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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Esperanto Comes to Cambodia

Esperanto Comes to Cambodia

The idea of bringing the artificial language Esperanto to Cambodia immediately evokes

thoughts of old knights, windmills and hopeless causes.

But it is such Quixotic sentiments which are at the heart of the language said diplomats

and local enthusiasts who got together on June 13 to launch the Cambodian Esperanto

Association.

"Esperanto means the one who has hope," said Horst Gruner, first secretary

at the German Embassy.

"English was not specially designed for international communication. It is rich

in idioms that reflect that country's traditions and history but Esperanto was designed

as a language for all the world's people," he said.

Esperanto was formulated in 1887 by a Jewish doctor from northeastern Poland, an

area at the center of a centuries-long power struggle between eastern and western

armies and influences. The language is based on Latin and a basket of commonly known

European words. It has 16 grammatical rules with no exceptions, takes less than a

third of the time for the average German to learn than English and begs the question:

"But why would anybody want to learn it?" It is heavily derivative of two

dead languages and is the native tongue of nobody.

"Whereas English is the language of commerce, Esperanto is the language of friendship,"

said Gruner, who has played a leading role in setting up the Cambodian association.

"People who speak Esperanto show they have made an effort to learn and that

effort gives them a certain international solidarity. They share a relationship built

upon the knowledge that you have done something out of the ordinary."

Speakers of Esperanto, which is as much a written language as a spoken one, are linked

by an international address book.

"Through this book people who have common interests such as cave works or weaving

can get together through Esperanto," Gruner said.

The diplomat, who will be shortly moving to take up a posting in Tanzania, said he

was looking forward to the chance to meet members of the Swahili-speaking country's

well-developed Esperanto community.

Sok Somang, who teaches Vietnamese at Phnom Penh University and can speak seven languages

in addition to Esperanto, said that it was the idea of tapping into this global network

of fellow linguists that had attracted him to study the language.

"I studied it when I was in Vietnam five years ago. I thought it would be a

good way to make friends from abroad," he said.

The effort to promote the learning of Esperanto comes at the time of an intense and

sometimes rancorous battle between proponents of English and French to be the official

second language of Cambodia.

Gruner said Esperanto was not trying to compete with the two languages.

"The world as it is, it is obligatory that people learn English but people can

also learn Esperanto. It can serve as a complimentary study."

He said the very basic grammar and broad European word base made the language an

ideal trainer for students wishing to study other languages.

"I would suggest all students learn for one year before studying other languages,"

he said.

Esperanto is strongest in Eastern Europe, particularly in Hungary, and weakest in

South Asia where it is virtually unheard of. An association of about 2,000 users

exists in the United States and world-wide an estimated two million people are believed

to have some working knowledge of the language. The number of speakers is growing

slowly but steadily, proponents say.

Despite its high-minded origins, Esperanto has had a difficult history.

During the Cold War, Esperanto speakers were persecuted on both sides of the Iron

Curtain.

"In the era of totalitarianism things like Esperanto, which was designed for

contact with outsiders, made people suspicious," Gruner said.

"In Portugal and Spain users were persecuted, in East Germany libraries were

destroyed and in the Soviet Union active Esperanto speakers were jailed," he

said.

Even today suspicions still linger, particularly in some of the staunchly anti-communist

Southeast Asian countries. Esperanto enthusiasts have been banned from setting up

an association in Malaysia and there are strict restrictions against using the language

in Singapore.

"Esperanto now is like a pressure group, a human rights group for freedom of

international communication," Gruner said.

Chimm Sokha, the first president of the local association, estimated there are three

to four teachers and about 500 students of Esperanto in Cambodia, although he said

he believes interest in the language is more widespread than those figures indicate.

"When I came back from Vietnam (where he learned the language) I published 1,000

books on Esperanto. I sold them all so I believe there may be many more people in

Cambodia who want to study Esperanto."

"For Cambodians it is very easy. Its grammar is identical to Khmer. Each sentence

is subject-verb-object," he said.

Sokha said he is now working on a Khmer -Esperanto dictionary and is hoping UNTAC

will donate a computer to help him with his task when the peace mission pulls out.

The inauguration party for the association was held at the residence of the Polish

ambassador. In addition to speeches and presentations made by members of foreign

associations, an Esperanto video on Bjalistiko, the birthplace of the language, was

also shown. To the unfamiliar listener Esperanto sounds rather like Italian being

spoken with a thick Eastern European accent.

Nevertheless, the thirty or so mostly young students who turned up for the event

said they had few difficulties picking up the sounds.

Gruner said the growth of Esperanto depended on the development of a large educated

urban class and perhaps a romantic wish for an era when television was not so powerful.

"Before the age of television people had time to learn. Now television consumes

so much of people's leisure time but it means people who do learn Esperanto do so

because a special motivation to make contact with the other people in the world."

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