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
"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,"
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
"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
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
"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."