'Nother Tongue

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'Nother Tongue

In a cramped, one-room office on the fourth floor of a run-down building in Myeong-dong, downtown Seoul, four women sit facing the whiteboard, repeating words and sentences after the teacher.

"Kant, kantejo," says the teacher. "Kant, kantejo," repeats the class in unison. "Kant means 'song.' By adding 'ej' denoting place and 'o' denoting a noun to 'kant,' we have created another noun, 'kantejo,' meaning noraebang, or singing room," explains Lee Jung-kee, the instructor, with enthusiasm.

"How about 'lernejo?' What does that mean? Remember 'lerni' is 'learn,'" says Mr. Lee, soliciting a response from the students. A student volunteers hesitantly, "School?"

"That's right. This is the beauty of Esperanto. Do you see how simple it is?" says Mr. Lee.

Such is the simplicity of Esperanto that Mr. Lee, who has been teaching the language for more than 10 years at the Seoul Esperanto Cultural Center in Myeong-dong, assures the students that they will be able to master the basics in just 12 hours of instruction.

Esperanto is an artificial language created to facilitate communication among people of different countries and cultures. The language was first introduced in 1887 with the publication of "Lingvo Internacia," ("International Language") by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, a Polish physician and oculist, who believed that peace could be achieved if all people spoke the same language. He wrote under the pseudonym "Doktoro Esperanto" (Doctor Hopeful), and the name Esperanto stuck.

The biblical account of the Tower of Babel is a reminder of how critical language barriers can be. Over the centuries, there have been many attempts to create artificial languages, also known as international auxiliary languages, to facilitate international communication. Esperanto is one of the most well-known and the longest surviving of those attempts.

Esperanto contains 28 letters, consisting of 5 vowels and 23 consonants. Each letter is given its own sound. Esperanto is phonetic, meaning that every word is pronounced exactly as it is spelled. Indeed, the need to learn spellings is eliminated with this language.

Intentionally designed to be as easy to learn as possible, the grammar is concise and regular, with no verb conjugations or noun genders to be memorized. "There are only 16 grammatical rules," Mr. Lee says.

The basic vocabulary consists of approximately 2,000 words. About 75 percent of Esperanto's vocabulary comes from Latin and Romance languages, about 20 percent from Germanic languages and the rest from Russian and Polish, and Greek for scientific terms. All other words are formed with regular endings and other similar arrangements.

Even to the uninitiated, many of the words in an Esperanto textbook look familiar. "If you speak a Western European language, Esperanto is very easy to pick up," Mr. Lee said. This is because the most commonly used words from 11 different languages were culled to form the basic vocabulary of Esperanto, according to Mr. Lee. In fact, to hear the language being spoken for the first time, it sounds like Spanish or Italian with its rolled r's. As for the accent, it is always placed on the penultimate syllable.

Although Esperanto has often been called a failed experiment in an artificial language, mostly because it is not used commonly in everyday situations, Mr. Lee disagrees, pointing out the continued interest in the language. An estimated 10 million people around the world speak Esperanto, according to Mr. Lee.

In Korea, 1,200 people have taken classes offered by the Korea Esperanto Association, and the association's membership tops 2,000. Dankook University in Seoul offers Esperanto as part of its curriculum. The Esperanto class draws about 300 students each semester, according to Mr. Lee, who also teaches at the university.

"I've always been interested in languages and Esperanto seemed like a unique one," says Shin Ji-soo, a senior at Sookmyung Women's University who is attending her second class at the cultural center.

Another student, Kim Jin, a high school senior, has a practical goal. "I have a Polish pen pal. We write each other in English, but since she speaks Esperanto, I thought it would be neat if we could communicate in a neutral language," Ms. Kim says.

The fact that Esperanto does not belong to any one culture attracted Cho Sung-ho, 47, a professor of biology at Inha University in Incheon, to the language when he was first exposed to it as a college freshman. "One does not feel inferior learning Esperanto, as when learning a foreign language like, let's say, English, because no one can claim it as his native language," Mr. Cho says.

Mr. Cho was learning French and German when he picked up Esperanto. "I abandoned French and German soon thereafter because Esperanto was far easier," he says. A wise decision, according to Mr. Cho, who says he has little use for German or French in his academic work anyway since almost all work is available in English.

Esperanto is more than just a pastime for Mr. Cho, who has written "Korea Antologio Noveloj," an anthology of modern Korean short stories in Esperanto, and translated a collection of Korean folktales, "Korea Malnovaj Rakontoj." While these books will never make it to the best-seller's list, the folktale collection has sold about 700 copies since its publication in 1997. He even translated an introductory book on genetics, originally written in English, into Esperanto.

Which is not to say that Esperanto is exclusively for intellectual exchanges. "It is intended to foster communication across language and cultural barriers and in the process promote world peace," Mr. Lee says.

For Mr. Cho, Esperanto has provided a whole new group of friends from around the world, an international network of Esperantists who play host to visiting Esperanto speakers. When he travels to Germany, for example, Mr. Cho stays with local Esperantists who go out of their way to show him around and introduce him to German culture. "Such wholehearted hospitality would be unimaginable if not for the common bond of Esperanto," Mr. Cho says.

Welcome to Esperanto 101:

Esperanto has 28 letters, 23 consonants and

5 vowels, and each letter has only one sound.

The Vowels:

A    Pronounced "ah" as in "father"

E    Pronounced "eh" as in "get"

I    Pronounced "ee" as in "machine"

O    Pronounced "oh" as in "boat"

U    Pronounced "oo" as in "chute"

The Consonants:

B, D, F, H, K, M, N, P, S, T, V and Z are pronounced the same as in English. Following are the exceptions:

C    Pronounced "ts" as in "bits"

C    Pronounced "ch" as in "church"

G    Hard "g" as in "goose"

G    Soft "g" as in "George"

H    Hard "k" as in "ach"

J    Pronounced "y" as in "year"

J    Pronounced "zh" as in "leisure"

L    Same as in English, just quicker

R    Trilled "r"

S    Pronounced "sh" as in "shush"

U    Pronounced like the "w" sound in "water"

Note that there is no Q,W, X or Y as in English.

Counting in Esperanto

unu, du, tri, kva, kvin, ses, sep, ok, nau, dek


A: Saluton, sinjoro. (Hello, mister.)

B: Saluton, fraulino. (Hello, miss.)

A: Gis revido, fraulino. (Good-bye, miss.)

B: Gis morgau! (See you tomorrow!)

by Kim Hoo-ran

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