the writing of Claude Piron

Lately I’ve become really impressed by various articles about Esperanto that I’ve read by Claude Piron. Piron was a psychotherapist and taught from 1973 to 1994 in the psychology department at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. He apparently spoke Esperanto since he was a small child, and is a notable author in it.

I first encountered him as I was reading his instructional novella “Gerda malaperis” (“Gerda disappeared“). It’s a book that gradually introduces Esperanto vocabulary, moving from the basics quickly up to an intermediate/advanced level by the end of the book. It seems very well thought out as instructional material. I’m reading it online at Lernu.net, where it’s available with audio and vocabulary lists for each chapter.

After working through some of this instructional book, I somehow stumbled upon Claude Piron’s articles in English. In them, he demonstrates a powerful ability for critical thinking and analysis of arguments. I particularly enjoyed his Psychological reactions to Esperanto.

Also illuminating was his shorter article, The language of power, wherein English is analyzed. He asks if English is actually an “international language”, and argues strongly that it isn’t. Very few people in the world actually speak English, and because of its great irregularity and mishmash of romance and germanic roots, it takes thousands and thousands of hours of work in order to master it. Only about 3% of people in India can speak it, despite the elite there being quite good at it, and even people in France who rate themselves as “quite good” at English were unable to figure out 3 short English paragraphs in one test.

As a consequence, most speakers of English as a second language who don’t already come from a germanic language background, are from a higher economic class where they can afford to go to fancy schools and spend significant time living or working in an english-speaking country. Not many people have the opportunity to spend 2000 – 10000 hours learning English, and those of us fortunate enough to be born in an English-speaking country have received a free-ride in that department. In the words of one Korean that Piron quotes, he could have achieved several PhDs in the time it took him to learn fluent English. In contrast, Esperanto can be learned by most people in around 150 – 200 hours, so on a scale of months rather than years or decades.

Beyond the realm of language politics, Piron had some interesting articles about the evolution of Esperanto itself. Quite an interesting read from a linguistics perspective, and even more interesting for me as a learner of Esperanto.

In many of his articles, such as Linguistic Communication – A comparative field study, Piron stresses the hierarchy of power that develops in circumstances where some people are native speakers of a language, and have to communicate with those that aren’t. Inherent in this situation is the fact that those native speakers will always be authoritative, and the others will be in an inferior position. This could be remedied somewhat if everyone opted to speak a language other than their native language, to level the playing field, but of course in the realm of power relations this is rarely an option. In such situations, it makes plenty of sense to take as a working language one that takes an order of magnitude less time to acquire, one in which everyone is on equal footing.

It seems clear to me now that this is a role that Esperanto could and should play. Not as a “replacement” for any other languages, but as a tool of international communication that levels the current language hierarchies. Everyone can and should speak their own language or dialect in their “home” situations where everyone else around them can also do so, but in those situations that require communication with outsiders that don’t speak that language, Esperanto is the logical and efficient tool for the job. Whether it is up to the task is an empirical question rather than philosophical, and I think this has been proven by the 100+ year tradition that it has enjoyed as a language for poetry, novels, theatre, children’s play, and international communication.

5 Responses to the writing of Claude Piron

  1. petr says:

    Very nice reading. Mr. Piron seems to me a bit zealous about propagating Esperanto, and more than a bit paranoid when finding reasons why doesn’t it exactly rule the world, but otherwise these are very interesting articles. I have just a couple objections to the prospect of language whose speakers are all equal:

    – The question is what happens if/when native Esperanto speakers emerge. Granted, if Esperanto is as easy to learn as he claims, the ground will be more level than with English. But native Esperanto speakers still get their advantage.

    – Even among people for whom Esperanto is not L1, there will be differences depending on what their L1 is. For example, the speed of vocabulary acquisition, I think, will be function of your L1.

