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A philologist on esperanto

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  • 1. A philologist on Esperanto by J.R.R. TolkienI take an interest, as a philologist, and as every philologist should, in theinternational-language movement, as an important and interesting linguisticphenomenon, and am sympathetic to the claims of Esperanto in particular. I amnot a practical Esperantist, as it seems to me on reflection an adviser should atleast in some measure be. I can neither write nor speak the language. I know it,as a philologist would say, in that 25 years ago (1) I learned and have notforgotten its grammar and structure, and at one time read a fair amount writtenin it, and since I am trained to that sort of thing, I feel competent to have anopinion concerning the defects and excellencies. That being so, I feel that Icould make no useful contribution, except as a philologist and critic. But it isprecisely my view of the international language situation, that such services,however good in theory, are in practice not wanted; in fact, that a time hascome when the philological theorist is a hindrance and a nuisance. This isindeed the strongest of my motives for supporting Esperanto. (2)Esperanto seems to me beyond doubt, taken all round, superior to all presentcompetitors, but its chief claim to support seems to me to rest on the fact that ithas already the premier place, has won the widest measure of practicalacceptance, and developed the most advanced organisation. It is in fact in theposition of an orthodox church facing not only unbelievers but schismatics andheretics -- a situation that was foretold by the philologist. But granted a certainnecessary degree of simplicity, internationality, and (I would add) individualityand euphony -- which Esperanto certainly reaches and passes -- it seems to meobvious that much the most important problem to be solved by a would-beinternational language is universal propagation. An inferior instrument that has achance of achieving this is worth a hundred theoretically more perfect. There isno finality in linguistic invention and taste. Nicety of invention in detail is ofcomparatively little importance, beyond the necessary minimum; and theoristsand inventors (whose band I would delight to join) are simply retarders of themovement, if they are willing to sacrifice unanimity to "improvement".Actually, it seems to me, too, that technical improvement of the machinery,either aiming at greater simplicity and perspicuity of structure, or at greaterinternationality, or what not, tends (to judge by recent examples) to destroy the"humane" or aesthetic aspect of the invented idiom. This apparently unpracticalaspect appears to be largely overlooked by theorists; though I imagine it is notreally unpractical, and will have ultimately great influence on the prime matter ofuniversal acceptance. N** (3), for instance, is ingenious, and easier thanEsperanto, but hideous -- "factory product" is written all over it, or rather, "madeof spare parts" -- and it has no gleam of the individuality, coherence and beauty,which appear in the great natural idioms, and which do appear to aconsiderable degree (probably as high a degree as is possible in an artificialidiom) in Esperanto -- a proof of the genius of the original author...My advice to all who have the time or inclination to concern themselves with theinternational language movement would be: "Back Esperanto loyally."
  • 2. --The British Esperantist, 1932.Editors notes:(1) This would have made Tolkien 16 years old at the time he studied Esperanto; see alsobelow. It may be wondered just how much his study of Esperanto influenced his interest inconstructed languages, which later led directly to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.(2) Tolkien may be being a bit disingenuous here. There is evidence -- specifically, a notebook,in Esperanto, written at age 17 by Tolkien -- in the Bodleian Library to indicate that hisknowledge of, and interest in, Esperanto was, at least during part of his life, considerablygreater than he acknowledges in this article. See also his comments in his later essay "A SecretVice".(3) "N**" is not further identified, but given the time of writing we may, with some confidence,assume that Tolkien was referring to Otto Jespersens recently-promulgated Novial.This article has appeared in several places in recent years, including on the net and in thepages of esperanto usa. This posting is copied from pp 11-12 of Tolkien, J.R.R.: La Kunularo del Ringo. Translated by William Auld. Ekaterinburg: Sezonoj, 1995.Reference:http://donh.best.vwh.net/Languages/tolkien1.html