree with everything all of the authors present; some material serves as historical evidence of flawed approaches to a subject. I have also uploaded my own work: essays, critiques, reviews, poems, translations.

So, my original project has sprawled in various directions, not all related to the central theme, but useful to various people in various areas. One of the most notable aspects of my work is to set up web presences and tributes to worthy individuals who might not be documented elsewhere.

What got you interested in Esperanto?

Becoming involved with Esperanto was pretty much an accident. My memory is unclear, but I believe that one of my best childhood friends somehow found out about Esperanto and told me about it, and we went to the main public library in Buffalo and found mostly ancient textbooks on Esperanto and other conlangs—which in those days were either serious projects meant for wide adoption or the creation of eccentrics with some philosophical or utopian objective. The only true purely hobby conlangs were those of J.R.R. Tolkien. So we began to study Esperanto—which in those days like Tolkien’s conlangs or language creation in general would appeal strongly to teenage nerds. Conlanging was not the popular hobby that it is now—that is, creating conlangs for other than recreational purposes—besides learning Esperanto, which always served a multitude of purposes. The very creation of a language is a creative act and has the appeal that all forms of creativity have, and that, coupled with the fact that there were books and periodicals and recordings to acquire and people all over the world who speak or write Esperanto, made Esperanto quite attractive. The ideal of a universal auxiliary language was also appealing, especially to those not schooled in the ways of the world. But that was never the main motivation for persisting with Esperanto. So once we learned where to order books, find penpals, take courses, etc., we were on our way. Joining general-purpose Esperanto organizations was also a logical step in the pre-Internet age.

The evolution of my perspective and priorities in pursuing Esperanto over the decades is another long story. Once I discounted the obsolete objective of promoting Esperanto as the universal auxiliary language of the future, I focused on ways of exploiting its potential as an alternative communication network.

How would you rate your own skills with Esperanto?

When I took the Esperanto proficiency exams from the Canadian Esperanto Association in 1976 I aced them such that the judges practically had to create a new category for the certificate I got. However, I think the dumbing down of American society has affected my mastery of grammar in both English and Esperanto—either that or aging. I’m sure I slip up more than I used to, though I know I do not make common mistakes that the average Esperantist makes. I am sure that my Esperanto vocabulary does not match that of the most literary or erudite speakers, but again, I don’t make the mistakes that many others make in projecting English-language habits onto my Esperanto.

What do you consider to be your greatest literary achievement?

I am primary an essayist and critic in whatever language I’m using. I'm good at this but I can’t offhand pick out my best effort. I’ve also written a sprinkling of poems in English and Esperanto, but nothing of recent vintage. Some of my English poems are pretty good. Most of my Esperanto poems were satirical, X-rated, doggerel or other toss-offs, but there are a couple of serious good ones. I have translated prose and poetry both ways between English and Esperanto. I have translated four poems by William Blake into Esperanto. I think the most noteworthy is my translation of Blake's “The Birds,” which recreates the intense emotional impact the original made on me; I dedicated the translation to the memory of my late life-partner.

What role can a CONLANG play in politics and religion?

There are two fundamental roles a conlang has been designed to play (and others which essentially fall under the second category): as (1) a language constructed for serious international or universal use; (2) a hobby language, or, related to that, in conjunction with fantasy or science fiction world-building. There is also a possible third role, a quasi-scientific or metaphysical one, such as Loglan/Lojban, or a feminist language like Láadan (which is linked to the author’s fictional universe). The second and third types can of course be linked to political, religious, or philosophical purposes—probably rather specific ones given their basic function. The first type—most prominently Esperanto but also others historically—have played all sorts of roles, being universal media of communication, including as vehicles of political groups, religious and mystical or irreligious and atheist tendencies. As such, neither the question nor the answer is particularly interesting, unless we ask what the conlang does that other languages do not. One answer would be—given the historical niche that Esperanto especially has occupied—is to connect people with a given cause or perspective who would otherwise not be connected, and to disseminate views to an international audience. One role is to counteract bias, whether linguistic, chauvinistic, or racist, in league with the linguistic medium. Esperanto has played this role.

There is one additional role which is vital in understanding the historical role of Esperanto: the Esperantist subculture and its publishing vehicles as a refuge or outlet for those subject to national, ethnic, or political repression or censorship. Esperanto has appealed to people with causes in the English-speaking world, but it cannot claim to have played a decisive role. Eastern Europe was the birthplace and stronghold of Esperanto culture, for linguistic, cultural, and political reasons, and elsewhere in Europe—Spain is of special importance. Esperanto played an important historical role in Europe and East Asia. These are not the only areas, but the most striking that come to mind.

What role should government play in the formation of CONLANGs?

