You say what?!

By EVA WOLCHOVER  |  January 9, 2009

Technically speaking
A recent Tuesday night meeting of the MIT Esperanto Club (held in a third-floor study lounge) attracted four bookish-looking guys, chatting confidently in a language that sounds not unlike some weird mashed-up version of the Romances, with a dash of something possibly Slavic.

Apart from holding year-round weekly campus meetings — open to all — this January, the club is offering a free non-credit course in beginner and intermediate Esperanto. The opportunities are rare this side of the Atlantic, so interested readers should visit web.mit.edu/iap.

In the US, where Esperanto has never had the following it has in Europe, Asia, or South America, the Web serves as a valuable resource for studying, practicing, and providing a context for the language.

"The US is not as represented," says Jacob Schwartz, a computer scientist from Waltham who runs the MIT club and has a massive collection of Esperanto books, newsletters, CDs, and souvenir T-shirts from the many conventions he's attended over the years. "There are a large number of people who speak Esperanto but who don't belong to organizations," he says, estimating that America has far more than the 700 or so speakers who belong to the US Esperanto Association.

"There's a big online community and many speakers practice their Esperanto via Skype [the online phone service]," he says.

Schwartz directs beginners to lernu.net, which he describes as "an all-in-one site that offers courses, where you get feedback from an actual tutor, dictionaries, sound files to listen to, additional reading, music mp3s, chat room, tests you can take to measure your progress, and more."

There's also the Brazilian-based Esperanto language program "Kurso de Esperanto," available here

And, of course, there's Facebook — the social-networking site that serves as a virtual forum for countless marginalized pursuits, Esperanto included.

"When I joined Facebook a few years ago, I saw there were no Esperanto groups," says MIT club member Eric Eisner. (It turns out that there had been, they just weren't turning up in searches.) "So I decided to make one with the name 'Esperanto.' I mostly forgot about it for a while, then realized that people who spoke Esperanto or were just interested had joined the group on their own. Now it has thousands of members from all over the world who have discussions in and about Esperanto in several languages."

The group — tagged with the aforementioned Esperanto flag — has attracted 2500-plus members (modest by Facebook standards but exploding by Esperanto's), and includes links to Esperanto Web sites, a discussion board, and event listings.

Not much to it?
With an alphabet of 22 consonants, five vowels, and two semi-vowels, Esperanto is built around logic, its parts of speech clearly marked by unique suffixes. Singular nouns end in –o, plurals in –oj, adjectives in

–a, adverbs in –e, and verbs in one of six possible endings, depending on tense (for example, present-tense verbs end in –as).

Beyond that, says UMass's Brewer, the language "is extremely flexible. There are only 16 rules of grammar . . . and they all let you use Esperanto in a way that's familiar to you and your language group. The order of the words is very fluid."

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