Esperanto: a language by choice !

Posted by Yevgeniya Amis on June 29, 2011

Yevgeniya (Ĵenja) Amis was born in Kiev, lived 5 years in Atlanta, and currently resides in Montreal. She was an editor of Kontakto, a socio-cultural Esperanto magazine read in over 90 countries, and is now actively involved in the work of the Esperantic Studies Foundation:

Yevgeniya Amis

When people learn that Esperanto is my family language, they very often ask why Esperanto rather than my first language (Russian), or that of my husband (English)? For me, as well as most other Esperanto speakers throughout the world, Esperanto is a language by choice, a language we decided to learn, and for some of us it happened to become a family language.

Why do people learn Esperanto ?

Every individual is unique and has their own reasons to learn Esperanto: some are idealists, and some tend to be more pragmatic, some enjoy the communication side, the others like to read original and translated literature in Esperanto.

I personally learned Esperanto out of linguistic curiosity, without knowing much of its cultural side. I then became really involved and inspired by the ideals of Esperanto after I participated in my first international seminar organized by the World Esperanto Youth Organization in Bulgaria about 10 years ago. There were about 30 people from a dozen countries. We all spoke Esperanto, and to my great joy, I was able to understand everything after only a few months of (not even intensive!) study.

Then there were other Esperanto seminars and more than five years working as an editor for an Esperanto magazine, which was a unique experience as it allowed me to collect articles from people all over the world and to give a unique perspective on social, political and cultural issues.

A different way to travel the world

Some Esperantists that I know decided to learn the language in order to travel. Actually, some of them even learned it before undertaking a world tour!

For example, I recently met Amanda Higley, a young American who participated in a 3-week intensive course, and right after that took off for Europe : she managed to visit over a dozen countries thanks to the Esperanto hosting/lodging service Pasporta Servo (

Also, a few years ago, during the world Esperanto congress in Poland, I met Bruno and Maryvonne Robineau, a French couple and authors of the book “Eight years around the world”: during their trip, they used Esperanto extensively and were able to experience cultures as they wouldn’t have, had they chosen a more conventional way to travel. They participated in everyday life in different parts of the world, doing all kinds of work, from planting rice in Korea to teaching Esperanto in China.

Esperanto Hotel in Fulda - Photo : "fahrradfritze" (cc)

The dream of a world without language discrimination
For many Esperantists today, idealism continues to be the number one reason for learning the International Language. They believe that a world without language discrimination, where communication on a global scale is accessible to rich and poor alike, is possible.

Obviously, speakers of dominant languages, such as English, have enormous advantages compared to those who have to learn them. International organizations do nothing to change this situation or, rather, do everything to keep status quo. To give just one example, an international organization such as the UN has almost 200 member countries but only six official languages! And when it comes to working languages, there is just English and French…

That is why we believe that Esperanto contributes to eliminating language discrimination.

As any other society, we are not perfect, but we have a lot of things to be proud of: during the nearly 125 years history of the International Language, the Esperanto community has created a culture of its own, with its own traditions, music, literature, magazines, radios, Wikipedia with almost 150,000 articles, countless websites, and both national and international organizations (and even, believe it or not, bureaucracy!).

To study Esperanto online for free, see the multi-lingual Esperanto learning portal that recently celebrated 100,000 registered users.

Learn more about Esperanto

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Questions on the genesis of Creole languages

Posted by Marie-Christine Hazaël-Massieux on June 23, 2011

By Marie-Christine Hazaël-Massieux, professor of linguistics at the university of Provence, author of Textes Anciens en Créole Français de la Caraïbe : Histoire et Analyse (« Ancient Texts in Caribbean French Creole: History and Analysis »), Publibook, 2008.

Menton Creole Festival - Photo : Ian Britton (cc)

What does the term creole mean?

