Will Esperanto, or some conlang like it, save us from all that damaged caused by building the Tower of Babel?

Will Esperanto, or some conlang like it, save us from all that damaged caused by building the Tower of Babel?

World O’ Words: On Esperanto, conlangs, and insulting the referee

Here in Canada, as we watch the exciting World Cup of Soccer, there is one pressing question we’re asking ourselves and each other.

When the referee calls an infraction on the field, and a player comes up to remonstrate with him, in what language are they arguing?

One needs to argue one’s case clearly and calmly with a referee, and the referee in turn must rationally explain his decision to book the player with a yellow card, or award the free kick, etc. With all the languages of the world represented on the pitch, and the referee and teams all from different countries, odds are against these two interlocutors speaking each other’s language. So how are they communicating?

The soccer players and referees are speaking Esperanto, of course. You didn’t know it, but Esperanto, that “constructed language” invented by a European ophthamologist L.L. Zamenhof in the late 19th century, intended to save the world, is alive and well and heading towards world peace.

Here we thought Esperanto was a passing fad of the 20th century, but we were wrong. In the forests and mountains of Andorra, Liechtenstein, Galicia and Bohemia, there are hidden communes of folk who speak nothing but Esperanto, still awaiting the day when this “conlang,” as one calls a constructed language, as opposed to one that evolves naturally, becomes the international auxiliary language designed for human communication. The Lingua Franca.

A Lingua Franca (“The Frankish Tongue”) is an adapted common language that makes communication possible between people who don’t speak each other’s language — Latin in Medieval Europe, for example, or English in global business. But Latin takes years of study to master, and while you only need five or ten words of English to communicate any conceivable idea, people tend to resent all those F-bombs you need to really effectively communicate in English.

And besides, surprisingly enough, people seem to resent languages other than their own being spoken within earshot. As it turns out.

(This resentment stems from the legend of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis11:1-9, which tells of how a united humanity speaking one language attempted to build a tower that would reach heaven. God punished us by blasting our language into many different mutually incomprehensible fragments, and scattering us around the world to boot, and rendering us so that whenever we hear a language incomprehensible to us, rather than assuming the foreign speakers are remarking on our excellent fashion choices, we believe we are being insulted).

But we are unswayed by God’s linguistic experiment, and are seeking to create new languages which will unite humanity once again, a common tongue that is pleasing to all our ears, that will fill the air in international conference centres and coffee shops around the world. The language that will unite us in communication has to be a “conlang.” Using an existing language just fuels other resentments. English, for example, reminds us of the evils of colonialism. French, for example, reminds us of Official Bilingualism, and how the metric system was “shoved down our throats.” “Metrika estis forigita de niaj gorgoj,” is how you say that last phrase in Esperanto.

There are innumerable constructed languages besides Esperanto, as we tinker with phoneme, alphabet, grammar, case and tense. Solresol, Communicationssprache, Volapük, Mundolinco, Bolak, Idiom Neutral, Lingua Sistemfrater (Greco-Latin vocabulary with southeast Asian grammar!), Neo — just to name a few.

There are also great conlangs coming to us from fiction, or the arts. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish language, which is great; Star Trek brought us the Klingon language, the film Avatar gave us Navi; and my personal favorite — the proto-language invented by Anthony Burgess for the early humans in “Quest For Fire,” a vocabulary of grunts and moans which strikes me as the perfect language for me.

In any case, the search for a united humanity through better communication through a common language continues.

But I was only joking. Soccer players and referees do not communicate in Esperanto, the language of peace. There is in fact a commonly understood set of hand signs used:

• Hands together means “dive” — as in, “I didn’t tackle him. He took a dive;”

• Holding both hands in the air says “that was not a foul;”

• A finger pointed at the eye tells the ref to “keep your eyes open;”

• Arm straight in the air as if holding a card — “he deserves a booking”.

• And apparently, cursing a referee is most easily possible in English, but if the ref understands it can really cost you. According to a FIFA rule, referees at certain selected tournament like the World Cup have to pass a test of written and spoken English.

It seems that until Esperanto undergoes a renaissance, English will continue to be our Lingua Franca. In soccer, anyway.