I do not see this question of great significance now as it may have been up to the 1950s, when Esperanto was recognized by the UN and specifically UNESCO. Historically, the strategies pursued have been to create a conlang and attempt to get it adopted as is or in modified form by all kinds of institutions, including governments and international agencies. The larger question would be—especially in light of today’s world—what role should or could business and government play in the formation or adoption of conlangs? Let us first talk about adoption, since that is the most important route pursued in the past.

In earlier decades, the state was the most important entity to further or obstruct the officialization of an international language. While Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, reasoned that conflicting nationalisms would force the adoption of a neutral international language, the opposite occurred. Thus Esperanto was obstructed in the League of Nations, principally by the French delegation. As for the arguments for efficiency, cost, etc., whatever staggering costs are accrued by international agencies, business is entirely indifferent and certainly willing to provide advertising, services, and translations in as many languages as it needs to. (Esperanto has been used by various businesses.) Given the hype now surrounding artificial intelligence, translators, like other employment categories, are threatened with eventual obsolescence.

As for the creation of conlangs, whether we like it or not we should look to the private sector for precedents. In recent decades the private sector has paid consultants to create languages from scratch solely for entertainment purposes: Klingon, Na’vi, Dothraki, perhaps others I cannot recall. If there is money in it, business can do whatever it wants. It would not surprise me, if, given this trend, that, in the extremely unlikely event that business (if not government) were to commit itself to establishing a constructed language (i.e. conlang) for international use, it would just as soon create a new one from scratch as adopt or modify Esperanto or one of its rivals. If something as ridiculous as Klingon can gain the traction it has, why not a brand new language with a serious purpose?

In my view, the question of what “should be” is of no consequence, which is why I do not engage in propaganda for Esperanto as a universal auxiliary language.

What role can a flag and other symbols play in the formation of CONLANGs?

They play the same role for new conlangs as they did for Esperanto—as creations of a subculture and presentation of the conlang and its values to the world at large. There is a logo for everything. What else would one expect?

What CONLANG is the greatest rival of Esperanto today?

No conlang, Esperanto included, has any chance of being adopted as a universal auxiliary language for international communication. (I drafted this response prior to Brexit. English may be eliminated as a language of the European Union. Some think this is a great opportunity for Esperanto. I think this is a pipe dream.) Esperanto has no serious rivals. The last contender was Interlingua, which was finalized I think in the 1950s, and was designed to play a more limited role. It was based on a Latinate vocabulary, intended to be easily readable on sight especially in a scientific and technical capacity; I think it was even used a bit for abstracts of scientific articles. If there were any rivals, I guess this would be it. Interlingua still has advocates strewn about.

If one is referring to the sheer number of speakers and users of conlangs, including the hobby conlangs, I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing Klingon. But I would not call it a rival, for two reasons. For one, there are people who like to learn two or several conlangs, and I know people who know both Esperanto and one or more others. Secondly, except as a hobby language, there is no overlap between the functions of Esperanto and Klingon. Klingon was not designed for universal purposes or for facility of learning by anyone. If you are really interested in communicating with other people in a multitude of real-world ways, Esperanto is your best bet.

Government has at least one continuing role to play: instituting Esperanto as a foreign language option in educational systems and other venues. Governments have done this, have supported the publication of materials in Esperanto, radio programs, university courses and degrees, etc. Such endeavors are still worth supporting.

Who is the greatest advocate of Esperanto today?

“Advocate” can mean several things. There are two modes for advocating Esperanto, in addition to actually using the language in outstanding ways. One avenue is to further its acceptance in the wider world: short of universal adoption, there are university or school courses, doctoral dissertations about some aspect of Esperanto, endorsements or other official approvals, dissemination of information or the use of other means to enhance public visibility or impact. Then there is the advocacy of Esperanto as it has actually been used and where it is most successful—as an alternative communications network, for travel and hospitality, humanitarian action, literary activity, cultural transmission and intercultural communication, etc. I don’t maintain enough contact with developments to offer a personal opinion, as I interact beyond the local level primarily with literary people and historians.

There is, however, the “Esperantist of the Year.” In 2015 it was Chuck Smith, who founded the Esperanto Wikipedia and spearheaded the immensely popular online Esperanto course on Duolingo.

How is Esperanto relevant in the 21st century?

First, we need to recapitulate the importance of Esperanto in the 20th century. Esperanto was a significant part of world history, important enough for its adherents to be infiltrated and spied upon, persecuted by fascists and Stalinists, exterminated by Hitler and Stalin. The subculture that was spawned enabled practical transnational organizing of Esperantists and utilization of the language, on the part of railway workers and other social and occupational groups, and political and religious groups, and isolated individuals, for education, mutual aid, travel and tourism. There was an important separate working class Esperanto movement that flourished between the two world wars. Esperanto provided an outlet and subculture for people constrained by repressive social and political environments—censorship, despotism, chauvinism, racism, anti-Semitism. Esperanto was especially significant as a linguistic counter-culture in Eastern Europe, Spain, China, Japan, and other areas. It has been important to those whose native languages don’t have the global impact of others—in Eastern Europe, Finland, Brazil, Korea, Vietnam, and many locales. Esperanto movements have flourished at many times and places. For example, there are growing Esperanto movements in various African nations, especially Francophone countries.

