Gdansk, Poland — The 94th Universala Kongreso de Esperanto ended Saturday in Bialystok, in eastern Poland, and while I alone attended from Alaska, that still qualifies our state as among the proportionally best represented regions of the world.
Bialystok is the hometown of Ludwig Zamenhof, the eye doctor who invented Esperanto in 1887. The honor of hosting the 2009 conference commemorates the 150th anniversary of his birth. While growing up in the multiethnic city during the 1860s and ’70s, the studious Jewish boy heard a veritable tumult — a Gemisch, a melange, a gobbledygook, if you will — of languages around him, as his fellow citizens spoke Polish, Russian, Yiddish, German, Latvian and Byelorussian. Zamenhof’s ingenious solution to the problem of six languages competing for attention in the same space? Invent a seventh.
On the other hand, Esperanto is easy to learn, culturally and politically neutral, and as capable as any other language of expressing the range of human experience. When it comes to popularization, that counts as three strikes against.
According to the United Nations, 2009 is also the International Year of Reconciliation. Unfortunate timing — Poland’s No. 1 brewery, Tyskie, also declared 2009 the International Year of Beer, thus stealing the U.N.’s thunder. Participants at the Esperanto Congress made every effort to honor both celebrations.
The declared theme of the congress was a modern re-evaluation of Zamenhof’s ideas about mutual understanding and toleration, goals he hoped to further with his new language. In case you wondered, the 1,860 people who showed up decided we’re still for that stuff.
But as impressive as that attendance number is, it doesn’t quite live up to the “universal” part of the congress title. Indeed, as far as I could tell, this year’s event suffered from the same problem as the previous 93, with not a single representative from off-planet, let alone outside the Solar System. Oh, well.
Still, on the principle that we will welcome any aliens who do make the trip, the 2010 congress in Havana will also be called “universal”. In this respect we are more up-front than the sponsors of the Miss Universe Pageant, who don’t even send invitations to Mars or Venus, in an obvious move to keep the home-planet advantage. I can hardly wait till a sentient green cloud from Alpha Centauri calls their bluff, sings all four solo parts from the “Ode to Joy,” then blows away Miss Brazil in the swimsuit competition.
Within our movement, some admit to doubt about what we call the “final victory,” the day when everybody in the world will supposedly use Esperanto as a second language. These Esperantists just make the most of the movement’s own microculture of networking, literature, hobby clubs and wearing little green star pins on their lapels.
I suppose I’m in that group, but I do what I can for diffusion. During the congress, I took the intermediate Esperanto competency certification exam endorsed by the European Commission, and therefore recognized in every country of the world except the United States. But I figure it all works out, because even where they do recognize it, it doesn’t entitle you to anything.
Meanwhile, I’ve read some good books, and I have connections good for free lodging all over the world. The Esperanto movement even issued its own currency, the “stelo,” or star, in 1959. I have examples of coins in the one, five, ten, and 25 steloj denominations in uncirculated condition — as are all stelo coins. At the current rate, one stelo can be exchanged for another stelo.
Esperanto youth culture appears particularly vigorous, in a wholesome, make-friends-around-the-world-and-sing-Pete-Seegery-stuff-in-translation kind of way. Kids who learn Esperanto also have an easier time learning other languages later (true fact).
Indeed, my informal census in Bialystok reinforces observations I made last year at the Pan-American Esperanto Conference in Montreal. It looks like Esperantists are either in their teens or retired. OK, maybe the people of working age just had to work all week.
I credit the return to our traditional recruitment method for the resurgence among the younger set. Apparently our ill-conceived, friendly cartoon character, Esperanto Asparagus, reminded people of a gangrenous finger, and has now retired. So we’re back to hiding around the corner from playgrounds with textbooks and dictionaries strapped inside our trench coats.
“Pssst. Hey, kid, wanna learn Esperanto?”
What’s my point? Learn a new language — it keeps your brain from shriveling.
And, as always, “Qapla’!”