    – In his “perverse effects” writeup, he gives three Esperanto renderings of English sentence “he helps us”: German-like, English-like and French-like, claiming that the three renderings are equally part of Esperanto and mean the same thing. Now imagine a language in which, when translated word for word, these renderings have different meanings. As a speaker of that language, you now face a difficulty of having to realize that what’s intuitively different (e.g. “we help him” instead of “he helps us”) in fact means the same thing. You still end up having to sort of “switch mentality” to speak and understand the language properly, while speakers of other languages might not need to.

    That all said, Esperanto still probably is the least of available evils. So far I turned it down as not having impact enough to be useful for me to learn, but if it’s really that easy, I might give it a shot anyway, and see if I get interested.

  2. doviende says:

    Actually, you’re incorrect about the “he helps us” sentence. Here’s the quote from Piron’s article:

    In Esperanto, the forms li helpas al ni (German structure), li nin helpas (French structure) and li helpas nin (English structure) are equally correct and frequent.

    All of these are translated as “he helps us”, and none of them translate to “we help him”. In Esperanto the object is marked by adding an “n”, so subject and object can’t be confused even with changing word order. In English, we do this only for personal pronouns, such as when we change “we” into “us” or “he” into “him”.

    “We help him” is different from “he helps us” because “we” is always the subject and “us” is always the object. In the Esperanto examples, he has either “nin” (us) or “al ni” (to we) to mark it as either direct object or indirect object, but not as the subject. So none of the sentences say “we help him”.

    To translate his three sentences literally, they are “he helps to us”, “he us helps”, and “he helps us”. None are ambiguous, and in Esperanto you can generalize these examples beyond personal pronouns to any subject or object.

    Also, Esperanto already has native speakers. Piron’s claim is that because Esperanto’s rules can always be generalized without exception, then the basic intuition that a non-native develops is equivalent to that of a native speaker because you don’t have to spend years trying to acquire all the exceptions to the rules. He claims that in other languages, the near-perfect knowledge of all those stupid exceptions is the biggest advantage of the native speaker that can never really be overcome by the non-native.

  3. petr says:

    Yeah, I understand that all three are equal. I was talking about a hypothetical language (X) where one of these renderings, when translated to X directly (i.e. how the native speaker of X intuitively understands that sequence of words, or rather word roots) ends up meaning something else than translation of another rendering. It’s all a thought experiment, I can’t provide concrete example.

    About native speakers, just got to one of his writings where he says so. I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised, now that a case of native Clingonese speaker was reported by news agencies🙂

    Native speaker still has an advantage over someone who starts studying the language at an older age. The latter will have to invest resources into Esperanto that hey would otherwise invest in, say, Physics. The former gets the language for free, and gets a huge headstart in vocabulary (from the “evolution” writeup it’s clear that it’s possible to improvise one’s ways around missing vocabulary quite well, but you still do need something). I guess simplicity of the language converts the caste of fluent speakers to exclusive club (or simply a club, depending on how true are the claims of Esperanto simplicity), since it’s possible to enroll before you die of old age.

  4. geo says:

    “Yeah, I understand that all three are equal. I was talking about a hypothetical language (X) where one of these renderings, when translated to X directly”

    This is not going to happen. Esperanto is not a code. It is a real language with its rules. If you understand these rules (and you must as to speak it) you just can’t understand the sentencs differently.

    “Native speaker still has an advantage over someone who starts studying the language at an older age.”

    Actually Esperanto is the only language that can be acquired at an old age. There will be no native speakers, since this language is not going to be adopted by any country. It is only for communicating with foreigners. A second language for everyone.

    • doviende says:

      Actually Esperanto is the only language that can be acquired at an old age. There will be no native speakers, since this language is not going to be adopted by any country. It is only for communicating with foreigners. A second language for everyone.

      That’s not true at all. Any language can be acquired at an old age. It just takes a *LOT* of time to gather all of the silly exceptions and automatize them…years and years. The benefit of Esperanto is that it’s drastically easier and quicker to sound like a full-fledged proper speaker of the language with no mistakes.

      Also, there are many native speakers of Esperanto! I’ve met several of them! But again, Esperanto doesn’t have huge advantages for native speakers, because of the lack of all those funny exceptions that other languages have developed over thousands of years.

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