Whatever inroads Esperanto will or will not make in securing positions in the world at large, it will continue to be relevant in several ways. First, it continues to be valuable as a vehicle for literary and cultural transmission, whether this be the original literary creations of Esperantists or of translations. While translations from various national languages are made to other national languages, the gaps are still enormous. This is true also of what is available in English. There are works by important authors—especially from “minor” languages—in Esperanto that one will not find in English, for example, works (and even authors) in Hungarian and Yiddish. Esperanto has been an important vehicle for learning about the literatures of such languages: though one could have learned about them via English, for instance, these literatures are front and center in the Esperanto world.

For those for who have no practical need of Esperanto—American English speakers, most conspicuously—Esperanto still has an attraction for many who love to learn languages and poke into foreign cultures via communication or travel. Most of the young Americans I’ve met who become interested in Esperanto are already fluent in one or more foreign languages (some are immigrants), and Esperanto appeals to them on top of the other languages they know.

The post-Cold-War cum Internet age has radically transformed the global communication system and has presumably affected the linguistic situation as well. English is probably becoming more and more popular as both the necessity and opportunity to use it increases. The Internet also facilitates the learning, dissemination, and utilization of Esperanto, when one must no longer rely on finding dusty old textbooks in local libraries and learning in isolation in absence of local courses, or be burdened by the expense of correspondence or publishing or long distance phone calls. This means that the use of Esperanto can also expand into areas where it was sparse before. For example, I knew of the existence of only one or two Esperantists in the Arabic-speaking world, but now one can find significant clusters of them online.

This brings to mind the most significant question: will Esperanto serve as an important outlet for those suffering cultural, social, or political suffocation? If so, Esperanto will continue to perform this invaluable service.

An edited and condensed version of this interview was published on the blog of the National Museum of Language:

Intellect as Equipment: Interview with Ralph Dumain, July 28, 2016


On 10 May 2014 James Ryan and I gave presentations at the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland, on the topic . . .

Esperanto: One of the World’s Best Underutilized Ideas and Its Contributions to World Culture.

The description of this program can be found at the above link along with two embedded videos. The abstract of my contribution is as follows:

The concept of culture is discussed, as is the question of whether and in what sense the Esperanto community can be considered a culture, a question on which even the most celebrated Esperantist literati have differed. Ralph Dumain will emphasize the Esperanto phenomenon as a subculture and culture-forming process, with overall humanitarian contributions to world civilization, and artistic, mainly literary contributions, of both original works and translations. He will discuss the perspective and literary contributions of Esperanto’s creator Zamenhof in relation to the Esperanto movement and world situation of his time. He will give a general historical map of the development of Esperanto literature.

The video in two parts can also be accessed directly at YouTube, or here:

Esperanto: One of the World’s Best Underutilized Ideas and Its Contributions to World Culture
(National Museum of Language as part of the Amelia Murdoch Speaker Series on May 10, 2014 in College Park, MD) (61:12 min)
by James Ryan and Ralph Dumain



Esperanto: One of the World’s Best Underutilized Ideas Part 2
(Question and Answer period) (55:14 min)

First, James Ryan presents. My talk begins 22 minutes into part 1 and ends 1 minute into part 2. The balance of part 2 is a question-and-answer period in which James Ryan and I both respond.

I highlight the Hungarian contribution central to the development of Esperanto literature. Part 1 ends with mention of Sándor Szathmári’s utopian/dystopian masterwork Voyage to Kazohinia, available also in English translation. In part 2 I mention Szathmári’s futuristic novella Maŝinmondo (Machine-World) at approximately the 38:45 minute mark. Later, at about 42:30, I recite Zamenhof’s poem “Ho, mia kor’” (O my heart) in Esperanto with Marjorie Boulton’s English translation, then at 46:35 Kálmán Kalocsay’s Esperanto poem “Sunsubiro” (Sunset) with English translation by A. Z. Foreman.

A number of topics are discussed in the question-and-answer period, among them the engagement of the League of Nations and the United Nations with Esperanto, the teaching and learning of Esperanto, the speakers’ personal histories, native speakers of Esperanto, games in Esperanto, Esperanto in cinema, Esperanto grammar, and the Soviet Russian poet Eŭgeno Miĥalski’s linguistic experimentation.


BBC Wiltshire Interview on The Autodidact Project

Interviews on The Autodidact Project (Audio Files)

The Autodidact Project: Summary of History & Scope

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & Interlingvistiko

Offsite:

Marking the Centennial of Esperanto Creator’s Visit” by Art Silverman,
“All Things Considered,” National Public Radio, Tuesday 25 May 2010, 5:55 pm EDT


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