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Encounter between EU webmaster and Esperantists

de Redakcio Laste modifita: 2006-02-10 17:11
The webmaster of the EU's languages site has given in to fierce attacks by annoyed Esperantists, and the website no longer maintains that artificial languages like Esperanto have no history, culture or native speakers. The whole paragraph, which was intended to show why Esperanto is not suitable for use in the EU, was removed on 30 January. On 6 February the webmaster, Robert Rowe, met two Esperanto-speaking EU officials. Rowe said that some of the letters from Esperantists to the website were rather crude. He also wondered why Esperantists thought they could dictate the EU's language policy, repeating that such policy initiatives could come only from Member States.

At the end of November the European Commission published for the first time an official communication on multilingualism and language diversity. In connection with that the EU's new languages website was also launched.

A footnote in the official communication explains why Esperanto is not suitable for use in the EU: "Understanding of other cultures comes from learning the languages that give expression to those cultures; that is why the Commission does not promote the use of artificial languages which, by definition, have no cultural references.."

A similar attitude was expressed in a comment in the languages website: " How about an artificial language? By definition such a language is no one's native language, and words with no relation to a history or a living culture are not precise enough in meaning for legislation."

These two sentences clearly express official arguments of the European Union against Esperanto, but at the same time they are clearly inaccurate. Over the last two months, therefore, numerous Esperantists have approached the site's administrators to ask for explanations or to protest. One of the most recent letters was that written by the American Esperantist Steven Brewer.

bierfaristo.jpg"I had the idea when I read the previous articles in Libera Folio," he recalls, "and I thought I could write a reply in English that would be convincing."

We reproduce a full translation of his letter, written in English, which was obviously the last straw on the EU webmaster's already overloaded back:

I believe it is a very foolish and short-sighted policy to discriminate against artificial languages, saying that they have no native speakers, history, or culture. The statements in your website go beyond foolishness, however, and disseminate false and misleading statements to the public. By including these statements, you demonstrate profound ignorance on the part of yourself and the organization you represent.

Esperanto is an artificial language that has thousands of native speakers (children who grew up in families for whom it was their everyday language) and has more than 100 years of history and culture. Moreover, its speakers being drawn from more than 100 countries around the world, Esperanto has already confronted and dealt with many of the critical issues of international communication in ways few other languages have.

Because its speakers are drawn from many countries, Esperanto has little political power and it may seem trivial to disparage it. But as Europe seeks to confront the linguistic imperialism of English, Esperanto may be the only hope to prevent the destruction of minority languages and cultures.  It may not be in your power to support Esperanto, but I encourage you to at least remain neutral. Stop spreading malicious and false information about Esperanto. If you can do nothing constructive, at least do no harm.

The webmaster's reply was simple, and this time he also decided to reveal his true identity. The replies to earlier questions in Finnish from Libera Folio had been unsigned, perhaps because the webmaster himself could not read the questions or compose the replies.

rowe.jpg"In response to your e-mail, we have removed the reference to artificial languages from the answer to Question 7 on the FAQ page of the Languages and Europe portal at
Thank you for your contribution to improving the content of the portal."

The letter was signed "Robert Rowe, Webmaster, Languages and Europe portal, European Union." This is apparently the same as the Robert Rowe who, at least before the creation of the new languages website, was webmaster of the website of the European Commission's translation department.

The text about artificial languages has been removed not only from the English version but from all the various language versions of the "Frequently Asked Questions".

In a subsequent letter Mr Rowe recounts that he has himself on occasion met members of the Esperanto community, and even says that he ought to have learnt Esperanto. He then returns to the question of the passage removed from the website:

"On reflection, we were ill-advised on our portal to venture into the area of constructed languages and their role as vehicles for understanding between cultures, as the situation is obviously more complex than our two-line dismissal implied. That's why we pulled the offending section, in fact.."

At the same time he offers the advice that Esperantists should turn their attention elsewhere than the website if they want to make a real contribution to furthering the possible use of Esperanto in the EU.

"To have any language, whether Esperanto or any other, adopted as an official language of the European Union, the procedure has to be to persuade the national authorities of a Member State to demand its official adoption and then get a vote on the proposal in the Council of Ministers. This recently happened, successfully, with Irish and the Spanish regional languages. That is where proponents of Esperanto should really be putting the pressure."

In removing the references to artificial languages, Mr Rowe probably hoped to rid himself of the troublesome letters from Esperantists complaining about the misleading text. One can imagine, however, that instead he will now have to keep on replying to questions about why there is no mention of Esperanto on the website. EU bureaucrats are certainly already at work preparing a new official reply to that question.

On 6 February, two Esperanto-speaking EU officials, Brian Moon and István Ertl, had an opportunity of talking to Robert Rowe and thanking him for removing the misleading phrases. Rowe acknowledged that he was the author of the passage concerned, said that he in turn was grateful for the correction, and expressed his surprise in particular at the existence of native speakers of Esperanto, which he had previously supposed impossible.

Moon and Ertl mentioned that one native speaker of Esperanto, Pavol Tvarožek from Slovakia, was even employed in the EU as head of the Slovak translators at the European Parliament. Ertl said that Esperantists themselves were partly responsible for the lack of awareness about Esperanto among EU officials and could improve their publicity.

Rowe said that some of the letters he received from Esperantists were rather crude and wondered what gave Esperantists the right to take the "moral high ground" of presuming to dictate the language policy of the EU. He repeated that such policy initiatives could only come from the Member States.

Moon and Ertl made the point to Rowe that there was an enormous range of opinions and temperaments among Esperantists and that their proposals also varied greatly. Brian Moon suggested that there was some justification for the attitude of Esperantists in the abysmal lack of knowledge and understanding shown in the offending phrases that had now been removed.

[Robert Rowe photo: © European Communities]

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