The ambiguity of the term creole must be pointed out. It is often understood as a synonym of « mixed language » – a difficult concept to define, incidentally – and one forgets that the adjective first qualifies any « product » that was generated in the islands from foreign parents: that explains why one might refer to « creole cattle », « creole pigs », or by the same token, to « Creole children » (White creoles, Black creoles).

So at first, the term creole does not mean « mixed » at all, but only underlines that the parents/ancestors weren’t originally from the colony.

Masters & slaves

In many European colonies, the 16th century through to the 18th century saw the rise of Creole languages (languages of the Creole populations), which, according to where the colonists came from, ended up being called Portuguese Creoles, English Creoles, French Creoles, etc.

French-based Creoles were all born in situations of intense linguistic contact involving languages that were spoken by the masters and their slaves. Arriving from various regions of Africa, the slaves spoke a very large number of languages that prevented them from understanding each other.

Besides, the slaves fulfilled new and diverse duties as the decades went by: farm hand to begin with, but also semi-skilled workers in the different areas considered useful to the life of the colony, housework servants in the grand’case [« big hut »] and sometimes even gradually emancipated, merchants and dealers to handle the town owner’s business – which explains the increasing complexity and richness of the local language of communication, although in some spheres it never entirely took over French.

The newly arrived non-Creole were also forced to learn the « island speech », which consequently underwent rapid changes. It became a means of communication for the whole of society (missionaries, masters, merchants…) as society kept developing. And it was first referred to as « Creole » at the end of the 18th century.

If the French origins of Creole languages often appear easier to prove than the influence, although undisputable, of the languages of the slaves, it is because:

-           in seeking a common language of daily communication between master and slaves, the social domination of the master made their language become the language of communication, in the form of a broken French also used for exchanges among the slaves in cases where they did not share a common African language;

-           social advancement then appeared to imply the use of French (i.e. the role of women, simultaneously servants, nannies and concubines) and the slaves sought command of the French language in hope for emancipation.

-           the main scriptwriters of the local idiom spoke French, thus their interpretations of forms they heard from the slaves were French-oriented.

Ancient texts

Written documents show the existence of Creole languages as soon as the beginning of the 18th century in the Caribbean, and a little later in the Indian Ocean, although not yet clearly distinct from one island to another within a given geographic area.

What’s more, these languages, and especially the African languages, differ between the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, which then partly explains the existence of different Creoles.

The written accounts of this period of genesis are precious as they help follow the evolutions of these languages along the years and the centuries: originally very basic exchange gradually became an elaborate form of enunciation including all necessary functions; the language took shape over the centuries with the gradual adjustments required to fulfill the need for communication.

The long maturing of Creole languages

Each Creole’s defining features began to settle in the course of the 19th century. Vocabulary, essentially French-based, opened to new words that often bore various African origins, but also Malagasy and even languages of India, for the Creoles of the Indian Ocean. And as always, whether at semantic or formal level, the new words continued their evolution over the centuries.

The most significant, however, and the most fascinating really is to witness the development of an original and functional form of grammar born precisely in these situations of linguistic contact, while everyone is trying to understand the language of the other. The grammatical units that we’re able to isolate and analyze, when trying to compare them with previously attested forms, somehow appear deeply changed. Often they can hardly even be associated to one language more than the other because of the higher-paced evolution of grammatical forms in contrast to lexical forms. Where exactly do grammatical morphemes such as « ap », « ka » (progressive), « ti » (past), « ké » (future, replacing the original « va »), « i » (modal or aspectual in Réunion Creole), etc. – come from? Solutions associating these forms to French forms currently in use are appealing, yet most probably insufficient.

The systematic analysis of ancient texts uncovers this evolution all the way to modern Creole languages – complete languages, the use of which can express just about anything for whoever speaks them in command of the lexical and grammatical forms they are made of.

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Vanuatu: a fragile diversity

Posted by Alexandre François on June 14, 2011

Dr Alexandre François, LACITO-CNRS, Australian National University

Alexandre François and †Maten Womal, one of the last speakers of the Olrat Language.

