Why I learned Esperanto


from Roger M. Wilcox's biography

My reasons for learning Esperanto are . . . different.

I had a small group of friends that I played paper-and-pencil role-playing games with. Champions was by far my favorite of these. In one of these games, Michael Gersten was acting as the Game Master (GM). I was, of course, playing the role of my favorite superhero, Tracer (no relation to the Overwatch lady of the same name; I created my Tracer in 1981).

Tracer was teamed up with a couple of other superheroes (played by my other gaming buddies, which included Roger E. Murray [alias REM] at the time), and one "talented normal" non-player character played by the GM. We were investigating an alien space ship that had landed on Earth. As we busted our way inside, we discovered that the aliens manning this ship spoke a language which, despite having evolved on their own home planet, was word-for-word identical to Esperanto. It's amazing the coincidences you can run into when adventuring. Anyway, none of us superheroes knew how to speak Esperanto, but the talented-normal NPC did.

So, when we had an armed alien cornered, I said, "Okay, Tracer turns to the talented-normal NPC and asks, 'How do you say "surrender!" in Esperanto?'."

Michael (the GM) replied, "Okay, he gives you the word."

I said, "But I want to know the actual word."

Michael said, "I don't know Esperanto. I don't know the actual word for 'surrender'."

I said, "Well, make something up then!"

Michael hesitated a bit, then said, "Uhhhh . . . gavyevye." He pronounced it guh-VEYE-veye. It sounded kind of like "goodbye-bye", except with v's instead of b's.

So I said, "Tracer turns to the alien and says, 'Gavyevye!'."

The alien quickly surrendered, and the game continued. Later, at the end of the evening when everybody was about to leave for the night, Roger E. Murray (REM) waved goodbye and said, "Well, gavyevye!"

The game, the characters in it, the encounter — all of it was quickly forgotten and faded into the background wash of our lives. But that moment with the fake Esperanto stuck with me. I wanted, I needed to know: How do you actually say "surrender!" in Esperanto?

Thus began my quest. You must remember, this was 1990. There was no World Wide Web. There was no Google. If you wanted to look something up, you had to crack open a printed encyclopedia and, if you needed more detail, actually go to a library.

So, one of the local public libraries in the Los Angeles area was my first stop. They had a lot of foreign language books there, but those were mostly about "normal" languages like Spanish and German and whatnot. They only had one book on Esperanto: a little travel phrasebook from the "Say It" series.

The what?

Well, you kids these days with your smartphones and your Pogo sticks are probably too young to remember. But there was a time when, if you were visiting a foreign country where English wasn't the principal language, and you didn't know the actual language they spoke there very well, you would arm yourself with a little "phrasebook" small enough to fit in a pocket. They would have handy-dandy phrases translated into the foreign language for you, like "Where is the hotel?" or "A table for two, please" or "My hovercraft is full of eels." (Okay, that last one is a Monty Python joke. But you get the gist.) One of the more popular series of phrasebooks was the "Say It" series. They had titles like "Say It in Spanish," "Say It in French," "Say It in German," "Say It in Brazilian Portuguese", etc., for when you found yourself in a foreign country where they spoke Spanish, or French, or German, or Brazilian Portuguese.

This library's only Esperanto book was "Say It in Esperanto." A little pocket-sized phrasebook, for when you find yourself in a foreign country where everybody speaks Esperanto.

That was it. That was the only Esperanto book they had. It was highly unlikely that a phrasebook would include how to say "surrender!" — unless it was written for an invading army, which this book sadly wasn't.

I wasn't going to let this deter me, though. Maybe if I learned enough Esperanto from this book, I could figure out how to say "surrender!". The first few pages contained the entire grammar of the Esperanto language, condensed into 16 concise rules — a set of grammatical rules I would later come to learn were called the "Fundamento." It looked intriguing, and refreshingly simple compared with the Spanish and German I'd already learned. All nouns end in o. All adjectives end in a. All adverbs end in e. There are no grammatical genders, only two grammatical cases, and one word for "the" ("la"). Verbs are conjugated entirely by tense, regardless of the person or number of the subject, e.g. for infinitive you add an -i on the end, for present tense an -as, for past tense an -is, for imperative a -u. Et cetera. I photocopied these rules out of the front pages of "Say It in Esperanto," which at the time was no mean feat — the crappy library photocopiers were all coin-operated, and the library did not like to make change.

But ultimately, as I made my way through the rest of the book, it became clear that my fears were right: There was no phrase in that book that told me, or even hinted at, how to say "surrender!".

So much for the public library.

But there were other places that had books. If the library didn't have any in-depth books about Esperanto, then maybe a bookstore would. Back then, there was no Barnes & Noble in my area, and the biggest bookstore was a Crown Books. I don't think they exist any more. Some days after my disappointing visit to the library, I set out for my local bookstore and marched into its foreign language section.

Again, most of the books were about the "popular" foreign languages: Spanish, German, French, Italian, and so on. There were, in fact, no books in this bookstore dedicated to Esperanto. However, there was one book that had 1000 words translated into twenty-six different languages, and one of those languages was Esperanto.

I opened it up. The thousand words were arranged in alphabetical order by their English equivalent. I turned to the "S"es. . . . Nope. "Surrender" was not amongst the words there. But I had an idea. Although "surrender" wasn't in there, "give" and "up" were. To say "give" in Esperanto, in the imperative voice (e.g. if you're ordering someone to "give!"), you would say "donu." And "up" in Esperanto would be the adverb "supre."