Alexandre François and †Maten Womal, one of the last speakers of the Olrat Language.

Last week, Alexandre François presented an overview of multilingual practices in Vanuatu, the country with the world’s highest linguistic diversity. He described how the traditional lifestyle of Vanuatu, with its decentralized organization and the absence of pressure towards uniformity, enabled languages with no more than a few hundred speakers to thrive and keep being handed down over the centuries.
Today he explains how linguistic diversity, despite being still very present in modern Vanuatu, is becoming ever more vulnerable.

Historical upheavals

The archipelago of Vanuatu went through a period of disruption towards the end of the 19th century.
The first contacts with European sailors triggered dramatic epidemics.
In addition, almost at the same time, the islands of Melanesia were losing their population because of Blackbirding – that is, the massive recruitment of workforce for the plantations of Queensland and Fiji. Missionaries at the time reported how, within only a few years time, they witnessed the demographic collapse of numerous villages that were once thriving.

In the northern area of Vanuatu I’m working on (the Banks and Torres islands), the linguistic density is still amazing today, with ten little islands counting as many as 16 different languages. However, the oral tradition as well as historical documents reveal that the same area, around 1860, was home to 35 distinct languages! This says a lot about the collapse of linguistic diversity within only a few decades…

The last witnesses

Even though the current times are less troubled, we are still observing indirect consequences of that demographic crisis. At the turn of the 20th century, many families from the highlands left their depopulated hamlets and resigned themselves to move down to the coastal villages, where the new Christian churches had been installed. Blending into the population of larger villages, these families were inevitably bound to replace their own language with that of the majority. Children born after this period, in the 1930s and 40s, were the last to ever hear the ancestral languages spoken by their parents; these individuals, now in their 70s or 80s, are the last speakers of languages which are almost extinct.

In the course of my research I always did everything I could to encounter these last witnesses of an ancient diversity, and record their languages while it was still possible. This is how I worked on Araki – the language from which the name Sorosoro was borrowed – but also on Volow, Lemerig, Olrat, Mwesen, Lovono, Tanema… The speakers of each one of these languages can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This reminds us that the linguistic diversity of our planet is a fragile flower.

The importance of transmission

Fortunately, the languages of Vanuatu aren’t all threatened to the same extent. For many of them, predictions on the mid-term are even optimistic, for multilingualism is in fact still very alive in the rural areas of the archipelago. The key lies in the transmission across generations: a language can last even if it is only spoken by two hundred people, providing the parents speak it to their children.

Most of the languages in Vanuatu are currently in this situation. The continuity of their transmission to the younger generations protects them, at least for now, from the risks of extinction. Yet their low demography remains their soft spot: an increase in migrations to cities, or a sudden cultural modernization, could be enough to trigger similar upheavals to those of the past century.

How linguists can help

Linguists do not hold all the keys to guarantee the survival of a language: this mainly depends on the speakers’ will to hand down their knowledge to the following generations. However, we can do our part to have these languages live on – in two different ways.

First, the task of language description and documentation, which takes the form of grammars, dictionaries or academic articles, is essential to preserve the human linguistic heritage. This is also true for those languages whose fate is already sealed: even though we cannot get them back afloat, at least we can rescue their treasures while it is still time. Take Araki, which was spoken by around fifteen people in 1997, by only five or six nowadays: there is little hope it can ever come back to being the thriving language of a whole community. But at least the grammar, dictionary and collection of stories I have produced will contribute to safeguard the memory of this unique language. The last speakers and their families are grateful for all this work – be it merely of a symbolic nature.

Perspectives are different with languages that are still healthy. The work of linguists can serve the community, in turn, by strengthening patterns of intergenerational transmission. This effort may take various forms, for instance by contributing to the introduction of vernaculars in the education system. I’ve just returned from a stay in Vanuatu last month, where I encouraged teachers of primary schools to include in their curriculum not only French and English – as is the case today – but also the mother tongues of their students. Interestingly, the government of Vanuatu is precisely shifting its new language policy into the same direction. To play my own part in this great project, I visited schools and gave classes to children aged 5 to 13; I showed them the literacy books I had just produced so as to teach the orthography of the vernaculars. I saw their eyes gleam with awe when they realized that their language, too, could be written.

Reading an Alphabet primer. © A. François

Reading an Alphabet primer. © A. François

For further insight:

Alexandre François’ personal website:

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The exceptional linguistic diversity of Vanuatu

Posted by Alexandre François on June 9, 2011

Dr Alexandre François, LACITO-CNRS; Australian National University


Alexandre François - Fieldwork

Located in the South Pacific, Melanesia is a vast region that includes the huge island of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. It stands out for its extreme linguistic and cultural diversity, as its 9 million inhabitants – the equivalent to the Swedish population – speak as many as 1,300 different languages.

A linguists’ paradise in the heart of Melanesia…

The archipelago of Vanuatu is quite typical of this linguistic fragmentation: 106 languages are spoken by only 240,000 inhabitants. These figures make the country home to the highest linguistic density in the world, that is, the greatest number of languages per capita.
The linguistic landscape of Vanuatu is thus extremely fragmented. Each language is spoken by an average of only 2,000 people; in the northern area where I’ve worked, this average even drops to 600 speakers per language (16 languages for a population of 9,400). Each of these languages is spoken by a small population, shared over two or three villages. It is also common for several languages to be spoken on a single island: for example, the island of Malekula alone is home to a good thirty of them.

A gradual process of linguistic fragmentation

In many parts of the world – such as the Caucasus, or South-East Asia – linguistic diversity owes mainly to the coexistence of populations of different origins, brought together by the accidents of history. Vanuatu, though, does not fit into this classic scenario. The hundred languages spoken there all descend from the same ancestor, known as Proto-Oceanic. Around 3,000 years ago, the first inhabitants of Vanuatu began with a period of linguistic homogeneity. Later along the following three millennia, processes of diversification led to the linguistic mosaic we witness today – in much the same way as Latin diversified into countless Romance languages and dialects.

A non-hierarchical, diversity-oriented society

Linguistic fragmentation here is essentially due to highly decentralized political structures; they define a network-like society, without a capital or central power, where every group is equal to the other.
There are no prestigious social groups, whose language or customs one would feel compelled to imitate. Instead, local cultural and linguistic innovations are respected and even encouraged as they provide each community with its own peculiarities, which everybody likes to notice and comment upon.
The people of Vanuatu enjoy being surrounded by a patchwork of well differentiated languages and cultures – quite the opposite to our modern world, and its massive tendency towards cultural standardization.
Incidentally, the case of Vanuatu is not unique: all Melanesian societies are traditionally marked by a form of “egalitarian multilingualism”, as the linguist Haudricourt also observed in New Caledonia.

Pervasive multilingualism

Traditionally, far from being isolated, the various communities in Vanuatu always maintained contact with each other, whether to exchange goods or to get married. Traveling was always on foot then, or on small canoes. Individuals would typically interact with the four or five communities around them, and master their languages. This is how most people grew up in a multilingual environment – including, sometimes, within their own household. Even today, it is not uncommon to meet people who speak four or five languages fluently, on a daily basis.
Nowadays, even though multilingualism is still the norm among neighboring communities, modern life has also widened the circle of social interaction. Someone from a northern island might go study in the city and meet people from islands further south, whose languages can be very different. In that case, communication will take place in the national language of Vanuatu, Bislama, an English-based pidgin which was born from the contact with Europeans.

And indeed, the linguistic landscape of Vanuatu is changing. While the use of Bislama is increasing among the population, some vernaculars are becoming vulnerable.

To be continued next week:
Vanuatu: a fragile diversity

For more information:
Alexandre François’ personal website:

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