Well, that was close enough for me! To say "give up!" in Esperanto, you'd say "Donu supre!". Voilá! I now had, or at least thought I had, a good enough approximation to "surrender!" that I could tell everyone. I sauntered forth and called up Michael Gersten, the GM who'd originally made up "gavyevye," and proudly told him that the way to say surrender in Esperanto was "Donu supre!".

Still . . . having studied Spanish and German in school, I knew that idioms don't always translate word-for-word into other languages. And that little fact picked at the back of my mind for weeks.

Now, at the time, I'd been attending Cal State Northridge (CSUN) for well over a year. I hadn't been a student at UCLA since June of 1988. But I did have fond memories of UCLA's student bookstore. For reasons having nothing to do with my quest for Esperanto, I decided to take a little nostalgia trip and see if the UCLA bookstore had stuff that the CSUN bookstore didn't.

And while I was there in UCLA's bookstore, maybe I could visit the foreign language section.

When I did, I was amazed at what I saw. This was no little pop-language selection of books. They had books on all sorts of languages I'd never seen at a library or at a mainstream bookstore. Russian. Serbo-Croat. Mandarin Chinese. Greek. Latin. A surprising amount of Latin. Swedish. Turkish. And . . . Esperanto.

A huge number of these foreign language books belonged to the "Teach Yourself" series. These weren't simple phrasebooks, they were full-blown self-paced language courses. For example, there was "Teach Yourself Serbo-Croat." There was the "Teach Yourself Swahili Dictionary." There were many others; and among them were two books which changed my life:

As it would later turn out, both of these were top-of-the-line books on Esperanto, well respected within the Esperanto community. All I cared about at the time, though, was that I now had an Esperanto reference that included the word for surrender!

The word, in case you're interested, is "cedu." It's pronounced "TSEH-du," because in Esperanto a c is pronounced like a ts, and the accent is always on the next-to-last syllable of a word.

I proudly called Michael Gersten again, and informed him that the Esperanto word for surrender was "cedu."

"But I thought you said the word was 'donu supre'!"

"No no, that's a literal translation of 'give' and 'up.' It doesn't actually mean surrender. The real word for surrender is the verb 'cedi,' and to turn it into an order you'd say 'cedu.'"

By this time, though, I'd learned enough about Esperanto to make me curious for more. This was no longer just a hunt for "How do you say 'surrender!' in Esperanto?". I now knew about L.L. Zamenhof's creation of the language in 1887, as a kind of "international second language" to bridge the gap between warring nations. (I later learned that his original aim was to have 1 language for the 4 divided sectors of Poland, which would allow them to unite and win their independence against Tsarist Russia.) I knew about the Esperanto movement. I knew that at one point in history, around the time of World War II, there were as many as two million people worldwide who could speak Esperanto.

I wanted to actually learn Esperanto myself. For real. To the point where I could read, write, and speak it as well as I could Spanish or German.

I pored through every chapter and every exercise in "Teach Yourself Esperanto." I sent away for the accompanying audio cassettes. I became a card-carrying member of the Esperanto League for North America (ELNA). I bought a lapel pin in the shape of a green star — the symbol of Esperanto — through one of ELNA's mail-order catalogs, which I proudly wore whenever I was wearing a shirt with buttons down the front. I put an Esperanto bumper sticker on my car. I subscribed to Monato, the only Esperanto-language magazine that wasn't about Esperanto or the Esperanto movement.

I also took an interest in joining my local chapter of Mensa, not because of the high-IQ bragging rights but because they had an Esperanto group. A word of advice: If you haven't taken an official I.Q. test as an adult, and you're curious about what your I.Q. is, apply for membership in Mensa. While other organizations in 1990 were charging hundreds of dollars to administer a single I.Q. test, Mensa administered two I.Q. tests to me for just 25 dollars total, and told me which percentile both of my I.Q. results lay within. They lay within the 99th percentile (148 on the Katell test, 157 on the California Test of Mental Maturity, which tends to score higher), but were sadly not as high as the 167 Stanford-Benet result I got when I was in first grade. Now, I thought, I'm a Mensa member so I can join their Esperanto group!

When I joined that Esperanto group, it turned out they weren't affiliated with Mensa at all, and were just advertising in Mensa's catalog. But it didn't matter. I now had an actual, live group of other Esperanto speakers to try out my book-learning with. They were thrilled that I'd gotten as far as I had on my own. Pretty soon, through this group, I was finding out about other Esperanto events I could attend, including a thoroughly enjoyable retreat called "La Senkrokodiliga Semajnfino." ("Krokodilo" is Esperanto for crocodile. When used as a verb, "Krokodili" is an Esperanto euphemism which means "To speak one's native language in a situation where speaking Esperanto is more appropriate." The Senkrokodiliga Semajnfino was the de-crocodiling weekend.)

After I moved to Eugene, Oregon in 1992, I lost touch with the Los Angeles Esperanto group, but I managed to find a very small Esperanto group in Eugene. After I moved out of Eugene in 1993 to live in the Silicon Valley, I lost touch with that group. The Esperanto scene in the Silicon Valley was bigger, but somehow less personal, less warm and friendly. I was also beginning to realize that the dream of a world all speaking Esperanto in harmony simply wasn't going to happen. My interest in Esperanto waned. I kept up my membership in ELNA until about the year 2000, and then simply let that lapse, too.

I still have the green star lapel pin, although some of the green paint keeps wearing off.

green star lapel pin green star lapel pin, separated

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